Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 13, 2020 7:29 am 
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How an off-center, outlaw sport became worldwide through a video game

This fact-filled, fascinating documentary is about the growth and booming of video games, and one particular strain of them, based on skateboarding. It recounts an important chunk of skateboarding history too: how the rise and fall and rise and fall of the sport turned into one long even rise once the Playstation offshoot became a worldwide hit. At the center is skateboarding's biggest name, Tony Hawk. He headlined the game, and got rich off it, and this is also his astonishing personal success story.

But this is a collective story and so we also hear about, and from, other skateboarding greats: Steve Caballero, Rodney Mullen, Bob Burnquist, Jamie Thomas, Eric Koston, Aaron "Jaws" Homoki, Herman Cain, female star Cara-Beth Burnside, reformed skating bad boy Christian Hosoi, and more, apparently to the extent of over-refinement, somewhat.

Sometimes for the novice the skate history is a bit confusing. But it's told by the greats, so who's complaining? Apparently skating rose in the seventies - on a small scale, then faded. Then it surged again in the early eighties, when its signature mag, Thrasher, came into being (1981). The sport's popularity was capitalized on by Hollywood movies, Thrashin' in 1986 (with Josh Brolin) and Gleaming the Cube in 1989 (with a fresh-faced, bleach-blond Christian Slater, long before "Mr.Robot" ).

During this period Stacey Peralta made the sport known and prestigious far and wide with the first important skateboarding videos. (In 2001, Peralta was to direct the iconic doc of the sport's origins, Dogtown and 'Z' Boys. In 2005 Stacy was celebrated amoing equals as a character in Catherine Hardwicke's Lords of Dogtown. Here, other famous skater/surfers of that generation, the Z-Boys of Dogtown, Jay Adams and Tony Alva, aren't mentioned.)

Then, in the early nineties, skateboarding bombed again. A mock gravestone shown in Gür's film reads, "SKATEBOARDING. . . 1941-1993." So this means that for all the ups and downs, the BIG down was in the 1990's. At any time along the way you could still of course fall in love with skateboarding as a sport, or an idea, as a fan, or a skater. Maybe all you had to see was those angular, dazzling shots in Thrasher- those wide angle lenses!- to fall in love.

Amid the ups and downs, the style of skateboarding changed radically: VERT to STREET, from smooth and sweeping to grotty, tough, and technical. In older films, you can see early competitions. In the eighties skateboarding ramps came and went. They were required for the young daredevils' soaring up in the air, flipping, and swooping down again. Kids snuck into rich people's empty swimming pools as chronicled in Lords of Dogtown and skated them the same way, soaring around, flying up to the edge on one hand, turning, and sweeping back across again. This was "VERT" skating. But as Jamie Thomas, who came from Alabama, tells us, his rural turf of origin included no ramps for VERT. But everybody, even in the 'burbs, had streets and so STREET skating became a thing. For STREET people wanted to see, you had to get technical, learn how to "fling that board around," says Eric Koston, and the mood was to do ragged tricks, jumping on and off ramps, metal railings, walls, steps, even roofs. Randy Mullen, we're told, was the master of STREET tricks.

Pro skateboarders who had been VERT specialists were foundering as STREET took over in the nineties. Tony Hawk, who's pioneered early VERT tricks, and out of style now, had a video editing business and struggled to support himself with that and keep skating professionally. It was his struggle to stay in skateboarding that led to his persistence in the videogame game. Tony was the figurehead, so to speak, but other names were drawn in to figure in the game.

Of course VERT still survives all over, wherever there is the money for the fabulous ramps. Little boys seem to score the greatest VERT exploits, like in early May the 11-year-old Brazilian skater Gui Khury who was the first ever to do a 1080 - three full body turns high above the ramp. in fact the eventual Playstation skateboarding video games blended both types of skating. And X-Games on TV, though felt by some (like Bob Burnquist and Jamie Thomas) to be "awful" or "cheesy", increased the fame of the sport, and contributed to the ability Neversoft, a company later acquired by Activision, to make a successful skateboarding game.

I won't give you all the details, some of which may be more specific than anyone not both a PlayStation and a skateboarding fanatic to appreciate fully. But this is as good a film about process, about the honing and improving, and then over-refining, of something, as you may witness. It has amusing moments too, as when Mick West, a British Neversoft video game producer, reports the test guys saying "That game was really tight" and just knowing it meant good. The secret to these first (later much imitated) successful skateboarding games' success, was that Tony Hawk worked hard collaborating on making the game's moves savvy, "experiential," and real. The result was a participatory video game, "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater." Tony Hawk landed the "900" at the X-Gamed the summer that first game of the series was completed, a great promo. This was 1999. Skater purists may have despised it, but the success of the game was huge.

The successive iterations of the Tony Hawk Skater Pro games were a boon to loud punk music and the sport. Primus' Larry "Leer" Lalonde, Bad Religion's Jay Bentley and Goldfinger's John Feldman tell us how the skateboard video game's inclusion of mere snatches of their songs made them and those songs internationally famous. "People in Sweden or Italy discovered Southern California punk rock." Young future pro skateboarders and ordinary folk all over became skateboarders, or better ones, through playing "the shit out of" a skateboarding PlayStation home console game. They taught kids to visualize the moves and learn them.


Tony Hawk is now recognized everywhere, and worth $140 million. He was on "The Simpsons," invited to the White House. The successive Pro Skater 2 became and remains one of the most popular video games of all time. The game series has netted $1.4 billion. Walter Day, "father of competitive gaming," confirms the primacy of Pro Skater 2 (rated 98% by MetaCritic). And then there was 3 and 4 and more, up to 9 and beyond, eventually with diminishing returns. But the games continue to influence the sport, causing young skaters to master tricks that seemed possible because they happen in the video game. Those games have been remarkable skateboarding publicity, recruitment, training, and inspiration devices. Now skateboarding is global, and a sport included in the Olympics, all because of Tony Hawk Pro Skater.

As Chris Bengel reported on CBS Sports, this film grew out of a plan hatched by former Neversoft producer Ralph D'Amato and Swedish director Ludvig Gür, who began talking about Pretending I'm a Supermanin 2016. Both were great fans of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater games and hung out in California playing them together, then talked to Hawk himself and got his cooperation. Gür was 18 years old at the time; thus the film has some of the youthful passion and amateurism of the game itself. Bengel reports that Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1&2 have been remastered in 4K and released this coming September for Xbox One, PS4 and PC. (For the best trailer see Eurogamer.)

Pretending I'm Superman: The Tony Hawk Video Game story, 72 mins., debuted Feb. 2020 at Mammouth (CA) where it won awards for "Best Action Sports Feature" and "Best Documentary Feature." It releases on the internet in the US and Australia Aug. 18, 2020.

For a detailed look at Pro Skater 2, see The Completionist's review of it.

For an insider essay about how hard it is to write well about skateboarding, see Jonathan Russell Clark's "Skateboarding in Fiction: A Brief History of Failure" in Literary Hub.


©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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