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Review: Industrial Light & Magic


      

At the 1:05 mark of Industrial Light & Magic, the latest video release from Fucking Awesome/Hockey, the camera pans from an enticing bank spot to the skaters themselves. They are huddled together in an alcove at the foot of a stairwell, away from the action. Unphased by their surroundings, and even less interested in the scene unfolding around the corner, they barely notice that the camera has turned in their direction, giving the impression of a group of weary performers waiting backstage. Tellingly, no one seems to have his board with him. FA/Hockey has certainly made the rounds since the release of Cherry, the video that introduced most of these skaters to the world in 2014, and this scene captures the ennui and in-betweenness of the ensuing five years. It can be a challenge to keep the schtick fresh, especially for this group of taste-makers, but, they took the act on the road like a travelling circus, hoping to find new inspiration on the streets of Europe. For the most part, the magic is still there.

FA/Hockey distills its allure from a combination of ability and persona—a trick, for these skaters, depends on skill as well as wit—and the companies’ founders, each of whom represents one of these two poles, introduce the show. First, Strong Man Anthony Van Engelen performs twin feats of strength. His choice of tricks is modest, a switch kickflip and switch heelflip, respectively, but he snaps each one with the unflinching resolve of a black belt breaking a stack of bricks at a karate convention. He just utterly pulverizes them. Jason Dill, the company’s flamboyant barker, soon relieves his companion, swooning the crowd with a beguiling impossible. The next two clips are more irksome: a nose manual, ordinarily a benign trick, exudes perversion when Dill balances it across the surface of a discarded mattress, and he comes off like a complete fool when he slams on a primo slide, a hackneyed freestyle maneuver. The tricks are intended to shock—indeed, such strategies are at the heart of the FA/Hockey act, evident in their graphics, which court taboo, or even their name, which harkens to the convoluted rights surrounding freedom of expression. The spectacle nonetheless makes his great escape all the more stupefying: he wedges himself onto a bench for a boardslide, only to pop out the opposite edge as if by trap door.

The rest of the bill includes Andrew Allen’s poetic clown routine. When he backside flips into an especially gritty bank located in some brutalist courtyard, the trick wilts down the steep slope like a dying flower in a vase. On trapeze is Sage Elsesser. The average person might find his repertoire a bit limited, but a tailslide, an impossible, and a really high ollie done at such heights permit each trick its fullest expression of grace. For his grand finale, Elsesser heelflips over a guard rail like a feather caught in an updraft, unencumbered by the uneven ceramic tiles on the landing as he drifts down the ensuing bank to drop. Elsewhere, the One-Man Freakshow, Ben Kadow never ceases to shock and disgust with his

eccentric skating. Watching him contort a nollie-front shuv into a manual is absolutely putrefying—his legs are as stiff as a corpse suffering rigamortis. And then there’s Dr. Disaster, the bespectacled Diego Todd. His style has a frenetic magnetism about it, making the chaos of city life appear perfectly timed to his skating; comparisons could be made to Buster Keaton. This quality brings a true thrill to the wallride he pitches into the widening void above a set stairs, or a street grab that detonates under his feet. His slams are also the result of an invisible choreography. Even though it was Todd’s own momentum that drove him headfirst into a wooden bench, the stationary object appears to rise up to meet him.

Other aspects of Industrial Light & Magic are less convincing. It doesn’t necessarily have to look fun—for some people, skating is more metier than hobby—but the video seems overly art directed when the skating isn’t commensurate with the fashion or attitude of the skater. This situation is illustrated most starkly in the case of Kevin Rodrigues. The guy clings to walls like a bat, as when he nollie wallies over a guard rail. It really suits his post-punk persona that his preferred bag of tricks, slappies and wallies, often poses him like a vampire about to pounce on his next victim, but an overall scarcity of footage—this is his only clip—suggests that his melodramatic sensibility doesn’t respond well when taken out of Paris, his native habitat. Sean Pablo, another skater who built his style on simplicity and execution, similarly banks his reputation on scarcity, but it is tough to balance the ledger when the only line item is a backside salad grind—pardon the pun, but he seems a bit out to lunch on this one. Perhaps this is why the video is called Industrial Light & Magic. It borrows its name from the special effects studio George Lucas founded in 1975, and which hatched the immersive movie universes of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Terminator II, and Jurassic Park. Yet, when applied to FA/Hockey operations, the title rings sarcastic, and draws attention to the oblique nature of the companies’ branding, and the deliberate gaslighting of their intentions (skaters, afterall, are frequently categorized as fuck bois). Of course, tour videos are a narrow window onto an individual skater’s abilities, and the demands of shoe companies, from which skaters receive their largest paycheck, frequently limit the amount of footage available for other video productions. Still, there are moments when Industrial Light & Magic shrugs at the audience, as if to say, it’s a lifestyle, man.


What saves the video, and ensures that the FA/Hockey circus is a legit affair, is the skating of Louie Lopez and Kevin Bradley. Their skating is so impressive, that, together, they represent a money-back guarantee for anyone who buys into the hype. The video doubles as an introduction for Lopez, the newest addition to FA. His inclusion on the team is surprising: the former child prodigy, and current Olympian, selected to represent the United States at the 2020 Tokyo
Olympic Games, at first seems out of character for a brand that promotes skating as a cliquish subculture. Lopez’s relationship to the act of skateboarding also differs from his teammates: skating is his public persona, whereas most members of FA/Hockey supplement their professional identity with other creative pursuits (i.e. music, DJing, art, etc). The contrast extends to the language I would use to articulate his particular talent. So pure and unadorned is his style, and yet so well-rounded is his grasp of tricks, that a straightforward enumeration of the first four lines of his part is all that’s required to convey his skating’s uncanny significance: nollie half-cab crooks revert followed by a back tail bigspin; nollie half-cab crooks revert, back tail 360, then frontside 360 on flat; front blunt, back noseblunt pop out, back 180 switch nosegrind fakie front shuv; and a frontside flip accompanied by a fakie noseslide switch flip fakie.

To the uninitiated, this list might simply come off as nonsensical babble, and to those fluent in the dialects, it could be read as a parody of skaterese, but whether falsity or farce, both interpretations illustrate how even the most weathered skater is reduced to boyish fandom when Lopez pops out of a back noseblunt; doing the trick midway through the line, rather than as a flashy ender, only reinforces the lesson that there is equal value in all tricks. Later, when he returns to fakie after starting fakie, it offers skateboarding’s equivalent to profound funerary verse. Of course, to anyone watching Lopez’s performance, the tricks comes off like small miracles. No fashion distracts from their pure appeal—his austere uniform comprises straight-legged dickies and a short-sleeve t-shirt over one with long sleeves. No attitude supplements his ability—at most, we might glimpse a celebratory smile. In the end, Lopez is so good, that his kickflip, that most pious of all flips tricks, which he does with an angelic flick, threatens to make good men of FA/Hockey, who ordinarily traffic in idols and graven images. 


Lopez’s abilities call into question the role personality plays in the un-sport of skating. In the absence of a universal scoring system, or any written rules whatsoever, skating lacks an objective criteria to differentiate between professionals and amateurs. Historically, there are clear signifiers that differentiate the two categories: one’s name on a board, visibility in skate media, the ability to support oneself through royalties. Skateboarders were influencers long before the category existed: professional status was a matter of corporate sponsorship, rather than games won or points scored; careers were the product of collective identification, and therefore the ability to sell branded products. Because skateboarding maintained its status as a subculture, and global mega-brands found it difficult to enter the market until the mid 2000s, the business side of skating was seen as a very local ecosystem, in which money recirculated within a small community. Skateboarder personal connection to brands primed it for the current paradigm of social media, which reduces culture to an atomized
consumer base. To maintain the same trust from skaters, companies either adopt the polarizing strategy favored by FA/Hockey, which relies on exclusivity and scarcity, and toes the line between standoffishness and authenticity. Or there is the general appeal model. The cynical view is that Lopez, whose humility makes him more of a positive example, than an outright evangelist, seeks to split the difference by joining the FA/Hockey roster. Proof can be found in the value these companies’ approval imparts to his pro-model shoe. Without it, only someone with Lopez’s preternatural ability could make something so generic seem like a virtue.

In the end, skateboarding is judged on its ability to entertain—every generation will have its own standard by which it evaluates a kickflip. This equation is what’s behind Kevin Bradley’s performance as the rascal ring master, which offers a reminder that a skater’s most important asset is unmitigated confidence. At Berlin’s Gleisdreieck park, he treats his board like a marionette on a string when he conducts a 360 flip over the green hips, landing with such absolute command that there is no mistaking who is that board’s master. (The clip can also be viewed as an homage to the late FA skater, Dylan Rieder. Bradley would have seen his HUF part in 2014, in which Rieder conducts a backside ollie and a backside flip from one end of the undulating landscape to the other). The next two clips are just as stunning: first, he catapults a wallie up and over a giant brick bank, beyond various protective hazards, eventually planting himself in the middle of a sunken courtyard. Then, like a high diver who lands in a deadly shallow pool, Bradley tucks a backside kickflip into the airspace above an impossibly steep bank. The clip is presented in slow-mo, which enhances that brief moment of panic and disbelief when we realize he has actually done it.

It is no surprise why the video chooses Bradley for the finale. To some, FA/Hockey is a superficial representation of skating’s current paradigm, and others are captivated by their showmanship. Given the polarizing assessment, it seems wise to stake the companies’ reputation on a skater like Bradley. The spectacle produced by his mix of theatricality and athleticism ensures that the debate will continue—though, I must admit, its hard for me to see his prodigious talent as anything other than the real thing. What ensues is a gorgeous backside tailslide down a long, slightly slanted ledge. He conducts the trick in one sustained, sweeping motion. He never flinches. He never looks back to see where he’s going. He knows this is what places him in high demand—frankly, it almost taunts the audience to look away. Then he sticks it. Some might be dismayed by his outfit (all Supreme), while others might rewind it immediately, but after watching Bradley roll away, the only question left is when the FA/Hockey circus will come back to town.   •••