This is a film I wrote during the UCLA Summer Film Intensive program. This film was inspired by themes of identity and loss, and the idea of wanting to communicate with someone you love no matter the cost.
For a full interview with some of the cast and the director Chelsea Giles you can go here.
When we think of the peace building process, we may imagine long, drawn out diplomatic meetings, flow charts and years of bureaucratic red tape. Often these processes happen from players (like politicians and other policy makers) who are distant from the actual conflict themselves. Groups like the UN Peacekeepers and the Red Cross are usually the one at the forefront of the conflict themselves.
As strange as it might sound to some, skateboarding and skateparks in particular, have proven themselves as worthy spaces for peace building. For areas that suffer from both conflict and instability, this sport, called by some, a lifestyle, and others a way of life or “art” (Friedel 21), offers a sense of community, social bonding and self-worth.
Like surfing, skateboarding has blossomed into one of the most universal languages in sport. You don’t need to speak someone else’s mother tongue to enjoy a wave together, or to run up and high five someone for doing an impressive trick. Skateboarding promotes peace-building because of this universal translatability and its non-hierarchical structure — there is no “best” skateboarder, due to it’s subjective and individualized expression.
In surfing and skating there are no fixed rules, but a learned code of respect, whether out on the ocean or in the street. In this paper we will argue against the notion that skateboarding is simply a “contemporary symbolization of white male youth.” (Yochim 27) or a “nuisance” (36) but instead that it is a universal language open to anyone: regardless of gender, identity, age or even able-bodied-ness. I will argue that skateboarding is an underutilized method and philosophy for peace building because it helps promote ideas of inclusivity, stakeholder engagement and “personal development” (Bradley 5) while providing safe spaces for at-risk youth.
We will look at organizations like Skateistan, which was founded to promote skateboarding in areas that have difficult access to action sports, such as Cambodia, South Africa or Kabul. This organization is an example of how peace building is accomplished through a skateboarding program. In the process we will trace the the impact of skateboarding on the individual and community at-large, and trace how it works as a model for peace building, de-radicalization and terrorist disengagement.
The scope of perceptions surrounding skateboarding are vast and often contradictory. As global as the sport is, it is often undermined and misunderstood as “child’s play”, but for many skateboarders it is considered an “alternative way of life” (Borden, 2001:1) much like surfing or becoming a vegetarian or a Buddhist monk.
Skateboarding helps give a sense of freedom and expression to youth, this liberated energy can be seen as threatening to some traditional, more structured sports like baseball. In the past, parents and city officials alike have confirmed these negative impressions of skateparks, calling them “ugly” and “threatening” places (Bradley 10). Although skateparks are without a doubt non-traditional, urban spaces of play, (with the occasional graffiti marks and vandalization), this is because skateparks are intersectional spaces. However underneath their rugged exterior, these intersectional spaces contain important lessons for personal development.
They are the rare public spaces where professional athletes might intersect with people from the homeless community (Bradley 13) or older, more mature skaters they might not otherwise meet. This diverse engagement that may ward off some is precisely what makes skateparks communal spaces of personal development. Youth have access to older people who they can learn tricks from and seek guidance about the “unwritten rules of skating”. In this sense it becomes a physical and mental training facility to allow youth to better navigate urban spaces. Even though as an outsider it may appear difficult to read this undercurrent, there is a deep sense of social bonding that happens at skateparks, due to their proximity to urban spaces and the diverse blend of people that navigate city life.
Skateparks, like any proper space of peace building, require stakeholders at the table when constructed — this means skateboarders, local businesses and skatepark designers with a skateboarding background need to come together with relatively equal say. If a park is built as a ‘concession’ for the skateboard community without significant input from skateboarders then it will likely be underutilized. We see this when the proportions of the ramps are too steep, or stairs too big to traverse. Parks like this do not suit the suit the physics of skateboarding and become a waste of public space; they also sends skateboarders back to the illegal streets in search of better spots to skate. The most successful and innovative parks are the ones that mimic public spaces, such as well-known and previously well-skated libraries, schools and courthouses (Josh Nims).
Much like the design of a zoo, except hopefully more hospitable, a skatepark should replicate the natural environment skateboarders grew up skating and learning from. When cities lack the funding, or rush the construction process of skateparks, many skateboarders end up building their own skateparks, calling it DIY (do-it-yourself) spots. These efforts end up pushing skateboarders back into spaces of illegality and marginalization.
These DIY spots are often placed in discrete locations like under freeways, such as Burnside Skatepark in Portland, Oregon; alternatively they are located in abandoned factories or municipal centers. Unfortunately as hostile architecture becomes an increasing problem in our world, and the use of “skate stoppers” (metal bars or knobs that block skate access) increase, cities will either have to re-evaluate the effectiveness of skate stoppers (most are easily removed by skaters with construction tools) or start building better skateparks, especially in low-income communities.
In certain rare cases, well-treaded skate spots are reopened as skateparks by the power of large companies. For instance, the Los Angeles courthouse, a world famous skate spot since the early 90s, was restored and re-opened by Nike Skateboarding as an official skatepark in 2014 (The Hundreds). However this type of co-management and reopening to access has not become a common practice in the skateboarding world.
To better understand the positive impact of skateboarding and not simply the public disturbance and criminality of it, let’s take a look at the organization Skateistan and their efforts in Kabul.
Although bombed out buildings and military troops are an unfortunate reality of the landscape of Kabul, in recent years skateboarding has also introduced itself to the streets and had a hugely transformative effect on the community. Young boys and girls alike now have a safe recreational facility where they can skate and teach at; earning gainful employment and taking them out of menial work or day labor. One young man from Kabul named Murza reported saying: “If I don’t skate I become ill” , reflecting the idea that skateboarding is both a physical release and healthy catharsis for him. A young girl named Fazilla reflected a similar sentiment saying: “At Skateistan I don’t feel that my surroundings are ruined.” For these Afghani youth these skateparks serve as a critical part of their well-being, safety and identity. (Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul By Orlando Von Einsiedel).
It should be noted that part of the reason we see these positive effects on the youth in regions like Kabul, is because of the stark contrast between the communal, inclusive life of a skatepark, and the impoverished hardship of life outside the skatepark. In other areas, like suburban ones, we may not be able to appreciate this distinction as clearly.
In the documentary “To Live and Skate Kabul”, which is about the impact of Skateistan, we watch a powerful moment occur when a soldier begins skating arm in arm with one of the skateboarding coaches among the debris of bombed out buildings. The soldier smiles like a kid as he awkwardly pushes in his military boots across the rough ground. The skateboard in this moment has become a bridge between these two distinct people, its presence has a way of temporarily muting the socio-economic and hierarchical boundaries that would usually separate these two individuals from ever communicating or ‘playing’ together.
In addition to organizations like Skateistan, we can also understand the impact of skateparks by drawing out its shared qualities with indigenous communities and the co-management of natural spaces. In the article “Escaping the Border, Debordering the Nature: Protected Areas, Participatory Management, and Environmental Security in Northern Patagonia (i.e. Chile and Argentina)” we witness how in places like Chile and Argentina the Mapuche tribes have been stripped of their land and subject to both “social exclusion and territorial domination” (Sepúlveda 769). In the process their homeland has been turned into areas of eco-tourism; similarly, skateboarders almost always must evacuate from the “streets”, and often face “social exclusion” just by holding a board and identifying themselves as part of the skateboarding community.
Public space is the natural playground of a skateboarder, and because of this we are inherently in conflict with the protectors of public urban space, such as cops, landlords and security guards. When indigenous land is bought by a company, or hijacked by the government it is akin to when skate spots are demolished, or when hostile architecture is used to deter skateboarders, these architectural constructions, which are often seen on benches and tables act like ‘mini-borders’ in blocking skate access — and homeless access as well.
Both indigenous groups and skateboarders become stripped from their areas of community and social development, and this displacement can force a community to battle against the government for new areas of space. In the process both groups become displaced to new regions entirely (like a DIY spot, or refugee centers). This displacement often does nothing more than to stir more conflict and distance any bipartisan type of agreement.
To combat both groups problems of regional ownership the answer is stakeholder inclusion. When multiple stakeholders are included in the conversation about spatial ownership and the indigenous groups are granted equal status, progress can occur. In Chile, the Mapuche tribe faced difficulty in achieving their designated spaces because they were not allowed to participate in conversations, however when they were given a voice positive effects took place — although the conflict is still very much alive. The best general approach for both skateboarders and indigenous peoples seems to be in cultivating “participatory management” (Sepúlveda 783), where there is some clear understanding of the role that indigenous peoples have in managing their own land, but still some room for partial government involvement and regulation.
When participatory management between multiple stakeholders does not occur, skateboard culture pays the price. As we have previously discussed, skateparks should be built with the proportions and design that account for the reality of skateboard physics and the varying levels of skill and ages that will occupy these spaces (Thorpe 135). These parks, when developed without these specifications, become a waste of public space and funds.
An interesting example of this problem in action comes from Tony Hawk, who might be the most famous skateboarder on the planet. Hawk is also seen as the de facto global ambassador of the sport. In an interview about this issue of poorly built skateparks, Hawk mentions how one time he was supposed to tour a new park in Chicago in front of some public officials. When he arrived at the park he encountered a skatepark that was built with proportions that were not only “un-skateable” but “dangerous”. He suggested they renovate the park, or face serious public backlash. These issues all arose because the leaders of the skateboard community were not involved in this project from the beginning as stakeholders with an equal share in the process (Tony Hawk, “The Nine Club With Chris Roberts”)
The kinship between indigenous peoples struggles and skateboarders can be further explored by examining the history of British Columbia and their fraught relationship with the oil industry. Since the 1950s there has been an effort by the indigenous communities to block access to roads and file lawsuits against oil companies who have pursued their resources (Elbein 7). In a similar spirit skateboarders have sought to protect their own precious resources: whether in keeping a public space open that has been turned or ‘marked’ as a skate spot, or in saving skateparks themselves from severe dilapidation (1).
In comparing these two groups, we must also be clear in expressing the differences between them. While skateboarders often inherit their skate spots by simply using a “squatters rights” approach, indigenous peoples have a historical, spiritual and cultural claim to the land they are fighting for that goes deeper than the relatively short history of skateboarding.
Similar to an urban garden, skateboarders take areas that are somewhat discarded, and try to grow something out of them that can nourish others in the skate community; whether this is expressed in moving trash cans, or lifting up sewer gates to skate them, these efforts, while maybe illegal, are not permanent and do not affect public safety. As more and more skaters access certain spots, the fight to avoid police persecution heightens, and we often must fight to protect both each other and the spot from threat of demolition. These efforts have proven successful in cases like the famous South Bank skate spot in London, which has averted demolishment for the last several years due to public protest, but in other cases like the Hubba Hideout staircase in San Francisco they have failed. To avoid displacement and further acts of illegality, like the creation of DIY spots, the skateboard community, like indigenous communities should be granted participatory management and stakeholder say, so they can better manage their spaces.
As complicated as this process of co-management might be it will create a better relationship between both skateboarders and the government.
To understand the power of skateboarding further, let us briefly switch gears and take a look back towards its antecedent: surfing.
Surfing, unlike much clothing, hair styles and slang, has the distinct quality of being considered by many as a non-culturally appropriable activity. The reason for this translatability could lie in the fact the both skateboarding and surfing are not national sports. Unlike baseball and cricket, these action sports are not tied to any sense of national identity; surfing culture is in many respects as big in Hawaii as it is in California. As well, surfers operate in a domain that is much harder to regulate and manage: the ocean. Rather than navigate a sports setting as strict as a baseball diamond or a soccer field, surfers and skateboarders must traverse a more open landscape — one being the waves, and the other being the streets, this helps in expanding personal development in both groups of athletes.
Skateboarding and surfing both offer unique methodologies of peace building and personal development because they are distinct counter cultures that reject national sentiment. Both sports value more the concepts of non-structure and autonomy, rather than the rigid rules and hierarchy built into traditional sports like soccer (Thorpe, 2014:6). No coaches, or rules are required for either sport to operate, all that is needed is the board and a sense of understanding the protocol (who gets to drop in on the ramp first or who gets to go on the next wave etc.). Surfing allows individuals to form new connections and an awareness of how to navigate the natural world and go with the flow, quite literally (Olson 19).
Alongside the ideology of Skateistan, there is an organization called Surfing 4 Peace which helps provide locals in impoverished places with surfboards and surf lessons. Although this organization has faced criticism from the Hamas government for receiving surf equipment from Israel (Olson 20), this cross-boundary relationship will still likely continue as the surfing community, and those who support it, often finds ways of existing and functioning on the periphery of governmental supervision.
As ideologically powerful as skateboarding, and related sports like surfing are, there is still a long way to go before the government can accept these activities as legitimate peace building practices. Skateparks and skate programs should be given the resources and tools needed to realize their full potential as spaces of community enrichment, rather than juvenile behavior.
1.) Sepúlveda, Bastien, and Sylvain Guyot. “Escaping the Border, Debordering the Nature: Protected Areas, Participatory Management, and Environmental Security in Northern Patagonia (i.e. Chile and Argentina).” Globalizations 13, no. 6 (November 2016): 767–86. https://doi.org/10.1080/14747731.2015.1133045.
3.) Scott Ross. “Encouraging Rebel Demobilization by Radio in Uganda and the D.R. Congo: The Case of “Come Home” Messaging.” African Studies Review 59, no. 1 (2016): 33-55. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed April 30, 2019).
It’s 1966. A red train pulls up to a busy platform in Sparta, Mississippi. Men and women exit from the train with the help of the conductor. The oppressive heat of the South gives everyone a shine and deliberate nature to their pace. A white man, Chief of Police Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and a black man, officer Virgil Tibbs ( Sidney Poitier) walk up to the platform and exchange glances. Gillespie asks Tibbs if he has a ticket, shakes his hand, thanks him and then says, “Bye-bye,” as he walks away from the platform. Tibbs pauses, and starts up the platform. “Virgil!” Gillespie calls out, somewhat surprising himself as the words exit his mouth. Tibbs stops on the stairs and turns around. Both men look at each other. “You take care y’hear?” says Gillespie. Tibbs’ surprised face grows into a smile, “Yeah.” he responds. Gillespie just smiles back wider, smacking his trademark gum in between his lips. Tibbs steps aboard the train, headed back home. Both men it seems changed for the better, as the Hollywood train chugs farther and farther away…
This is the scene that ends Norman Jewison’s 1967 film In The Heat of The Night. This film, which is a product of the Civil Rights era, will serve as our springboard to our discussion of biracial buddy-cop films. In The Heat of The Night exemplifies and (possibly started) one of the key tropes of this genre: racial reconciliation. An idea that cops from different backgrounds shall be unified in a wholesome yet often expedited way by the end of the movie. As the groundbreaking author James Baldwin said when referencing this finale scenein his novel “The Fire Next Time”: “nothing, alas, has been made possible…except that white Americans have been encouraged to continue dreaming” (58-59). In other words, this film is an extension of a fantasy that America enjoys telling itself. The reconciliation here is a self-gratifying “we fixed it” treatment and metaphor for larger social issues at play. Gillespie, who starts out as an alcoholic brute in an understaffed office, skeptical and upset at the presence of this dark-skinned man in his small town, suddenly has a better outlook and diminished prejudice in the short course of the case/film. Gillespie joins a pantheon of lawmen who are meant to complete the character arch of a lifetime in order to fulfill a fantasy transition — one that the white audience should ideally live vicariously through.
In the story of the film, Gillespie, first points to Tibbs as a suspect in a murder, when he is really just a man in the wrong place at the wrong time (or so it seems). Eventually when Gillespie realizes that Tibbs is a well-respected homicide expert, he starts to give him some more leeway. He realizes that they are working towards the same goal, and that he might have something to gain if he just keeps his mouth shut when Tibbs is talking.
In The Heat of The Night was a revolutionary film, and it’s ideas of racial reconciliation and unity permeate many biracial buddy-cop films to follow, such as Rush Hour (Brett Ratner, 1998) 48 Hrs (Walter Hill, 1982), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)and others. This paper seeks to deal with what happens when the wholesome gesture of reconciliation is bypassed completely. We will explore how a film can be labeled a buddy-cop film by mass audiences and critics yet still subvert many key tropes of the genre. The phenomenon that completes this tricky and rare task we shall title the anti-buddy cop film — a film like this is still so unique that it is not worth yet calling a genre but only a phenomenon. Training Day (Fuqua 2001) is the prime example of this phenomenon.
Although Training Day is an iconic film that appears on many publications’ lists as one of the ‘best buddy-cop films’ of all time (The Playlist, Esquire) it in fact lies just outside the genre bubble altogether. The traditional type of buddy-cop film has a long history, owing it’s debt to films like In The Heat of the Night as well as the bold, farcical comedy Blazing Saddles. The construction of these films often follow a similar standardized sequence:
1), a case or crisis (in a town too small or a town too big to handle it), then a cop who is stumped by how to deal with the issue, next, by chance or desperation another officer comes in to help, almost always being the black officer who is either a) underrated and/or underqualified (i.e. Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men) or b) on-his-way out (retiring) or c) a criminal of sorts (i.e. Zootopia, 48 Hrs.);
2) the unlikely pair must reconcile their racial prejudice (or in more contemporary films, simply their cultural misunderstandings or slip ups) in pursuit of one common goal: bringing the criminals to light, justicefor all (which often includes a promotion within the department for one or both of the cops).
Often these films simplify or expedite how prejudice is extinguished from an individual for vicarious pleasure. The white cop (or almost universally, the racist cop, i.e. Bright with Will Smith) almost must give up his racism in the face of justice. He fights this “giving up” like he is detoxing from a drug, and rejects working with the other cop, until he eventually accepts his duty, and becomes a changed man. This type of character change usually happens over the course of one ‘hell-of-a-day/week’ but almost always no longer (unless it is stretched out for a TV series) .
Training Day bypasses this notion that prejudice can be rung out so expeditiously.
In fact, in this film the prejudice and the power structure we are accustomed to seeing is flipped from the jump. Detective Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) must spend a day on patrol with a white rookie officer, Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). Here, Alonzo is essentially auditioning him for his team, and his ethics, although twisted are established as firm. Jake comes to understand that this is an opportunity to be a part of an exclusive, hyper-masculine team so he tries to go along with the insanity for a while. Alonzo is in the position of power here which is a clear subversion of the classic structure. In Training Day the black cop for once is now letting the white cop into his world, instead of vice versa.
A second reversal takes place in this film as well: a white officer is no longer skeptical of a black officer’s authority and identity; instead, Alonzo, a black officer is the skeptical of the white rookie officer, Jake. Carole Viola Bell gives a nice framework in her paper, “Women, Film and Racial Thinking” for the typical loophole used to allow racial diversity onto the big screen, “…a black co-star is integrated into the white middle class and helps the white lead defeat usually ethnic evildoers… that threaten their way of life.” (Belle 2010) A typical buddy cop film follows a version of this: a black man is plucked from his surroundings only to eventually interrogate members of his own race (sometimes even his friends, family, community) before capturing the suspect (i.e. 48 Hrs.). The position of power the secondary cop wields must be re-affirmed through this constant acknowledgement of their upbringing and background.
To rework the loophole presented by Bell for Training Day might look something like this: “…a white co-star is integrated into the urban crime culture and helps the urban community defeat the lead “ethnic evildoer” that threatens their way of life.” However wonky this reworking sounds it shows that clearly there has been a deliberate inverting of tropes in the process of structuring this film. Despite his department accolades, Alonzo Harris uses his power within the Los Angeles Police Department to consciously fight against his own community, rather than “learn something” or “rehabilitate” himself, which is the trajectory most ethnic co-stars are affixed to. An example of this type of turning on his community is when Alonzo uses a fake search warrant to steal $40,000 from a high ranking drug dealer, the “Sandman”. He does this in front of the Sandman’s wife and child in the drug dealer’s home and when she realizes what has occurred, she encourages her black neighbors to engage in a shootout with Alonzo as their target, before he gets away with Jake in their undercover car, narrowly avoiding a hail of bullets. Rather than live life as a full blown criminal, Alonzo has chosen to hid his actions under the guise of the badge — gaining him a reputation as two-faced and dangerous.
Any minority person in a buddy cop film, (dare I say minority person in real life), who joins the police force, faces a flurry of contradictions in their job. Noble intentions aside they are gatekeepers to the prison-industrial complex, one that disproportionately targets minorities, and is motivated more by government legislature, business interests and prison quotas than rehabilitative needs for the individual. This is all well-documented. Alonzo, as a gatekeeper, choses to exert his power by probing his community rather than uplifting them or protecting them, like most black men or minority cops in buddy cop films. He uses the nuances of his community and their culture to undermine and detain them. Since Alonzo cannot change his blackness, he simultaneously retains his membership and authority within the black community, while abusing it at each step of the way. The facilitation of an oscillating authority, and a dual citizenship, presents itself in many biracial buddy-cop films like In The Heat of The Night and 48 Hrs — but this is one of the only films I know of where this authority is used for greed rather than good.
As much as dual citizenship is used by Alonzo, it is also put into question. For instance when Alonzo walks into a largely African American gang territory in South Central L.A., called “The Jungle” he is greeted with appreciation by the first man he walks up to, “Bones,” while a few gang members play craps on the sidewalk. Yet as soon as Alonzo exits, Bones says: “I can’t stand that motherfucker.” In Alonzo’s eyes personal view, it seems that he lies somewhere between a Robin Hood character and an early mafioso; he is the debt collector and favor-doer that you don’t want to fuck with — but he makes you feel like his services (whatever they are) are necessary. Any animosity his community feels towards him he seems unaware of due to his own hubris.
In the film we assume this status is gained by rescuing people from indictment or by putting in a “good word” for them to his friends at the LAPD, but this is never actually elaborated on or justified. His “golden pass” in the neighborhood (which is real life ghetto Baldwin Hills) is explained by Alonzo: “‘Cause I treat ‘em fair, they know if they cross the line I’m taxing that ass.” The ‘line’ it appears for Alonzo, may be so tight that his own community is likely to turn against him at any moment — which in the end they do.
Comparing this oscillating authority with films like In The Heat of The Night, we see a stark difference in how this citizenship is used. When Tibbs follows up a lead towards the end of the film, he ends up at Mrs. Bellamy’s house, also known as Mama. She is the local abortionist, who might solve the connection between a woman, Dolores Purdy, and the identity of the murderer. At first, Mama does not trust Tibbs, and wonders why he is working for “Mr. Charlie” (a pejorative used within the African-American community to refer to an overbearing white man). She and Tibbs engage in a discussion, where he warns her that “colored jail” is the worst kind of jail. Yet, shortly after when Mama realizes she may know some valuable information she tells him, “I got used to better, you won’t take it away?” Tibbs responds, “I won’t.” This verification that she will be protected for giving out information on the killer’s identity, as well as not being arrested for giving out illegal abortions outside the hospital, shows that Tibbs respects his relationship his own people, African-American community. He may interrogate them, but only when appropriate to the case. Questioning suspects without any respect or tact is partly what classifies Alonzo as a member of the anti-buddy cop film, rather than a member of the buddy-cop genre.
In outlining the dichotomy between the classic biracial buddy cop genre and the anti biracial buddy-cop, there is another trope worth noting: the “big bust.” This is often the inciting incident that unifies the two cops. A crime has been committed the that is out of the hands of the available law enforcement. Whether it takes the form of an escaped prisoner on a killing spree in 48 Hrs, or the mysterious death of a well-to-do industrialist in In The Heat of The Night, this facet of the plot almost universally underscores this genre. In Training Day, however, this idea is cleverly subverted. Jake is out training with Alonzo to be part of the narcotics team, so the cases that he assists in, (although they may be the tip of the iceberg for something bigger) are often either petty crimes or personal vendettas enacted by Alonzo and his goons. All of which prove to be distractions to the real big bust which lies with Alonzo.
Alonzo, the decorated detective has made enemies with the Russians during a gambling fiasco, (an event we only hear about and never see), a move so dangerous even his fellow officers and lawyers who also seem corrupted are shocked by. Alonzo it seems has found himself in way over his head. By displaying hubris and staying in the US in order to pay off the Russians, he digs his own grave. Jake, in effect at the end of the film doesn’t run away from an explosion and grand finale that unifies him with his partner as flames map the sky, but quite the opposite: Jake runs away from the death and explosion of Alonzo’s world, separating the path of the two men.
The trope of two cops coming together from different backgrounds to unite against a larger evil, remains unfulfilled, since the “evil,” it turns out, was personified within Alonzo himself. The use of buddy-cop films as a vehicle for a larger metaphor about racial unity is shattered by the finale of the film where Alonzo is gunned down by the russians and Jake goes back home after one of the worst ride-alongs you could imagine. Training Day takes away the fantasy of racial unity, for a larger message about the irreversible chasms corruption can place you into, no matter your race, authority etc. The feeling of having wiped your hands clean of a big case is bypassed and we as an audience sympathize with Jake Hoyt, because his attempts to thwart Alonzo’s dealings with the Russians, prevents future mayhem from unfolding. The character arc that Alonzo completes is not positive or prejudice diffusing; instead he watches his empire and his misdoings collapse upon him . It should also be said that although Alonzo is an African-American man who is violent and unpredictable he is clearly an outlier to his own African American community because of these aspects of his personality. This element helps the story avoid dramatizing stereotypes of black men, crime and masculinity for the sake of sheer entertainment — which a rare feat for a big budget Hollywood film.
By adopting classic tropes of a biracial buddy cop film and subverting them,
Training Day masks its highly subversive film as a standard buddy-cop piece while innovating the genre. One of the phenomenons and themes at work in this film is that institutional corruption and malice is “colorblind” and ubiquitous in who it affects. Whether in Alonzo’s racially diverse narcotics team, the Mexican gang that almost kills Jakes, or in the white judges and cops who talk shop at the restaurant. Anybody who is tempted enough by the glimmer and reward corruption and malice offer can be contaminated. Alonzo, at the end of the day, was just a man who was contaminated more than most.
Above: Rango performing imaginary feats of strength to impress the townsfolk.
(originally written for UC Berkeley, March 2018)
Dripping with intertextual material, and subversion, Rango updates the Western Noir with a dose of hope and cinematic reverence. Unlike films like Out of the Past, or No Country for Old Men, where the crossing of two different periods of American justice proves fatal for the hero of our story; in Rango our protagonist survives this genre hybridization. Rango is the right man to restore order and faith to Dirt because, according to the Romantic hero myth outlined by Doug Williams in “Pilgrims and the Promised Land: A Genealogy of the Western” he has gone “…beyond the frontier to the wilderness and gained knowledge of it without himself degenerating into wildness.” (97). After Rango throws his badge in the sand in a reference to High Noon and Dirty Harry, the owl narrators pack up symbolizing the story they were here to tell has ended. Yet Rango breaks free from his existential crisis, by receiving a visit from the Spirit of the West (Clint Eastwood) who reminds him that he “can’t leave his own story…it’s not about us but about them”, which restores in him his heroic duty, and transforms the fatalism of this genre.
Existentialism is a key noir theme of Rango. In Robert Porfirio’s “No Way Out: Existential Motifs in the Film Noir” he outlines that existentialism requires a choice in order to cope with the “meaningless of existence”. Our hero makes his first important existential choice when he is confronted by a nosy patron in the Dirt Saloon, and finds himself in-between the “authentic” and the “inauthentic” (87) life. The authentic being facing the dangers of the old west by slipping into the gunslinger legend of his own creation, and the inauthentic being cowering away from the ruffians of Dirt, and looking for another safe enclave — like his tropical glass terrarium he once occupied with his inanimate friends. By choosing to embrace his own “authentic” legend he always dreamed of having, Rango “…assumes responsibility for his life” (87) and becomes the hero of his own story. By transforming into the revered gunslinger of Rango, he has chosen “being” over the “nothingness”(87).
Rango does not fully embody all traits of the Noir or Western hero though. For one, Rango loves to talk, especially about himself. He is no the laconic, ‘don’t ask about my scar’ John Wayne or Clint Eastwood type. Rango enjoys rambling off about his own legend so much that it becomes a motif in the film, sometimes saving him and other times causing alienation, like when Beans ignores his incessant waving and calls when he first arrives into town. This “narcissistic” trait would appear to put Rango closer to characters like Sheriff Little Bill in Unforgiven , a “false dandy”, as described by Janet Thumin in her paper “Maybe He’s Tough But He Sure Ain’t No Carpenter: Masculinity and In/competence in Unforgiven (1993)”, but of course Rango does not carry the same “blasphemous selfishness” (73) as Sheriff Little Bill, who exerts violence through an ego-driven spectacle where Rango uses cleverness to avoid violence as much as possible. Rango is in fact the true “dandy”, who has transformed himself into a “ a medium through which divine forces express themselves.” (76). These “divine forces” allows Rango to bring an almost Jesus-like presence back into the struggling townspeople of Dirt.
Rango is less of a typical “patriarch” and more of a “pathfinder” someone who is meant to transform the status of Dirt from a “desert into the garden” (98). Although Rango survives till the end of the film, he has still mad a “sacrifice” by abandoning the comfort and assurance of civilization. Rango makes this choice for the greater good of restoring Dirt, which cements his “sacrifice, like Moses or Jesus, by which the world becomes transformed” (Williams 101).
Following the logic of Williams argument, since Rango is a dandy he is also an “imitator of Christ” (105). Being the embodiment of good, the Tortoise Mayor as the false dandy is an “imitator of Satan”; a harsh claim but fitting for someone comfortable with letting his own townspeople die from dehydration and starvation in the name of greed. The Mayor is complex in that in addition to the false dandy he also holds the position of the “religious zealot”. The promise of water is held over the town similarly to a preacher proclaiming the any-day-now resurrection of Jesus. The townspeople follow along, desperately, and even worship the water spigot like a cross, ritually marching towards it in a procession (and performing an unusual hoedown), begging for hydration. Although failing during the first procession, Rango eventually brings the “deliverance” of water that the Mayor had so vacantly promised. The Mayor Tortoise, a false dandy and Satan, must eventually be exercised from the town and killed by the dandy. When Rango allows this evil to be destroyed (without getting his hands dirty of course) he gains a respect from Rattlesnake Jake, his last significant threat and is transformed into the “the self-reliant, masterful figure for whom the unknown holds no terrors.” (Williams 93).
Rango as a sheriff and the Mayor Tortoise at the water vault.
Outside of the Puritan logic of Williams argument, Rango holds another symbolic position, that of the “non-heroic Hero” (Porfirio 83), a character displaced from “all the fixed ties that bind a man to a community” (Porfiro 84). Alone in a terrarium he is already detached from his natural chameleon community with nothing but inanimate objects as his friends. Upon arriving in Dirt he must account for this gaping “loss” of a community and “vulnerability” (from having been kept and domesticated) and find out how to survive on his own. In doing so, Rango moves from the terrarium, aka a noir “claustrophobic interior” (258) as discussed by James Ursini in “Noir Westerns” and into the wide, open landscape of the west. To underscore this motif this first shot of the film is a close up on Rango in his terrarium, (a stand-in for the noir retreat of a private detective’s office) doing acting exercises with plastic friends, while the ending shot is a pull away from the newly restored town, water gushing everywhere with living, breathing friends. With an ending shot that cranes away from a newly restored town, we have another possible reference to High Noon (and countless others). The difference here being that in the case of High Noon, Will Kane leaves because his role as sheriff, as it has become under appreciated, even misunderstood, while Rango still has time to bask in the glory of his good deeds — although who knows for how long.
In addition to celebrating many Western Noirs of the past, certain Western tropes are cleverly subverted in Rango as well. The traditional conception that the actor of the Western is little more than a misunderstood yet well-educated Easterner is challenged and expanded on by making the main character an actor himself. In My Darling Clementine the Hamlet soliloquy evoked by the local actor Mr. Thorndyke, according to Scott Simmon in “Concerning the Weary Legs of Wyatt Earp: The Classic Western According to Shakespeare”, is used only it seems as a “mood that is never quite argued out dramatically” (155), indeed many of the other Hamlet references were cut out of the film, most likely to not complicate the Western (154). In Rango we witness the role of the theatre/actor in Westerns grow from an underscoring visual “mood” with minor plot overlap and into the clear thrust of the story. Rango in this film serves as the bridge between a (past) carefully woven theatrical intrigue to a (present) theatrical foundation. The Western fascination with Shakespeare is referenced by Rango when he performs a small scene in the beginning of the film with his inanimate terrarium friends, naming them characters like Malvolio and Balthazar. By bringing the actor to the forefront (and placing it into the character of a chameleon) Rango subverts the idea that the West is too rugged and uneducated to accept an actor as their savior or even a respected citizen.
For all of Rango’s optimistic subversion and nuanced approach to Western Noir, the theme of “man under sentence of death” (Porfirio 88) underscores much of the film. When we begin, the main narrators of the film the mariachi owls, tell us that this is the story of the “life and untimely death of a great hero”, an idea they repeat till the end of the film. As well, when Rango first enters the town, a young cactus mouse named Priscilla who advises Rango throughout the film, (similar to the young boy in High Noon; a faithful ally and admirer) tells him that “strangers don’t last long”. Although Rango breaks the spell of surviving the Noir world he has carried into the Western, the threat of it continues to hang over him like a curse.
In surviving and restoring Dirt, Rango is given a rare hopeful turn that many Western Noirs are unable to complete or hold onto for long. This optimistic, or at least temporarily optimistic outlook that the film gives us, is partly due to it being an animated kids movie, but another interpretation may lie underneath this. In films like Out of The Past, where Robert Mitchum must die for not choosing to live in one world (the Noir/civilization or the Western/wilderness) this film may be condemning humans as more flawed than animals.
With Rango we don’t just celebrate our chameleon hero for having become the pathfinder who denounced civilization and survived while doing so, but we also celebrate the animal kingdom as a whole for being able to do what humans have failed to do; choose one world over the other. Humankind has failed to protect and split nature from the city, particularly in regards to land development. We see this in golf courses and resorts whose installation often eclipses protecting the surrounding purity of the wilderness. In this sense, Rango lacks the character flaw of greed. He is conscious of what the West means and also the threat of civilization and industrialization too, which allows him to balance both “the Dionysian [emotional] communion with nature, [and] the Apollonian [rational] knowledge of civilization” (Williams 100). This makes Rango a unique hero, one that is able to bring his knowledge of both words together in harmony rather than discord.
Above: The master and one of his many pets he keeps during the film.
Nature as the Teacher: The Sound of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
(originally written for UC Berkeley, April 2019)
By Jeremy Snowden
There is a certain silence in nature many modern American films have had trouble capturing. It seems in Hollywood we want to outdo nature with sound design and special effects rather than let it speak for itself. We see this in movies like Avatar where although a large tree is what is the heart and energy of the Navi people, we don’t hear them with the tree by themselves, the leaves rustling, or someone rubbing on the texture of the bark; it is always accompanied by music or an incoming helicopter. With Ki-Duk Kim’s film Spring, summer, fall, winter — and spring, nature is given a voice. In this film, sound, especially naturalistic sound is a key component in creating the spiritual atmosphere in which the viewers are transported into.
The serenity and enigmatic quality of this world is one that draws characters back through each season, just like geese that leave in the Autumn and come back in the Summer. The natural processes of the seasons represent the chapters in this unnamed buddhist’s life, as characters come and go. These themes are chiefly established through the use of sound.
Using seasons as a way to illustrate transformation is not a new concept to Buddhism or filmmaking. The Dharma Teacher Chongsan, one of the practitioners of Won Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism popular in Korea, inscribed in an epitaph to his master Sot’aesan, “As the four seasons keep rotating and the sun and the moon alternate illuminating in the universe, myriad things attain the way of coming into being.” In this statement the cycles of the seasons, sun and moon are paralleled with maturity — which is what the main character, whose name we are never given, experiences in this film.
The ambient sound of the film, including the wind, water, snakes is a tool used to emphasize the rhythms of the story, and introduce the Buddhist themes of the natural setting. Jusan Pond, where the film was set, is not just a beautiful backdrop to the film but a recurring reminder of the cyclical and fixed quality of nature, contrasted with the impermanence of the characters.
For instance, when the film first begins we hear the creaking of old wooden doors, fish swimming in a fountain followed by a wooden instrument being played by the old master. Already the ambient sounds have cued us into the nature of the setting. We can tell that this is an old area, and that not much has changed for a long time. We get the sense that this is a regular day for the occupants of the lake. Other than the ambient sound, there is traditional music sung by Kim Young-im but it is always sparse. The richness of the singer’s voice is used later to underscore the main characters transcendence on top of the mountain, where no ambient sound could create an equivalent.
By playing up the sounds of the floating hut’s surroundings and turning down the orchestrated score, an atmosphere of tranquility is formed, which often exists despite the action contradicting this. Such as drownings, a murder, guns and much more.
The sounds heard from life aboard the hut can even have hypnotizing qualities. The detective’s pursuit towards the main character is interrupted by his own spiritual practice of Prajnaparamita Sutra, which is part of Mahayana Buddhism. From here we can assume this is the faith the monks follow. They are convinced in part by the eldest monk to stay and let the main character finish, but also by the quality of the setting. The mountain has a way of funneling the sound, and eliminating all sounds of the real, or industrial world of cars, construction and people. Try as they must the detectives cannot help but give in to the calmness of the setting, helped in part by the soft sound of the rippling water. They even talk about how quiet it is once they are there, eventually falling asleep as they are waiting for the main character. When one of the detective awakens he even helps hold a candle for the main character as he finishes carving his sutra. Here is an example of the ambient sound acting as a character. Without saying a word it helped, along with the master, to spare the life of the main character with it’s undeniable simplicity and tranquility.
During the climax of the movie, ambient sound becomes prevalent as a character again. The pain of losing a loved one that the main character feels is maximized by the fact that he fell into the exact trap that the master had forewarned. “Lust leads to desire for possession, and possession leads to murder.”
During moments of great crisis in real life there is no perfect soundtrack to underscore the feelings, no perfect lyrics to represent the pain. The pain is unique, and so the quality of the sound should reflect that. The wide valley in which the hut sits creates a perfect acoustic instrument and visual metaphor for the sorrow and emptiness felt by the main character. Slamming his hands into the water, and wailing like a child is heard without a musical score and naturally how one would expect the sound echoed in that valley environment. The viewer is a bystander to his pain just like the master who stands upon the hill and watches. The moment is witnessed as it would be in reality, not made artificial by music from a soundtrack.
One of the last examples I will outline here is seen when the monk returns to the floating hut for the final time. It is winter now and each time he returns he is welcome by the same creaky doors, but this time he is welcomed into a world that is quiet and still. Since the water has frozen, there is no longer the soft sound of the ripples, or distant waterfalls. Here the environment symbolizes the emotional state of the character – he has finally found peace and stillness. He is even able to recognize his master’s passing without anger, but with a bow that shows he has accepted the cycle of life.
The final moments of the film where the character ascends the steep mountain in only a pair of worn pants, a stone on his back and a buddha, it is clear he has lessened his karmic retribution through discipline and meditation. In this scene, the director chooses to bring back music to underscore the character’s journey. The mountain is a clear symbol of something powerful, that has stood the test of time. As Jack Kerouac said in The Dharma Bums, “…a mountain is a buddha. think of the patience, hundreds of thousands of years just sittin there bein perfectly perfectly silent and like praying for all living creatures in that silence and just waiting’ for us to stop all our frettin and foolin.” The mountains, like all facets of nature, carry in them a wisdom that all of us can learn from.
Exploring the wisdom of these facets of nature through the emphasis of ambient sound is a unique and effective way of storytelling. Spring is a deep and gripping film, which epitomizes the expression “silence is golden” and leaves viewers searching for more – more compassion, more philosophy and more awareness in recognizing the power of silence.