Nearly the entire recorded history of skateboarding is online. What does that mean for the culture?
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Can skateboarding films, do for the culture (or lifestyle or sport or whatever poly-tired attribute you deem it), that streetwear and skate-adjacent celebrities have? Giving skate videos a considered look as a distinct sub-genre of documentary film may afford it more purchase within the skater community and the stature to position it as more than a cool kid look and as a veritable filmic standard. To track its influence and exegesis first, then, means looking at a forebear.
Almost two and a half weeks before the 89th Academy Awards, in a smaller but no less opulent Los Angeles auditorium, a gown-and-tuxedo crowd gathered to watch the presentation of a few Oscar statuettes. Among the recipients at the 8th Annual Governors Awards was Frederick Wiseman, who was being honored for his work as a documentary filmmaker. For over half a century Wiseman has directed the camera’s lens toward a wide-ranging variety of subjects, each of his films threaded by his signature “fly on the wall” perspective.
In his documentaries, the viewer sees what the camera sees, often at a not too claustrophobic remove. His films offer little or no exposition or editorial input; too, is the lack of formal subject interviews a la the work of Ken Burns and many a Netflix documentarian. This is not to grouse, however. Documentary film is an elastic term, at times defined by what it is not: fictional, overproduced, Hollywood. In that light, a documentary film may conjure up images of Wiseman-like fellas toting cameras and booms out into the world and letting the people, places, and scenarios speak for themselves. A documentary could similarly feel experimental, discursive, and deeply personal; sometimes all at once, like those of Ross McElwee. Given such dimensions, documentaries are, if you think about it, likewise the domain of skateboarding films.
Are skate videographers the next Wisemans? Not necessarily. Who isn’t going to be the recipient of such a formal honor at such a prestigious ceremony from such a self-congratulatory audience (to say nothing of whether they would even show up to the awards show) are folks like Ty Evans, William Strobeck, Greg Hunt, Beagle, and French Fred. That is, the dudes, and it is by and large a white, cisgender crowd, who have conceivably filmed nearly all of the best street (and the intermingling bowl and vert footage) skating since its explosion in the 1970s.
To put it mildly, skate filmmakers are legion and over the intervening decades have chronicled the rise and fall and comeuppance of storied crews and riders — filming a landscape of now-infamous expanses in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Paris, and elsewhere that terraform the collective skate world consciousness. These films worldbuild for a skate-interested audience places that will have been dropped in on, jumped over, ground on, flipped onto and off of, by, for instance, the Cliché team in 2004 and, a dozen years later, the Supra team. Academic and lifelong skater, Kyle Beachy describes a feeling of knowing, of being drawn to a skate spot that he’d never been to before but had seen innumerable times on screen. Spurred by a memory of Cliché’s Bon Appetit! video:
At which point something changed, and not symmetrically… Though I’d never been to the Palais de Tokyo courtyard, I had seen it more times than I could count. Here, as Nina Simone sang her final “the way that I love you,” JJ Rousseau popped a nollie heel frontside noseslide on the out-ledge of the three-flat-three doubleset (please forgive my language). On top of the ledge is a marble statue of a woman, nude, in repose. Its name to me was “Le Dôme.”
While this comes from as ever a knowledgeable audience member as Beachy is, his emotional response relates the documentarian’s way of seeing, of conveying a place and an action that, in skate films, can give prominence to something as banal as a park bench or a pedestrian causeway. It likewise offers a practical manual and instructional discourse: the films provide a look at how skaters perform, their styles and habits as well as how a certain trick can be enacted. That their failed attempts, falls, and repeated tries are also included in most of these videos similarly undermines the conceit of skate films as an advertisement of spectacular visuals.
The exception for skate filmmakers here, it should be noted, is Spike Jonze, whose skate films were the bridge between his commercial and film careers. He (and a couple of other folks who’ve since cashed in big in the worlds outside of skating) is as indebted to skating as much as skating is as indebted to him, or so went the thesis of his “Epicly Later’d” episode (you know, that VICELAND show that lends a traditional documentary look at skate icons).
Still, the rundown of who’s who in the skateboard filmmaker world Balkanizes quickly, with preferences for VX or HD (a distinction between the type of camera used) recording and editing styles splintering fans as quickly as trick selection, team affiliation, soundtrack, and the skaters themselves do. Still, over the 40+ years that skate crews have forgone old school comps and out of emptied suburban pools, street style has found an analog in the recorded image. From 1985’s The Bones Brigade Video Show to what is arguably last year’s best big release, LSD, the entire modern history of skateboarding exists online but has yet to figure more broadly in the discussion of skating’s cultural and aesthetic influence.
Documentary films rest on their purported intent to provide a factual record of historical facts. While the scenario of skate videos are, by and large, cohesive and true, the talent of tricks performed, the personality of the skaters, the soundtrack, the skits or interludes, and the miscellany that accrues from filming for hours at a time in the urban environment, all edited together, creates homogenous films that number, at this juncture, in the thousands.
The longstanding database of skate films, Skatevideosite, currently lists ~3,000 in its catalog spanning from 1976 to the present. “We have a lot of data of skate videos you can’t find anywhere else,” Markus Seppälä, founder and admin of SVS told me via email. Inspired by the now-defunct skimthefat.com, Seppälä (aka hubba), started the site to track the various songs used in skate videos, but, prompted by the debate and discussions happening on online forums, he broadened the site’s scope to serve as a reservoir of skate films. “I’ve always thought it’s important to gather info on older videos and skateboarding history itself before it’s forgotten forever — even less popular stuff.” And until the rise of social media and networking, SVS hosted their own message boards — a place to banter around everything that skating is and isn’t. Now, however, they concentrate on “the thing we do the best: being the largest database of skate video info.”
“A skate video in its entirety is typically 35 to 45 minutes,” says skate filmmaker Josh Stewart in a behind-the-scenes shoot for Traffic’s Look Left, elaborating on how singularly taxing it is to compile any worthwhile footage at all. “The average single trick is around two and a half to three seconds long once it’s edited down in a video. You see how much goes into just getting one clip… They shoot a whole movie in a matter of months. Whereas, it takes two years to make a normal skate video.”
Spoiler: they finish the film and it’s a success. The difficulty of making a skate film hasn’t really stopped anyone from doing so, all to the slight chagrin of the SVS staff. “Skateboarding is too extensive and far-reaching to ever completely cover it,” admits Paul Jensen (aka 623skates), a moderator on SVS, via email. Soon after SVS launched in 2005, skate films largely moved away from the physical medium of VHSs/DVDs to digital videos and web parts. “Our job at the site has been to adapt,” wrote Jensen, “in a way that caters to both the younger generation that may not be aware of this rich history before them and the older generation that has been appreciating skateboarding’s visual culture for years.”
In this sense, the roughly 40-year history of skateboarding films has supplied a body of work that, if you subtract overt stylization, is a loosely non-narrative documentation of an act repeated, improved, improvised, and repeated again. Everything else is delicious flavoring — the inorganic compounds like shredding or grace that are etched into the recorded product — served via the relationship between skater and filmmaker. “There was something about the videos themselves,” Stewart says elsewhere in the aforementioned clip, “the way the music and the art direction would pull some kind of emotion out of you.”
Elsewhere, on social media, is a mimetic world. “Skatevideosite was a sort of social network in the time when Myspace and Facebook were making baby steps,” wrote another moderator, Maikel Jas (aka shuvit). SVS was the first one-stop shop for “if a skateboarder wanted to see all the latest action from brands, magazines, etc.,” according to Jas. Now, everyone from legacy and newfound brands to the kook next door document themselves. 1080p resolution web clips appear alongside unvarnished, zero-budget footage that, altogether, continues this tradition of trick, lineup, trick, undergirded by a soundtrack of music and street sounds, skits, and monologues. Although the massive quantity of social media output — already exacerbated by the diminutive half-lives of posts, tweets, and snaps — at times dilutes the overall quality of the content, it can likewise be seen as the proving ground for engaging with skateboarding’s outsize audience.
Along with the shots of skate personalities hanging out and living their off-duty lives, the collection of snippets, teasers, trailers, clips, outtakes, all so plentiful and seemingly endless on social, are what Konstantin Satchek (or Kostas, as per his pen name) of the echt irreverent skate blog Quatersnacks might co-sign as the provenance of skating. If, like Kostas contends, skateboarding is not a “sport” (no thanks to SLS and, come 2020, the Olympics), only now, due to social media’s baldly ADD-like grip and distractibility can the cachet of skate films as a product starring the skaters you follow on IG become readily apparent to the culture’s lifestyle and consumer masses.
Or so one would hope. Posers abound. “Looking cool as fuck really does overcome all,” Kostas wrote as a cheeky sign off in a 2016 post. Of the broader skater audience, there are plenty for whom the words Fully Flared means little, but who could, on sight, spy Alex Olson, outstretched hands ready to record for their followers their chance proximity to the noted skater and fashion designer.
“Skating is one of the few things that is still a culture,” Olson told SSENSE in an interview last year. Whether you devote your time to the Kardashians or A$AP Mob, the aesthetics of skating are familiar and are intersecting without discretion across the wider culture. “With skating, you have something that can’t just be wrapped up into a paragraph. It has this misfit thing to it that people often romanticize,” said Olson, acknowledging, with some irony, that his two labels are bold-faced brands in the rabid commodification of skating. “There’s a mystique about it that people want. But that’s also me stroking my own ego.”
Depending on whether you’ve ever pondered how one skate label got so big as a $1 billion dollar evaluation, you could be forgiven for not noticing that most skaters and most skate teams are comparatively humble, even unstylish. This shouldn’t distract, however, from the fact that there’s a viable audience of tens millions who are getting their first taste of skate films on social and, whether through Skatevideosite or plain old googling, can access the wider world of skate films.
Skating is inherently performative — plainly, it is a type of stylized movement. To gauge style, that prevailing force in skating, be it as an activity, obsession, or cultural confection, is a matter of perception best relayed via the moving picture. And skaters, as SVS’s numbers show, embrace observation. “With our database, many people take a look to see whether a song has been used or not,” wrote Jas. For skaters, watching films is as much about educating yourself as it is about saving face: “You don’t want to use the same song for your video that was also used for a part by Guy Mariano, for example.” In a way, skating pre-empted the onslaught of social media by having so thoroughly surveilled itself over the years. This is what made SVS so popular early on when it first launched during the nascent social era.
Although social is entwined with skate’s cinematographic past, it is where its future can be most frequently glimpsed, too. Ted Barrow’s Instagram account @Feedback_TS, for instance, applies a deadpan art history-style critique to user-submitted videos spanning, what the blog “Boil the Ocean” calls, “street-skating GOATS who yearn to be down… and countless droves of aspirant comer-uppers lured by those juicy twin carrots, momentary fame, and internet validation.” Barrow’s success here appears to be motivated by a brilliantly barbed backlash to the proliferating skater content, DM culture, and the half-ironic, half-incredulous posture incubated by Twitter and Tumblr. Idiosyncratic, Mr. Ocean rhetorically asks how relevant is @Feedback_TS to the culture?
Does the growing influence amassed by this Instagram account raise concerns that it has become systemically important, with any deletion or protracted absence leaving impressionable kids adrift and guardrail-less, while parents, significant others, and non-skating ass roommates wonder what happened to the deadpan voice dispensing trick terminology and occasional bursts of art history from behind the bathroom door whilst the fan is going?
All that’s clear is that he tells it like it is and folks are stoked on it.
Taking infamous, renowned, and unheralded skaters to task, as Barrow does, shows that skateboarding is still tribal. It’s infectious; you dream of it. Popular teams like Palace and Bronze 56K, to showcase their worth and talent and dedication to skating, meanwhile, have turned to recording with film and producing their videos on VHS decks. It’s an aesthetic and technological reaction to the ease and crassness of so many iPhone uploads. This return to a histrionic, purposefully painstaking, and time-consuming method of filmmaking is, however ironic, the best bona fide way for these teams to continue to prove their dominance in the skate world. They took the time to make something actually worth watching on the internet, their videos seem to suggest.
On the other hand, over in L.A., Illegal Civilization is making films that are more narrative driven and blur the lines between actual skate parts and non-skating moments. This scenario elevates the lives of the skaters, who are then given more credence — beyond their talent as skaters, viewers now get to see much more of their youthful hedonistic lives that brands and media companies are chasing and amplifying for dollars and clicks. With skating as both foreground and backdrop to a film, IC is able to showcase the monikers of cool taste: the merch, their affiliation with musicians and pop culture icons. The right people in the right place living the right life. Not only does it all blend together, but it reveals how much of a cipher skating is for IC. They can lead with their auteur-driven vision and create a conventional skate film along with a movie featuring skaters as actors. This, too, along with social media critiques and VHS releases, is how skate films disseminate and find influence now.
Quixotically, skating is cool and mainstream; cultural confection and cultural debris; advertisement and documentation; and in turn, obsession, therapy, hobby, marketplace. It isn’t to sound hyperbolic, then, to say skating has a way of figuring into everyday life. Depending on your vantage, that it can appear as the material result of hype or an escapist joy, is a testament to how far it has spread: from after-school lesson to a fashion week accouterment. But only do skate films truly attempt to legitimize the mysterious allure of a wooden plank on four wheels.
Abstractly, from the initial establishing shot to the final thank-yous in the credits, a skate video contains space, time, social being, play, desires, action on conspicuous features and elements at varying spaces, speeds, and time. But you’ll have to watch one yourself to revel in its distinct appeal. To whatever degree you dress like a skater, talk like a skater, party like a skater, or listen to skate music, you owe yourself the favor of getting into the skater wellness regimen offered by these documentary films. It can be something as, in director Thomas Campbell’s words, “another art fag skate film” like Cuatro Sueños Pequeños, or something gonzo like Loony Bin, or even the slovenly nostalgia of Shackle Me Not. Whichever, whatever, they all rip.