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film review: dragonslayer

Filmmaker Tristan Patterson didn’t intend to make a ‘skate’ film. That is, until he met Josh ‘Screech’ Sandoval. They crossed paths at a party in the desolate surrounds of an abandoned airfield in South California, in the midst of America’s economic meltdown. Aging punk rockers shrieked from the driveway, various burnouts and wastrels roamed about the place, and a video of Josh’s skating was projected onto a wall in the background.

Patterson was somewhat mesmerised by this figure, who in reality, was incoherent after allegedly taking five tabs of acid. But in the footage behind him, he saw him masterfully gliding up and down the shell of an empty swimming pool. Patterson began filming Screech a few weeks later, and continued to follow him for the proceeding summer months: to skate comps, parties, and visits to see his six-month old son. Out of this emerged the documentary Dragonslayer.

Winner of SXSW’s Best Documentary and Best Cinematography, Dragonslayer is an immersive, sensory, kind of film. It exists in a vain similar to Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, but with strong parallels to the rambling, youthful, oddball sensibilities of Harmony Korine.

Beautifully shot with shallow depth-of field SLR camerawork, we track Screech as he limps around the local skate park, takes his son to the zoo with teenage girlfriend, Leslie, and sleeps in a tent outside his friend’s house, surviving on nothing but cup-a-noodles.

The sound-scape is paired-down and impressive: sometimes it’s lulling and muted, reduced to just amplified speech and the click and roll of a skateboard; sometimes, in footage taken by Screech and his skater friends on flip cameras it’s, it’s frenetic and lo-fi; sometimes it’s blaring punk rock.

In bristly punk fashion, the trailer for Dragonslayer smugly quotes a bad review it received, in which the writer exclaims exasperatedly of the film, “I’m not sure why it needs to exist?” and reacts bitterly to its aimless, anti-narrative nature. But this is exactly what makes the film so intriguing. It completely mirrors the way its subjects exist. They live out an idle narrative of enjoying the summer time, getting high, and skating in the empty pools of foreclosed homes.

Because the film doesn’t appear to have any intentions other than to show something as it is happening, we are offered a seemingly completely objective insight into this world. The filmmakers don’t seem to position the audience in any way; they don’t milk the situation for tragedy, they don’t paint the subjects as heroes or martyrs. This means the onus is all on the audience as to how they view the subjects, which makes for interesting viewing.

A strange interstitial countdown flashes onto the screen every so often, and soon becomes a little jarring. This seems merely an experimental, self-conscious addition, or maybe an attempt to add some sense of structure to the mess of non-narrative, although, ultimately it contributes to the overall punk aesthetic of the film.

It will help if you like skating and don’t particularly care for narratives. But regardless, Dragonslayer is an immersive outsiders’ insight into a specific place, specific time, and specific people, which is something seldom seen onscreen.

 

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