“I will face fear and let it pass over me. When fear is gone, nothing will remain; only I will be here.” Those are the words of skateboarding wunderkind Mark “Gator” Rogowski, spoken around 1985 when he was still a mop-topped teenager, a charismatic youth who wowed his followers at Escondido skate ramps with Icarus-like twists in the Southern California sky. Then, phoned in from the prison where Rogowski has languished 11 years for the 1991 murder of Jessica Bergsten, we hear him say: “I’ve hated myself…all the good I did before seems to pale in comparison. To anybody who looked up to me, I apologize for not living up to that.”
Unerringly and unexpectedly beautiful, the new documentary Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator sends shivers up my spine even after a second viewing. I wouldn’t have anticipated profundity from a film about a skateboarder, yet the movie in its compact 80 minutes encompasses a greater range of societal, personal, and cultural woes than most fiction films try to tackle. Without underlining or belaboring her points, the director Helen Stickler astutely observes what a combination of early fame, repressed rage, a six-figure income, alcohol, groupies, indifferent parents, religious conversion, and the big business “legitimizing” of a subculture might actually yield. The movie is a bitter, horrific comedy about young men with no inner resources who coast on the externals of the good life until they crash. “What do you do when your fame is gone?” asks one of the former skate pros whom Stickler interviews.
After Gator signs with a skateboard company to endorse their products and model “Vision Street Wear,” he adopts a studied persona that must have been meant to capitalize on his “rebel” image. (He had once punched a cop who’d refused to admit him past a checkpoint.) It’s disconcerting to watch someone so young affect the kind of martini-soaked mentality usually on display in old Dean Martin movies. In a 1987 outtake from one of the fantastically banal videos that made him a “star,” Gator shovels leaden patter along the lines of “I’m one of the elite and dynamic, blatantly outspoken jerks in this industry,” and adding ironically before he dissolves into giggles, “I love getting arrested.” At the 1988 Swatch Impact tour, there’s an unequaled moment of hubris when Gator likens the glitzy event to “a Baryshnikov ballet of skateboarding.”
Then we have the vertical ramp footage itself: the grace of wheels on curves, the spectacular leaps through the air. And it’s this, I suppose, that suffuses Stoked with a kind of radiance, one that contrasts with the tragedy of the Rogowski-Bergsten misalliance and simultaneously deepens the loss. The film will also, for anyone who came of age in the 80s, strongly transport you back in time. (It’s difficult to watch a platinum blond “skate Betty” who’s wearing an acid-washed gray denim mini-skirt, as she twirls around to A Flock of Seagulls’ “Space-Age Love Song,” and not feel transported.) A Valentine to 80s pop, Stoked plays like the flipside of those dishonest John Hughes comedies I detested. This is the real story of how underdogs overcome old traps to fall into new ones: hurting, failing themselves and one another. – NPT