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Stacy Peralta and the New Cinema of Attractions


“No Tresspassing”

“No Swimming”

“No Skateboarding Allowed.”

These words are plastered across parking lots, parks, and beaches across the nation. Like the eyes of some unseen authority, they stare down upon the public, daring them to suffer the consequences of disobedience. Yet certain subcultures around the world refuse to listen to the threats inherent in these ever-present warnings. No consequence is too harsh, no siren is too loud, and no bail is too high to keep the surfer from his wave, or the skater from his board.

Like social pariahs, surfers and skaters are glared at by police, shunned by the elderly, and looked down upon by high society. A strange breed, they concentrate in small herds often in the back of classrooms, schoolyards, and strip malls; around empty parking lots and at abandoned beaches. They shun authority and are always looking for that next thrill, that next big wave, or that next great ride.

“When we started coming to the North Shore […] I remember looking in the rear view mirror and these old
mom and pop store owners are all kinda hanging out the door to see what just blew through town” (Rimensnyder 1). These are the words of Greg Noll, widely accepted as the father of big wave surfing, talking about the general public’s reaction to the arrival of surfers and a completely different subculture to their peaceful Hawaiian society. This rag-tag bunch of surfers made history with the techniques they developed and the waves they tamed, but most people have never so much as heard their names. Despite their amazing achievements, they are little more than a footnote in our society’s history.

Despite the public’s negative view of these punk pioneers, Stacy Peralta has managed to find wide commercial success in two different documentaries about two surly subcultures, skateboarding and surfing. Through his films, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, Peralta has managed to help the “civilian world” gain a greater understanding of cultures that were previously considered uncivilized or taboo.

According to Bill Nichols, Tom Gunning’s term, cinema of attractions “refers to the idea of circus attractions and their open delight in showing us a wide variety of unusual phenomena” (Nichols 86). The draw of these circus attractions could be the key to understanding the draw of Peralta’s films. In Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, Peralta shows us phenomena that is unusual to the general public, but gives the viewer a more personal look which, in a way, brings the “cinema of attractions” to a new level. He adds personality, heart, and a back story to an exhibition and in doing so makes many of the same advancements Flaherty did with Nanook of the North.

Early cinema was filled with films depicting various exotic cultures practicing strange customs. These attractions not only provided good subjects for early cinematographers, but also allowed viewers to see more of the world around them. “The ‘cinema of attractions’ pitched its appeal directly to the viewer and took delight in the sensationalism of the exotic and bizarre” (Nichols 86).

These films brought strange new cultures and customs to a wide public as they exhibited a “tour of outrageous customs and bizarre practices” (Nichols 87). Cinematographers set out across the world to capture worlds never before seen by civilization. The camera became a sort of far-reaching telescope as viewers explored the earth for the next crazy Kodak moment.

This exploration was the birth of documentary as a genre, and Robert Flaherty was at the helm. Through his film, Nanook of the North, he brought depth to the exhibitionist films of the day and showed that there was much more to these strange people than exotic rituals. Yet Nanook nearly never happened. Flaherty himself described an early Paramount screening that was less than promising.

The manager came up and very kindly put his arm around my shoulders and told me he was terribly sorry, but it was a film that just couldn’t be shown to the public. He said that he had tried to do such things before and they had always ended in failure (Barnouw 42).

Flaherty pushed forward and met with various other distribution companies until he found someone who would display his film. He wanted to show the world a new culture through the eyes of individuals in that same culture. He admired the Inuit, and wanted the public to share in his admiration. He wrote, “The urge that I had to make Nanook came from the way I felt about these people, my admiration for them; I wanted to tell others about them” (Barnouw 45).

Flaherty revolutionized the “cinema of attractions,” giving it a personal voice and showing the world that there was much more to these “attractions,” than just an exotic exhibition. He set up camp and lived as they lived, bringing the viewers into the world of Nanook and his family. He followed them as they hunted, learned their language, and listened to their stories. This personal contact became a part of his film and viewers and critics alike responded with wide acclaim. One reviewer wrote, “It stands alone, literally in a class by itself. Indeed, no list of all the best pictures of the year or of all the years in the brief history of the movies, could be considered complete without it” (Barnouw 42).

Flaherty has been credited as the father of Documentary film and looking back, we can see how this new genre has evolved into a powerful new medium. Documentary film has achieved amazing new popularity and explored even the most difficult topics plaguing today’s society. However, history has a tendency to repeat itself and along with great achievements, there are many areas in the media that follow the same principles as the old “cinema of attractions.”

In the spring of 2000, sixteen Americans were abandoned on the deserted island of Pulau Tiga for 39 days. Their mission was simple: win a million dollars. All they had to do was be the last to be voted off the island. America was mesmerized. Survivor became an instant phenomenon and brought a new genre to worldwide popularity. Reality shows began to dominate television programming across the board and new reality series pop up every season.

Recently, MTV began airing a new reality show called Trippin’. In this show, celebrities explore the world accompanied by a camera crew much in the way that the early cinematographers set out to capture the world. Cameron Diaz and her team of celebrity crusaders fly to exotic locations to show how people live in the middle of nowhere. Regardless of her intentions, Diaz has shown how Reality TV has become little more than a new “cinema of attractions.” Viewers in this new technologically-ruled world become captivated as rich celebrities travel to primitive societies in an effort to help them rise out of poverty.

These reality TV shows are nothing more than exhibitions. Viewers sit in awe as they watch strange people do strange things for exorbitant amounts of money. Much of television has become little more than celebrity worship as a strange, wealthy culture is captured on film. Extreme sports have become commercial goldmines as viewers tune in to see some new crazy teenager try some insane, death-defying trick. Like witnesses of a gruesome train wreck, American viewers can not tear their eyes away.

Somewhere, deep within this society dominated by a new “cinema of attractions,” a new movement is rising. Drawing from techniques developed by Bruce Brown in Endless Summer, as well as the great documentarists of the past, new filmmakers such as Dana Brown and Stacy Peralta have sought to add personality to the attraction of some extreme sports. Peralta, like Flaherty, became personally connected with his subjects and desired to show the public the same culture that he had grown to love. It is through this love that Peralta brought depth to this new “cinema of attractions” and once again showed the world that there is much more to some of these “attractions” than mere exhibitions.

“Two hundred years of American technology has unwittingly created a massive cement playground of unlimited potential. But it was the minds of 11 year olds that could see that potential” (qtd. in Dogtown and Z-Boys). These are the words of Craig Stecyk, a photojournalist who wrote the now famous Dogtown Articles about a group of young punks in Santa Monica that eventually revolutionized the world of skating. Through his articles, he created his own “playground of unlimited potential,” and it was only Stacy Peralta, one of the subjects of these articles, that could see the true potential of these articles.

“I wanted this thing to be an entertaining celebration of a subculture.”

“This was an intimate portrait by somebody that was on the inside.”

“We’re such underdogs, I felt we had to bang loud so people would pay attention to us” (Marcus 3).

These are the words of Peralta himself as he talked about the ideas behind his first film, Dogtown and Z-boys. He proceeded to paint “an intimate portrait” of the skater subculture out of the words of Craig Stecyk, and he more than succeeded in getting people’s attention. Dogtown has now sold well over a million DVDs, has been made into a feature film, and has received wide critical acclaim.

Peralta did not stop there. He had awakened a society numbed by reality TV and captured the attention of critics and others who saw skaters as nothing more than punks and troublemakers. He took this new audience and ran with it, feeding them with another film about another strange subculture he had grown to love. With Riding Giants, he showed the world the story of big wave surfing as told by surfers.

Peralta says, “Surfing is really misunderstood out there in what Sam George likes to call ‘the civilian world,’ and I felt it was my responsibility to get it right” (Marcus 6). One cannot help but recall the words of Flaherty as he described his intentions with Nanook. Peralta wanted to bring more to the extreme sports “attractions” that dominate today’s media.

There is so much surf pornography out there – watching guys slash and burn on waves over and over and over. To me that is not filmmaking. That is just putting together trick catalogues. Surfing is a cherished piece of American culture and I wanted to get that across in a movie. I wanted to not just show surfing but to have surfers talking eloquently about it (Marcus 6).

Ray Bradbury writes, “If we come at him right, talk him along, and give him his head, and at last say, What do you want? […] every man will speak his dream. And when a man speaks from his heart, in his moment of truth, he speaks poetry” (Bradbury 34). This movie seems to capture that very poetry, and it is this poetry that gives Peralta’s films depth and personality. It is this poetry that brings the modern “cinema of attractions” to a new level. Stecyk writes, “Skaters by their very nature are urban guerillas: they make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of” (qtd. in Dogtown and Z-Boys).

It could be said that Robert Flaherty and the documentarists that followed in his footsteps by their very nature were also guerillas. They employed the handiwork of motion picture structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of. Stacy Peralta and his contemporaries have resurrected this innovation in the documentary motion picture of today. He added heart to the lifeless body of surf and skate videos and brought new respect to a culture that had received little.

Like Flaherty, Peralta sought to depict a culture still untouched by modern society and capture their lives on film. He sought to bring understanding to cultures previously seen as bizarre and exotic. Most of all, he sought to remind a society of its roots. “The surfers in this film were great sportsmen and adventurers just like the great heroes of baseball, but they founded a culture and a lifestyle that, to this day, people participate in whether they surf or not” (Rimensnyder 1). Peralta showed us the history, people, and personalities behind the clothes, lingo, and music that rose out of these interesting subcultures.

Works Cited

Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. Oxford University
Press: Oxford, 1993.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing. Joshua Odell Editions: Santa Barbara, CA,

Brown, Emerson. “Stacy Peralta on Dogtown and Z-Boys.” 15 Feb.
2004. 18 May 2005. .

Dogtown and Z-Boys. Dir. Stacy Peralta. Sony Pictures, 2001.

Marcus, Ben. “Surfer Interview: Stacy Peralta.” 1 Apr. 2004. 18 May
2005. .

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press: Indiana, 2001.

Rimensnyder, Sara. “Surf’s Up.” Reason. Oct. 2004.