The year is 1984, and skateboarder, entrepreneur, and filmmaker Stacy Peralta is watching a fictional morning news show called Weekend Today. “When I was a kid, we used to take an old roller skate apart and nail it on a two-by-four,” says host Bob Burbanks. “But nowadays you can walk into a sporting goods store or a drug store and buy one of these.” A zoom out reveals a cheap toy skateboard resting on Bob’s two index fingers. “This is a skateboard.” Peralta can barely contain his disgust. “That’s not a skateboard,” he says. “We’re going to do a little adjusting here.” He grabs a pickaxe and shatters the TV screen. Then he reaches inside and pulls out a Powell Peralta Rat Bones complete. “Now this is a skateboard.” A hardcore song called “Skate and Destroy” begins and a title appears in shadowed yellow block type: The Bones Brigade Video Show.
Twelve years later, Toy Machine Bloodsucking Skateboard Company presents Welcome To Hell. This time a cartoon demon destroys the screen, unhinging its jaw to devour it. More punk music plays, but no new wave, no shopping mall muzak, no canned metal guitar. Nothing is sugarcoated. BMX bikers flip over spines, flamethrowers burst behind them, monster baritone wails erupt behind brutal slo-mo slams. Pedestrians are angry, and so are the cops, their aggression toward the skaters on full display. Founder Ed Templeton introduces his part with one of his drawings. His name is surrounded by two arrows, at the end of one the word “loser,” at the end of the other a command: “Kill him when you see him.”
Two decades pass. The name of the company, Supreme, appears first on a sweatshirt. Most of the video, called Cherry, is black and white, half the time shot with a fisheye lens, but not because of any limitations on equipment or budget—that’s just how skate videos are supposed to look by now. Half the skaters on this team also ride for Adidas. Some of the music is punk or punk-adjacent, but just as much of it is hip hop. No one skates a ramp; every environment captured onscreen is urban. The skaters skate into the street, grab onto the backs of cars and hold on for speed. Tricks at these spots register now as references, Easter eggs for the viewers who have seen every video before this one. The standoffs with cops and security guards are not quite friendly, but they’re no longer hostile. Everyone knows the drill.
Like all forms, the skate video survives—is destroyed and remade—thanks to the innovations of its avant-garde. A recent attempt to remake this form premiered on the Thrasher website this October: Verso, an eleven-minute solo video part compiled by skateboarder Mark Suciu and cinematographer Justin Albert. Verso invites critical discussion of this form and its possibilities, in part because Suciu is the type of skater to treat a collection of his video clips as a conscious intellectual project. Suciu wrote a thesis at The New School on Alain Robbe-Grillet, and most recently, according to his Instagram account @nightsofreading, he’s been getting into Hrabal and Sontag. He’s definitely not the first skater to afford skate videos the focus of an academic, but he’s among the few to advertise his desire to do so.
Skaters and skateboarding media responded with reciprocal exegetic fervor: To identify and elucidate its internal order, they’ve bestowed upon Verso the kind of attention usually reserved for close readings of poetry. These efforts don’t feel overzealous. What Suciu does with a skateboard amounts to a kind of high style, baroque and technical, demonstrative of meticulous training and obsessive spatial calculation. Thrasher cited numerous NBDs—a trick that has never been done, often a slight complication of an existing trick (a linguistic analog might be a neologism, or a new term fashioned of prefixes and suffixes common to a literature)—and backbreakers—a trick that incorporates a rotation considered difficult and more often avoided altogether. Still, nearly every frame engages in conversation with an inherited grammar. The cinematography in Verso seems to reach for profundity; filters darken every frame with the sepia glow of old photographs, their subjects simple—sunshine, train tracks, a single rose. These images carry weight within a catalog of references: two shots of a flock of birds flying, first in one and then in the opposite direction, seemed corny to me before I considered that Alien Workshop, a favorite skateboard deck brand of Suciu’s, prominently features images of birds in flight in their videos. I found the tricks filmed at the Black Hubba ledge in New York doubly impressive having seen the ledge featured just as centrally in other canonical videos, including Cherry. The more skate videos I watch, the more details continue to resonate.
These citations work in concert with other instances of self-reference. In skateboarding, the vocabulary of possible tricks adheres to a law of opposites: there is frontside and backside, goofy and regular, nollie, fakie, and switch, all of which refer to one of two directions; the direction of movement, the position of the skaters body, the front or the back of the board. In the first seconds of Verso, Suciu skates toward the camera through a set of brick arches, then away through a set of white pillars. Soon he skates up a set of pyramids dividing a two-way street, rotates frontside and stalls, and rolls down fakie. Later Albert will pan over two intersecting walls of an apartment building to imitate the same pyramidal shape. More skated phrases trace pyramids in the air, a frontside 180 to frontside shove-it to nollie to frontside 180, a frontside nosegrind to backside 5-0. Other tricks are shot head-on in black and white and in slow motion, and then again from behind, in real time, in color. Five minutes in, a set of two windows appears, with Suciu’s face superimposed in silhouette against the window on the left-hand side, facing right. Every trick, every shot, reflects itself back, turns the page.
Verso’s final section of four total sets up a series of tricks that Kyle Beachy, writing for the skate magazine Jenkem, calls “the first ever skateboarding chiasmus.” Suciu performs seven tricks, beginning with a frontside 50-50, a deceptively simple grind, and then the same seven tricks in reverse order, now in the opposite stance, or from the opposite side of the board, or with a rotation in the opposite direction; a loose analogy might be playing every position on a baseball team, both as a lefty and a righty. This is an elaboration on something called a “mirror line,” in which tricks are performed one after another in a “line,” and then again in the same order with one or more components reversed. If mirror lines are rhymes, Suciu’s is a ring composition, an example of the symmetrical or chiastic A-B-B-A structure. After this sequence is complete, the two windows appear again, and Suciu’s face reappears on the right, facing left. Suciu walks out from under another rounded arch onto a city street. The birds fly off in all directions.
My favorite skater is Jerry Hsu, the restless pro who traveled from legendary team to legendary team before quietly settling down in recent years into a career in art and design. His part in Emerica’s 2016 Made: Chapter 2 accesses something closer to the sublime than anything I’ve encountered in a narrative work. He skates as if in dialogue with the physical world, as if successfully landing a trick at a given spot is a negotiation that involves as much respect as confrontation, like taming a wild animal. When he glides up a concrete wall in slow motion and executes an impeccable darkslide at the top, the ledge seems to yield to his authority, as if he has broken it like a horse.
I wanted to learn to skateboard as a child because I saw skaters in videos and video games. Videos present skaters at peak ability, landing trick after trick in the space of minutes, never fucking up or getting hurt; video games exaggerate this invincibility, but only slightly. For the few years I spent trying, I knew hardly any of this mastery or grace. I learned quickly that skateboards are heavy, especially under prepubescent feet, that pavement is rarely as smooth as it looks, that even parking blocks can be too high to hop when you’re taking a small vehicle with you.
I can’t find Made: Chapter 2 on YouTube, but I can find a video called “Jerry Hsu’s ‘Made Chapter 2’ B-Sides.” In this video, in real time, with no musical accompaniment, Hsu endures repeated attempts at the exact same tricks he lands in the video proper, each time faltering and crashing to the ground as a result of some slight wrong move. He falls from five, ten feet in the air and lands, hard, on his side, or on his back, or on his ass. In one take, his board shoots out from under him, he slides down a set of concrete steps, and his crotch slams into a pole. After particularly agonizing attempts, he rolls over on the ground, yanks at his hair, and bellows in anguish. Hsu’s video parts often feature at least one of his slams; his distress is palpable on screen. Maybe the editors of his video parts include them to raise the stakes, or to subject the viewer to some macabre skate world answer to the Theatre of Cruelty, but when I watch them, I see something different. I see the labor and sacrifice required to bring into being a kind of beauty you can visualize but can’t yet see.
Just a few clicks down the YouTube rabbit hole from “Jerry Hsu’s ‘Made Chapter 2’ B-Sides” is a B-side to Emerica’s 2010 video Stay Gold called “Andrew Reynolds and the madness.” In this segment, Andrew Reynolds, now 41 and one of Mark Suciu’s RVCA teammates, sits at a desk before three computer monitors editing his Stay Gold part. In the footage, Reynolds skates to the edge of a set of stairs and brakes. He looks up at the camera. He skates to the same point again. He pushes down on the tail of his skateboard and pops the nose up twice, then again three more times, and then again once. He brakes and looks up at the camera again. “You good, Miner?” he asks. “Yeah,” says Jon Miner, filming. He brakes again. “Are you good?” “Yeah.” Again. “Are you good, Miner?” “Yeah.” Offscreen, editing, Reynolds says, “Like, if you would have told me, if someone would have told me, ‘You rolled up without trying a noseslide twenty times, thirty times,’ I would have said, ‘No, you’re wrong.’”
Now Reynolds is watching multiple takes of his noseslide 270 out. “I don’t really know what to say about these,” he says. “They all look the same, now that I look at them.” In the footage, after a particularly clean take, he says, “I felt like a . . . like a little . . . spazz.” He tries two more. “That one was pretty good, wasn’t it?” asks Miner. One more. Now Jerry Hsu is speaking, first offscreen, then in a medium closeup. He and Reynolds are rooming together, he explains, and Reynolds will go to any length to better execute his tricks. “That’s what he says. ‘I’ve just got to do whatever I can to get tricks.’ He’ll do everything he possibly can to do it exactly the way he pictured it.”
Reynolds is shooting a backside 360 over a set of high ledges. He rolls away, crouching, and his arms extend briefly above his head before his legs straighten. Bryan Herman and Justin Figueroa appear for comment. Herman raises his hands high and holds them in place. “He thought he was like this,” he says. “Which is ridiculous,” says Figueroa. “Like he was a dancer or something,” says Herman. Another 360. Another. Another. Finally, Reynolds lands and straightens. His hands do not move. “That’s good,” say multiple offscreen voices. Reynolds rolls toward the crowd of skaters watching. “No, that’s good,” he says. He is not smiling. “Nobody’s even stoked anymore,” says one voice. “I’m not even psyched anymore,” says another. Reynolds does not appear to hear them. He’s sitting now, facing the camera, catching his breath. He shakes his head. “That one’s good,” he says. He exhales and looks away.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, the subject of Suciu’s New School thesis, wrote his theoretical polemic For A New Novel partly to vent his frustration at the critical response to his first few books. Robbe-Grillet preferred, he wrote, not to be compared to the great novelists of preceding eras. “The systematic repetition of the forms of the past is not only absurd and futile,” he argues, “it keeps us, ultimately, from constructing the world and the man of tomorrow.” Despite his distaste for the past, Robbe-Grillet knew that tradition is not so easily rejected. “If the norms of the past serve to measure the present, they also serve to construct it,” he contends pages later. The writer “is situated within an intellectual culture and a literature which can only be those of the past. It is impossible for him to escape altogether this tradition of which he is the product.”
Mark Suciu regards the past of his form with a similar ambivalence. “What I’m looking for is perfection, from the little bits to the entire thing,” he tells Thrasher in an interview accompanying the release of the part. “People repeat themselves and, to me, that is imperfect.” Robbe-Grillet’s “new” novels are designed to do away with certain conventions of the nineteenth-century novel—character, story, meaning. To do so, Robbe-Grillet isolates the novelistic conventions he finds of use—description, recollection, observation from a distinct point of view—and works them out in longform. Suciu announces his refusal to repeat himself with a composition whose only theme is repetition. Chiasmus is repetition, repetition is practice, practice makes perfect. Verso is Suciu’s proof, and yet it violates his rule. The left-hand page, the verso, is the reflection of the recto as much as its opposite. The verso of the chiastic quatrain, the B-A figure that repeats the first A-B in reverse, is the form reflected against itself, its evil twin. We achieve perfection by way of repetition, but to repeat ourselves is imperfect.
Verso offers no conscious political argument, although Suciu does follow Verso Books on Instagram. Still, the parallel is appealing. Is there an esoteric or intriguing association or parallel between aesthetic radicals and political radicals? They work in separate spheres, but both position themselves simultaneously as students of and dissenters to their respective traditions. In the closed system of late capitalism, where the only observable reality is reproduction toward no conceivable end, from the weekly timesheet to the private prison, from the planned obsolescence of hardware to the islands of trash accumulating on the surfaces of the oceans, even we who wish to dismantle the mechanisms of production and consumption at every level must study these mechanisms tirelessly. We can’t work against the Democratic establishment unless we elect movement candidates to Democratic seats. We can’t unionize the workplace without the company directory.
Skateboarding is a youth subculture. Its politics are germinal. Artless antagonism toward institutional authority can turn reactionary as easily as it can revolutionary. Which direction it turns usually depends on one’s ability to approach problems critically and pay them enough attention to see what is evidently both lacking and needed, instead of simply raging at the need and the lack. Like Robbe-Grillet-influenced metafiction or math rock, contemporary skateboarding has become a practice perfected into stasis. Instagram is crowded with skaters no one’s heard of pulling off tricks so hard they don’t even look cool. At some point as we continue to repeat ourselves toward progress, our goal must become, as Raymond Williams puts it, “to push past the fixed forms in the only way that is possible, by trying to understand their intricate and diverse formations, and then to see, through and beyond them, the elements of new dynamic formations.”