A tragedy mired in myth for years in the skateboarding world has finally been cleared up in a documentary film about pro-skater/murderer/rapist Mark "Gator" Rogowski.
"Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator," which opens in New York on Friday (August 22) and elsewhere through November, looks at one of skateboarding's biggest stars as the sport's popularity exploded in the mid-1980s. But just as fast as Rogowski's fame came, it went, effectually yanking the rug from under him to disastrous results.
"The Gator story is something that has become an urban legend in skateboarding circles because no one had told the story before," the film's director, Helen Stickler, said. "It wasn't really available and nobody wanted to discuss it, so it just became an endless source of speculation. Ultimately I just wanted to find out what happened."
The appalling facts in the case don't need any embellishment. After turning pro in 1981 at age 14, Gator became one of the circuit's top riders, competing in ramp and half-pipe competitions with Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi and Steve Caballero. As the good-looking and arrogant poster boy for the Vision skateboard and clothing company, Gator was making more than $100,000 in endorsements and prize money three years later. His was the top-selling board, and his skate videos didn't stay on skateshop shelves very long. The decade of decadence's shift to the more subdued and brooding early '90s, however, hit Gator like a sucker punch.
"Right away, I thought that this isn't about just one guy, it's about the '80s," Stickler said. "From the '80s to '90s, everything changed so dramatically. That's when 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' hit the airwaves, grunge broke ... the whole culture just changed. And I could see in his story that there was a parallel there to a bigger picture, because he was a symbol of something bigger than himself."
The skater's star began to fade by 1990, when popular taste shifted from the flamboyant and fluid vert style to the grittier street style. Street skating's rise was as much a reaction to the overblown '80s as it was due to the fact that it could be done anywhere, as opposed to requiring a wooden half-pipe or empty in-ground swimming pool. Gator's obnoxiousness left him with few friends during skating's "great schism," and the sudden alienation, including his girlfriend dumping him for a surfer, led to a mental collapse.
In 1991 he sought revenge on his ex by raping and killing her 21-year-old friend Jessica Bergstrom.
"Gator's story works on many different levels," Stickler said. "I've had personal experience with friends and family members who've gone through depression, and this could work as a story on mental-health awareness, especially for young people, since most mental-health disorders materialize in people's early 20s. And if they go undiagnosed, it can have tragic consequences."
"Stoked," Stickler's first full-length feature, is shot without narration. It's an oral history of Gator's life and terrible fall told through interviews with fellow pros, as well as a tear-soaked testimony from ex-girlfriend Brandi McClain. Gator himself is heard only as a disembodied voice over a telephone because of California's penal laws, but the absence of his physical presence in the film only adds to how removed he is from the skate scene, now that he's serving a 31-year sentence in a San Diego prison.
The film took Stickler, who directed the 1997 short film "Andre the Giant has a Posse" and was nominated for an Emmy in 1999 for a safe-sex campaign for MTV, six years and thousands of frequent-flyer miles to complete.
"I've always paid for my own stuff," she said. "So I would work on something at MTV for three or four months, save up some money, and jet right back out to California to continue working on the doc to try and keep it alive."
Stickler eventually moved to California in 2000 to finish the interviews, then returned to New York to edit. Her nest egg ran out shortly after and she's been living off credit cards for the last year and a half. Even when the film gets released on DVD next year, she's doubtful she'll recoup her money.
"I'll probably never break even on it," she laughed, "but that's the way it goes. There's nothing easy about independent filmmaking. There's nothing easy about documentary. ... You're not paying people, so they've got no real incentive to be in it, so you have to work around their schedules.
"When I started out, I would read about how long it took to make these," she continued. "Like 'Hoop Dreams' was eight years, 'Crumb' was six years. And I'd be like, 'What is wrong with those filmmakers?' Now I know."
"Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator" openings, according to the film's publicist:
- 8/22 - New York, NY @ Angelika Film Center
- 8/29 - Hollywood, CA @ Laemmle Sunset 5
- 8/29 - Santa Monica, CA @ Laemmle Monica 4 Plex
- 8/29 - Newport Beach, CA @ Laemmle Lido Cinema
- 8/29 - Pasadena, CA @ Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse
- 8/29 - San Francisco, CA @ Landmark Lumiere Theater
- 8/29 - Berkeley, CA @ Landmark Shattuck Theater
- 8/29 - Seattle, WA @ Landmark Varsity Theater
- 9/5 - San Diego, CA @ Landmark Ken Cinema
- 9/5 - Washington, DC @ Loews Dupont Circle
- 9/5 - Cambridge, MA @ Landmark Kendall Square
- 9/5 - Dallas, TX @ City Cinemas Angelika Film Center
- 9/5 - Houston, TX @ City Cinemas Angelika Film Center
- 9/12 - Chicago, IL @ Landmark Century Center Cinemas
- 9/12 - Atlanta, GA @ Landmark Midtown Art Cinema
- 10/21 - University City, MO @ Landmark Tivoli Theater
- 11/21 - Austin, TX @ Landmark Dobie Theater