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To Live and Skate in L.A. 

Tweakers in The Salton Sea and the wild boys of Dogtown

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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Jay Adams: Poetry in motion

Tony Alva: Lighter than air

Val Kilmer: Whatever

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From the minute the movie industry set up shop in Los Angeles, it began selling the city to the world. Nearly 100 years later, it’s still at it, even if these days moviemakers tend to sell the city less as a never-ending heaven than as a whole lot of hell. One after another, the modern L.A. movie unfolds in a city where the sun doesn‘t just shine, it blazes, sizzles and fries to a crisp, an almighty, ever-present spotlight under which ordinary people transform into performers, sometimes liquefying their brains in the process. In the new movie The Salton Sea, a porcine creature dubbed Pooh-Bear basks in the washed-out Palmdale sun, snorting with laughter as he commandeers his pet pigeons -- dolled up and strapped in to resemble JFK and the rest of the November 22 cortege -- in a remote-controlled toy car. Bunkered down amid the sand and scrub of the Antelope Valley, Pooh-Bear lives 60 miles outside of L.A., but in movie terms he’s just around the corner. He‘s a fringe dweller in one of our omnipresent bedroom communities, corrosive evidence -- much like the accidental lake of the film’s title -- of the city‘s insidious reach.

One of those epic bad guys of whom the movies are overly fond, Pooh-Bear is a major methamphetamine dealer and the story’s resident evil, and he‘s played very badly by one of the art’s inconsistent talents, Vincent D‘Onofrio, troweling on the Method to convey Pooh-Bear’s madness. The character is meant to give life to the idea that the brighter the sun, the darker and deeper its shadows, but he‘s too much of a cartoon to inspire genuine menace. When Pooh-Bear orders a speed freak named Danny (Val Kilmer) to drop his pants in front of a rabid badger, the scene doesn’t trigger Orwellian shivers; it feels like a screenwriter and director trying too hard to up the ante. If only they didn‘t push so crudely, and in such familiar fashion. Written by Tony Gayton, who also wrote the recent release Murder by Numbers, and directed with energy by newcomer D.J. Caruso, The Salton Sea isn’t without interest or ideas, though some of the better ones are cribbed from David Fincher and, especially, Martin Scorsese. As with Memento, with which it shares both an intimate voice-over narration and the cliche inspiration of a dead wife, though none of the earlier film‘s intellectual reach, The Salton Sea kinks along with a narrative feint here, a false clue there, in the usual neo-noir fashion. If the vibe, particularly in the first hour, often seems more sullen than down-and-dirty existential, that has largely to do with the filmmakers’ ludicrously glamorized notion of the meth underworld.

It‘s a measure of just how farcical that world is that Danny’s tweaker buddies are played by the likes of Adam Goldberg and Shalom Harlow, not only because they‘re unduly robust (and have all their teeth) but because these are the sort of performers who wear their affliction like wash-off tattoos. Kilmer plays tortured with more feeling, and over the years he’s done his share of high times in films like Tombstone and The Doors. But while this is the actor‘s best lead performance in years, it lacks the core tension of his finest work, so that something seems to have gone missing not just in the character, but in Kilmer too. Watching him almost but not quite hit scene after scene, testing emotional notes rather than blowing them out, you worry that, as with Nicolas Cage, he’s exhausted himself with too many execrable star turns. It‘s not that Kilmer is bad; he’s just not good enough to make you forgive his choice of material -- or the sight of Danny playing the trumpet against a wall of flames. That scene alone would make the film unwatchable if not for the cushioning effect of Amir Mokri‘s cinematography, along with the crucial presence of actors B.D. Wong, Doug Hutchison, Mpho Koaho, and Peter Sarsgaard as Danny’s sidekick, Jimmy. An actor with a gift for keeping us off guard, Sarsgaard slips into our sympathies one moment only to play on our suspicions the next. He alone brings us into a world of real hurt.

After making the rounds of various festivals, starting at Sundance 2001, Dogtown and Z-Boys finally opens this week in Los Angeles, instantly earning the title as the L.A. Booster Movie of the Year (or at least month). This enormously enjoyable, high-adrenaline documentary -- financed by California-based footwear manufacturer Vans and directed by former Z-Boy wonder turned entrepreneur Stacy Peralta -- recounts the birth of modern skateboarding from the pavement up. As a vision of Los Angeles as the epicenter of authentic and manufactured desire, a landscape of great possibility and crushing disappointment, the film is hard to beat, for reasons that are both obvious and somewhat less so. The original Z-Boys were Santa Monica and Venice underage urchins, beach boys mostly, who in the early 1970s hung out at a Main Street shop called Jeff Ho‘s Surfboards and Zephyr Productions, a design and manufacturing outfit that radicalized local surfboard culture and, in the bargain, helped rejuvenate its then-dormant sibling, skateboarding. The history of these wild boys, their dizzying rise and thudding fall, has been recounted repeatedly in the last few years in books such as The Concrete Wave and in articles such as Spin’s “The Lords of Dogtown,” neither of which has a patch on the new documentary for the simple reason that here you get to see the boys move, slaloming across the ground and through the very air.

It‘s the archival footage that makes Dogtown, which as a documentary has all the benefits and faults of a project crafted from the inside out. Since he grew up with these guys -- and the lone girl, Peggy Oki -- Peralta doesn’t have to feign intimacy with his subjects. Neither, though, can he bring himself to push anyone, including himself, into difficult terrain. When Peralta, one of the most financially successful Z-Boys, interviews Jay Adams, one of those who slid hardest, there‘s too much left unsaid between them, with suggestions of resentment in their every pause. Adams seems reticent to honestly speak his mind, not just about his own peccadilloes (he’s currently on furlough for a Hawaiian drug conviction), but about the commercialization of Dogtown, while Peralta himself comes off as too defensive about his later success. Peralta didn‘t “sell out,” but by dodging what really happened to his friends after the sponsors came calling, and by avoiding the larger issue of how big business (such as the film’s own financier) peddles youth culture, he keeps the film needlessly and disappointingly soft. Peralta has said in interviews that Vans was hands-off when it came to content, and maybe that‘s true. The company is nonetheless going the marketing distance by, among other things, offering an “exclusive Dogtown collection” of hats, sneakers and the like.

The Z-Boys, some of whom came from working-class, even impoverished, households, eagerly tied their Vans laces back in the 1970s; later, Adams and Tony Alva (who went on to found his own skateboard company) even designed some of the company’s sneakers. To begrudge these kids a profit off their own talent would have been pointless. As one after another says in the documentary, everyone else was making money off them, so why shouldn‘t they? If only one after another of these guys, all now solidly middle-aged, didn’t also keep insisting on just how “revolutionary” they were back in the day, a claim that after a while sounds a little too much like a Big Chill--style apology for the lives they eventually led. Anyway, who cares about these old guys? It‘s the Z-Boys and little Peggy who matter. To look at the film’s archival imagery -- much of it shot by Craig Stecyk and his protege, Glen E. Friedman -- and see these heartbreaking kids with their graceful limbs, flying hair and ferocious will is to see the dream of Los Angeles embodied, if only for a flash. A Larry Clark could have made a masterpiece out of all this beautiful young flesh, but Peralta, with Stecyk and Friedman‘s help, hasn’t done badly by the Z-Boys. He hasn‘t done badly by himself, either. After last year’s Sundance, he signed on to direct a film of Allan C. Weisbecker‘s memoir In Search of Captain Zero: A Surfer’s Road Trip Beyond the End of the Road, which will star none other than Dogtown‘s narrator, the Buddha of the board, the eternal Spicoli . . . Sean Penn.

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