Documentary about champion skateboarding brothers sidesteps some home truths. By Christos Tsiolkas.

"All This Mayhem" documents a long grind

Tas Pappas is a terrific character broken by tragedy, bad choices and ill fate.
Tas Pappas is a terrific character broken by tragedy, bad choices and ill fate.
Credit: Greg Stewart
There is an amphetamine buzz to the best of late ’80s and early ’90s skateboarding videos, those kinetic documents of athletic virtuosity. They would feature loud thrash music, and the editing was always relentlessly choppy, as if the filmmakers wanted to simulate both the exhilaration and the nervous-tic anxiety of the speed rush. I was too old to be part of the skateboarding culture, and I found them tiresome to watch all the way through. I’d always be reminded of their older stoner cousin, the surfing movie; of how boring I found them as a child when my older cousins dragged me to see them. But what I respected in both genres was that they were created solely for the diehard aficionados within their respective subcultures. And I loved that occasionally there would be a moment or a sequence of shots that made you viscerally experience what it would be like to control your board and abandon your fear, what it would be like to soar. In those moments, skater videos or surf movies could be thrilling.

The skateboarding documentary All This Mayhem, directed by Eddie Martin, has a compelling subject. It is the story of two brothers from working-class western Melbourne, Tas and Ben Pappas, who become world champion skateboarders but are undone by their involvement in drugs and their inability to deal with the fame and notoriety that comes with their success. The film is produced by James Gay-Rees, who in 2010 co-produced Senna, an enthralling sporting documentary.

All This Mayhem clearly owes a large debt to the earlier film: it, too, is largely composed of contemporaneous video footage, culled from amateur filmmakers within the scene, from skateboarding movies, from television news and current affairs. The formula one driver Ayrton Senna emerged as a fascinating and complex hero, evidence of the skilful craft and lean storytelling of the earlier documentary, particularly as Senna himself is taciturn and largely silent in the video footage we see of him. Tas Pappas, the focus and dominant voice in All This Mayhem, is Senna’s opposite. He is garrulous and emotive, winningly straightforward and a natural storyteller. The film remains absorbing to the end, largely because of Tas Pappas’s energy and larrikin charm. We warm to him as a 16-year-old and we remain sympathetic to the older man broken by tragedy, bad choices and ill fate. He is a terrific character.

But the film loses momentum and focus by chasing too many threads. Ben and Tas are such fascinating characters – and truly tragic; this is also a tale of hubris – that the film’s divergence from their story is exasperating. There is an incoherent attempt to introduce a narrative of rivalry between the Pappas brothers and the US skateboarder Tony Hawk, but the history to this enmity is sketchily essayed and poorly integrated into the documentary. The director wants it to form the foundation to an investigation of the increasing corporatisation of the sport. But for that inquiry to resist cliché, we need to understand the rivalry between the Pappas brothers and Hawk as urgent, as a battle beyond the skate ramp, a contesting of notions of authenticity, of age and of class within the skateboarding subcultures. There is a story to tell regarding the conflict inherent in an adolescent-oriented sport such as skateboarding, of how the ageing skater does or does not integrate their adult responsibilities with their immersion in the sport. But for that conflict to generate drama we need to understand Tony Hawk as something more than a stereotype of commercialisation and “selling out”. 

In old television footage we catch glimpses of Hawk’s wife and child, and those shots ask the questions of how Hawk views his responsibility to his family and whether his attitude differed from Tas and Ben’s notions of duty. Yet the filmmakers remain stubbornly fixated on the extended adolescence of the skating world’s boys’ club. Questions of ageing, adulthood and the treatment of women in this world are hardly addressed.

The film suffers, too, from a reliance on amateur skateboarding footage that rarely conveys the excitement and daredevil buzz of the sport. The footage is slackly edited, and the music score lacks drive and intensity. From the evidence of this film, Martin doesn’t have a strong compositional sense and is unable to frame his found footage in a way that can convey the joy and danger of skateboarding. Titles tell us we are in Melbourne or San Diego or Vancouver, but we never get a clear sense of place, a real liability in a film that wishes to address how Ben and Tas’s outsider status as working-class Australian boys mitigated against them achieving lasting success in their sport. 

Skateboarding culture clearly flourishes in locales of suburban distance and alienation, neighbourhoods separated from one another by the primacy of road and car. But Martin seems uninterested in the question of place and we never get a sense of how Ben and Tas experienced their move to the US, how they dealt with the differences in the culture, or how they may have misjudged the apparent similarities. At the end of the film, Tas suggests that his and his brother’s trajectories would have been the same if they had stayed in Melbourne’s western suburbs. The fatalism of his observation is chilling and deeply moving but I wish the filmmakers had challenged it more diligently. 

At the beginning of the film, Tas Pappas speaks straight to camera and tells us there are three sides to every story – “my side, your side and the truth”. We assume we will be given an insight into the tragedies that affect both brothers, insights they themselves were incapable of foreseeing or comprehending. But although Tas is honest about his and his brother’s drug-taking and trafficking, about how they pissed their money away, about their violence towards women, we are kept at a distance from the family, especially their respective relationships with their estranged mother and with their father. I think Martin reveals an honourable compassion for his subjects, that he feels responsible for them, and that this care is extended to their families. He keeps their secrets, but that means he stays on “their side”. Maybe he assumes viewers have enough material to read between the lines.

Martin’s film is a great contemporary subject, one with resonance across the Western world, of how adolescents have to assume and deal with responsibilities squandered or never taken on by their parents. It is a more contentious, a more dangerous and ultimately more interesting story than that of sports heroes laid low by their addiction to hard drugs. You watch the video footage of the young and beautiful and cheeky Ben Pappas and fall in love with him. Then you look upon his face as a man of 23 and he has aged beyond his years, his stare is blank and deeply miserable. Once we comprehend the enormity of what he has become and what he does, the stale recounting of the needle and the damage done is not enough. Nor is it enough to be offered nostalgic musings on the glory days of skateboarding and how corporatisation has ruined the sport. There is validity to both narratives but our gut tells us that the real truth Tas challenges us to find resides elsewhere, in the dynamics of family and those of fractured communities. The complexity of that subject has overwhelmed the filmmakers. 

I wish All This Mayhem were a better film. I think it is a good and solid documentary; it kept me watching and engaged throughout. I didn’t think the redemptive coda to Tas’s story was cheap or sentimental: it wasn’t unearned, neither for himself nor for the filmmakers. I feel a strong sense of goodwill towards this film, glad that this story that was relegated to background media white noise has been told and that it has been treated with dignity. But the film could have really soared, it could have been thrilling if it had more of that reckless determination and purpose we see in the young Tas and the young Ben. I wish in their investigation and in their questioning, the filmmakers had been more fearless.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 19, 2014 as "Skating over the surface".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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