Friday, May 3, 2013

Skatesploitation Part 2: SO YOU WANNA GO THRASHIN'! THRASHIN'!

When it comes to skatesploitation, the 1986 film epic Thrashin’ is the proverbial Vallely elephant popping bonelesses in the middle of the room. It’s the titan, the heavyweight, the millstone hanging from the subcultural neck. Both reviled for its hollywood cluelessness and beloved for being a much needed primer on contemporary skateboarding for anyone cut off from the subculture’s epicenters in the 80’s, Thrashin crystallizes everything sickening and crucial about the mainstream’s commodification of skateboarding in the awkward middle years of the 1980‘s. Thrashin’ is a terrible movie, but it’s OUR terrible movie. Thrashin is woven deep into the fabric of a whole generation of skate culture. People still parody it in videos, and quoting any of a handful of “classic” lines from the film at a session is sure to get you a few chuckles or callbacks form anyone over 30. As a sign of its time, a time when the mainstream was trying to make a few quick bucks off skating, and kids on the fringes were salivating for  any skate knowledge they could retrofit from the mainstream, Thrashin’ is a potent but ridiculously embarrassing landmark, a snapshot of the barney culture’s commodofication machine trying its hardest and failing to box skateboarding into a lowest-common-denominator-soluble package.

Although released theatrically in ’86, Thrashin’ was really a home video phenomenon. Even though it technically pre-dates both 720’s appearance in arcades and Police Academy 4’s premiere in theaters, the vast majority of Thrashin’s audience didn’t discover it until it hit video store shelves in ’87 or ’88. I didn’t actually see Thrashin myslef until 1988, and by that time my friends and I had already seen our first issue of Thrasher and even skate videos like Streets on Fire and Psycho Skate. Thrashin, for my crew, was more important for introducing us to The Circle Jerks and The Red Hot Chili Peppers than it was for introducing us to contemporary skating. Still, for some kids questing for the true path of skating in the 80’s, Thrashin’ actually was a sort of cornball catalyst, an amalgam of sickness and awkwardness that was selectively digested and broken down in the search for pieces of the skateboard puzzle. Whether you watched it out of desperation on a rainy day when you had already watched your badly dubbed VHS of Speed Freaks a dozen times, or whether it ambushed you from the video stoe shelves before you read your first skate mag, chances are, if you were a skater in the 80’s you watched Thrashin’ at least once. For better or worse, Thrashin’ is an institution.

Thrashin is the story of Corey Webster (played by future oscar nominee and Goonie, Josh Brolin), a skater who, when not acid-dropping off his roof and neglecting to button up his shirts, aspires to professional skateboard fame. One year prior to the film we learn that Corey ate it hard in the  famed LA Massacre downhill race (yes, in the world of Thrashin, downhill racing is still the mainstay of comepetitive skating in 1986) At the beginning of the film we see him as he’s heading back to LA to conquer his fears, win the massacre and become a big time skateboard superstar. Little does Cory know, he’s about to ride his spider-web gripped stick into a world of skate gangs, star crossed love and Meatloaf songs.

After a wheel-sliding, hitchhiking, monatge set to one of those tunes by Mr. Loaf, Corey makes it to LA and hooks up with his pals “The Ramp Locals”, a cadre of skaters assembled by central casting to represent the “good guys” of 80’s era skating. There's Tyler, the smart older guy who is a master ramp builder, Radley, the street-wise sidekick who wears horrible 80’s print button downs and one of those dumb retro fedora’s every second banana sported in 80’s movies,  Little Stevie, a precocious, Chet-Thomas-esque grom, and Boze, the dorky comic relief, who seems to be a sort of cross between Lance Mountain and a lobotomy victim.

Cory and his crew proceed to shred the Locals’ new ramp in a sequence equal parts great skating and cliche, slo-mo, “blue-sky” shots. Devo music blasts and we see skaters flying above the deck silhouetted by the California sun. It’s the Barney’s beach-culture ideal of skateboard bliss: all resort commercial skies, tidy clothes, and nice haircuts. By the time the sequence is over there’s a crowd of bystanders gawking around the ramp cheering on these unknown kids who, despite their ability to pull flawless McTwists and giant airs, have escaped the eyes of skateboarding sponsors. By the end of the credits Thrashin’ has firmly established, via cinematic cliche, that the“Ramp Locals” are clean cut kids just out to have an innocent good time on their skateboards.

For Cory and crew, the troubles (and the “plot” such as it is) begin when the Locs take a trip to Venice Beach so Cory can sign up for the “pool contest” at the local skatepark. On the way Cory has his first encounter with the film’s leather-clad, drreadlocked no-goodniks, the Daggers. Ominously revealed cresting a hill in gang formation like maple-pushing mongols, the Daggers sport the leathers and tattered denim jackets that have been the Hollywood signifier of “cruel hoodlum” since Frankie And Annette were molesting surf culture in films like “Beach Blanket Bingo”. At the head of the dread-whipping powersliding pack is Tommy Hook, an oily apparition who, with his fey, dangly knife earring and greasy rattail, combines the worst aspects of Elvis, Lou Reed and that biker guy from The Village People. The Daggers swarm Corey and co.’s car, giving the audience the chance to catch Christian Hosoi and Eddie Reategui bouncing bomb drops off of the car roof.

After a few words from Radley about how “bad” the Daggers are the film gives way to a montage of the rolling hoods doing all those hoodsy things dirty hoods do. They shove pedestrians, swarm a toddler on a skateboard and, in one of the film’s many unintentionally dadaistic moments, Tommy hook rolls up to a delivery truck blocking an alley, runs up its side and does a Breakin’-style backflip off of it onto his baord. Somehow, I don’t think this stunt was greenlit by Thrashin’s technical adviser: a certain Mr. Tony Alva. Nevertheless, The Daggers greet this maneuver with raucous cheers of approval. The truck driver, of course, scowls and shakes his fist at the young ruffian just so the audience will know for sure, that these daggers are bad boys. The sequence is capped by an encounter with some venice beach breakdancers. After pushing his way thorough the crowd of admirers, and interposing himself in the dancers space, hook sneers at the popping and lockin b-boys and regally declares: “breakin’s a memory”. One of Hook’s toady’s then kicks over the dancers’ ghetto blaster just to show how dangerous the Daggers are. Yes, in the Venice Beach of Thrashin, the penalty for encroaching on a gang’s turf isn’t a switchblade to the kidneys but an upended boom box.

Meanwhile, the Ramp Locals are taking their own journey through the skateboard wonderland, but, like good citizens, they are carrying their boards or courteously giving right of way to the various kids, old people and bikini girls on the promenade. Fedora boy and lobotomy kid stop to session with some dudes doing killer acid drop tricks off a nearby roof. This little scene segues into one of the best skate sequences in the movie, with skaters like Eddie Reategui, Hosoi, and Jesse Martinez executing an array of the grab-and-drop, bomb drop and boneless variations that comprised much of the street skating arsenal in the mid 80’s. Want to see what skaters who didn’t have access to the ramps did out in the streets before the ollie was perfected? This little scene is as good of a slice of 1980‘s skate-life as you can get.

In Thrashin’s recurring motif of bumping the insane right up against the incompetent, we simultaneously get an example of the sort of cringing low-budget laziness that characterizes the whole film. It is more than obvious that the stunt skaters in the scene are the same ones they used in the previous Daggers scenes, but they are meant to be a diffrent cadre of skaters altogether. Because of this we get a goofy bit of plot friction wherein one minute the locals are whining and sniveling about the mean old Daggers, and the next they’re fawning all over them as they pull some killer acid drops and bonelesses off the venice Beach roofs. The director has, at least, made the skaters trade their leathers for white t-shirts, (They still visibly have their signature “daggers” boards though), but its a pretty ineffective ploy. The amateurish gaff is only intensified as the scene changes again, this time to the daggers lair where we once again, see the same stunt skaters hanging with Tommy Hook, back in their hoodlum togs; Daggers once more via the magic of shoddy continuity editing and a wardrobe change

While his buds are admiring the stunt work of Thrashin’s schizophrenic extras, Cory journeys deeper into Venice. The Venice Beach of Thrashin’ is a sort of parallel universe where skateboards are everywhere. Little cliques of thrashers are cached around every corner, and the seaside is an endless shred party of buskering freestylers and ad-hoc ramp spots. It’s an absurd collision of post apocalyptic stronghold and open air shopping mall, where beach bums impale their boards in the sand like palisades in some stoner fortress and throngs of miscreants and surf buds gather round the Quarter-piped lair of the daggers in some sort of contrived day-glo pow-wow. Into the midst of this boneite carnival comes our hero, who barges the daggers personal and private quarter pipe, pushing in and pulling a slo-mo footplant to show them what he’s all about.

Its bad enough he doesn’t introduce himself to Tommy Hook and or as to skate, but Cory also snakes two guys in the process of his little jock-out. Ramp Local or Dagger, that’s a staright-up dick move, making Webster more than deserving of the withering epithet  “Val Jerk” flung at him by a particularly droll dagger.

This scene epitomizes Thrashin’s most frequent and flagrant conceptual miscaculation: the idea that skaters would sympathize more readily with the flexing, jockish Ramp Locals than with the outcast Daggers. There's more to skaters’ empathy with the dirty Daggers than the simple adolescent attraction to juvenile deliquency as well. For all its anarchic spirit, skating has an elegantly functional moral code, and the Locals too often seem on the wrong side of it. The writers and producers of Thrashin’ repeatedly give their heroes attributes that seem admirable and sensible form the perspective of the average achievement-obsessed 1980‘s squarehead but are completely unpalatable and unacceptable in the context of the inclusive sub culture of skating. Webster, with his nuthugger levis, tank-top swagger and obsession with winning contests and being sponsored is the pec-baring picture of the variety of 80’s surfside meathead most skaters tried their best not to be.

The Ramp Locals‘ behavior in general repeatedly characterizes them as whiny exclusionist prepsters. Thrashin’s philosophical misstep is kind of like making a snob vs. slobs comedy and not realizing the slobs are supposed to be the heroes. One reason the locs hate the daggers so much is that Tyler “caught” one of the Daggers “spying” on their ramp? What does that even mean? Is dreadlocked scofflaw “Monk” going to “steal” Tyler’s ramp design? So what if he does? Do the ramp locals somehow have a patent on the elliptical transition? In general, The Locals seem to treat their ramp the same way the stuffy douchebags in Caddyshack treat their golf course: as an exclusive country club where the “riff-raff” aren’t allowed. In the embattled 80’s when skating was struggling and scarping its way back into the limelight, a refusal to share your own vertical wealth was a definite skate culture transgression. Skating, despite stylistic debates and isolated rivalries, has always been an inclusive endeavour. Build a ramp and then tell other skaters they can’t even look at it? You might as well be sporting a varsity letter and chucking the pigskin for the norms at the high school. Dreadlocked Alva boy or squeeb-banged Bones Brigadier, you didn’t build a ramp just  to have your own priveliged playground. Creating a center for the skate community, a place to party and attract new people with new styles and skill, was at least half the inspiration for anyone to put the money and sweat into a ramp. Try to velvet rope your ramp like some glitzy club and you are just inviting bad vibes.

Of course, the Locals are just as churlish to their own supposed friends as they are to their rivals. When Boze muses that he should have bought a convertible instead of his sweet hardtop VW rabbit, the Loc’s secretly take blowtorches to his new ride and saw off the roof. They also cover the car with graffiti, turning it into the rolling analogue of the ubiquitous junk-car obstacles that served as the centerpiece of every 80’s street skating contest. Boze seems stoked on the destruction of his brand new car, but I’d like to think he’s crying on the inside. At the very least, it’s an exhibit of the Locals’ willingness and apparent glee at getting a cheap laugh at their obviously developmentally disabled friend’s expense. This is especially ironic since the film earlier used Boze’s sad reaction to Bomb-dropping Daggers putting a measly dent in his roof as proof positive of the skate gang’ diabolical nature. The locals later put poor Boze up to chatting up some beach babes, but as soon as he rolls up, his “friends” yank his pants around his ankles. That kind of grabass goes beyond good natured ribbing and pushes into “emotionally crippling cruelty” territory. Yes folks, these are the filmmakers vision of the “good guys”.

Say what you will about the Daggers’ wardrobe or tonsorial hygiene but you never see Tommy Hook roll up and pants Monk while he’s trying to spit some game at the ladies. If I found myself in Boze’s clown shoes, I would have ditched my dorky boardshorts and surf shirts for ripped jeans and a ratty denim daggers jacket in a second. Sure, the Daggers of the film are a pretty laughable mess of hollywood cliches and preposterous posturing, but from the skater’s perspective, they are a much better peer group than the wonderbread Ramp Locals. Even the Dagger’s domicile, a shabby den of scum and villainy in the producers’ eyes, is more appealing to skateboarders. The Daggers hole up in a graffiti-scrawled bungalow where skaters regularly session the roof and launch ramps dot the front yard like kiddie toys. It’s a sort of tribal commune of loud music, aggressive street art and rolling recklessness. In short, every adolescent skaters’ dream. There are also lots of girls hanging out in that house. Something conspicuously absent from the Locals’ place. The ramp Locals’ little pad, clean, neat and unobtrusive, looks a lot like living with mom and dad. If anyone in your crew ever expressed a preference for the ramp locals over the daggers, you would probably tell them to take up rollerblading.

But on with the plot: After Corey establishes himself as a prime cut of 80’s dickweed at the daggers’ place, he meets a poodle-haired beauty and falls into mandatory 80’s style love at first site. Unfortunately, the object of his plot-mandated affection happens to be Hook’s chaste, midwestern sister. After being run off by Hook’s girl, Velvet (played by the much hotter Sherilyn Fenn) the half-assed Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story plot kicks into full gear, complete with a limp attempt to re-enact shakespeare’s balcony scene at the dagger’s house, and a brain dead stab at referencing Shakespeare’s duel via the movie’s most preposterous set piece: the infamous “skate joust”.

The idea that skaters with a beef regularly face off and pummel each other in ritualized rolling duels is self-evidently absurd, but in a movie you have to give some Hollywood leeway for sensational purposes right? Movie rules say any wild idea is fair game if it produces a memorable bit of cinema. From a purely visceral standpoint a skilled fillmmaker could potentially wring some thrills out of the idea of two hell-bent thrashers swinging maces made from hardware store chain and bags of rocks at each other in a concrete ditch. Of course, no one has ever accused anyone on the Thrashin’ production staff of being a “skilled filmmaker”.Taking place in the famous drainage canals of the LA river, Thrashin’s joust could have combined all the amazing skateboarding of the wallows sequence from Animal Chin with all the brutal violence of the wrestling sequence from Escape From New York. Instead, Thrashin gives us something that looks like a community theater version of Lord Of The Flies staged by Duran Duran. There’s lots of moussed up, 80’s “punks” cavorting around bonfires, lots of screaming and ominous music, but the joust itself is a sort of back and forth slap-fight where each skater slowly rolls down an embankment, politely stops in the middle of the ditch and then almost indifferently swings at his opponent. The whole thing has all the intensity and excitement of a scuffle over cabbage patch kids at the mall.

Corey gets his wrist broken in the “fight”, setting up the third act conflict: will Corey be able to recover in time to win The LA Massacre? Will Chrissy forgive him for resorting to violence?  Since the producers could not afford a kick-ass tune in the vein of Karate Kids’ “Best Around” or Rocky III’s “Eye Of The Tiger”, Corey has to get his skate groove back without the help of a hot Survivor tune. After a few choice edits, we get to see Cory place first in the massacre, winning his sponsorship, Chrissy’s love and the respect of Tommy Hook, who will probably forever after pester Corey 24-7 to flow him some of those sweet Smash Skates decks and super-bounce Smash wheels.

The saddest thing about Thrashin’ is that, In theory at least, a passable skateboard movie should have been possible in 1986. This, after all, was the age of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe. The teen movie genre was not just extremely popular, but enjoying something resembling an artistic peak. This was the era of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Karate Kid, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club...there was not only a huge demand for youth-oriented film, but a pretty solid template to build them upon. A light teen comedy based around the quirky misfit kids who rode skateboards in the mid 80’s could have worked. It might have even been a big hit in the vein of The Goonies or The Karate Kid. You could go the John Hughes route and built a snob vs. slobs comedy around it, r maybe do it Cameron Crowe style and have more dramatic and grounded coming of age comedy. A standard sports movie based on skating basically writes itself. Why, in light f all these potential directions, the producers of Thrashin’ chose to make a film that seems to cram West Side Story, The Warriors, Rocky, and Ben Hur into a moussed-up, melodramatic mess may never be known.

So, in the 80’s some Hollywood types made a shitty movie about skateboarding. So what? Why is Thrashin’ such a universal experience for skaters who came up at the dawn of the street skating era?

Thrashin’ is fascinating because of the little things it manages to get right in an overall product that is so fundamentally wrong. In 1986 skateboarding was just beginning to surface from the underground. This created a desperate hunger for images of skating in kids who had latched onto the subculture, but were still separated from its mainstream. Just as important is the fact that Thrashin’ does have moments of legitimately awesome skating and moments of subcultural clarity that  actually reveal elements of contemporary skate culture. These things are isolated and often have nothing to do with the film’s plot, but they are there nonetheless. This makes Thrashin’ impossible to completely dismiss. For many It’s the cinematic equivalent of a department store shit board. It’s unadulterated garbage, but garbage that still contributed something significant to their early skateboarding experience.

There’s no middle ground with Thrashin’. It’s either inspiring or embarrassing,(mostly embarassing) It never has moments of mere competence or forgettable mediocrity. If its not a monent of truly impressive skating, its a clownish attempt to capture the skate zeitgeist via paper thin tropes and absurd contrivances. Thrashin’s soundtrack is a great example of this. Somehow, the producers were smart enough to put The Circle Jerks, Devo, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Fear in their skateboard movie, but they thought the best guy to do the actual Thrashin theme song was Meatloaf. Likewise, they were smart enough to hire Tony Alva as a technical advisor, roping in all the team Alva talent with him, but not smart enough to realize that the clique of skaters he brought  represented, not a rogue element in the culture, but an ideal many skaters actually aspired to.

Then again, even that ridiculous “skate gang”element of the film has a kernel of truth embedded deep insde, one that is rooted in a an insider aspect of skate culture. Looked at sideways, the little tiffs between the evil Daggers and the MTV approved Ramp Locals is an exaggerated version of the friction between skating’s old-line of style-focused outlaw skaters and the trick-oriented young vert hotshots symbolized by The Bones Brigade. The fact that, for skaters there was no real factionalizing or animosity in this schism seemed to have no bearing on the screenwriters’ vision of skate culture as a cheesy synth-pop gang war.

Every skater has their favorite bad movie moment from Thrashin’ and every one of those moments, no matter how bad they are, still have some element buried beneath all the cheese that is genuinely connected to skate culture.

For example, few characters in Thrashin’ garner as many derisive snorts as Sam Flood, the cigar chomping big shot who owns world famous “Smash Skates”. Played by ubiquitous 80’s character actor Chuck McCann, The balding, tubby Flood is described by one character as the man who “invented” the skateboard. (Despite his mogul status Flood still delivers his boards to shops personally from the back of an Econoline van). In a sad instance of cinematic unintended consequences Thrashin’s script gives Flood many of the same attributes as a garden variety predatory creeper; He’s an old, chubby, bald guy who drives around in a windowless white van, scoping out young men and, occasionally luring them back to his creepermobile, not with the promise of candy or a chance to pet a puppy, but with the chance to check out his deck, or, in one queasy moment, bite his wheels. I like to think McCann. in a classic example of an actor taking the piss in a shitty movie, intentionally enhanced this unfortunate aspect by giving a queasy pedophiliac sort of slant to his performance. Corey’s interactions with flood, including that bizarre scene in the Smash skates factory where Flood grabs a wheel and insistently orders an obviously uncomfortable Corey to “Bite it...go ahead, bite it.”, seems like something out of an after school special or any number of “very special” 80’s sitcom episodes that warned kids about child molestation. The only thing missing is Flood asking Corey to take off his shirt so he can take some pictures...then again, since Corey seems psychologically unable to button up his shirt, this probably wouldn’t be a big deal.

Amazingly, Thrashin’ still manages to get some things right even in the laughable Sam Flood sequences. As creepy as it may seem, in the skatepark era pudgy business types could be found lurking the fences at the parks, smoking cigars and soliciting services from the local hotshots, at least that;s how Lance Mountain recalls it in the Bones Brigade: An Autobiography documentary. When Flood shows off a smash deck to Corey, his pitch about “7 plys of canadian maple, cross-grained” could come straight out of any 80’s skate company’s ad copy. Somebody making the film knew something about skate technology. Of course two seconds later, we get that great scene of flood dropping one of his smash wheels to the ground, resulting in a paranormal rebound from offscreen that not only bounces the wheel higher than it was dropped, but at an oblique angle that defies both the laws of physics and the laws of competent filmmaking. Once again Thrashin’ presents something technically accurate only to make your head spin a moment later with somthing surreally absurd. Forgot about the stunningly bad “Texas switch” effect they use to create that magically bouncing wheel, but the whole idea that skate wheel manufacturers were in some sort of elasticized arms race to create urethane that behaves like flubber is ludicrous. In 50 plus years of rolling, no skater, after bailing some maneuver has ever exclaimed: “Damn it! These fuckin’ wheels just don’t bounce enough!”

It’s almost like there was one guy in the Thrashin’ production team who either actually knew about skateboarding or did some research, maybe he was a junior producer or a third-string screenwriter, maybe an intern, whoever he was it was like he kept making good suggestions, only to have them drowned out or completely distorted by everyone else working on the picture. I can see the story meetings now:

“You know, we could build our skateboarding movie around two guys who represent different styles of skating, and they could have a rivalry, and then finally, after competing with each other, gain each others respect and bring the whole culture tgether...kind of like a Bones Brigade vs. Alva team kind of thing...”

“Great Kid! Boffo idea. I love it. We could have like, an evil skate gang who bully little kids and beats up breakdancers...real hoodlums you know, and our hero will be this handsome guy from the suburbs, someone Hunky who always combs his hair and walks around with his shirt off...”

“Well...uhhh...maybe. I thought we could bring in some real pro skaters, shoot at real skateboarding spots, sort of re-create the excitement of skaters pushing the limits and feeding off of each other...”

“Yeah, sure, that’s nice...but we need to punch it up. You know what? We could have a skate duel, like a rolling gang fight, guys flying around beating the snot out of each other...make skateboarding violent and dangerous...crowds will eat it up...”

“Well, it’s not really that kind of rivalry.”

“...and maybe the hunky guy is in love with the scumbag’s sister, so there’s a whole West Side Story angle...only with the boardskating things that the sidewalk surfers think are so hip. Y’know...while I’m thinking about West Side Story, why don’t we make it a musical!”

“I don’t know about a musical but music is really important. There’s a whole exciting music scene associated with skateboarders, we could really have a great soundtrack. Get some bands like Devo and The Circle jerks...”

Yeah, sure kid. But you know who was really great? Meatloaf. He had the bat outta hell with the devil on a motorcycle, the kids love that stuff. I wonder what he’s up to these days...DELLA! GET ME MEATLOAF’S AGENT ON THE PHONE! PRONTO!”

“You know that wasn’t really...”

“And this whole skate contest thing...these kids fooling around on half-pikes...”

“half pipes sir...”

“Yeah, whatever. Not very cinematic. What we need is some sort of race, head to head, very dramatic...they still do that thing with the cones?”


“Yeah, kind of like that. Know what, scratch that. Not violent enough. How about this, a downhill death race kind of like a roller derby, with people shoving each other and punching each other out...guys flying off could be like the chariot race in Ben Hur, or maybe like The Road Warrior. You think Mel Gibson is too old to play a skateboarder?”

And so on and so on...

Its not just that Thrashin can often seem like it was made by people who had never seen skateboarding, its that it often seems like it was made by people who had never seen a movie, but it was a thing you could rent and watch that had skateboarding in it. That was a big deal in 1986. It’s easy to think that just about anybody cold have made a better movie about skateboarding than Thrashin’. Admittedly,  A spider monkey with a concussion could probably have come up with a better screenplay, but when you get down to the details, and the devil is always in the details, making that great skateboarding epic is not as simple as even the most cinematically minded of veteran skate-nerds might think.

Experimental films not withstanding, a dramatic movie needs a narrative, which is a fancy way of saying that it needs a story-based, structure of plotted action that moves toward a coherent resolution. Since a movie is generally only between 90 minutes and 3 hours in length, it means every element of a conventional film must be tailored to reach that resolution. Meandering is the province of the avant garde. If you know anything about skateboarding, then two problems are immediately evident.

First off there’s that idea of a resolution. What is the ultimate end of the story you are telling? What is the “goal” of skateboarding? Is it to be the champion? The champion of what? Skateboarding, at its heart , is an endeavor where the only real contest is between an individual and his board. There are competitions, sure, but there’s no super bowl. No skate olympics, no definitive trinket handed out after running some pre-ordained organized gauntlet that makes someone a “champion”. There is no greatest skateboarder in the world. If there was a “skateboard champion” what type of skating would he be champion of? When your get down to it, skating is really a couple of different sports lumped together.

A more realistic narrative destination for a story about skating might be sponsorship, but landing a spot on a top flite team or even getting your own pro model isn’t really a finite enough endpoint for a narrative. It’s not the end of a journey, it’s sort of a beginning, one of many markers in the life cycle of a talented skater. Besides, what would the narrative structure leading up to that resolution look like? Days and days spent cruising around in the car looking for some new spot that hasn’t been shot to death? Hours of warm-ups, bails, and police evasions? Would it depict all the missed opportunities to get footage because of hung-over filmers and logistical snafus? There would have to be lots of great scenes of skaters standing in parking lots, hunched in gang formation around a camcorder, desperately shielding an LCD screen to see if they “got it”....and of course, the climactic scene would be the one where our hero hits the “send” button, dispatching the e-mail holding his sponsor me video.

And there’s that issue of focus: the way the limited running time of a movie requires a filmmaker to hone the plot down to only the absolutely necessary elements. Even if you could latch onto a narrative structure compatible with the dictates of popular film, you would still have to cut out a lot of the little details that show the soul of what it is to be a skater. How would you decide what gets cut out? The rainy days stuffed inside watching videos over and over again? The hang out sessions and flatground SKATE games? The clowning, the couch tours, the knuckle-skinning, spastic anxiousness of setting up a new board that you are dying to skate... 

With all this in mind, it seems the only way to make a true skateboard film would be to make it a sort of character study. Put people over plot. This, of course, puts you out of the territory of exploitation cinema and into the tweedy borderlands of art flicks. Indy films actually have dabbled at portraying modern skateboarding. Kids, which featured late New York skate legend Harold Hunter, laterally portrayed young urban skaters, but its preoccupation with seedy teenage dysfunction gave way to characters whose focus on various forms of queasy delinquency basically overrode their definition as skateboarders, meaning Kids really has precious little to say about the subculture. Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park wove skateboarding pretty tightly in its narrative of a young skater who commits manslaughter against a security guard, but even then, skate culture is more of a means to get the protagonist into a dramatic dilemma than something used to define him. Larry Clarks’ Wassup Rockers is idiosyncratic enough that it is far from definitively about “skaters”. The common thread in these examples is that, in all of them, the filmmakers seem either uninterested or unaware of just how central skating is to the lives of any kid who takes up the sport. Even In the artier films, skate Skateboarding is always just a symptom of something else. No matter how well meaning or perceptive this approach may be, their is always an innate disrespect in it. Catherine Hardwicke’s Lords Of Dogtown is probably the best attempt to make a movie about skateboarding in the broad sense, but even it often comes off as a sort of affected, buffed and polished 70‘s fashion show; essentially a prettied up and palatable, lesser hollywood formulization of the brilliant, ramshackle documentary that inspired it. Of course, maybe these portrayals are more definitive than I give them credit it for. maybe I’m blinded by my own midwestern skate-nerd preconceptions.

Then again, perhaps this is how it should be. Character studies fit a skateboarding narrative better than tight storylines, sure, but there’s a rub. What is a “skater”? Is it the dreadlocked nonconformist from the wrong side of town who skated because no one gave a damn about him and he didn’t give a damn about anything else? Is it the pampered rich kid who ditches the pressures and expectations of privelige, and defines himself or herself by burning urethane on a road of peer disdain and parental anguish? Is it the dateless wonder who picks up a skateboard and finally learns that he’s worth something to somebody even if its only himself and a handful of other scabby skating misfits? Which one is? All of them? None of them?

Because of all of this, Thrashin’ is important for more than cheap nostalgia and cheaper laughs. It’s important because it’s an object lesson in these times when so many are wringing their hamburgered palms over the soul of skateboarding. The lesson of Thrashin’ isn’t a dire warning of how the forces of corporate commodification can twist something as wonderful as skating into something warped and boneheaded. Thrashin’, after all, was a box office failure, and in its failure lies a window into the innate nature of skating, the way it can’t be boxed in to an easily packaged paradigm or demographic. To mainstream something and corporatize it you have to limit it and make it simple, linear, you have to turn it into a consumable item that can be absorbed by the masses who have no time or inclination to pursue and understand it. Even if skateboarding becomes the most popular pasttime in the world, it will never be like football or basketball. It is not an activity for spectators. You have to do it for it to have an value, and if you do it, it changes you. Just like those scattered moments of true skating in Thrashin, the stoke always breaks through. You can’t reduce, skating you can’t distill it into a sugared drink or a Hollywood formula. Its too idiosyncratic, too egalitarian, too counterintuitive and confounding to the outsider. Only someone who pursues it can understand it or even appreciate it, and that understanding is not going to be like anyone else’s. That’s the real lesson of Thrashin’ and not even Meatloaf can mess with that.


  1. Excellent analysis. I would love to read your take on "Gleaming the Cube."

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