Physical Graffiti Review

The Film

There are many for whom the world of extreme sports began with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on the Playstation, and who knew nothing of the ‘extreme’ lifestyle led by the likes of Steve-O and Bam Margera before they made it big on MTV. There are, however, those that remember the Toy Machine and 411 videos of old, who are very aware that this particular brand of counter culture has been around much longer.

That’s not to say extreme sports began a mere 5 years before Jackass, you only have to look as far as Dogtown and Z-Boys to know that, but Physical Graffiti managed to capture the time between extreme sports, and the people associated with them, getting stupid and getting famous. As Jamie Thomas puts it, “Skateboarding... it’s getting dangerous, you can’t get by doing the norm anymore. I’m not saying it’s my fault, but I like where it’s going.” Many would argue that it’s the people getting into the sports that are pushing them to be ever more extreme, that it’s the kids that want to do more than has been done before that push the sports forward. Physical Graffiti seems to be of the opinion that there are rather more philosophical reasons for the evolution.

Whilst the focus of the film is the body modifications that this cultural sub-set have embraced – albeit at the tail end of them being truly socially unacceptable, rather than frowned upon by people over a certain age – Physical Graffiti found its subjects in the world of extreme sports, so a few of the faces here will be familiar to many. Its fundamental question is “Why?” Why do these people want to push the boundaries of their physical endurance, and what do they hope to achieve. It seems though that the filmmakers mind’s are already made up. With a voice over made up largely of philosophical musings from the likes of Bertrand Russell and Nietzsche, Physical Graffiti idolises its subjects are heroes, blazing a trail of freedom, setting themselves apart from the crowd in their quest for truth and genuine freedom. Getting a tattoo is described as a “minutely heroic act” and “the first true sign of commitment” it would seem we’re being told that body modification isn’t just a route to freedom, but the route to freedom.

If you can accept that it isn’t a film that really wants to ask any questions of its subjects, or draw any conclusions other than the ones already decided before filming even began, then there’s much to enjoy – at least for the Jackass loving crowd – and for those that don’t know anything about this [counter] culture, there’s a lot to learn. Though maybe it isn’t for those with a weaker disposition. Body modification goes far beyond a fashionable tattoo on your lower back or getting your nostril pierced, those are mere baby steps – though steps many will never take and most will never go further than. Physical Graffiti manages to search out people that display a level of commitment to their art that I’m sure their teachers wish they would have applied to their schoolwork, though you can be sure none of them believe they’d be better off if they were lawyers. In fact I’d be surprised if they weren’t resolute that it would be immeasurably worse. Take Jim for instance, he’s got the tattoos, he’s got his ears pierced and stretched, he’s been branded, and he has a line of studs in his scalp – making a kind of metal Mohawk – that can even be unscrewed and replaced with an assortment of other jewellery, but Jim’s best work has been reserved for… little Jim. Alongside his Prince Albert is a row of frenum piercings (bars through the shaft of his penis) as well as free floating implants – sub-dermal balls that can move freely under the skin – but the piest de resistance, the incision that runs along the base of his penis, splitting it open. That’s a pretty impressive level of commitment.

This footage is all mixed in with a liberal dose of Jackass style stupidity, taking in projectile vomiting, smashing beer bottles over your own head, and backflipping off cinema awnings, along with a lot of extreme sports footage of not only skateboarding, but also snowboarding, motocross, and surfing. There are quite a few stunts here that still stand as impressive, even after a decade of people pushing those boundaries, which is impressive enough on its own, though the effects of the stupid antics is rather lessened by the saturation of Jackass, Dirty Sanchez, and the myriad of lesser clones over the years.

I’m not entirely sure what audience Physical Graffiti was seeking out, it seems to be trying to explain to people that don’t understand just why people do extreme sports and body modification, but without questioning them in any way, without challenging their reasoning, it leaves the film feeling far more like propaganda than a documentary. The interviewees offer little more reasoning than they like them, or they wanted to be different, of they were trying to find themselves, not that any of those are bad reasons, but none of them support the philosophical voice over that ties them all together. You won’t find Shaun Palmer quoting Nietzsche while he’s walking you through his tattoos – almost exclusively of Cadillac logos – leaving you feeling like the grand motivation we’re being sold on is nothing more than one man’s idolisation. Physical Graffiti is a lot of things, a mixture of extreme sports video, an episode of Jackass, and a sprinkling of documentary, it could have done with a lot more of one and a lot less of the others. It’s certainly interesting, but ultimately the best it can hope to achieve is entertaining a few, and letting people unfamiliar with the scene know these things are possible. It would have been far preferable to really examine why people do these things to themselves, and to look in more depth at how they are done and the truly amazing breadth of the modifications people have dreamt up.

The Picture

Presented in a 4:3 ratio for the most part – some of the footage used is in widescreen but it is presented within the 4:3 frame – Physical Graffiti doesn’t look anywhere near as good as much of the artwork it captures. The sports footage is the biggest bugbear, with much of it being transferred from home video cameras – particularly the surfing footage, I guess high quality waterproof cameras are rather hard to come by on a tight budget – and none of it seems to have been filmed for this documentary, I remember seeing much of the skateboarding footage on team videos long before this film was made. The transfer to DVD is as good as can be expected, it’s just a pity much of the original material was of such poor quality.

The Sound

Presented in Dolby Digital Stereo, there isn’t much to Physical Graffiti’s soundtrack, much of the audio material is, of course, from the same cheap cameras as the video footage, so that isn’t the best quality and the majority of the forage in the film is interviews, so they won’t set your sound system alight. There is a lot of music in the film, which is clearly presented, but overall it’s still a lacklustre experience.

The Extras

A stills gallery is all that is present on the disc, and they are all images from the film, and none of them particularly imaginative either. Aside from that all the disc comes with is a postcard. The lack of extra material is a shame, a ‘where are they now’ section would have been fantastic, to see how the various body modifications had progressed in the years since the original interviews, but sadly this disc is nearly bare – ironic really for a film about people that like to elaborate on their own design.


Physical Graffiti is somewhat of a curiosity, lacking in so many areas but still strangely compelling. It isn’t really funny enough to withstand repeated viewings, and it’s also rather a short film, so the lack of extra content makes this a difficult film to recommend purchasing. It will appeal to many, but the world has changed a lot since it was made and much of its content is now more than familiar to everyday folk, though it still manages to bring a few things to the screen that Jackass would never get away with showing, and probably never wanted to.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 10:30:47

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