The Rise and Fall of Gator
review by KJ
Doughton, 20 June 2003
Seattle International Film Festival
Mark "Gator" Rogowski
sat on the "vertical skating" throne for much of the
eighties, riding the same wave of extreme skateboarding popularized
by Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi. However, like a stale television
series or trendy music genre, the sport soon lost its commercial
appeal, leaving such skating icons to waste away in the dust of
Ė The Rise and Fall of Gator
is a cautionary tale exploring the disastrous consequences of sudden
fame followed by faltering fortune. Its hero Ė once a symbol of
alternative cultureís rebel voice Ė eventually sells out
big-time, then caps off his descent by raping and murdering a female
acquaintance. This diabolical act is made all the more repellent after
weíve gotten to know Rogowski. Like news of a flawed friend
landing in jail for lawless misdeeds, we grimace even as we question
whether such a fate was inevitable.
Director Helen Stickler launches
her sports saga in 1982, establishing Rogowski as an aggressive hero
of "vert" skating, in which practitioners use ramps and
empty swimming pools for radical, four-wheeled jumps and flips.
"Fear is a mindkiller," Gator exclaims before flying
across the periphery like a drunken, airborne insect, demonstrating
the board acrobatics that heís known for.
Meanwhile, Stickler fills the audio
with crackly telephone messages from Gator, as newspaper headlines
and overhead prison shots crowd the screen. The ominous combination
of sound and images make it clear that the skate star is narrating
his history from a confined cell (California laws prohibited
Stickler from filming her subject in prison), and that something
awful has occurred. Skate fans will already know the story. For the
rest of us, Stickler slowly exposes the subculture that Rogowski
helped create, before re-approaching his crime for a devastating
Weíre introduced to the dawn of
Southern California skatedom, informed of the different styles and
methods that defined skaters from Venice, Oceanside, and other
active boarding communities. A board-bum explains that initially,
skaters never expected to make money or see their sport go pro.
"We made $50 a month if we were lucky," he shrugs.
Inevitably, vertical skating became
a viable commercial industry, as skate parks opened, Thrasher
magazine emerged as the genreís information Bible, and companies
like Vision marketed skateboard accessories and clothing. "Mark
became an icon for the company," boasts Visionís founder, who
marketed his poster child in dozens of promotional videos.
Played in skate stores across the
country, such VHS tapes portrayed Gator as a rebel rock star,
escaping the clutches of a nagging mom as he hits the streets in
search of board action. Meanwhile, the increasingly visible skating
presence was seen donning Visionís sizeable array of shirts,
pants, and watches. "We had a concept of big logos that
distinguished wearers as part of the skateboarding subculture,"
explains a Vision spokesman.
Eventually, Rogowski was pulling in
over $20,000 per month through such lucrative endorsement deals,
buying real estate, and enjoying such excessive celebrity perks as
willing women (the subcultureís groupies are known as "Skate
Bettys") and free-flowing booze. It wasnít long before the
successful iconís dark side began taking over. During a skate
tournament, Rogowski punched a police officer. "The moment Mark
punched that cop," confirms a fellow skater, "it cemented
Stickler is clearly fascinated by
the image of skating as a vicarious form of acting out aggression,
and how its participants sometimes have difficulty knowing where to
draw the line. "There's always been this crux of skateboarding
and rebelliousness," acknowledges Stacy Peralta, "and
itís because everywhere you go to skateboard, or everywhere you
used to go to skateboard, you were kicked out and told not to do
Other members of the subculture
agree. "In a lot of places," says John Hogan,
"skateboarding was outlawed. I mean, just putting your board
down on the ground was considered illegal."
"Itís a very thin line
between presenting yourself as a true skater and hardcore,"
observes Lance Mountain, "and not being destructive."
With this in mind, itís
understandable that Gatorís public persona comes into question
during the late eighties, as heís caught on film decked out in
puffy pants, schmoozing with Cindy Crawford and INXS, and hamming it
up on Club MTV with Downtown Julie Brown. Meanwhile, Rogowski
inexplicably changes his name to "Mark Anthony" during
this foray into megalomania, forever losing his hardcore street
cred. "The skaters became pawns," Ken Park notes of
Gatorís commercial days, "and overnight, the market said,
'You sold out.í"
By the dawn of the nineties,
vertical skating had been replaced by a more gravity-friendly
"street style." Skateboard parks closed down, and Gator
found himself a has-been at age twenty-four. "It was probably
one of the roughest times to be a professional skateboarder,"
says Mike Vallely, "and just to be in the industry. It was kind
of bleak, it was kind of dark, and you know, it was obvious the
gravy days were over." Itís painful to watch the reclusive,
disenfranchised Rogowski severing social ties as he strums a guitar
in a sprawling house, surrounded by avocado groves.
Compounded by an as-yet-undiagnosed
bipolar disorder, Gatorís desperation is acted out in a series of
negative career moves. On a 1989 skateboarding tour, Rogowski
punched an autograph seeker. In 1990, he fell from a piece of
construction equipment, allegedly while inebriated, and sustained
serious injuries. Eventually, the falling star took up with a
Christian skating group in Carlsbad, and converted to Christianity.
However, his being jilted by a long-time girlfriend becomes the
straw that breaks the camelís back, culminating in his heinous
"Stoked Ė the Rise and Fall
of Gator" is a mesmerizing documentary that shows the
vulnerability Ė and brutality Ė that emerge when one is showered
in recognition, only to have such fame pulled out from under him.
Shot in 11 different cities and boasting dozens of interviews with
other celebrated skate buffs, Sticklerís comprehensive study takes
its familiar "fall from grace" theme and injects the same
twists and turns that Gator might choose with his skateboard. Itís
a vertical, high-flying rush of a movie.
Seattle International Film Festival: