Oct 29, 2006
too much writing, not enough riding
Not the sharpest screen grab. TJ and Ben, quite happy about something... (Update: TJ has informed me that he considers this picture immensely unflattering.)
An NPR interviewer was asking Todd Field, director of the new film Little Children, about cinematography. Part of Field's response was this line: "People don't go to the movies to watch camerawork or to listen to music. People go to the movies to watch themselves." For all I know, that may have been lifted directly from his Cinema Theory 101 textbook, but I immediately started thinking of how it would apply in bike video production.
The concept has at least two distinct facets, both directly applicable. The first is the matter of the viewer's attention: is it "better" for the viewer to notice and enjoy the production of the film/video, or should production strive for "invisibility"? For example, bike riding has its inherent rhythms, and syncing those rhythms up with a musical soundtrack isn't too challenging. When done perfectly, the effect can be immensely satisfying, on an almost primal level. However, I also notice myself anticipating the beat--a portion of my attention is inevitably wondering, "Is the next shot going to sync up?" One could argue that, in this case, the production is a distraction. Camera angles that are overly clever can distract in the same way. "Wow, what a great angle," I sometimes catch myself thinking (instead of "Wow, what great riding").
The most perfect example of "invisible production" that I know of is Steve Machuga's part in Transylvania by Ty Stuyvesant. When the part finishes, it's as if I'm waking up from a dream, every time--I realize that I was completely absorbed in the video. The music (Pink Floyd), the angles, the editing all stay hidden in the background, emphasizing the riding. I don't know how Ty did it, and although I consider it a significant accomplishment, I recall someone complaining that the video put him and his friends to sleep. Funny.
While I find this "invisible production" question interesting, and while the issue is critical for Hollywood filmmakers, I think I enjoy high-quality production of bike videos almost as much as high-quality riding. (However, production quality probably needs to be carefully matched to riding quality. See if you can sit through this very well produced trailer for an upcoming "bike video." I can't.) This actually brings me right to the second point, but it's a little bit complicated to flesh out. I appreciate it if you've read this far. You've a ways to go yet. The reason I love good production and good riding is not that I want to be amazed--I love these things because of the effort involved.
Bmx is different from mainstream sports because (among other things) there is no acknowledgment for your accomplishments--no audience, no endzone, no glory, and no opponent except yourself. And we kill ourselves for what? That a select sub-culture will understand why a "hard 180" is hard? This ridiculous dichotomy--the price paid and the reward earned--is the proof of our love. Or perhaps its proof of the "artness" of bmx. In addition to the scars, scabs, and premature arthritis, we dedicate our time and money, refining the skills of shooting photos and "filming" [with videotape]. Believe me, I notice, I get psyched, seeing a locally-produced video with properly exposed 3ccd footage and no heads chopped off. I love multiple angles, and I love catching sight of another filmer or photographer, or the flash of a camera, or hearing the whirr of a motor-drive. I love footage of riders shaping quickrete trannies, waxing ledges, and sweeping public parking lots. (Jason Enns's 411bmx bio is excellent, and I can't believe I don't own a copy; catch him sledge-hammering a pesky curb for wallride access, hauling a home-made picnic table from spot to spot, fashioning a 20-foot runway of sandbags and plywoood up to some monster wooden handrail in the middle of the countryside, and trimming the same rail with a battery-powered skill-saw.)
Perhaps the most powerful proof of effort is crashing. I don't intend to sound sadistic, but I have difficulty appreciating riders that never crash. If they're not crashing... how can they really be riding at their maximum ability? I want to see the trick that took Corey Martinez twenty attempts to pull. Then we would know what the man is capable of.
Effort... Well, I'm not very good on a bike, and I crash a lot. I suppose a great deal of riders crash a lot, but many pros seem able to go a whole Metro Jam with little more than a light bail. (That's a relevant distinction, too: crashing vs bailing.) This is where I return to my starting point--that we watch videos to see ourselves. Bmx is not easy for me. I have difficulty identifying with pros for whom riding is absolutely effortless.
Consider the facial expressions that people make after pulling a trick. If the rider maintains a cold, tough grimace, or turns and flips off the camera, the non-verbal message is "I'm not breaking my cool, 'cause that was easy." Alternatively, a rider pulls his trick and a huge smile breaks across his face: "That was hard. I can't believe I did it."