Stoked: The Rise And Fall Of Gator

by (2002, United States)

I was never big into skateboarding, but I have friends who were.  However, you don’t have to be a skater to get into Stoked, a documentary chronicling the rise and fall of Mark “Gator” Rogowski.  In the early 80s, before skateboarding became an “extreme” sport and Tony Hawk’s visage graced everything from video games to Mountain Dew commercials, Rogowski was one of the sport’s first true superstars.

Kids adored him and companies, eager to cash in on his popularity, sent a flood of endorsements his way.  Not surprisingly, the fame and fortune went directly to Rogowski’s head, resulting in a serious “rock star” complex, i.e. self-destrutive lifestyle and the requisite behavior (many of Rogowski’s antics seem like direct precursors to the likes of “Jackass”).

However, as the 90s rolled around, skateboarding underwent some major changes.  The style of skateboarding that Rogowski had made famous was no longer en vogue, and Rogowski’s fame began to crumble around him.  Unable to deal with his slipping fortune, Rogowski became even more self-destructive, even lashing out his fans, friends, and loved ones.  Hitting rock bottom, he finally found salvation and became a born again Christian.

But Rogowski’s demons were still lurking in the background.  When his long-time girlfriend began seeing someone else, Rogowski snapped and raped and killed one of her best friends.  The violence sent a shock through the world of skateboarding, one that is still felt to this day—as can be seen by the interviews and recollections of Rogowski’s former friends and colleagues.  What’s perhaps most tragic about the film is the resentment and bitterness they still harbor for Rogowski, much of it just below the surface.  While one can’t blame them—at the height of his glory, he was a rather self-centered prick—it’s still disheartening to see that, as far I can tell from the documentary, he’s been completely abandoned.

This is especially true of their reaction to Gator having become a Christian.  Most of them seem to treat it with derision, as just another phase or excuse on Rogowski’s part.  Perhaps because I would classify myself as such, I was hoping the documentary would investigate this part of Mark’s life a bit more, to see how this change really affected Mark, of if it even did at all.  However, two things work against that.

The first is the fact that, due to California law, Rogowski was unable to appear in the documentary—we only get to hear him share his thoughts via a collect phone call, and sparingly at that.  The second is the documentary’s length.  At only 81 minutes, it moves at a good energy and clip, but almost seems to be cramming in too much.  The documentary is very entertaining to watch—much of the footage is from the 80s, and so has a very nostalgic vibe—and the soundtrack, consisting classic punk bands like Black Flag and The Butthole Surfers, keeps things moving.  But more often than not, director Helen Stickler (who spent 6 years working on the film) gets things moving so fast that the documentary whizzes right past the really substantial stuff.

There were times when I wanted the film to slow down a bit and dig a little deeper—especially when it came to Mark’s conversion.  And while the film wraps up with a discussion of the impact Rogowski and his deeds had on skateboarding, it seems more like lip service.  As such, I’m afraid most people will watch Stoked primarily for the 80s nostalgia factor, or for the skating footage (some of which is truly amazing—the man, whatever else could be said of him, definitely had skills), and will be able to do so without having to take a long, hard look at the tragedy and impact of Rogowski’s life.

If you do see Stoked, I urge you not to get wrapped up in the wild clothes, crazy antics, and rad footage, but rather really see the documentary for what it is—a story of a tragedy that destroyed lives and cast a shadow over an entire sport.