January: Minding the Gap

“The Gap Between Participant and Observer”

Samantha Sheppard (Cornell University)

Bing Liu’s debut feature Minding the Gap (2018) is a compelling chronicle of the sport and sociality of skateboarding. As a sports doc, the film revels in the ludic appeal of skateboarding; the camera—in motion and stasis—captures the creative, dangerous, dexterous, disastrous, and triumphant tricks of skaters and onscreen subjects Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan. Liu, who also skates but spent much of his youth filming his friends Keire and Zack, easily keeps pace with the momentum and frenetic movements of the skaters around him. Liu’s film, however, is less a formal study of the poetics of skateboarding (even though you can recognize the aesthetic beauty of a body and board working in concert in the film’s well-crafted montages) and more of a moving—kinetic and profound—intimate portrait of family, race, class, gender, and cycles of violence in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois. Liu, as both participant and observer, tactfully reveals and critiques the people that he is filming. In doing so, Liu’s directorial intentions and investments become clearer. He wants to explore the intimate, joyful, and traumatic experiences of him and his friends, but he also wants to add his own perception of the events he is witnessing. In doing both, Liu deftly provides a sensitive study of the film’s subjects while also imparting subtle commentary through his editorial choices.

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While not didactic, I found Minding the Gap to be threaded with powerful messages. Liu juxtaposes scenes of his subjects with billboards from the town to illustrate the concept of “minding the gap” in their lives, of being attuned and attentive to the fissures between how things are and how things could be. For example, following a scene in which Zack and his on-and-off-again girlfriend Nina are struggling with their roles as new parents, Liu cuts to images of the city and then a billboard that reads: “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” He does this intertextual work again after Zack has moved from Rockford to Denver, Colorado, leaving Nina and their son behind in his wanderlust desire for a lack of responsibility. Liu follows Nina as she goes to the courthouse to start filing for child support and then cuts to a billboard from the Boys & Girls Clubs that reads: “It’s 3pm. Where are your kids?” While these juxtapositions are glaring, I do not read them as judgmental even if they are critical. Rather, they serve to highlight the pitfalls of platitudes and the chasm between the ideal and the real worlds these subjects are living within.

Minding the Gap’s racial commentary is both striking and subtle. While at first it appears that Liu is trying to show how skateboarding is a community of outsiders, he also “minds the gap” of those who belong and do not belong in spaces that have privileged white adolescence. For example, Keire, who is Black, does not fit in with his family. On one of his boards he writes: “this device cures heartache,” referencing his longing to be accepted by his deceased father. Liu complicates this sense of belonging to the skateboarding milieu by revealing the casual racism of Keire’s white friends, including Zack, who casually uses the n-word. In a deeply unsettling scene, Keire and a group of his white “friends” stand near a fire as they listen to and laugh at a video riddled with the racial slur. Here, Liu captures the “gap” between Keire and the group. As the camera focuses on Keire, he looks on with discomfort as he explains in voiceover that his father explained to him that while he has a lot of white friends, he’s still Black. This moment and others like it operate as a searing racial critique of whiteness, white privilege, and the violence of white supremacy in community formations.

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Additionally, the film’s focus on violence is a devastating and prominent connective tissue that binds together the subjects on screen. For Keire, the violence is the child abuse he experienced at the hands of his father, whom he wishes he could have reconciled with before his death. For Liu, the violence is from his stepfather towards himself, his half-brother, and his mother. I was especially struck by the scene staged between Liu and his mother, which reminded me of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch’s Suzanne, Suzanne (1982), specifically the intentionally staged scene between mother and daughter talking about the cycles of domestic violence in their home. Finally, Zack, who experienced violence around him as a child, is revealed to be abusing his child’s mother, Nina. This disclosure is both heartbreaking and infuriating, in part because of how sensitive Liu is to Nina’s safety in his attempts to broach the subject matter with her and Zack. I found myself frustrated that Liu doesn’t explicitly condemn and confront Zack’s actions, but I also understand and respect his choice to place this decision in Nina’s hands. Throughout the film, I felt like Liu was never trying to judge his subjects even as they made unfortunate choices. However, when Zack, sitting by the river, states that “some bitches need to be slapped sometimes,” I do believe there is a stance/side being taken. With acuity, Liu cuts to his own shocked face in the staged set up with his mother and then to his mother’s face in the same scene. Despite Zack’s request for understanding in the previous moment, Liu does not grant him absolution. Instead, Liu and his mother’s reaction shots speak volumes. The cut not only minds the gap but also closes the distance between who Zack thinks he is—a clown—and what he really is—an abuser.

“Black Box”

Jared Sexton (University of California, Irvine)

Bing Liu’s award-winning directorial debut, Minding the Gap, one of the best reviewed films of 2018, introduces the principal cast doing something unusual within the diegetic universe: ascending. The opening scene has them disregard a trespassing sign on an abandoned building and climb the stairs of a rusted fire escape. As they approach the rooftop, and the afternoon horizon spreads out beyond the skyline of this obsolete industrial park in their Rust Belt hometown, they give in to their growing queasiness and turn back. The first one up, cajoling the others to venture forth, aborts the plan; the followers resist briefly, expressing mock dismay about the wasted gumption. But not a word is uttered about the wasted time. The ambivalence and unwieldiness of time runs like a motif throughout the longitudinal documentary study drawn from over a decade of footage of Liu’s personal archive: the paradoxical surplus and deficit of its availability, the tempo of everyday life unspooling into the duration of the life course, the folding back of the past alongside the unfolding of the present.

These three young men from the blue-collar, multiracial city of Rockford, Illinois—the filmmaker and his close friends Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan—are at once worn down by the slow grind of acute childhood anguish and overwhelmed by the accelerating demands of adolescence. The film’s central meditation on a kind of free-falling disorientation is described at points in universal terms: the loss of innocence, the inevitable growing pains, the search for meaning. But this underlying assumption of the most general level of abstraction is overlaid with the nearly suffocating, contemporary specificity of urban decay, economic recession, social fragmentation, and political malaise.

Keire, Bing, and Zack, across their differences, are all skateboarders at heart. Skating is the subcultural lifeline that pulls them through the torments of domestic violence, the precarity of community impoverishment, the vagaries of gender and sexuality, and the antagonisms of racial difference. And though they think of their group affiliation as a chosen family, they are forced to revise that understanding as the forces of persistent residential segregation, divergent career potential, and spiraling substance use disrupt the rhythm of their shared intimacy. They skate together down empty streets, sloping hills, steep declines, handrails and drop-offs, inventively introducing gaps—between the ground, the board, the feet—into the otherwise smooth whirr of wheels on pavement. That, after all, is what does the trick: syncopating the routine run with local breaks to mitigate and manage the break up of a collective dream of a good enough life. If these young men are “miserably stuck in place,” then a great deal of their energy goes into forging a path, if not a plan, of escape.

In this state of preoccupation, more fundamental gaps emerge in the film. I am thinking, on the one hand, of the gap between desire and the language with which it is articulated in and as speech and, on the other, of the gap between blackness and everything that falls under the shadow of identity. We might summarize this doubled gap with the following rejoinder: Keire is not, as some reviewers opine wrestling with his racial identity as a young African American man; he is living out a black existence in an anti-black world, a predicament entirely indifferent to his immediate decision to spend time with peers who are black, white, or other.

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Keire makes his acquaintance with Zack, fittingly, at a local park, just after a then pre-teen Keire had been knocked over by an overly adventurous BMX rider. Zack confronted the perpetrator with a torrent of threats on Keire’s behalf, earning the latter’s immediate respect and admiration. However, the protective custody Keire enjoys from his big brother surrogate is shot through with its own racist hostility, equal parts fascination and repulsion. Newly a father with a relatively stable skilled job, Zack invests his meager savings in the construction of a new indoor skate park. Keire stops by to get an early tour of the course and Zack draws his attention to the signature obstacle: “The Keire Box.” When Keire inquires further, Zack explains: “because it is really weird shaped and long and crazy… that’s how you are too…your arms are six feet in front of you at all times.” In addition to the grotesque objectification of Keire’s body, the simian reference is hard to miss. Not for nothing, Keire’s name is Celtic for “dark-skinned”; “The Keire Box” signifying that to be “miserably stuck in place” means, for him, to be stuck in his “weird” body. So says his best friend, his brother and keeper.

It is to Liu’s credit that the film dramatizes this corrosive dynamic. But lest we think that the filmmaker’s sympathies for Keire provide an ethical anchor, we should admit that Bing is, in a way, the flip side of the coin. If Zack’s passive-aggressive desire prevents him from countenancing Keire’s interiority, Bing runs a similar risk, in his sensitivity, by relating to Keire as a creative and therapeutic muse to address the history of violence Bing and his mother, Mengyue, suffered since immigrating to the United States. “I’m making this film because I was physically disciplined by my stepfather and it didn’t make sense to me,” he says in the closing minutes, “and I saw myself in your own story.” “I saw myself” is, of course, another way of saying, “I did not see you,” even if the resultant connection is heartfelt. I did not see you, only the availability of your story, your image, your name. Or your body, its shape, its movement.

In the concluding scene, Keire packs his bags and says goodbye to his mother, Roberta, as he prepares to relocate to Denver in search of a new beginning. The final shot tracks Keire’s car cruising along the freeway from a high vantage, perhaps from the rooftop elevation unattained at the film’s opening. High enough, at last, to see the dark-skinned one roll out of the frame, out of sight, but never out of mind.

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