The brief ascent and quick decline of Mark “Gator” Rogowski, the rebellious California kid who became (at least in his own eyes) the first superstar of the professional skateboarding scene, is sketched in a conventional but effective fashion by Helen Stickler in this modest but interesting documentary. “Stoked” is a superior complement to last year’s “Dogtown and Z-Boys”–it fact, it can be seen as completing the earlier picture by providing what that one lacked, a satisfactory treatment of the guy who eventually wound up in jail–“Dogtown” never told us anything about the crimes of Jay Adams, the team dude who wound up in a Hawaiian prison, and the omission was a serious problem. Here adulation is accompanied by some appropriate words of caution as Gator’s heinous act is laid quite bare.
Not that the reason for Rogowski’s incarceration takes up most of the running-time. It does act as a sort of a Rosebud to the narrative, being raised early on but elliptically in the form of a telephone apology by the imprisoned man (unseen, since California law prohibits photographing interviews with inmates). But most of the film consists of a straightforward account of Gator’s rise from adolescent obscurity to recognition in the then-small world of skateboarding and, eventually, to wealth and celebrity as a spokesman for the biggest company making equipment and clothes for participants. There’s plenty of archival footage for Stickler to use–not just footage of Rogowski on the ramps but commercials he made and interviews he seems to have loved giving–and she adds to it well-chosen snippets from interviews conducted with fellows who knew Gator during his time on top and are happy to reminisce about him (and, in many cases, criticize his attitude). And then, with the coming of the nineties, the sport took a turn to renewed grunginess and spontaneity that Rogowski’s now-establishment, corporate persona couldn’t remold itself to. Though the precise cause for the act of violence that sent him to prison isn’t fully explained (and probably can’t be), Stickler treats it thoughtfully and without sensationalism.
What comes through in “Gator” is the fact that Rogowski was, from the very beginning, a loose cannon with a penchant for self-promotion and a careless disregard for any niceties of conduct. The portrait of him presented here, in both pictures and words, is hardly a flattering one, and though his own reflections from prison, presented in bits and pieces throughout the film, soften it somewhat, the final impression remains a fairly harsh one. (Certainly some of Gator’s old comrades express little sympathy for him now.) The treatment is pretty even-handed but hardly non-judgmental.
Ultimately, “Stoked” tells a story of sudden success and abject failure that, apart from the skateboarding setting, isn’t all that unusual; it’s the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place on one of A&E’s innumerable true-crime shows or an episode of an E-TV “True Story.” But it’s told well enough to be worth a look.