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Thrills and tragedy

'Stoked' documents a skateboarder's zoom to fame before an ugly, destructive crash.

August 29, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Turn on the television any night of the week and the screen is filled to capacity with people so eager, so desperate to be famous, they would settle for Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, no questions asked. But what of the price of celebrity, of the costs it imposes on those not prepared for it? And what do you do with yourself when, against hope and expectation, your fame is suddenly gone?

"Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator" is nominally about skateboarding, but it's concerned with a lot more. The deeper subject of this excellent documentary is the compelling dark side of the American dream, the notion -- not necessarily broadcast on television -- that fame, as skateboard star Tony Hawk puts it, "is the worst drug there is."

Though "Stoked's" subject is celebrated skater Mark "Gator" Rogowski, his story has less to do with the specific contours of that sport than with the slow yet inexorable self-destruction of a gifted rebel who didn't realize until it was too late that he'd been programmed to be a disposable hero.

Strongly directed by Helen Stickler, "Stoked" has none of the self-congratulatory aura of last year's "Dogtown and Z-Boys." Rather, it's a classic rags-to-riches-to-rage tale about the fatal nexus of celebrity and market forces, a story that is unexpectedly poignant even though it's told to an insistent punk rock beat.

The word "fatal" is not chosen lightly. For "Stoked" informs us in its opening minutes what hard-core skating fans already know: that Gator Rogowski is now serving a 31-years-to-life sentence for a particularly savage murder.

Speaking extensively via telephone (Stickler apparently could not get permission to film him), Rogowski apologizes for making a mess of his own and other people's lives. "I was a coward emotionally and mentally," he slowly says. "I hate what I did."

This introspective, regretful man is almost unrecognizable from the younger Gator we see in vintage video clips and hear about in interviews with peers like Hawk, Lance Mountain and Steve Caballero. That was someone who thought the party would never end, and "Stoked" expertly shows us why.

What "Stoked" shares with "Dogtown" is access to splendid clips of skateboarders in their prime, and Rogowski, who grew up in Escondido, was definitely something to behold. A young man possessed of both an outstanding talent and hypnotizing charisma, he skated, someone in the movie says, in a way that stuck in people's minds. By age 14, he already had a sponsor and was on his way to becoming one of the sport's emblematic figures.

In Rogowski's own words, skateboarding "represented freedom, personal independence and self-definition." For a sport that mainlined rebelliousness, Gator's edgy personal style, endless bravado and nearly physics-defying moves put him in the right place at the right time for an endorsement contract with Vision Skateboards that made him and the company wealthy.

As the money got bigger, heads got turned, and Rogowski, never the modest type, got hugely self-important. "I think I need to be interviewed," he's shown saying with a smirk in a video clip from 1987, "because I'm one of the most blatant and outspoken jerks in the industry."

Rogowski changed his last name to Anthony and became a fixture of a Swatch-sponsored national tour that treated skateboarders like rock stars and led to TV and film appearances. It must have seemed to him that things couldn't possibly go south. And then they did.

Skateboarding, ever responsive to what was happening on the street, changed direction from the vertical-ramp skating that was Gator's forte to a style of curb-hugging acrobatics that, as recorded in unhappy practice videos, he simply couldn't master. The celebrity, the marketers and the money all went with the wave of the moment, and the veteran skater was suddenly a victim of commercial imperatives he'd never paid much attention to.

As described in honest testimony from friends and colleagues (including longtime fiancee Brandi McClain), that professional catastrophe combined with personal crises and undiagnosed mental conditions to start Gator on a descent into tragedy. Director Stickler, who worked on this film for six years, details how this accident waiting to happen finally went down, and she does it exceptionally well.



MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Profanity, adult subject matter

Released by Palm Pictures. Director Helen Stickler. Producer Helen Stickler. Cinematographers Helen Stickler, Peter Sutherland, Dag Yngvesson. Editor Ana Esterov. Music David Reid. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

In limited release.

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