November 13, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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A talented young man is prematurely rocketed to stardom by self-interested individuals who care more about profits than their star’s well-being. Encouraged to lead an irresponsible and self-destructive lifestyle without boundaries, our doomed hero exercises the full extent of his whims without abandon. He tears his way through his newfound fame and for a while, things seem peachy keen. Depression, alcohol, and violence soon follow and our former golden boy’s fall from grace proves just as meteoric as his initial rise.

It’s a familiar tale of fortune and fame, initially brought to our attention by the music industry and later made conventional by the E! True Hollywood Story. Made in the context of our generation, Helen Stickler’s Stoked faithfully chronicles the rise and fall of Mark “Gator” Rogowski, a former demigod of skateboarding who now serves 31 years to life in prison. Following the height of his popularity in the ’80s to his decline in the early ’90s, Stoked leaves no aspect untouched in the life of Gator as a key icon in skateboarding.

Garish graphics, bright colors, and other Saved By the Bell-esque imagery effectively compliment the archived skateboarding footage, which makes up the bulk of the movie. The soundtrack is another powerful tool, rock-heavy and reflective of the rebellion that characterized skateboarding as a sport. We are given the chance to experience life as Gator saw it, as Gator lived it, a concept also realized through the use of home video footage, which reveals who he was beyond his skateboarding notoriety.

Rebels, misfits, and delinquents, the subculture that skateboarding created, is examined with care by Stickler and eventually presented as another example of corporate exploitation. She, however, never articulates this idea and instead only employs interviews with those that knew Gator as the means of narration. As survivors of the lifestyle that Gator could not cope with, their emotions and attitude towards that period of the past are clearly evident in every segment.

Here lies the strength in Stickler’s film: it humanizes the life of a seemingly superhuman figure. Gator’s life is retold through the words of those that knew him best, those that knew him beyond his all-consuming celebrity. As these friends and acquaintances are clearly not without bias, this subjective tinge also increases the realism of the entire film.

Beyond the archived footage and photographs of Gator from the past, we never see him in his present state. All interviews with the man himself are done over the phone, due to a California state law that prevents filming of prisoners. Instead of being restricted by this limitation, Stickler maximizes it and turns it into an advantage. It is the motivation behind Gator’s crime that she uses the film to explore, the “charmed life” and manufactured image that drove a young man to extreme actions. The tapes of phone calls thus provide a sobering effect that reflects the consequences of making bad choices.

In the end, we feel sorry for Gator despite his conviction of a brutal crime, which is perhaps the only weak component of Stickler’s film. Although clearly influenced by his fame and exploited due to his initial naivet