‘Minding the Gap’: An Existentialist Lesson in Confronting Adulthood

A common refrain I hear from my peers often is that we're all "becoming more and more like our parents". Bing Liu demands us to find out.

5 years ago

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A common refrain I hear from my peers is that we’re all “becoming more and more like our parents”. Whether or not that’s a good thing obviously depends on who your parents are, what they represent and most importantly, how you feel about them. The sentiment’s universality though says something poignant about the cultural moment my peers and I find ourselves in. Twenty and thirty-year-olds all across the country seem to be experiencing a tenuous mid-mid-mid-life crisis –  a realization that the probability of achieving one’s dreams and aspirations are becoming more narrow by the second.

Desperate and sudden yearnings toward new ways of living life seem to proliferate by the day. Clothes (and books) being thrown to the wayside according to the KonMari method in the pursuit of order and decluttering suggest a collective desire to do more “adulting”. Comedians like Ali Wong have detailed this as a need to desperately "turn this ship around", through self-help books or otherwise. Both phenomena point towards symptoms of a kind of “Millenial Burnout”. Although this feeling has up until this point been described in detail by those of a particular "professional-managerial class", its presence is much more striking amongst those of us who are not. We are realizing that our life path is taking a marked, almost nostalgic return to the way our parents behaved when they were growing up. It is this disparate junction between child and adult, dependent and independent, fledgling and fortified that interests me. What does it mean to be free from your parents? What does it mean to reckon with who you have become?

Screenshot of Reddit post

Bing Liu’s 2018 documentary Minding the Gap strikes at the heart of what it means to “be a grown-up”. Bing stated in a June 2018 interview with Deadline that he directed the film in part so that its message would resonate with younger viewers globally. Its 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating and Oscar nomination for “Best Documentary Feature” are a testament to the resonance it has struck with those who continue to be embattled with the questions and perils of youth as well as those who believe themselves to have outgrown them. The film centers itself on three young men growing up in an impoverished Rockford, Illinois, presenting their trials and tribulations from when they were children to present-day under the auspice of skateboard footage. This isn’t to say that skating isn’t a major unifying theme of the film: old video clips warped by the classic fisheye lens characteristic of 90s skate videos aren’t exactly hard to find and the film certainly devotes a significant portion of its runtime to showing both the skill and comfort the boys have with skating as a way of life. Instead, the radical empathy that characterizes Minding the Gap is through its presentation of gentler and arguably more universal themes. The start of the film states outright that skating is not merely a "silly hobby" but an outlet for youth who have lost trust in their own families and even in themselves. This is best put by Keire Johnson when he says “I could be on the verge of a mental breakdown but if I can skate, I’m fine”. The ability of the individuals portrayed to survive the arduous trials of their hopes and fears and who they have decided to become are all guided along by this hobby that they simply love to do.

Minding the Gap is ultimately about the interiority of confrontation: confronting your demons, confronting others' demons that have been projected onto you, and confronting the product of forces largely out of your control. Bing Liu, Zack Mulligan, and Keire Johnson show firsthand the difficulties of moving forward when each day seems uncertain and unforgiving. Scenes of deep confrontation shake the viewer to their emotional core, forcing those watching to feel as if they are witnessing situations they had no right to see. The camera feels invasive and voyeuristic when otherwise it felt nonexistent. When Bing asks Zack’s girlfriend Nina how she would feel if Bing (and the camera crew) went out of their way to confront Zack about his physical abuse towards her, the tenuous tip-tap dance of managing a combative relationship constrains every word in Nina’s tepid but firm response. The audience is forced to bear witness to the deeply personal nature of abuse, that its power comes not only from what the abuser does but the ways they control the abused even when the violence itself has stopped.

Bing presents us the harms incurred by domestic violence confronting the way everyone he captures on camera understands it to be inextricably woven with what it means to care for others. He challenges the core of this idea of care. Zach justifies his as self-defense and that it’s necessary to “slap a bitch to keep her in line”. A kind of "tough love". Bing juxtaposes the impact of this "tough love" by showing how it played out with his own family. He goes as far as to putting his mother on camera to understand how she felt about his stepfather viciously beating him in their own home for the better part of his childhood. The life lessons Keire learned from his father about providing for his family and being independent as a Black man in America were delivered by the same parent who, even Keire admits, enacted what would today be called “child abuse”. Minding the Gap has an incisive way of undermining the utility of weaponized love. It argues instead that unconditional love and compassionate masculinity can be compatible but that broader questions have to be answered about what it means to perform masculinity before the day-to-day life of men and in particular men of color can change. It may be so that love is unconditional, but there is no reason why it should have to hurt.

Photo of boy with skateboard
Source: NBC News

Evident from as soon as this documentary begins is the sense that Bing is acting as a kind of therapist for everyone involved by allowing them to voice their hopes, dreams, and regrets. Whether or not therapy and in particular this form of self-conducted therapy has efficacy for those under the strain of heinous work conditions and a deterioration of social bonds is difficult to say. Everyone in this film is hyper-aware and attuned to who they are and why they are the way that they are: their presentation on camera underscores the idea that self-therapy may instead simply make you aware of how you are perceived. The harm of saying things to “please the therapist” is most clear with Zach, who is given significant screen time at the start of the film in a very compassionate light. The film begins by detailing his love for skateboarding, the abuse he suffered from his family growing up, and the family he is currently trying to raise with Nina and their son. Much of the film’s establishment of its major themes relies on Zach seemingly bearing his heart out for the camera, inter-splicing scenes of him smoking weed and decrying the difficulties of not knowing exactly what he needs to do to take care of his baby. The film goes as far as to show the desperation of Zach’s situation by wading through his dim apartment after the power has been cut off, Bing all the while narrowly avoiding the overflowing mounds of dog feces that have accumulated on Zach's floor.

About halfway through the film, this facade of Zach relentlessly striving towards being a kind-hearted provider comes crashing down. Zach is shown instead to begin reflecting upon where he went wrong, the incongruency between how much he says he loves Nina and his inability to be there for her and their son, and ultimately how much he wants his son to not be doomed to be like him. Any semblance of perceived growth on Zach’s part leaves with him when he chooses to make child support payments and live with a new lover. Maybe he was doomed to repeat the mistakes of his parents. Maybe it was the case that he just couldn’t know what else to do. The viewer is left to question the authenticity of a truly unreliable narrator. The therapeutic platform is clearly shown to be its own double-edged sword, for both Zach as well as the audience.

Photo of man

Larger questions of racial reconciliation also play out when Keire discusses the impact his father had on him growing up. Keire admits that the camera is his form of “free therapy” that allows him to fight the grief he’s yet to grapple with over his father’s sudden passing. It is indeed self-therapy for Keire to speak directly to his childhood friend Bing but more importantly to be able to vocalize his problems aloud to someone in general. Social problems have a way of manifesting them in a very personal way; some of these manifestations are most heartbreaking when a person has to realize that what their parent had to do to prevent their children making the same mistakes they made came at a cost.

Those portrayed in Minding the Gap grapple incessantly with the failures of their parents and seeing them as not only fallible but mortal. Keire spends a majority of the film trying to understand the lessons his late father taught him about being a Black man in America, and what it means to be a Black face in a white place. Given how difficult it is to come to terms with his father’s sudden passing, Keire is stricken further with the severity of the methods his father had used to teach him while clashing with the deep affection he held for his father. When talking to a younger group of friends about a quote his father said, Keire is almost unable to hold back the smile that takes over his face in being able to share his father’s insight: “Being Black is cool because you get to prove people wrong everyday”. The harsh reality of structural problems sets in immediately after this optimistic quip when a white friend attempts to equate this radical act of rebellion as a Black man with being a white minority at a primarily Black high school. It takes another white friend in the group to call out this false equivocation before the subject has ostensibly resolved itself, and even then only because the conversation was now too awkward to continue. Reliance on vocalizing your hopes and dreams and inspirations aloud clearly only works if the right audience is ready to listen. A later scene showing Keire awkwardly standing on the side as his white friends watch a viral clip repeating the n-word exemplifies this point well, with Keire’s narration overlaid discussing how his dad would remind him that “you have a lot of white friends but don’t forget you’re still Black”. Bing puts us in these conversations to force us to realize that the lessons you learn from others may not always be the same ones that you choose to enact in your own life. Keire goes onto state firsthand that the value of learning those lessons, however, was not lost on him. That like skateboarding, he was hurt but also taught important lessons by the way he was treated by his late father. We are left to ponder our own decisions regarding what lessons we internalized from our parents and which we chose to turn an ear away from, and whether or not that calculus harmed us in the long-run. We are forced to confront if we became better people because of our parents, just like Keire did.

Photo of boy in front of gravestone

Bing’s confrontation with his mother regarding the beatings he suffered as a kid at the hands of his stepfather belies a different kind of confrontation, one of overwhelming anguish but also one of deep affection and care for his mom. The frame he operates in during this pivotal scene is a transitory one, one that we all occupy when struggling to come to terms with our past. It is one in which you are both incapable of changing the past and are actively trying to change the future without knowing what will happen. It is vital to the scene then that he set up the scene first by introducing the viewer to the owner of a local skate shop who admits that he initially perceived Bing to be gay because he appeared to be under the strain “of something huge”. The owner makes it known instead that, had he known what was really going on in Bing’s household, everything would have made much more sense. This all is presented on-camera without context so the viewer does not yet know the extent to which Bing was devoted to skating as an outlet from an abusive home. This is only established when his half-brother explicates how irrationally violent his father (Bing's stepfather) was in graphic detail and the “unnerving” screams that would come from Bing’s room during the beatings. Though the racial tension between Bing and his late father goes unacknowledged in the film, it is difficult to ignore on-face the presentation of a white man who marries an Asian woman and going on to beat her son from a previous marriage. This is clarified further when Bing says in a Vulture interview that the abuse his stepfather enacted on his mother included “cultural abuse” by preventing them from speaking in Mandarin. Bing is clearly aware of how his story nearly fits into the distinct "pattern of white man dominating an Asian woman who needs him in financial and legal ways”. Bing leaves it to the viewer to wrestle with the pain and confusion his mom expresses over why he continues to dwell on his abuse. She acquiesces long enough to be content with being on camera if it will help Bing to come to terms with how it has affected him, a profound fact the viewer understands just as well by being put in the position of seeing this all unfold on camera. Her initial plea of ignorance to the extent of the abuse eventually transitions to an admission that he would also beat her because of Bing’s existence and that she lived with it because she wanted to be loved. The audience is forced to sit with those lingering words and whether or not it was necessary for those acts to have happened to Bing in the first place.

Photo of man

Ultimately it is the pace of this film that really captured my attention. By being somehow both understated and extraordinarily heavy in content matter, Minding the Gap is able to perfectly capture the angst of being in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood. The medium of skating serves to demonstrate that even an activity that appears as pure and protected from the clutches of adulthood are subject to the same social forces that all other parts of life are. Every second of this film is steeped in the existential questions that we all ask ourselves, reminiscent of the narrative structure found in memoirs like Richard B. Wright’s Black Boy. Skating is supposed to be an example of an activity that we can love to do that doesn’t involve some kind of consumption and yet the film reveals that it is, in fact, the people who are “ consumed” for having to need it in the first place. Everyone in this film is united by their shared love for this hobby as well as the tragedies of their youth against the backdrop of a crumbling town many are leaving. We see ourselves in these people not just because they are young and struggling but because they, like us, do not know what the right decision is all the time. It is easy to judge Zach, Keire, and Bing for the choices they made but it’s even easier to see ourselves in their shoes precisely because of the slow accumulation of their entire life experiences, all documented on camera. It appears to be Minding the Gap’s hope that the viewer comes away with a new way to evaluate their own decisions in light of their past. Perhaps that’s what it really means to be an adult after all.

Thanks to Mark Sejong and E.

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Published 5 years ago

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