Minding the Gap


Skating can be more than just a passion.

(2018) Documentary (Hulu/Magnolia) Zach Milligan, Keire Johnson, Nina Bowgren, Kent Abernathy, Bing Liu, Mingyue Bolen, Roberta Johnson, Rory Mulligan, Kyle, Eric, Vickie. Directed by Bing Liu

 

Sometimes a film presents itself in such a way that you expect one thing (and those expectations are might low) but are delivered another which is so much more than you thought it might be. Those are the moments of discovery when you realize that you have seen a movie that isn’t just entertaining or enlightening but life-changing.

The movie begins as a suburban skateboarding documentary and to be honest, I’ve seen enough of those. The main protagonists are shredding around Rockford, Illinois and during interviews talk about how they just want to skate, they’re not interested in being a traditional part of society and that they don’t want to be put into any sort of box. These are all things about skate culture that I found repelling, a kind of entitlement that is unearned. As it turned out I was wrong.

We see the last three years of the lives of these skaters, essentially, as Zach – the leader of this group of friends, wrestles with fatherhood as his girlfriend Nina gives birth. Keire, the lone African-American member of the group, feels a sense of belonging with his friends that he doesn’t have with his family and Asian-American Liu – who initially was planning to only be behind the camera – begins to realize that documenting his friends’ lives is opening up some of the rougher parts of his own.

All three of these boys (and Nina as well) are on the cusp of adulthood and they are being dragged into it kicking and screaming. They don’t always act responsibly and they don’t always say or do the right thing. In other words, they are just like all of us at that age. Some of the things they do are destructive, some of the things they do are sweet but in every instance there is a sense of being unsure that they are doing the right thing. Like all of us as we move from childhood to adulthood, they are flailing around in the dark and hoping that they’ll find something to hold onto.

The relationship between Zach and Nina begins to deteriorate. They fight all the time, leading to a screaming match in which Nina threatens to kill Zach. We sympathize with Zach as he seems to be doing his best – working long hours as a roofer – but then we hear Nina’s side of things. Zach, as it turns out, is not the guy we thought he was.

All three of the boys have issues with fatherhood – in the cases of Keire and Bing dealing with abusive fathers. As Keire wryly says early on, “Back then it was called discipline but what it’s called now is child abuse.” Their moms are interviewed as we see the toll that abusive fathers took on them as well and as the movie goes on, how the dysfunctional relationship between Zach and Nina takes a toll on her as well. Everyone in this movie undergoes big changes in maturity as the movie goes on; some for the better, others not so much.

There are a lot of scenes of the guys skateboarding, maybe a few too many but one thing you begin to realize is that skateboarding is not a hobby or even a passion; it’s a release for them. It’s a way for them to deal with their pain and it’s as necessary to their well-being as eating and breathing. The issues I had with skater culture suddenly evaporated as I watched this. Their need for non-conformity made sense now to me. I can’t always condone someone who believes that their way of living is superior to anyone else’s, but I can see why the lifestyle is chosen. In a lot of ways, surfer culture is similar.

This is a movie you should see. You might think “oh, another skateboarding film” but it’s not that. It’s a coming of age film, not in the traditional Hollywood state of mind but as it really happens to all of us. Nobody looks forward to responsibility and stress but nevertheless we want the opportunity to make our own decisions and live life on our own terms. That’s not always possible; circumstances often dictate what our actions must be, but that need for autonomy and to be ourselves remains with us even when you’re as old as I am.

REASONS TO GO: The film goes from being a skate kid doc to an unexpected treasure. I ended up getting a better understanding of skate culture. It’s very powerful in places.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit on the raw side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some brief drug use and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liu has been filming his friends since they were all teenagers (and in Keire Johnson’s case, 11 years old) and has incorporated some of that home footage into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Street Kids
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mute

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Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


America the beautiful as we imagine it is.

(2016) Documentary (Two Birds) Wendell Berry (voice), Earl Butz, Steve Smith, Tanya Berry, Curtis Combs, Andy Zaring, John Berry Jr., Michael Douglas, Dale Roberts, Juan Javier Reyes, John Logan Brent, Mary Berry, Mark Roberts, Phoebe Wagoner, Arwen Donahue. Directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell

 

Farming is a necessary profession; after all, we all need to eat. The work of farming isn’t easy; it requires a lot of elbow grease and a lot of dedication. The economics of farming are almost as daunting as the physical labor involved.

Wendell Berry is a poet and essayist who comes from a long line of farmers in Henry County, Virginia. He left home to pursue a career as a writer in New York. After finding some success, he turned back around and went home to his family farm both to grow tobacco but also to continue his writing career on his farm, where he built himself an office with a 40-pane glass window with a view of the Kentucky River and whatever else he chose to look out at.

He is also an activist, working tirelessly to support family farmers in an era where they are slowly being pushed out into extinction. Most family farmers are caught up in a Catch-22 situation in which in order to compete they have to increasingly mechanize their farms but in order to afford to do that they have to buy more land and cultivate it. They get caught in this endless cycle in which they need to expand but the more they expand the deeper in debt they go.

If you’re expecting a bio doc on Wendell Berry as I was, you will be sorely disappointed. This really doesn’t give a lot of background information other than stuff you can essentially find on Wikipedia. We hear Berry reading from his essays, Berry in vintage interviews from the 60s and 70s, from a debate he had from agribusiness advocate and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who in many ways is the architect for the factory farming that brings most of the food to our table in 2017.

The beginning is very much like Koyaanisquatsi with the visuals and also the Philip Glass-like music. Over this we hear Berry reading prose in his stentorian voice that reminds me a bit of Johnny Cash from Berry’s magnum opus The Unsettling of America.

Afterwards, we are treated to interviews of fellow farmers in Henry County, telling about their economic difficulties and how Berry was an inspiration to them. One, Steve Smith, talks about how he went from tobacco farming to organic vegetables and how it seems to be saving his farm.

In some ways this feels like a WPA film from the 30s even though much of the archival footage is 30-40 years after that era. Berry is very much against factory farming but he doesn’t seem to address some of the other reasons that family farming is failing; for one thing, the younger generation don’t WANT to be farmers. There are plenty of farmers whose kids, seeing the hard work for diminishing economic returns want no part of the family business. That’s not to say that all younger generation farmers would rather do something else with their lives – there are still plenty who feel that almost mystical bond with the land – but there are fewer of them now than there have ever been.

And while Berry seems to advocate a more Luddite version of farming that is more labor intensive, it doesn’t address the issue of feeding an increasing population worldwide. America hasn’t always just fed its own; we export enormous amounts of grain and other agricultural products. Many family farmers rely on that demand. As the population increases, more efficient methods are required.

Yes, there is a bucolic and rustic feel to the film that I liked but the conclusions don’t seem to address all of the real-world issues that farmers worldwide face. It’s nice to want to preserve a way of life but sometimes that way of life has to submit to progress.

The images here are beautiful and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting their case but the movie seemed to be more of a screed than a portrait of Berry as advertised. It seems to be more of a hagiography as the filmmakers fail to address issues that are essentially ignored in Berry’s writings. He’s a great writing but lyrical poems and prose do not an argument make.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography of rural Kentucky is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not so much a biography so much as a snapshot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the sequence in which a three-legged stool is being carved by hand, the carpenter is actually producer Nick Offerman although his face isn’t used on-camera.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Make a Farm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bad Genius