Film Reviews

Behind the Grind

Before he even had any kind of legacy, Mark "Gator" Rogowski was imagining, in on-camera interviews, what it might someday be. "When fear is gone," the 18-year-old skater opined, "nothing will remain. Only I will be here." A few years later, when a drunken binge in Germany led him to accidentally impale himself--through the neck, shoulders and hands--on a metal fence, the prophecy began to come true. Fearless to the point of insanity, Gator briefly became born again, then raped and murdered his ex-girlfriend's best friend. Of the cocky teen-idol persona, nothing remained.

Such is the tale documented by director Helen Stickler in Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator. Stickler comes neither to bury nor praise; she hardly needs to do either, as Gator himself does both, in archival interviews from his heyday and recent phone calls from prison, where he's serving a 31-year term (California law prohibits on-camera interviews, but we do see some still photos of Gator the convict). This isn't just the VH-1 Behind the Music-style tale of one man struggling with fleeting fame. Through Gator's story, Stickler manages to track the evolution of skateboarding in mainstream culture, from fad to lifestyle to legitimate sport.

Gator's nickname is never explained in the film, perhaps because it's old hat to those in the know, but the press notes kindly enlighten the critic (and, by extension, the rest of you) that it came about partially because one of Rogowski's favorite shirts bore an image of the reptile, and partly as a combination reference to skater Wally Inoui and cartoon character Wally Gator. It's certainly a more marketable handle than "Rogowski," and marketable he was. Back in the '80s, when companies started seeing dollar signs in what had previously been an underground pastime, Gator was one of the few skaters--along with the likes of Ken Park, Lance Mountain and Jeff Newton, all interviewed herein--skilled enough to be considered a professional, and the catchy nickname likely didn't hurt.

Part of Gator's rise to fame came as the result of promotional videos made on the tiniest of budgets by clothing companies and played in stores. These videos today look odd indeed, featuring a totally-'80s Gator in acid-washed denim vest and poofy hair enacting cheesy scenarios designed to put him in a skating situation. The footage plays (and looks) like a porno with wheelies in place of money shots. It's hard to imagine anyone buying tapes like these today, but remember that back then it was often the only way for kids to see their boarding heroes in action. Ultimately the demand proved to be so high that a touring arena show was born, the brainchild of rock promoter Bill Silva.

Teamed with Silva, Gator had become like a rock star, but all the pitfalls of such awaited. With fame came more endorsement deals and a legal name change to the more commercial-sounding Gator Mark Anthony (possibly as a way to spite his estranged father). As the chants of "sellout" got louder, the sport of skateboarding began to evolve toward a grittier "street" style, which was not Gator's forte; Stickler has collected several sequences of his impatient failed attempts to do the new moves. It's spiritually reminiscent of when '80s hair-metal bands like Mötley Crüe and the L.A. Guns tried to play in a grunge style. For Gator, the money ran low, the big house got sold and then came Germany, Jesus and homicide.

A longtime follower and chronicler of the skating scene, director Stickler knows how to get her audience's attention. She teases the tragedy right up front, but she hooks us with expertly edited skating footage and talking heads both somber (ex-girlfriend Brandi McClain) and comic (spaced-out friend Jason Jessee, who says things like "I love that he had the nuts to punch a cop!"). By the time the murder element of the story comes back around, we've been well and truly sucked in. You may come for the skating, but you'll stay for the drama.

The skating itself may not be on par with the footage in Stacy Peralta's recent skating documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, but the storytelling is much tighter. Peralta's film went loosely back and forth in time and involved several protagonists, while Stickler's steadfast focus on one subject is more immediate and compelling. And although Stickler's clearly a fan of skateboarding, she has a little more objective distance than Peralta (interviewed here as well), who made himself one of the subjects of his own film. For strict action and a heftier soundtrack, Dogtown is king, but for audiences craving a story with their stunts, it's time to get Stoked.

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Luke Y. Thompson