Working with Meaning (Part 5)



(Please refer to the Intro of this essay series and the Parts 1 through 4 before reading Part 5.)

In my prior post, I referred to Csikszentmihalyi describing how many people feel “Sunday mornings are the lowest part of the week, because with no demands on attention, they are unable to decide what to do….For many, the lack of structure of those hours is devastating.”  

Years ago, I read Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and heard echoes of the same theme: 
The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”  Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 133). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  
Here Orlean is referring to John Laroche, an eccentric who has whittled his world down to collecting orchids. Her interest in him exceeds his desire to collect flowers, though. It's his desire in general that fascinates her.  Before orchids, Laroche collected turtles, fossils, 19th-century Dutch mirrors, tropical fish. When Laroche directs his passion so devotedly, so acutely, to something, he thinks of nothing else, yet when he stops, he never thinks of it again. Orlean writes: 
Years ago, between his Ice Age fossils and his old mirrors, he went through a tropical-fish phase. At its peak, he had more than sixty fish tanks in his house and went skin-diving regularly to collect fish. Then the end came. He didn’t gradually lose interest: he renounced fish and vowed he would never again collect them and, for that matter, he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was seventeen years ago. He has lived his whole life only a couple of feet west of the Atlantic, but he has not dipped a toe in it since then. Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (pp. 2-3). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
A few years ago, I heard an interview with Woody Allen describing how he never considers what critics say about his work because once he finishes a film, he immediately begins working on the next one. Allen’s legacy is certainly tainted with the various allegations that have come out about him, but, for what it's worth, you certainly can’t question his work ethic. As of 2018, IMDB has Allen directing 51 films which is nearly one a year since his first film in 1965. What struck me about the Allen interview is the odd sort of faith he has. I say "faith" because Allen’s films for the last twenty five years or so, with a few exceptions, have been unwatchable, yet, to Allen, it doesn’t seem to matter.  With each film, he shows up on the set each day, pushing
the proverbial rock back up the hill. Is faith what we actually admire in people with passion? The fact they just believe, blindly at times, that what they’re doing is significant and meaningful in spite of reason or criticism? Returning to Csikszentmihalyi’s passage about Sunday Mornings, Orlean's interest in passion comes into focus: 
Why is solitude such a negative experience? The bottom-line answer is that keeping order in the mind from within is very difficult. We need external goals, external stimulation, external feedback to keep attention directed. And when external input is lacking, attention begins to wander, and thoughts become chaotic—Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2008-08-18). Flow (P.S.) (pp. 168-169). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
No doubt Allen’s passion for making films and Laroche’s passion for collecting orchids “whittles the world down to a manageable size." Most people consider such passion to be rooted in desire but what if faith actually is the seed that begets such energy? Most who feel stunted by not having a passion like Laroche or Allen, likely begin “collecting” or “making” something only to eventually stop because the pursuit seems illogical or futile. One initially feels interest or enthusiasm but for whatever reason, can’t sustain it. If faith actually is the seed though, then knowing something or feeling something should have very little to do with pursuing something passionately. One or both might begin the endeavor but faith transcends what one feels or knows. I’m sure Allen doesn’t always feel like going to the set or to the editing room, but he goes because he believes in it.  Laroche describes it this way: 
'It’s not really about collecting the thing itself,' Laroche went on. 'It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.' Orlean, Susan. The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) (p. 344). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  
Orlean envies Laroche, and I suspect someone like Allen, because neither appear to struggle with Sunday mornings.

Notes on MINDING THE GAP

Webpage for Bing Liu's Minding the Gap 

Nike's: Skateboarding is Not a Crime commercial


The Document:
 Return to Rockford


Hollywood Reporter Roundtable: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Bing Liu, Rashida Jones


Bing Liu interviewed by Salon


Bing Liu on The Daily Show


A.O. Scott; New York Times

They grew up together in Rockford, Ill., three boys united by their love of skateboarding. At a certain point — around middle school, it seems — one of them, Bing Liu, began videotaping their exploits.
 A pleasure of Minding the Gap, his astonishing debut feature, is to observe how skating and filmmaking flow together. As the young men get stronger, bolder and more dexterous, Mr. Liu’s camera skills keep pace, and he captures the sense of risk, freedom and creativity that makes their pastime more than just a hobby. 
It’s not only the glue that binds them to one another through tough times but also a source of identity and meaning, a way of life and a life saver. “Minding the Gap” is more than a celebration of skateboarding as a sport and a subculture. With infinite sensitivity, Mr. Liu delves into some of the most painful and intimate details of his friends’ lives and his own, and then layers his observations into a rich, devastating essay on race, class and manhood in 21st-century America.
Daniel FienbergThe Hollywood Reporter:
Liu is in a unique position because he's become almost a priest hearing confessions, forcing him to ponder the line between dispassionate filmmaker and concerned friend, while also looking for the right opportunity to get his mother on camera for a talk they've never had about their unspoken family secrets.
Michael Phillips; Chicago Tribune:
Around the midpoint Liu turns to his own part of the story. He interviews his mother, born in China as was the director, drawing out her memories of Liu’s abusive stepfather. The director’s half-brother, Kent, appears briefly on camera as well, recalling the “unnerving screams of anguish” coming from his sibling’s room at night. 
Much of “Minding the Gap” is painful to witness, but as past and present intersect and recombine and Liu’s wealth of footage coalesces, the finished film becomes a cautiously hopeful and even cathartic experience. It’s fully responsive as cinema. Liu, who served as editor along with Josh Altman, deploys the lyric skateboarding interludes just often enough to keep everything flowing. Akin to Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series, or Richard Linklater’s narrative feature “Boyhood,” at one point we see Zack hurtle through a few formative years in a lovely video montage. Life is beautiful, and cruel, and this film is a dialectic between the harshness and the beauty.
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As most of the critics describe, Minding the Gap has a deep vein of violence that runs down the center of the film. What's more disturbing is that we see how such violence is perpetuated.  One of Liu’s friends, Zack, has a child with his girlfriend, Nina, when both are just teenagers and we witness the difficulties in their relationship. In a revealing scene, we see the boogieman face to face as Zack tries to explain when it's justifiable to hit a woman.  Until this scene, the abusive men were faceless and lost in the past, but here, we see exactly how the pattern of violence comes full circle and is passed down from one generation to the next. 

It should be noted that the film isn't just about violence. The tone and pace of the editing by Bing Liu and Joshua Altman is what sets this film apart.  In lessor hands, a film like this could come across pedantic or as a tool for self-pity, but we have something else here. The way Liu as a director approaches his friends reminds me of a scene in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. A character named Dignan is in the middle of a foiled crime with his best friends, and, as we hear the sirens in the distance, he tells them to run away and so the cops chase him instead. His friends are confused and not sure what to do when Dignan interjects, “They’ll never catch me. I’m fucking innocent.”  
It's a curious scene because Dignan isn't innocent of the crime but what Anderson seems to be implying is that Dignan is innocent in intent; innocent at heart.  

Bing Lui's approach in Minding the Gap has an innocence at heart which helps us look at the painful subject matter with both eyes open.  Liu seems more interested in just being present than making a grand statement.  There is something grand about the film, but like with the boys' skating, what occurs never seems premeditated but instead happens organically with balance and grace.