Skateboarding, life, and Southern California. It’s nothing doing all around. Come join the fun.
Dir. Tristan Patterson, 2011, 72 min
Last year there was a small, fictional film called Bellflower that really set certain critical circles on fire. Focused on the apocalyptic obsessions of a few twentysomethings living in Southern California, the movie was praised for capturing the simmering frustrations of those who live aimless lives. I thought it was sloppy as all get out, and I think that Dragonslayer says everything that other film was trying to say, only better and more clearly.
I’m not sure if Josh “Screech” Sandoval doesn’t look the part of a skateboarding god or looks exactly like you’d expect a skateboarding god to look. He resembles a punk rock Shaggy from Scooby Doo, and has a seemingly endless appetite for drugs and alcohol. He has no home, he has little income, he has no life. He is what man looks like when his motivation is removed, and I’d quote a philosopher here if I knew which one had something to say about that condition.
But when Screech skates, he is alive. He channels his wiry jitters into fluid energy, shredding rails and ramps with ease. He is a breathtaking artist in these all-too brief moments. But then he has to stop, and come down from the high. And when the world is no longer a blur, it’s obvious how bleak it looks. The SoCal in this film resembles the Mad Max universe more than any habitable place on Earth (another point where it overlaps with Bellflower). It’s a seemingly endless stretch of abandoned homes and streets. That’s not all bad, though; at the very least, it means that there are plenty of empty pools in which to skate.
While Bellflower followed young people looking forward to the end of the world, this doc is about people who already live like the world is over. In many ways, it kind of is. An overwhelming sense of wry hopelessness infuses this film. It’s all about greeting the end with a wink and open arms. The story is divided into eleven chapters that are marked off as a countdown, starting with 10 and moving towards 0. Screech and his friends are biding their time until everything collapses.
But this is not a sad film. The sense of doom isn’t even a nihilistic one, as odd and counterintuitive as that may seem. Rather, it finds meaning in the fleeting joy people can create when they come together as friends and family. Screech has a source of hope: his infant son. As long as you have someone to love, who need fear the Apocalypse. Despite all my Bellflower comparisons, thematically this doc is a sibling to a quite different movie from last year: Melancholia, of all things.
Director Tristan Patterson shoots the doc with a look so raw that it bleeds. Digital and handheld, the camera brings us this wasteland in shaky but crystal clarity. During the day, the harsh Sun casts the environment in an unforgiving tone. But at the magic hour, as Screech and his friends wander beaches or lounge in peace, the frame is beautiful enough to make your chest sting.
Dragonslayer isn’t really about the end. After all, these people are at the point of their lives where it only feels like there’s nothing to look forward to. The doc is brilliant in the way that it captures that sense of purposeless youth, and the conflicting ennui and exhilaration that comes from it. Everyone outgrows that stage (Unless, I suppose, they, um… die, but you know what I mean), but it’s good to have a reminder of what it’s like. Otherwise, how would you know you’ve matured at all?