- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

Pictorially and thematically bedraggled, the video documentary feature “Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator,” seems to be squirming between contradictory impulses. Does it mean to be more celebratory or cautionary when recalling the sorry chronicle of a reportedly charismatic skateboarder, Mark “Gator” Rogowski of Escondido, Calif., now serving a murder sentence in the state prison at Soledad?

The celebratory impulse appears to predominate with filmmaker Helen Stickler, who tolerates a prodigious amount of gush while depicting her subject’s emergence as a teenage draw among the vertical skating daredevils who were competing for attention in the late 1980s. She seems more impressed than a grown-up should be that Gator was exploitable as a “bad boy” of the skating ramps and enjoyed burnishing that image as a cover boy and a figurehead for Visions, a manufacturer of boards and accessories.

Among other chapters of pop sporting and social history that remained unknown to me, Gator made part of his lofty reputation during a fracas with police at Virginia Beach in 1986. So the East Coast can share a tad of the glory that was Gator.

A former admirer named Jason Jessee, an ultimate space cadet from the beaches of Southern California, recalls how stories of Gator punching a cop lifted his spirits. They sank later when Gator let adulation go to his head and alienated loyalists by assuming a ritzy new name: Gator Mark Anthony.

Quite often during “Stoked,” one observes that the saga of Gator would smack of outrageous farce if there hadn’t been a killing on the agenda.

Mr. Jessee is rivaled as an ethically challenged memoirist by Brandi, Gator’s girlfriend when he was the toast of skateboarding. Their split-up, which coincided with a decline in Gator’s professional status when so-called “street” skaters grew more fashionable than the ramp specialists, proved a preamble to homicide.

Brandi’s best friend among skateboarding groupies, evidently known generically as “Bettys,” was a young woman named Jessica Bergsten. Gator took her out on the rebound, and the first date was fatal: He clubbed the girl with The Club, no less, assaulted her and then murdered her, scattering body parts around the desert.

At this juncture, Miss Stickler shifts from playful home video and chatterbox talking heads to grisly crime-scene snapshots. It’s difficult to feel that she has earned a right to atrocity footage, even with an atrocious sense of style. Gator is fulsomely documented on home video while mistaking himself for a punk of importance; he displays a weakness for nude poses and soft-core teases, especially with condoms as a prop.

Eligible for parole in 2009, after confessing to rape and murder charges in 1991, Gator is heard in what may be taped phone conversations that testify to formulaic remorse, undermined every sentence or so by psychobabble. That’s an idiom he has in common with quite a few participants — including Brandi and Mr. Jessee and his public defender, who seems to have thought that “cognitive dissonance” at the time of the crime might be an adequate excuse. He also found it expedient to speculate that “there was friendly choking happening” while an unconscious Jessica was being assaulted.

What with one repulsive aspect and another, I grudgingly concluded that there was little “there but for the grace of God, go I” appeal in either Gator or the movie, at best a misguided, dingy love letter that adds some black bordering to feigned seriousness and compassion, but then I’ve always been slow to rally to the “bad boys” of show business in every form. I ran with a junior high crowd that thought James Dean’s torments in “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” were irresistibly funny, the sort of emotionalism that only sappy high schoolers might cherish. We came around very belatedly, during his early scenes as Jett Rink in “Giant.” Because I have no history with the lamentable life and legend of Gator Rogowski, “Stoked” met a solid wall of resistance.

1/2*

WHAT: “Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, consistent with the R category; frequent profanity, occasional sexual candor and episodes of gruesome clinical candor about an actual murder case)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Helen Stickler. Music by David Reid

RUNNING TIME: 80 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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