Skateboarding,” a popular bumper sticker from the end of the past century defiantly proclaimed, “is not a crime.” Strictly speaking, this contention is arguably true.
On its own, the act of standing on a wheeled plank as it rolls along a paved surface is not in and of itself illegal. However, that fundamental lack of criminality has failed to protect scores of skateboarders from being detained, frisked, ticketed, and even driven off to jail through these past five decades. Such is the power and pervasiveness of anti-skateboard sentiment.
This fear of the skateboarder—perhaps stemming from sidewalk surfing’s association with actual criminalized behaviors such as public nuisance, impeding traffic, marijuana possession and use, underage alcohol consumption, filming without a permit, trespassing, and public urination—is ingrained in the sedentary mass mind, and has been since at least 1966.
If The Man hadn’t already been hassling and pushing skateboard kids into marginalized outsider pockets of society back in ’66, then director Claude Jutra would’ve had no need or inspiration to make The Devil’s Toy, a 15-minute masterpiece of sly subversion disguised as an expose of teenage unrest and lassitude.
Produced on the sidewalks and other concrete spaces of Montreal, Quebec, and presented by the National Film Board of Canada, The Devil’s Toy starts off with a printed announcement: “…this film is dedicated to all victims of intolerance.”
A Link Wray-derived soundtrack kicks in during the intro, and a portentous, irony-dripping voiceover sets the scene and the tone as black-and-white cityscapes merge and emerge on the screen:
“The mind of man is as rich in evil as it is in good. The same inventiveness which blessed us with insulin, electricity, the arts, and engineering miracles of all sorts has also cursed us with the sword, the gun, the bomb, and. …”
A skateboard festooned by a skull-and-crossbones rolls into frame.
From there, events take a squarely absurd turn and lean into a mockumentary reality that clearly pokes fun of lames and squares who view kids dressing cool and nonchalantly shredding the city’s sidewalks as some sort of menace to quiet and propriety.
Hordes of skinny white teenagers in skinny chino pants glide through the viewfinder in a celebration of wheeled insouciance. The moves are cool. The kids are cool. Their clothes and haircuts are cool. The samba jazz and Afro rhythm music is super cool. The black-and-white photography of 1960s urban street scenes is cool.
Everything is cool until the cops show up at around the eight-minute mark.
All in all, the coolest takeaway from The Devil’s Toy is the proof it gives that skateboarding has been irreverent from the start, setting its own rules since its inception, defining its own values upon arrival, always being a kick and a roll ahead of everybody else in the departments of aplomb and style—and not just because Geneviève Bujold is here singing the theme song.