Thursday, March 28, 2013

Skatesploitation or Die (Part 1of 2) "REACH FOR THE TOP!"

Learning about skating via the pre-digested, commodified versions of it we saw in pop culture was not ideal, but skateboarding’s flirtations with the mainstream in ’86-’87 turned out to be vital for me and my valterrorizing friends anyway. By ’86 I had been cruising my department store Variflex for two years and me and the pre-pubescent driveway gangs haunting the subdivisions had pretty much reached the limits of what we thought carving, kickturns and coffins could do for us. We knew there was another level of skating somewhere, but we had no idea what it looked like or how to take the first step to get to it. We didn’t even have directions to the stairwell. We were desperate for any bit of information we could digest.

Skaters take for granted just how weird skateboarding is. The bare-basics can be puzzled out by starting at its surf foundations but once you get past learning to move and turn on a board there’s not much more to learn form surfing. There’s no real analog for skateboarding in any other sport. By ’86, in the epicenters, skating had carved out its own quirky, brilliant identity and the evolution it had undergone in the streets, skate parks, and half-pipes of major urban areas was so unique and obscure you couldn’t just puzzle it out by trial and error. You needed a foundation of basic knowledge, not just of the infrastructure of skating, but of the sort of philosophical and aesthetic foundation of “tricks” themselves. In 1986 in Terre Haute, Indiana we didn’t have Thrasher readily available and no knowledge of pro-level equipment. We literally couldn’t even buy a clue. People talk about skate culture in the midwest as being DIY, but in the smaller communities and the mid-level cities like mine it was more than DIY, it was FIY: Figure it out yourself. Forget about doing it, what were you even doing? The wall we were hitting was picking off the skaters who had jumped on the nash/valterra bandwagon after Back To The Future one by one. Some were ditching skating for freestyle BMX, others just didn’t care and quit. The driveways were getting less and less crowded every minute and the hazy california dream we were straining to grasp hold of was evaporating before we could even fully make it out. In this environment even a tiny glimpse of some nameless skater hitting a launch in a Pepsi ad or the comparatively encyclopedic array of skate styles on display even in a corny, clueless stinkbomb of a movie like Thrashin’ was like a draught of water in the center of a desert. When you have no clue at all even a nanobit of knowledge will be scrutinized like an encyclopedia: so pop in the Police Academy 4 VHS, fast forward to the skating, rewind and repeat. Boot up California Games on the Commodore  64, head to Olde Towne Video, Rent Thrashin’ again, and sift through the pieces of the puzzle.

We had our carves clean and we could spin 360‘s pretty good, but we knew we all wanted to start doing “tricks”, but what were tricks? Before the warped images we got form tacky commercials, video games and movie cameos came along we didn’t know. There were hippy jumps over broomsticks and hand stands but somehow even we knew those were something from skateboardings long-haired mustachioed 1970‘s past. We knew halfpipes existed somewhere but they were not something we thought we could find anywhere near us or even comprehend if we did. Street skating was something completely hypothetical. Somehow, I had managed to get the idea that tricks like stationary truck stands and caspers were the template for street skating, but our experiments with what we would later come to know as freestyle never got very far. At least we didn’t start wearing little shorts and headbands.

Even without any outside influence we knew that the next step was getting our boards off the ground, but this was before any of us had even seen the Ollie. We knew about BMX and the bunny hop and I think we all pondered the idea that you could bunny hop a skateboard, but without ever seeing or hearing of the Ollie, none of us could even conceptualize how that might work. The street ollie is a feat of ingenuity and counterintuitive thinking that skirts the borderlands between the miraculous and the magical (more on that in another entry) We weren’t going to just stumble into it. Only marginally more productive were our concrete hugging experiments with flat ground, early-grab style launches. Squatting, grabbing a rail and hopping was easy to figure out, but even the burliest among us could barely muster enough lift to clear a pebble.

Years of launching big-wheels and RC cars into the suburban stratosphere told us ramps must be the next level. My nash-thrashin friends and I certainly made attempts at building ramps for our b-grade skateboards, but without the basic conceptual foundation of the transitioned template to start with conventional wisdom of what a ramp should be only spins you off in the wrong directions. The problem was that, without the magazines to show us otherwise, our conception of a “ramp” was based on what we saw on The Dukes Of Hazzard: basically a big, angled wedge that you didn’t so much fly off of than fall off of at a slight upward angle. I think most skaters of my era took a shot at building an Evel Knievel wedge in their pre-pro board days, some even threw them together after they had their first glimpses of Thrasher when they should have known better. The end result of these bastardized pieces of carpentry was always the same: bloody appendages and a sad lesson in how hard it was to intuitively bootstrap yourself into the world of radical skateboard action.

The wedgie life cycle went something like this: First you would spend a whole Saturday, or maybe a whole week of after school time scrounging scrap wood and digging old nails out of the toolboxes and empty jelly jars in the garage. When you finally got to the point where you had what you guessed there were enough two by fours and plywood scraps for a ramp you’d wack together something that looked like a plywood cheese wedge, varying in size from a couple inches to a couple of feet at the highest end. After a couple hours of splinters, sweat and close calls with tetanus you would step back, wipe your brow and put that hard-won, hard built piece of skatopia  at the end of your driveway. Then it was time to put on your gnar face, kick off, and get ready to fly.

If your engineering instincts were good enough you might have compensated for the kink at the beginning of the plywood sheet by slapping a square of sheet metal or linoleum over it. If not, that virgin run at the ramp probably ended with an instant front-wheel hang up at full speed and a thumping splat on its banked surface. Even if you had anticipated the kink, and you got all four wheels on the wedge, the “thunk” of hitting that angle sucked away most of your speed and immediately shifted your balance backwards. If you didn’t kick your board out forwards and immediately bail, by the time you got to the lip of the ramp your speed was basically gone, forcing you to leap off your deck in a goofy sort of long jump that left your board far behind, hanging one truck on one truck off of the end of the ramp. This, of course, is assuming that the ramp didn’t collapse the second your put your weight on it or your wheels didn’t punch through the rotten plywood on your way up. If you were really blessed and really skilled and you not only hit the ramp but got to the end with enough speed to actually clear the lip, what then? Most kids just hoped they would fly off and their downward force would keep their board under them until they landed. This almost never happened. The one in a million times it did your “big air” jump amounted to a ten inch long flight straight to the ground. Of course, some of us figured we should crouch and grab when we got to the end. This always ended in a flyout with your feet landing on the ground and your board grasped in your hands instead of rolling under you. 

A flat wedge has no lift. A skateboard ramp needs transition: a curved surface, but there was no precedent for that in our regular non-skate lives. A ramp was a triangular wedge like Evel Knievel jumped off of our what we launched hot wheels off of by propping a magazine up against a couple of stacked school books. You just couldn’t grope your way into independently inventing a transitioned launch by trial and error. The idea of a transitioned quarter pipe for lip tricks and airs was even more inconceivable. A ramp, for everyone who isn’t a skater, is something you use to either fly through the air or travel to some elevated point. The idea that a ramp would actually be a riding surface and that you would put a little piece of pipe on top of for sliding your trucks on is, objectively speaking, really odd. The up, lip-trick, then down aesthetic that is the foundation of all transition skating is a mental concept that was only born in a very specific and narrow context: the context of early skaters blundering into empty swimming pools, riding them, and then trying to recreate them with wood. There is nothing intuitive about it. 

This sort of utter cluelessness is what we had to contend against, and it’s why pop cultures tiny dribble of skating were so important.  This is not to say that there wasn’t some serious skating going down in Indiana throughout the 80‘s. There were always little pockets of advanced skating dotted across the state in a sort of hayseed archipelago, but it was so undergeound you had to be on top of it to know. In Indianapolis, even in 83 and 84, there were enough kids shredding ditches to produce some national level talent. Bob Pribble was skating for Sims and getting the occasional shot in Tharsher and Transworld as early as 1982. In the northwestern suburbs skaters had access to the Chicago scene. By 1985 Indianapolis legend Jeff Kendall was one of Santa Cruz’s Top Pros killing spots like the Love Ramp, which also saw some epic sessioning by the touring Bones Brigade in ’84. Kokomo Indiana, a mid-sized city much like my own somehow became a vert skating epicenter in the mid 80’s. In some places small shops were opening in various places, and business as varied as swimsuit specialty stores and bike shops were sidelining into boards by ’86. Fort Wayne had a deep vert scene dating to the mid 80’s. For all I knew there may have even been a few lonely thrashers and west coast transplants skulking around Terre Haute in 85 and 86, but being a 12 year old kid in indiana before the internet was a cultural embargo all its own. Considering my hardships uncovering the very basics of skateboarding in the years  between ’84 and ’88, the whole idea that there was a homegrown vert scene in Indiana in ’85 still blows my mind a little bit. If I had known about it back then I don’t know how it might have affected me. For me and my friends what those rippers riding the earliest waves of resurgent skateboarding out of the coasts were doing was inconceivable. There was no internet to tell us otherwise, any magazines we might have stumbled onto were all focused on california and, sometimes, Florida, and the east coast. Without older skaters in our neighborhoods there were no truck bashing troubadors to pass on wisdom on to us, all we had was mother mass media to point us to something.

The first little mass media glimpse of skateboarding I can remember, aside from very dim memories of slalom contests on wide world of sports and little subplots in CHiPs and Charlie’s Angels, was a quick segment on MTV news featuring Tony Hawk. I can’t remember much about it, but I know it was about ’86 when I saw it. There was footage of Hawk twirling around in the air above some unidentified half-pipe, shots of him autographing that classic chicken skull deck, some questions about being a teenage skateboard champion, all the typical softball celeb journalism stuff.  I can remember thinking that Hawk must have had his own skateboard company because the spot said he rode his own “Tony Hawk” skateboards. It was definitely the first time I ever heard a name I could connect with an actual professional skateboarder.

In '87, even raisins were pimping skateboarding

This is the part where you might expect me to talk about how that little brush with the birdman changed my life and how I immediately jumped up off the living room carpet and began begging mom and dad for a Tony Hawk skateboard, but this was 1986, and I was still in terre haute indiana. The problem with the MTV news spot and so many of these little bits of mainstream skate voyeurism that stoked our urge to become “real” skaters was that they were never really about skateboarding per se. They were always selling something else, like soda or celebrity. In typical MTV fashion the Tony hawk new segment was selling a personality, Hawk’s personality, not an entire cultural movement. This is typical. The mainstream seems incapable of understanding and advocating any new cultural movement unless it can view it through the lense of a superstar. The problem is once those optics are in place, a superstar is all they can see. The MTV spot didn’t tell me anything about the art form that had brought Hawk the requisite amount of b-level fame to warrant the disposable blurb on MTV news. It didn’t tell me why the board Tony was riding was vastly superior to the department store junk my friends were pushing around or how we were forever relegated to a dead end until we got rid of them. It didn’t give me a single trick name or show even a second of street skating. It didn’t tell me where to buy a decent board or how to build a ramp.

Most importantly, what Hawk was doing was vert skating. All of those superstars who were driving the subculture into the mainstream were vert skaters. To me and my friends, who had no idea of the sort of DIY backyard sickness that was going down in Indianapolis and other isolated vert scenes in the state, the halfpipe was kind of like the high wire in the circus: it was a highly specialized device that could only be ridden by freakishly talented individuals with years of specialized training. Kids like us just couldn’t do it. Building your own half pipe would be kind of like building a trapeze in the backyard and trying to spontaneously become an acrobat. In my town we had no one to tell us any better. There were commercials and puff pieces on MTV, little shots in videos, but the actual nuts and bolts of skating, a framework potential skaters could build off of was underground and unless you knew somebody, you had no access to skating’s subterranean knowledge base.

Still, the little farts of under digested skate culture we were getting form the mainstream did mean something. They countered the conventional, chronologically retarded midwestern wisdom that said the skateboard was analogous to the big wheel or the pogo stick. Even seeing Jeff Spiccoli stepping on aboard for a split second in Fast Times At Ridgemont High was some sort of vindication. The paradigm that was set in the minds of our parents, teachers and even older siblings was that wanting to ride a skateboard into your teen years was the same as wanting to keep playing with your transformers. It was a prejudice skating shared with comic book collecting or dungeons and dragons or any of a dozen other geeky pastimes we take for granted as offbeat but normal nowadays. Our parents’ generation had no point of reference for skating. Nobody I knew had a parent who had grown up skateboarding.  In our culturally time-lagged world skateboards weren’t a youth subculture yet, they were a kiddie toy, and that meant most of the world didn’t see our need to ride as something odd and annoying, but as something totally dysfunctional, something your parents would wring their hands over and ponder calling a shrink about. The pre-chewed mainstream images told us that we weren’t out of our minds for wanting to stick with skating long after the maturity shelf life had expired for all the norms who couldn’t fathom our attachment to these litlle rolling toys. Somewhere, somehow, there was a place both figuratively and literally where wanting to ride a skateboard well past the years when you discovered girls didn’t make you some sort of uber-freak. The skatesploitation showed us little bits of that world...sort of. These messages were also our first, almost maddeningly suggestive hooks into the next level of skateboarding, for the most part they were inspirational instead of functional, but sometimes, every once in a while, some of them actually had real, practical things to teach us.

Such was the case with the Commodore 64 video game California Games. California Games was part of a series of beloved video game titles released by Epyx in the 80‘s. The series started with conventional olympic type stuff: tiles like Winter games, Summer Games, but as the series progressed it was forced to get more obscure. Ironically, this only made the later games more awesome. California Games was the successor to, World Games, a program that was kind of like being able to play the 3 AM ESPN schedule on you computer. It featured stuff like virtual caber tossing, complete with a pixelized kilt-wearing scotsman and Sumo wrestling. California Games was a sort of barrel-scraping attempt to extend the franchise by making a game based on all the beach-centric california lifestyle sports that were being pimped by American culture in the 80’s. This desperate attempt to cash in turned into a home video hit. California Games included games like hackey sack, BMX, surfing, and roller skating but for skateboard wannabes like me and my friends the real justfication for the game’s existence was its inclusion of half-pipe skating.

The half-pipe subgame was sparse, even when you take into account that California Games was the video gaming world’s first crack at virtual skating. It featured an avatar skater on an admittedly well rendered version of a contemporary ten foot vert ramp (complete with channel that, unfortunately, was only a background decoration). Players could could pull “aerials”, “handplants” and, strangely enough, kickturns, which were worth more points than the handplants for some reason. The programmers at Epyx hadn’t researched skateboarding enough to code in lip tricks or mctwists and there was no lateral movement possible at all. Nevertheless California Games little skate chapter offered one of the more authentic images of skateboarding to reach us in the 86-87 boom years. It got my friends friends and I to swap the terms “handplant” and “aerial” for “handstand” and “catching air” and the gameplay even hit us with some real technical knowledge that would come in handy later. Rather than present a completely gravity-defying scenario of spins and gigantic airs, the California Games halfpipe was, like a real vert ramp, all about speed control. It is the only video game I can think of that actually integrated “pumping” the transitions into its gameplay. It wasn’t exciting or glamorous, but that little button-tapping, speed building element of the game actually gave us a bit of the skateboarding puzzle. Anyone who played California Games before the first half or quarter went up in their neighborhood had an instant leg up just by knowing that you could pump the transitions of a ramp. Its a little thing, but in retrospect it is pretty impressive that, despite its other shortcomings, the programmers at Epyx had implanted a bit of insider info in their product straight from the cult of skateboarding.

Of course, pump zones or no pump zones, that halfpipe level would drive us crazy. Even though we had read the directions and knew there were really only three tricks you could do, my friend Monty and I would shred California Games’ halfpipe for hours thinking that the right combination of buttons might pop open some new trick that was’t in the manual. Frustrations notwithstanding, California Games was just as important for what it didn’t show as what it did. For a product of 80’s mainstream pop culture, California Games’ skate elements were pleasantly subdued. The little skate avatar wasn’t some day-glo cartoon flashing hang-ten hands signs and saying “Duuuuude” every few seconds. There were no cliche slang terms popping up in comic book word bubbles every time you made a trick. The programmers never attempted to sexy up skateboarding by integrating ludicrous and obviously barney-fabricated tricks or terrain into the game, and the tricks that were possible were not easy to do. You had to think about how much you had pumped, how to do the trick and where to start it, how that was going to affect how you hit the next wall. It was kind of sort of in a primitive conceptual way like actual skateboarding...and unlike basically every other skate video game made since it respected the fact that even the basics of skating were really fucking hard. Of course, maybe respect is a little too strong a word. After all, even in the skate-crazed mid-80’s the skate level only had 3 moves programmed, while the pixelized hackey sackers in California Games sported a repertoire of over a dozen kooktastic moves, even though all anyone ever cared about was taking out that damn seagull.

California Games was practically pong compared to the next piece of skatesploitation silicon valley dropped into our lives. Released in Dec. 1986, 720 was a broader, brassier and, yes, infinitely cheesier vision of skateboarding that was ultimately more frustrating than enlightening. Still, it has its place in the nostalgic corner of many skaters hearts and it was a definite signifier of the expanding marketing of skateboarding that woud eventually push good boards and skate mags into our desperately sheltered world.

While California Games seemed content to let skateboarding speak for itself, 720 seemed to blare California kitsch through a day-glo boombox. Its graphics had the requisite neon colors, all rendered in what passed for extreme high res graphics in 1986, the hackneyed catchphrases (some sources peg 720 as the origin of the odious non-catch phrase “skate or die” but this is debatable), an arsenal of ludicrous maneuvers and mythical or obsolete terrain formats, and, for that crucial veneer of faux authenticity, an appropriation of a bonafide element of contemporary cutting edge skateboarding in its name: 720, which alluded the “ultimate trick” of the vert mad 80’s: Tony Hawk’s 720 aerial. Of course, California Games could settle with subtlety because its skate crossover element only had to support a subgame on a home-video title. 720 was an arcade console game. That meant it had to go over the top to justify its hefty price tag in both dollars and arcade floor footprint. In the eternal, inevitable irony inherent in all exploitation media, the folks at Atari were racing to cash in on the nation’s developing skateboard craze with 720 while simultaneously concluding that anything resembling real skateboarding would never be exciting enough, loud enough, or trendy enough to keep pre-pubes pumping quarters into the change slots.

Their choice to warp skateboarding to surreal levels turned out to be a good one from an economic standpoint, because in Terre Haute’s Galaxy Arcade, 720 had token jockeying mall rats lining up in numbers that wouldn’t be matched until side-scrolling punch-fests like Double Dragon and Bad Dudes showed up a few years later. This fervor for 720 may have had less to do with any fondness for skateboarding than with the fact that the 720 cabinet was a very impressive piece of machinery, boasting a giant screen, bright green cabinet art and top-mounted boom box style speakers that blasted the games catchy Dick Dale meets Kraftwerk soundtrack well into the mood-lit common areas of the mall.

The first time I noticed the game those raised speakers were all I could see over the gang of kids lined up in front of it. Normally a new game at the Galaxy only warranted mild curiosity from me. While lapping the mall on a Friday night I was more interested in hitting Waldenbooks to check for new D&D modules than I was in burning quarters on games I completely sucked at. When I did hit the arcade, I usually made a bee-line straight to Gauntlet. (“WARRIOR NEEDS FOOD BADLY!”) But when I saw that faux boom box floating above the pimply heads of the galaxy arcade videoids I stopped in my tracks. There was a tuck-kneed skater painted between the woofers, telling me this new machine was a skateboarding game. Monster manuals and the latest issue of The Complete Handbook Of The Marvel Universe would have to wait. At that point, I didn’t even need to play the game, I just needed to see it because I thought there was a chance that this money-sucking video game might give some sort of glimpse into genuine skateboarding. 

Even if you didn’t want to stake a place in the line to actually play a new video game at the Galaxy, you still had to shove your way through a minor mob of wannabes hunched around the screen just to watch people play. What my friends and I saw after squeezing through the mob and peering over the shoulders and between all the other kids was both exciting and disappointing. Despite our isolation from any sort of legitimate skate media, our bullshit detectors were still pretty well-tuned and 720 had them tripping to maximum. Maybe it was our innate midwestern skepticism, maybe it was some sort of subliminal osmotic learning gained by hours of mind melds with our Nashes and Valterras, but we knew instantly 720 wasn’t going to tell us much about skating’s next level. 720’s gameplay took place in a quasi-futuristic, California-fried fantasyland that featured transforming cars, vespa-mounted cops and an urban landscape lousy beyond belief with embanked planters, basins and ramps. 720 was about mashing buttons and, in accordance with its namesake, spinning around as much as you could.

Atari had to program multiple contrivances into the game to give players conventional goals and obstacles, so 720’s world was a place where sinister roller skaters in skeleton suits stalked the streets and 50 dollar bills fluttered in the breeze to be plucked out of the air by aspiring skaters. Most bewildering of all was the mechanism 720 used to limit gameplay length: A marauding swarm of killer bees that would take out your skater if you didn’t make it to the safe haven of a skatepark in time. It’s not like we were expecting an exhaustive tutorial on how to be a skateboarder from a coin-operated amusement but, killer bees? C’mon.

You scored points in 720 by whirling around the launch-happy common areas in the game and by competing in skatepark events. These skateparks were surreal to say the least, shaped by the the sort of ridiculous distortions inherent when mainstream marketing forces mutated the 80’s skate craze. There was a half pipe park that was, honestly pretty down to earth. They didn’t sex up the ramp with loops or flaming decks or anything like that in order to make it more exciting. It was a pretty good rendition of an 86 era half, even if it did have plexiglass transitions on one side. There were slalom parks, feebly referencing a genre of skating that had been all but extinct since the early 70’s. Of course, the 720 version of the simple cone-serpentining slalom was a deadly white-knuckle affair that featured raised wooden platforms, perilous drops, and breakneck turns. There was also the “Jump Park” event, which required your skate avatar to roll down a gigantic wooden platform dotted with cyclopean launch ramps and enormous gaps. To gain points you had to spin through the air and try to land on cunningly spaced targets that you couldn’t actually see when you launched. With events like these, that day-glo skate sprite in 720 might has well have been riding a pogo stick or flying around with a jetpack for all the difference it made to the game experience. Besides the faux skate-rat window dressing and a set of wickedly difficult controls that combined a “kick” button and a rotary joystick, 720 was just barely removed from a typical platform jumping game.

Most disappointing of all was the way 720 weaseled out of revealing a secret my friends and I had been pondering for months, namely the secret of breaking gravity without grabbing our boards or using a ramp. 86-87 was pre-ollie for us, but we knew instinctively that if there was only a way to “bunny hop” our skateboards the way you bunny-hopped a BMX bike, everything would change. In our minds some of us had envisioned levering our boards in a way that was more or less an ollie, but none of us really thought it would work. Kids like me who actually tried experimenting with our ideas quit almost as quickly as we began. Even though we were sort of on the right track to independently discover the ollie, our experiments produced so little in the way of even the meanest positive results that we soon concluded we were barking up the wrong tree entirely. Without knowing what was possible, that skate board “bunny hop” seemed ridiculously implausible in practice. When I saw that skater hopping and spinning from flat ground in 720 I was sure there was something to be learned.

But the virtual shredder in 720 wasn’t ollieing. The 720 animators chose instead to rocket their skater in the air via this sort of bastard hybrid of bomb-drop and foot plant that only laterally resembled any real maneuver in a street skater’s arsenal. I’ve always had the belief that the game designers, having seen a skater do an ollie while researching the game just plain didn’t believe what they were seeing and concluded that it was an optical illusion. They must have believed that, in an ollie, instead of a feet-on, grab-free leap, a skater’s back foot was actually leaving the board and pushing the skater into the air, hence the obtuse pseudo-footplants of 720. Then again, maybe the developers of 720 were just making shit up and did no research at all. Who can say? What I do know was that using the 720 plant to get off the ground seemed even more ridiculous than our aborted, embryonic “bunny-hops”.

None of these flaws, of course, kept us from pumping quarters into 720. We went back again and again, one person playing, the other watching that little animated skater bounce off the ground and scrutinizing every move like a scientist watching paramecia through a microscope. Nothing practical ever came out of sessioning 720, but we still loved to play. It was bullshit, but so was almost every other portrayal of skateboarding we got in those pre-Thrasher, pre-video days. 720 was popular enough that it lingered in the galaxy for  years, and even after we were hardcore hick skaters we’d hit it up and fantasize about how rad it would be if the entire world actually was based on skate-centric 720 style urban architecture, or how great it would be if, in the course of your daily skate, you regularly came across free-floating $50 bills flapping in the breeze. 720 was built upon megabytes of kooky, California crazed gimmicks, but they were fun gimmicks with enough of a skateboarding gloss to be diverting. Honestly, I’m surprised no one has tried to build a full scale replica skatepark from some of the street areas of 720. They can leave the slalom parks in the virtual sphere though. I don’t think anyone has the desire to accidentally fall off a 15 foot platform and die while trying to thread the needle between a bunch of ankle-high flags, not even for a gold medal and a $100 cash prize to buy a sweet new helmet.

This was our hardcore skate-life in the awkward era between our crap board disillusionment and our initiation into “real” skateboarding. We’d session California Games, or come back from a 720 session at the mall all stoked to skate, and then we’d head out to the driveway and circle the perimeters of the concrete, trying to connect the dots between virtual vert and our driveway, our boombox blaring, hoping the next jam on WPFR would be The Fat Boys’ “wipe-out”. Sadly, punk rock hadn’t arrived for us either, at least, not for my clique.

Occasionally we’d dust the gravel off of our OP shirts and catch a movie like any other kids. This was the golden age of dork cinema, so on a good week you’d be watching something like The Goonies or maybe The Beastmaster and every year or so you could also depend on another wacky adventure in ribald police corruption via the Police Academy franchise. Police Academy was some grade A funny shit when you were 12 years old. There was Steve Guttenberg as the impish Officer Mahoney, Tim Kazurinsky as the mild-mannered nerd Mr. Sweetchuk, that tough chick with the giant rack...and who among us didn’t try to make those wacky Michael Winslow sound effects in the back of the classroom? Instead of peals of laughter from the ladies, the end result was usually a detention warning and a desktop sprayed with saliva, but who could help it? It was the 80‘s. When Police Academy 4 came out in April 1987, it was natural that me and my friend Monty would have to hit it up. That Friday night when we walked into The Meadows theater all we expected was the normal, yet deliciously droll mix of fart humor and tame sexual hijinks that characterized past Police Academy masterpieces like Police Academy and Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment. Little did we know, that chapter 4 of the Steve Guttenberg saga was poised to blow out the top of our skulls like a shot to the dome from Tacklebury’s Magnum.

For those of you haven’t reached the Police Academy section of The American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films list, here’s a quick rundown of the “plot”: In the fourth installment of the series Officer Mahoney and his badged knuckleheads are leading up a community policing initiative called “Citizens On Patrol”. Among the municipal misfits drafted for the program are two skateboarders who get busted for riding through a mall. Kyle and Arnie, our two cinematic skate rats, are sentenced to “COPs” as a community service. Wackiness ensues. 

The police harassment angle is a pretty clever way to integrate skating into the film, because of this, the skateboarding references in Police Academy 4 seem like a genuine part of the plot instead of something shoehorned in to score points off a trend. It’s also a premise actual skateboarders would be able to relate to, (although in those driveway days I thought the idea of police hassling skateboarders was kind of ridiculous. Why would cops care about skateboarding, right?) The film’s portrayal of skateboarding was also refreshingly free of most of the irritating cultural cliches of the time. The wardrobe department actually managed to costume the two skaters more or less like real skate rats. Instead of togs that looked like a cross between Mad Max and Max Headroom, Kyle and Arnie sport skate t-shirts and board shorts(powell peralta, of course, because it was the mid 80’s and, incidentally, Stacy Peralta was the second unit director).There are no leather jackets or exaggerated day-glo mohawks. No stupid 80’s new wave fedora hats or faux-punk eyeliner. Sure, its easy to get a cheap laugh out of the fact that one of the kids is played by a young David Spade, but discount that and what you’ve got is a couple of characters who look and act somewhat like the real skaters we might have encountered in 1987 had there been any real skaters in our neighborhoods. The simple fact that the characters don’t say “dude’ and “radical” every other word or spend more time sessioning a bong than a skateboard was a minor Hollywod miracle on its own. Most important of all Police Academy 4 includes the best street skating montage put to film in any of the Barneyfied skatesploitation products of the period.

The film’s street skating montage features a blistering array of truly sick period skating and It’s immediately evident to any skater watching it that the sequence was put together by someone who knew how to photograph skateboarding. Directed by Stacy Peralta, who had 3 ground breaking Powell videos already in his directorial repertoire by the time he got the Police Academy 4 gig, the scenes are shot and  cut in a manner still  in videos today. The camera gets in close and low and Peralta uses a moves with the actio whenever possible, maintaining a sense of speed and momentum. The sequence could be a segment from any pioneering skate video of the time. More importantly, the skating in Police Academy 4 was street skating: Kids on their boards in a realistic urban environment displaying the ingenious repertoire of maneuvers that characterized state of the art street skating at a time when the launch ramp was beginning to recede and the street Ollie was beginning to rise. For my friends and I, it was revelatory. Seeing people pop their boards off the pavement just by clever weight displacement had us re-thinking our abandoned “bunny hop” experiments, and Steve caballero’s ollie to 50-50 grinds had us looking at our trucks in a whole new way.

Of course, it wasn’t 100% perfect. The sequence features repeated instances of a cinematic skate cliche I like to call “the invisible launch ramp”. This is basically the practice of sexing up the amplitude of street skating by having skaters hit ninjafied launch ramps placed behind shrubs or planters or trash cans and then shooting the tricks from an angle that completely conceals the ramps. Basically, what you would see was a skater rolling along towards a bush or a retaining wall or whatever and then WHOOSH, they would just spontaneously launch through the air. Commercial and movie directors would always pull this ridiculous trick. I always wondered What they thought the audience would think. Did they really expect us to believe that skaters coudl, under their own power, just spontaneously launch themselves dozens of yards through the atmosphere with nothing to aid them. Maybe audiences were just supposed to believe that the urban landscape of our major cities was dotted 720 style, with hundreds of natural launch ramps all conveniently hidden behind landscaping and garbage cans.

The ridiculous jumps, along with the corny 80’s keytar pop and Peralta’s tendency to over-choreograph the tricks all lend a small element of ridiculousness to the scenes and, for all the elements of skate culture the screenwriters got right, they still managed to get one core element of the skate culture wrong. According to Kyle and Arnie’s dialogue, all that sick skating is just a by-product of a trip to “go hang out at the mall”. To my friends and I it was just completely ludicrous that anyone who could do all the things those stunt skaters did would waste their time hanging around the mall. On a broader scale, it’s an example of the mainstream’s assumption that expressive street skating was merely a gimmicky footnote to the skateboard’s primary purpose of transportation. To the norms, skating in the streets could only be seen through the lense of getting from point A to point B. The insanely creative use of terrain, in this context, is reduced to something incidental and, by implication, something that required little thought, attention or discipline to achieve. The sheer talent on display, and the technical acumen used to present it, ironically, seems to further this. In short, the scene makes it look too easy. To the outsider the context of the scene characterizes the extremely difficult and technically complex feats on display as things skaters just sort of toss off while casually riding somewhere. In a cinematic sense, this effect is unavoidable. After all, filming street skating “realistically” would result in a 3 hour sequence filled with repeated bails, lots of skaters waiting on line for their shot at whatever obstacle is being hit and a whole lot of cursing and board throwing. Even today, street skating is packaged in videos by judicious editing, but in a skate video, there is no script to prompt the idea that all the skating is going down flawlessly in just a few minutes of riding.

Maybe this is an obvious point to highlight, but I think, to a certain extent, this reflects the attitude of not only people looking at skateboarding from the outside, but also a large portion of the skate industry at the time. Push around a parking lot in ’86 or ’87 you were a weirdo, but go back and forth on a half-pipe and even the Barney’s might give you a smidgen of respect. In ’87 street skating was still a sideshow even for the industry. There were only a handful of pros who warranted pro status solely for their skill in the streets. There was still this sort of subliminal message that street skating was fooling around, a sort of sidereal by-product of simple rolling, and thus, not as important, impressive or profitable as vert skating. Put this all together and the focus on street skating in Police Academy 4 seems even bolder, regardless of any other flaws.

Of course, since all of this skating unspooled before us in a movie theater, it was gone after two minutes. If we could have stormed the projection booth and made the projectionist reel back the footage we would have done it, instead, we had to replay it in our minds and try to remember whatever we could for the remainder of the film’s run-time and until the next morning when we could get out into the driveway and get rad. There was no youtube, and the home video release delay was much longer back then, meaning we couldn’t rewind and repeat the scenes on VHS at home for almost another year. By the time we got onto our boards the specifics of that fever dream of tightly edited street skating had all but fled our minds, leaving only a vague, adrenalized impression of what we had seen. Nevertheless, that skate montage was the first piece of pop culture to actually teach me and my friends something specific we could actually immediately use on our boards.

Reverse engineering the ollie was more than we could manage from two minutes of cinema, even the relatively easy-to-grasp bomb drops seen in the film didn’t sink in but, for one reason or another, those truck-sparking, growling axle grinds Cab and the other stunt skaters pulled off made a huge impression. The next morning Monty and I were hanging grinds off the edge of the driveway slab with our slag-metal grade trucks in what could legitimately be called our first skate trick. First we’d pick up some speed and carve our back truck over the lip at the side of the driveway, shredding metal for a couple of inches and whipping our boards sideways in the process. Eventually we could hang both trucks and go 50-50. Along with the primal thrill of simultaneous resistance and weightlessness inherent in the various axle grinds we also experienced the rite of passage known as the kingpin hang-up, which sent us to the ground in our first curb-trick inspired slams. We would grind metal and pulverize crete like this for hours and somehow never get tired of it. The only drawback was that you had to have just the right kind of driveway to pull it off. Asphalt slabs tended to have indistinct edges that wouldn’t catch your truck. Many concrete ones were basically level with the surrounding lawn leaving us without a lip. Of course, this would usually send us to the tool shed for a garden trowel so we could try and dig a trench along the driveway’s perimeter in order to expose at least a few feet of grindable edge. Most parents put a stop on this as soon as they found out. If the lawn around the driveway was too shaggy then unkempt grass edging the driveway could cause a problem too, so the quest for grindage even had us busting out the weed wacker and, to the utter bewilderment of our parents, voluntarily doing light yard work.

Police Academy 4 didn’t upend our world, but it, for once, gave us something we actually took to our boards. Scroll up the footage on youtube today and the skate sequence in the film holds up as a pretty great example of early modern street skating. Watch the rest of the movie and you’ll see a couple of skateboarders who are portrayed as basically normal, if slightly goofy kids who just like to ride skateboards. Is the film itself bad, yes, does it have its velveeta moments, of course, but compared to the other filmic skatesploitaion giant of the era, 1986’s Thrashin’, Police Academy 4 is practically a gritty skate documentary.

(to be continued in part 2)


  1. At least we didn't start wearing little shorts and headbands. ...

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