' ' Cinema Romantico: Minding the Gap

Monday, March 11, 2019

Minding the Gap

Film editing is inherently a manipulation of time. Few movies grasp this more than “Minding the Gap”, Bing Liu’s feature debut documentary, retroactively in my 2018 Top 10 (but who’s counting?), which sometimes slows down to revel in the glory or the grisliness of the fleeting moment and sometimes speeds up to accentuate the sensation of life’s emotional weight pressing down. Indeed, if Liu had originally intended a documentary celebrating the youthful skateboarding lifestyle of he, Keire and Zack, a couple of his Rockford, Illinois pals, picking up a camera and figuring it out how to shoot and edit along the way, with each passing year, the more “Minding the Gap” morphed into something else, spawning different questions and new angles. In a way, “Minding the Gap” is akin to a non-fiction version of “Boyhood.” Yet if the life of that film’s protagonist stretched across years, demonstrating the weight of time even as it led him to the ultimate realization that “it’s always right now, you know?”, Liu begins with that conclusive truth and then works backwards.

To Liu, Keire, and Zack, skateboarding is respite from youthful languor and adulthood’s encroaching realities, a truth we are not just told but shown, in giddy ground-level Glidecam shots of Keire and Zack soaring through the streets as if they have wings on their heels if not quite hope in their hearts. Zack recounts how taken aback he was the first time he saw these scattered images edited together by Liu, how perfect it made their lives appear, an observation underscoring not only how editing exerts influence but how the time aboard those skateboards is like riding a train to the land of make-believe. And if Liu opens “Minding the Gap” by highlighting the escape skateboarding can provide, he picks apart that illusion, not with any malice or even seeming intention but a kind of gradually emerging awareness of surrounding reality.

Initially, it turns out, Liu intended to include voiceover, even recording it though eventually scrapping it. This decision was wise. It’s not that “Minding the Gap” isn’t reflective, because it very much is, but rather than looking back it becomes about moving – haltingly – forward, and everything that happens to this trio therefore lends an organic feel to its burgeoning themes of fathers and sons, and of fathers and sons and abuse. These themes pivot off Zack becoming a father with Nina, his girlfriend, though bouts of beer-slurping between diaper-changing betray his eventual fleeing responsibility, his self-loathing and self-destruction palpable in on-camera confessionals, particularly one on a riverbank where he mostly refuses to look at the camera, revealing himself both in tune to his own failings and completely oblivious to them.

Those failings include physical abuse. If Nina first reveals it, she then pointedly asks Liu not to press Zack about it, a real-time questioning of a documentarian’s ethics that never not quite gains a resolution if only because there isn’t one. Liu honors her request, though Zack eventually confesses to it anyway in his own ignorant way, a confession that assumes added gravity given how both Keire and Liu wrestle with abusive fathers in their past too. This abuse proves as much a spiritual link as skateboarding, an idea Liu furthers just as much in his editing, a late film sequence cross-cut between the trio where they consider their respective presents and pasts with so much emotional ferocity it momentarily feels like one of those pulse-pounding action movies.

Liu makes clear Rockford’s hard times in news clips and shots of boarded up buildings, but just as much in shots of skateboarding through empty where the movie’s progression retroactively provides clarity about all that in-town emptiness. It’s easy to read these harsh economic circumstances as a correlation to the abuse that Zack doles out and Keire and Liu suffered, yet Liu, as director, has no interest in providing absolution. Footage of a younger Keire shows him lashing out, taking the skateboard of another kid he’s just beat up and then stomping up and down on it until the board breaks. He has his father in him. Yet that never seems to take hold, Keire’s infectious grin and garrulous laugh eventually winning out, as he quietly pulls away from Zach and toward a new group of friends, takes beaming pride in a promotion at work, and resolves to get out of Rockford. If he seeks real escape as opposed to the fleeting kind, Liu spends the movie going back, taking Keire’s observation that these on-camera confessionals are like therapy as gospel in delving into his psyche, revisiting his childhood home, trading terrible stories with his brother about their stepfather.

In one scene he sits down with his mom for an interview about why she endured her husband’s abuse. It’s not just her on camera, however, but Liu too, filmed by a different crew, almost like a documentary within a documentary. It’s not meta, though, but something else, evoking Bruce Springsteen sitting down in his New Jersey bedroom so many winters ago and recording “Nebraska” on 4-track. Springsteen’s best pal Steven Van Zandt said it was the most personal statement an artist could make because he was literally singing for himself. “Minding the Gap”, with its Oscar nod and critical ballyhoo, might have reached the masses too, but it still feels like Liu is filming for himself.

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