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The Death Issue

Never Mind The Dogtown

To make a long story short, Mark Rogowski-a.k.a. Gator, a.k.a. Gator Marc Anthony-is a man who became rich and famous as a pro skater starting in the '80s and is now 10 years into a life sentence for the brutal rape and murder of a woman he barely knew.
December 1, 2002, 12:00am

Photo of Gator by M. Flo/Thrasher Magazine.com

To make a long story short, Mark Rogowski—a.k.a. Gator, a.k.a. Gator Marc Anthony—is a man who became rich and famous as a pro skater starting in the ’80s and is now 10 years into a life sentence for the brutal rape and murder of a woman he barely knew. In the time between the start of his career, at the height of which he was the most balls-out, hardest skater then competing, and his crime, which he committed in 1991, Gator passed through a veritable template of ’80s decadence and celebrity. He was the quintessential rockstar skater, taking the example set by his forebears Tony Alva and Jay Adams to an unprecedented egotistical stratosphere by partying, bragging, and fighting a swath through a booming skateboarding industry. Gator took selling out as far as it could possibly go. He became eagerly involved in the most cynically corny and uncool marketing tactics, like the arena-rock-meets-skating “Swatch Impact Tour” and the most excessively gay Vision Street Wear ads ever. Gator was, in fact, the first skater to be sponsored by Vision, and there was a real golden age of skating optimism and progress that starred him, Christian Hosoi, Steve Caballero, and Tony Hawk. Gator was the rebel of the group, the one who burned fastest and to whom image was most important. His concern with appearances had its negative effects on the sport for sure (crass commercialism, style over substance), but it also benefited skating hugely by upping its public image. This era, more than any other, birthed the mythos of skating as a countercultural, punk rock, cool thing that you should start doing during the years when you hate your parents. There are those who will argue that the older Zephyr skaters, like Stacy Peralta and Alva, made skating punk and for the people. That is bullshit. Those skaters influenced other skaters, but not culture at large to the extent that Gator and his ilk did. Oh, and another thing about those forefathers: Thanks for bringing skating out as a full-on sport and lifestyle, guys, but your movie, Dogtown and Z-Boys, sucked my ass. How many times do we need to hear Stacy Peralta, the film’s director (and a man known smirkingly to some as “Grandpa Thrasher”), wax philosophic about skating? The juxtaposition of surfer, then skater, then surfer, then skater was more than just pedantic, it was insufferably boring; almost as boring as hearing old men brag about how they once punched a guy in the nose for moving in on their skate turf (ooooh!). As with Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” crap, Dogtown and Z-Boys has become an excellent way to separate people who are really into the culture from those who secretly read “cool hunter” reports.

If you want to see a film that truly sums up skate culture and all it has wrought, the only one worth watching is Stoked. Directed by New York filmmaker Helen Stickler, Stoked tells the specific story of Gator, his ascendancy, and his fall from glory. Along the way, it exposes some harsh truths about stardom and that woozy moment at the end of the ’80s when the money, fame, and acclaim of success dropped out of many people’s lives—Gator included. Stoked is an elegy to skaters and skate culture. All the major players are interviewed, including the aforementioned Peralta, Hawk, Caballero, etc. Gator, over the telephone from the Southern California prison where he resides, is a constant presence. This movie extends beyond the limited scope of the skate world (although it contains classic skate footage and funny, poignant conversations with familiar faces that are required viewing for any skate rat). At its core, Stoked is a cautionary tale of crashing and burning, of letting anger take over your life, and of the consequences of being a pampered celebrity. According to Stickler, “The biggest motivating factor in making this movie was wanting to know how this talented, motivated, successful dude could get to such a point of desperation that he’d take someone’s life. To me, a crime like that equals soul emptiness—total deprivation. So I saw Gator as a symbol for a lot of things from the ’80s that were pretty shallow and meaningless. At the same time, I could relate to the fear that he must have felt as a young person, in his early twenties, who was supposed to be an adult but just couldn’t get it together.” There’s a sense of inevitable dread that pervades Stoked. Even as we see joyful and alive footage of skating in the ’80s and hear often hilarious anecdotes from participants (Jason Jesse being particularly sidesplitting, with his valley boy-savant mannerisms), we know what’s coming. The bad stuff begins to escalate in Gator’s life, starting with a mini-riot after he punches a cop at the infamous Mt. Trashmore in Virginia Beach in 1986. “I love getting arrested,” he says in an interview from that time. Things get really grim, though, when a seismic shift occurs in the actual sport of skating. As the ’80s draw to a close, vert gives way to street. Gator was a brilliant, balletic ramp-and-bowl skater, but he just couldn’t get the hang of the more open and flat possibilities of street freestyling. There’s a moment in the film where we see video footage of Gator trying to ollie over a curb and he can’t do it. A group of younger skaters stand around laughing as Gator, in a rage, smashes his board on the ground, screaming, “Fuck! I suck! FUUUUCK!!!”

It’s around this point that Gator basically snaps and becomes a born-again. His girlfriend, Brandi McClain (actual quote: “Being a skate betty was cool!”), leaves him, and he holes up in his isolated house to strum an acoustic guitar and brood on his anger and bitterness. His peers, meanwhile, make the effort to adapt to the changing culture of their industry. Reflecting back on this time over the phone, Gator says, “I couldn’t part with needing to feel affirmed.” Gator’s eventual vicious murder of acquaintance Jessica Merchant is treated with honesty in Stoked, and the details of the attack—from beating her in the head with a steering-wheel club to zipping her into a surfboard bag and strangling her—are unflinchingly laid bare. Particularly disturbing are the police-evidence images of his victim’s remains in the desert where he dumped her body. But please note that Helen Stickler never exploits her subjects. The horror of Gator’s crime needs to be fully exposed so we can understand not only the entirety of his personality, but also the culmination of the fame machine that skate culture created—especially in light of a film like Dogtown, which includes breezy, uninteresting interviews with other violent skaters (anyone heard any good Jay Adams stories lately?). “It doesn’t so much bother me that Dogtown left out a lot of the darker side of what happened to some people in that scene,” says Stickler. “As a filmmaker you choose what parts of the story you have to tell. But it also does seem pretty convenient to keep it lightweight and inoffensive when your major sponsor is trying to sell some shoes.” Stoked is a film with no shoes to sell and no reason to skimp on the dark side. That’s why it’s so entertaining and edifying—which is what a documentary is supposed to be, right? Visit stokedmovie.com