Two Frames Per Second: Don DeLillo, Jim Greco, and the Inevitability of Olympic Skateboarding

Skateboarding is coming to the Olympics. When we watch, what will we see and how will we see it?
Share |

When Don DeLillo stepped foot in Douglas Gordon’s 24-hour Psycho installation in 1993 and first gleaned the inspiration that would become the opening scene for Point Omega, future professional skateboarder Jim Greco was already skating, already gathering the experiences that would one day result in his “Baker2G” video part. Of the video’s many sections, it’s Greco’s part that features gratuitous amounts of slow-motion scenes for skate video standards, a pacing choice that DeLillo might admire.

Point Omega features an anonymous man spending six consecutive days standing at the back of a museum, enveloped in darkness, observing the minute gradations of a video exhibit wherein Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is played in its entirety at two frames per second. The anonymous man’s keen sense of observation typifies skateboarders, too, with their ability to see the urban world as a space recreated into their own playground. Skateboarding will soon branch out from the streets and join the Olympics—in 2020 in Tokyo—which makes the present a timely point for skaters to learn through their proxy, Don DeLillo’s anonymous man. Skaters may fear there will be no use for observational skills when the world’s most highly organized competition administers its own rulings, provides its own course. In light of this Olympics pessimism, skaters can look towards the anonymous man for reassurance in the transformative power of observation.

The similarities to Point Omega are immediate in Greco’s introduction. While viewing Psycho ’s famous shower scene, the anonymous man uses the time granted by the exhibit’s pace to contextualize the scene with the added information he gathers. He counts six shower rings while the water defies known physics after the brutal attack, and with this number in mind, he questions what exactly he should make of it. In “Baker2G” we see a starkly lit corridor; the camera approaches and stops in front of a shirtless and bloodied Greco, while garbled voices in the background provide little additional context. He remains nearly immobile while the camera slowly pans from his face to his chest then back to his face—but not without hitting his nose, triggering his delayed response, “fuck head”—at least that's what it sounds like. In one slurred line we understand meaning isn’t always plainspoken.

It’s these hazy slow motion shots used in the opening sequence and all throughout “Baker2G” that turn out to be essential in understanding the work. The sheer frequency of these shots grant viewers the starry-eyed perspective of a child deciphering the sky’s constellations in some Steven Spielberg movie—except instead of clouds, there are shrinking and growing sweat/dirt stains on Greco’s back as he skates the Wilshire handrails long into the night. When we see Greco’s evolving stages of dishevelment during this session, it highlights the night’s marathon aspect as a mini narrative, one that sees a change of shoes from the brown Emericas seen in his jaunty switch frontside flip over a handrail to black pair in the following backside noseblunt down the very same handrail, this time with understandably less vigor on the roll away.

This isn’t the first time slow motion has been used in a skate video. It’s a blue-chip technique within the niche scene of skateboard videos. Powell Peralta’s Ban This (1989) is one such video that features a young Ray Barbee skating in the heat shimmering streets of California in a smooth slow motion. Gliding between mid-80’s compact cars with a meditative soundtrack, Ray Barbee embodies an early example of an idealized style of skating characterized by fluidity of movement and improvisation tricks; Barbee exudes the mood of a skater busy reinterpreting the city, lost in a state of flow.

In “Baker2G,” Jim Greco works against both romanticization and fluidity. In the confines of the film, a switch ollie down a set of stairs doesn’t stand on ceremony. The blunt force used to gap the distance of the stairs and absorb the shock of the impact—normally prime territory to capture a raw style of skateboarding—is attenuated in slow motion at the expense of Greco’s best interest, which is to highlight kinetic energy, the most pronounced feature of unrestrained skating. His switch flip boardslide is likewise undercut. Once shown in real-time, his feet slamming his board onto the rail and into submission exhibits his will. The same clip then repeated in slow motion recasts an act of will to a chance occurrence, when under closer inspection, the board haphazardly rebounds of the rail and back under his feet. Far from smoothing over the seams by way of visual effect, slow motion only underscores his skating’s disjointed nature. The anonymous man in Point Omega remarks that the pace of the museum exhibit makes traditional descriptions of cinema inadequate; “Baker2G” follows suit.

Greco’s hard-fought skating has earned him pro paychecks and icon status while never really inviting the description natural on a skateboard. His part in “Baker2G” is noteworthy for questioning the very notion of natural, as well as pushing the habituated viewer of skateboarding to reconsider the whole enterprise and its surrounding assumptions. New interpretations come with complete and sustained concentration, the sort the man at the back of the museum possesses. Watch Greco skate the Wilshire rails long enough and we notice the nefarious look of the immobile figures camped out at the base of the stairs, ready to pursue Greco with paparazzi-like zeal. When we’re not swept away in the moment, skateboarding can look conspiratorial. The time and place is agreed upon: Wilshire rails, nighttime. And when the objective is complete, Greco disappears into the night’s void. Upon Greco’s exit, the camera’s gaze lingers at the newly vacated space at the base of the stairs, which is then in turn occupied by another photographer. It’s not that this scene is necessarily antagonistic—the Baker skate team is notoriously tight-knit—but like any other relationship, skating can be transactional. The seams of a video production, traditionally kept artfully hidden, have the effect of a crumbling fourth wall and site of deconstruction when fully exposed to the viewer.

Taken from another angle, the commercial artifice found in arthouse style videos also begs the question if mass media broadcasts are capable of presenting the individuality of skaters. When Austyn Gillette intimates in a recent interview with the international podcast The Bunt that he was willing to feel a little foolish for a down payment on a house, we see the skater’s personal agency shine through, and perhaps weave part of, the corporate curtain.

This sort of spirit, which is more anti-establishment than mercenary when placed against the monumental storytelling strokes done by the Olympics committee, makes for an interesting subplot to anticipate while judges make their decimal-pointed rulings. Trying to spot the fleeting gestures of indifference before they are levelled from the broadcast is the ultimate challenge. The sleight of hand used to make skaters look as if they’ve waited their entire lives to compete in the Olympics when it wasn’t even a possibility until a few years ago will certainly be showcased. Handball coverage will transition into skateboarding with little friction, which, in a twist of fate, happens to be closely associated with a foundational act of skateboarding: the grind. At that point, what will we be able to feel from the tricks when there’s no heat or tension generated by two opposing forces?

When skating is stripped of its context, whether it be the cars or pedestrians in the background or the cuts, scrapes, and other marks left on the skater that bear evidence of life lived in broader world between or after tricks—say, for example, a possibly concussed man standing in a hallway—skateboarding lacks the vital force that commits viewers to the screen. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to think that when Greco disappears into the void after a trick down the Wilshire rails, he might reappear into a reality that more closely resembles that of the Ramones on the CBGB stage. It's only one many possible interpretations formed in the viewer’s mind while their imagination outpaces the action on screen and simultaneously reconfigures the visual elements into a bricolage daydream.

Yet it's a certainty skaters will be at the Olympics, pulling tricks and grinds. The question is whether it can be felt that they could exist outside the context of the competition, either paying rent, dodging traffic, or any other activity that has a toll. The camera people will surround the competitors when occasion calls for the extreme close-up—the same shot for which the indy videographer lovingly called Fat Bill earned his auteurist place in skateboarding. Does the facial expression of the skater change when a network's hired hand tries to capture his state of mind as opposed to the homie? Does the skater feel coerced by the camera’s gaze and the camera person’s reticence in lieu of the life-affirming bits encouragement that skateboard filmers typically say to their friends during a heated battle with a trick?

Don DeLillo writes, “The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw.”

One of America’s greatest living writers enters the fictional space of a museum, which is damn near infinite in possibilities, and emerges on the other side with a portrait of a skate rat. The anonymous man walks to the backside of the screen where the reverse image of actor Anthony Perkins uses his left hand to open a door instead of his right. This fictional account resembles the reality of skate legend, Brian Anderson, holding a mirror to his face, marveling at a newly created world where Heath Kirchart skates left foot forward. In this subtle gesture, skaters reassert their power of reinterpretation. It’s a fun game to play, an amusing way to pass three or four days—or the duration of the summer Olympics. Then it’s time to get break back into the real world, where it’s possible to talk with friends, if only about what we’ve seen and how bizarre it was.

Share |


No comments yet. Login to post comments.