Gus Van Sant’s new film, “Paranoid Park,” screening this Saturday night at Letterman Digital Arts as a benefit for SF360 co-publisher the SF Film Society, is the latest coming-of-age flick to suggest that an insider’s view of skateboard culture can reveal secrets about the modern teenage condition. Of course, if you’ve ever seen “MVP 2,” a film about a skateboarding monkey, or “The Skateboard Kid,” a low budget kid’s movie, starring Dom DeLuise, you know skate films can also utterly fail as pieces of art, too. As a lifetime skate junkie, I’ve seen it all. This is a list of skate-films that actually matter, films that helped establish skateboarding as the sexiest, dirtiest, and coolest subculture known to man.
This was the first film I ever saw that portrayed skateboarding as a lifestyle rather than as a kid’s hobby or a sport. While the plotline is formulaic to the bone — think Romeo and Juliet on wheels — the director does manage to accurately portray skateboarders as members of a distinct subculture, one that has a lot of heart despite its seeming ruggedness. “Thrashin’” was also the first skate-related film to rely on real skateboarders for authenticity. The punked-out Daggers were and are an actual group of skateboarders from LA, and the cameos from professional/amateur skaters are too many to count. Thanks to “Thrashin’”, the public image attached to skateboarding went from childish and corny to “hot, reckless, and totally insane,” the film’s famous tagline.
2. "The Search for Animal Chin"
“The Search for Animal Chin” was the first, and remains one of the only, plot-driven skateboard-industry films to date. It’s really just a skate-action video, loosely based around The Bones Brigade’s search for the alleged founder of skateboarding, an old wispy-bearded man named Animal Chin. The audience follows The Brigade, a crew of the best skateboarders from the 1980s, as they chase the elusive Chin from California to Mexico and Hawaii, stopping along the way to party with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, skate a rich kid’s pool, and get gnarly and rad whenever possible. Ultimately, the crew discovers the true essence of skateboarding: a certain devil-may-care mind-state unattainable off-board. “The Search for Animal Chin” was Stacy Peralta’s first attempt to make a real film, something he pulled off quite well, nearly 20 years later, with “Lords of Dogtown.”
3. "Gleaming the Cube"
“Gleaming the Cube” is another super-sappy Hollywood teen flick about star-crossed lovers who happen to skate. But it helped validate skateboarding as a legitimate youth culture with its own set of beliefs, a distinct look, and an awesome soundtrack. Christian Slater plays a rebellious young skater who turns into a vigilante love machine when his brother turns up murdered. He wears leather and denim, hangs out with real professional skateboarders, and wants nothing more than to be understood on his own terms — something all teenagers yearn for. This is the one that sealed the deal for me. I still want to be Christian Slater (pre- “3000 Miles to Graceland,” of course).
4. "Kids," "Ken Park," "Wassup Rockers"
Larry Clark has done wonders for skateboarding’s rebel identity. “Kids” revealed that skateboarders enjoy drugs, sex, and partying almost as much as jumping down stairs and nose-grinding ledges. In “Ken Park,” Clark uses skate culture to comment on the American Dream swindle, suggesting that even the children of wholesome suburbanites are prone to having group sex, killing their grandparents, doing drugs, and committing suicide. “Wassup Rockers” follows a group of Latino punk-rocker skaters from East LA as they cope with racism, exploitation, and life in the ghetto. Here, Clark uses skate-culture as a metaphor for the universal teenage problem of feeling like an outcast. In each of his films, Clark uses inexperienced actors to convey a sense of authenticity, a tactic Van Sant uses in “Paranoid Park.”
5. "Lords of Dogtown"
I was all set to hate this movie, but when I found out Stacy Peralta — former owner of Powell-Peralta skateboard, a skate-legend in his own right, and the maker of “Dogtown and Z-Boys” — actually wrote the script, I decided to give it a chance and was pleasantly surprised. “Lords of Dogtown” explains that skateboarding will always be an outsider sport even if it does occasionally whore itself out to corporate interests. Skateboarding’s roots are that deep.
6. "Back to the Future"
Marty McFly had this special thing he would do with his board where he’d stop abruptly and kick it into the air and then catch it without batting an eye. It was pretty much the coolest thing in the world if you happened to be a six year-old boy at the time.
7. "Video Days (Blind Skateboard Co.)"
This was Spike Jonze’s first “film,” and remains one of the most respected skate-industry flicks to date. It helped launch Jonze’s directing career and set Jason Lee (“Mallrats,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “My Name is Earl”) on a path toward super-stardom. If Jonze hadn’t impressed so many people with “Video Days,” movies like “Jackass I and II,” “Being John Malkovich,” and “Adaptation,” would have never been made.
8. "Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator"
When I was 11 years old, Gator was one of the biggest and coolest names in skateboarding. He eventually turned into a raging egomaniac and murdered his girlfriend. “Stoked” is a cautionary tale for aspiring skaters.
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