Crystal Moselle and the Facile Posturing of Skate Kitchen
“It’s something that actually happened to [Rachelle]. It’s something that skateboarders go through. I think you’re reading too much into it.”
-Crystal Moselle, a person who does not skateboard.
That was Crystal Moselle’s response when I asked her why she chose to open her film with a graphic scene where Rachelle Vinberg’s character Camille falls and injures her vagina so badly that blood is pouring out like a Kill Bill movie. I don’t say that to trivialize Rachelle’s real-life injury that inspired the scene: it’s no joke when you get smoked on a skateboard, and anyone who is willing to try hard and get hurt deserves everyone’s respect. But the fall on screen is nowhere near consistent with the injury, namely because Rachelle doesn’t land with the board vertical between her legs, but her injury could only be the result of falling with an upright board between her legs. To be frank, I was shocked and repulsed at the grossly inaccurate, and dubiously inauthentic depiction of skateboarding that welcomes the viewer into Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen. I told Moselle that, as a skateboarder, I found the opening scene confusing, and off-putting. She responded with the quote the opens the article, and she then asserted that I would not be allowed to use that quote in this article, that it was retroactively “off the record”. I told her that if she needed time to put her thoughts together I would gladly welcome an explanation via email. This is exactly the kind of liberty that an artist has to answer for, and any reasonable artist would have an insightful, compelling, and conversational response to this question. But as you can imagine, nothing came from Ms. Moselle.
In the course of our brief conversation Moselle assured me that she knew some skateboarders growing up, and she met Harold Hunter once. And I would say that seems to be the extent of her understanding of this culture. And that’s why the film is riddled with facile summations of the rich, diverse, and complex culture of skateboarding. Moselle relentlessly hammers us over the head with a divisive theme that isn’t consistent with the reality of skateboarding. Instead of focusing on the fascinating aspects of what is happening in this small community of women in New York, Moselle attempts to create a sensationalized depiction of Rachelle and her friends that matches the banal narratives of consumer culture. The result is a film that fails where Instagram succeeds. Not only does Moselle fail to capture the actors in a performance that capitalizes on their natural charisma, she also fails to avoid the decades old pitfall of doing kook shit when you use skateboarding for your business. This film is not about skateboarding. From the beginning, the film eschews cultural accuracy in exchange for the flashy cues of cheaply-rendered, quickly-consumed, and readily-forgotten consumer culture. This film is not meant to accurately depict the raw culture of young women who are skateboarding in New York. This film is merely Crystal Moselle’s attempt to sell a product that meets Kim Yutani’s–she is the director of programming for Sundance–explicit request for a film about women on skateboards (more on that later).
Under Moselle’s direction, Rachelle Vinberg–who we already know to be a rad young lady via instagram–has as much in common with her character Camille as Mark Gonzales has in common with Josh Brolin’s character in Thrashin. And while the film can boast a lot of beautiful shots of young women skating around New York and living free, the plot plays out as a montage of bizarre dialogs between the very-well-rendered montages of skating. Aside from an expanded aspect ratio the film doesn’t offer anything grander than an Instagram post. And unfortunately for these young ladies, the film is less appealing, and less engaging, and less insightful than their Instagram accounts. This may be the first time in history that people outside of the entertainment industry are creating media identities on their own, and doing a better job than the entertainment industry. The Skate Kitchen that we know from Instagram feels like some free-spirited young women having fun in New York, but Moselle’s Skate Kitchen feels like a commercial for an out-of-touch luxury goods company made to run far too long. Moselle’s overwrought and under-considered vision makes it impossible for the viewer to see through the layers of artifice and connect with the artistic and creative nature of the women in the film. The result of Moselle’s writing and direction is a celebratory moment in history–the widespread rise of women’s skateboarding–shrouded in a cautionary tale about the dangers of commercial ventures that seek to monetize skateboarding.
Comparing Skate Kitchen to other films that are out right now is fine for people who want to focus on the art of film, but I’m more interested in how this is a film about skateboarding. So, the only comparison that I’m interested in for this article is placing Skate Kitchen alongside KIDS. KIDS is dark, and Skate Kitchen is light, they are a perfectly symmetrical yin and yang. Skate Kitchen is a poor depiction of an amazing group of girls, and KIDS is a stunning depiction of a repulsive group of guys. A few months ago my wife and I hunted down a copy of KIDS. Neither of us had seen it in 20 years, and it seemed like a good moment to check in with this cultural milestone. We made it a little more than halfway through the movie, and then we couldn’t take any more. The foulness of the film is visceral, and its burden can only be washed away with contemplative reflection in the company of loved ones, and a few nights’ sleep. The film’s undeniable immediacy stems from the sinister nature of the plot, and the believability of the characters on screen. Is it a depiction of something terrible and extreme? Yes. But is it an accurate film? Too accurate for fiction, and yet we know it’s not a documentary–or do we? There are many moments where you have to ask if you’re watching someone act, or if you’re watching a real life scumbag do his routine on camera? And that’s where KIDS capitalizes on the magic of the art of film (it’s also where Skate Kitchen fails): we, the audience, are left wondering if things are real or fiction, we are entranced by the characters, and all sorts of contemplative thoughts follow. Larry Clark was clearly able to get this group of young men to feel comfortable, and the resulting performance is strikingly realistic. Of course there are a few women who play substantial supporting roles in KIDS, and they also offer stunning performances. And, even though Rosario Dawson and Chloe Sevigny’s characters are central to the story, KIDS remains a movie about a bunch of truly fucked up dudes who skate and party.
Unfortunately for the ladies of Skate Kitchen, the broad and tactless strokes of Moselle cannot animate the nuanced humanity at the center of her film. At no point do we question whether we are watching a documentary or a drama. Where the macho demeanor of KIDS is defined by its refusal to be genuine, the empowered feminine narrative of Skate Kitchen is defined by its capacity to be genuine. Except that the film continuously misses the mark for genuine. Thanks to Moselle, Skate Kitchen dances around a hulking, unignorable vacancy where the story’s humanity should be. Skate Kitchen is very close to being a great film because it’s filled with a bunch of young ladies who we already love. And in the film, we watch these young women challenge themselves to try something new, and do their best job on someone else’s project. But Moselle’s tepid-spirited rendering of these striking young women robs them of the power they command, and diminishes the electric nature of their character to a sputtering sizzle buried amidst the bright lights and heavy handed thundering of film-making. And perhaps that is the essential dilemma here: as skateboarders, we find ourselves watching another film that wants to market what we do without understanding, or truly valuing what we do. A lot is changing in skateboarding, but whether they focus on men or women, it seems we still face the same dilemmas when outsiders seek to profit from our culture.
Is it bad for Kim Yutani to suggest that a movie like this should be made? Absolutely not, it’s great that she can see the value in creating something that focuses on women in skateboarding. But it’s really weird to watch a 13 minute commercial for one of Prada’s “small brands” get turned into a feature length film about skateboarders, wherein the exciting skateboarders are made to look boring and awkward. From my perspective, it was draining and difficult to watch the film, but I love it when Rachelle’s clips come up on my feed. I like to watch her skate around NY and be a kid having fun, and she does have the type of enigmatic personality that can be at the center of attention. But the film doesn’t capture that Rachelle, it’s a much less interesting version of her. I recognize that, as a man, I bring a different perspective, and some of the film’s meaningful aspects are lost on me, but they didn’t have to be. In fact, I watched the screener for this film with my wife, and she was the one who pointed out that the film lacks any kind of meaningful message about being a woman.
Moselle told me that this film captures some essential element of being a woman in a culture dominated by men. But she also told me she didn’t hire any skateboarders from the 50 + years of women’s skate history that preceded her film. No Peggy Oki cameo, no Lisa Whitaker consultant, no Vanessa Torres on production, no Elissa Steamer guest star, no Alexis Sablone writing credit, no Jaime Reyes stunt double–nothing to connect Moselle’s imaginary story of women skateboarding to the actual women who lived through a time when skateboarding was dominated by men. Maybe people will think that I am wrong to say these things because I am a man.
While the film serves up all the signifiers of empowered womanhood, and social change, it is riddled with so many holes that these empty signifiers result in little more than colors on a screen between the viewer and the story—empowerment and change are never actually embraced by the women in the story. In the end Skate Kitchen tells a tired and divisive tale about boys and girls not getting along, and that’s not what skateboarding is about. Maybe Moselle should have taken more input from Rachelle, because as she perfectly summarizes in this quote from an interview with The Berrics, skateboarding doesn’t fit the tired archetypes of consumer culture:
“I don’t like the idea of girls skating separately and boys skating separately; that’s not how skateboarding works. So The Skate Kitchen is not an all-girl group, it’s more just a group that’s encouraging girls to go out. But we all skate with everyone. So in the future I just want skating to be enjoyed by everyone. . .”