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The Hard Way: Notes on Ben Kadow


   

When Ben Kadow does a trick, he does it the hard way. His latest part for Hockey, Triple Backflip (2021), is exemplary of his hardcore aesthetic. If he skates a handrail, he ollies up and over the back of it, before plunging down its steep descent. If he grinds a flat bar, he has to grind a long one, and all of it. If he skates a little planter fence, a decorative element so common around New York City, it must be one that a delivery truck mangled into an impossibly steep, and jagged precipice. Bike racks are the cause of great contortions, skated in a way that requires him to wrench himself out of the trick. Riding onto a rail or slappying a curb, quick and dirty representations of grace, take the form of a carcass toss down a 2-story handrail, or are pummeled across a two-tiered arrangement of curbs. Even his ollies are bludgeoned.

Most skaters follow Ted-talker and corporate inspirational speaker Rodney Mullen’s dictum that form follows function, but not so with Kadow. Even when a trick seems like it might be more straightforward, he jerks himself out of it. Form, for him, is always on a direct collision course with function. Yet, to say that Kadow’s skating bucks convention is not quite the right way to put it, either. Throughout Triple Backflip, we get the sense that he’s more like Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro's character in Taxi Driver (1976): deranged, mocked, scorned, abandoned by god, country, society. A nut. Basically, a test case as to whether a pitiful working class guy like him can find some amount of grace after being made the fool, except, rather than De Niro shooting a pimp to save a teen sex worker played by Jodie Foster, Kadow’s baptism by violence happens between the city and his skateboard, achieving redemption through an onslaught of aggression waged directly upon New York City streets. He’s angry, out of patience, upset, feeling like his only option is to take action, to take things into his own hands.

This kind of white rage should be familiar to many of us, as it increasingly makes incursions into the wider culture, be it in the deranged vision of the Joker (both in Dark Knight (2008) and in the eponymous 2019 film), or in the actual violence of lone wolf actions since Pizzagate. But keeping it within the enclaves of skating’s subculture, Kadow offers a nuanced dissection of this character-type, harkening on our culture’s historically outsider/alternative identity, and drawing out and exaggerating its relationship to punk, as well as the fool. The results are captivating. There’s an expression of something angrier, more pent up, a kind of rage, a clear intent to do harm. It can be somewhat wantonly applied, flinging his board at some post-industrial dockwork with the crazed energy of a cornered criminal, swinging a baseball bat willy-nilly, and happy to take everyone down with him. The same nihilism is everywhere in the part, crashing into rails, attacking ledges, stamping out a 5-0 on a flower pot as if putting a cockroach out of its misery. Crash, boom, bang goes a lot of it, accompanied by a doomy, and deeply anxious drone that constitutes the video’s score.  

It’s easy to identify with the violence sometimes. Like De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Kadow seems to be experiencing a kind of emotional, spiritual, and moral crisis at city life, a very specific type of white rage, with his job—skating—asking him to wade through all of the grime and filth and broken people in order to get a clip. Frankly, it would be hard not to bring your work home with you, with all its attendant anger, grief, and righteous indignation—though, from another perspective, we might simply interpret it as a masculinity at odds with an underlying helplessness, a misguided sense that anger can cleanse the world, or that it needs to be cleansed at all. But the part doesn’t just explore the punk aggressiveness of finding an outlet for your rage. It is after something complimentary, if a bit more complex, which is an exploration of the role of the fool. Indeed, this image of Kadow as the hapless loser introduces the part. We see a still photograph in which many of his Hockey/FA teammates are pictured laughing in the background. You feel bad for Kadow, as if he was the butt of a joke, his supposed friends having tacked a “Kick Me” sign to his back, masking it as an encouraging pat on the back.

What follows are scenes of patheticness and cruelty, expanding the possible emotional range of skateboarding to include much more base feelings, such as pity, fear, disgust, feelings more commonly associated with clowns than with skaters. Kadow is sponsored by Supreme, but the way he wears the company’s high-end sportswear is unconventional, donning one of the company’s pink beanies like a dunces cap, as if he were banished to the corner to think about what he’s done. A similar perversion of the skater’s semi-heroic status can be experienced in the sense of gloom and hopelessness brought on by the weather. Ordinarily you take this for granted in a skate video—it has to be relatively nice out to skate—but instead the wintry undertones of Triple Backflip bring to mind the world-weary Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet...I quietly take to the ship.”

Indeed, for Kadow, it’s always a drizzly November on his skateboard. Yet, in spite of its underlying sense of melancholy and bewilderment, or perhaps because of it, Triple Backflip can also be kind of funny, even if it’s more the smiling-to-oneself kind, than laughing out loud. He’s a master of irony. When Kadow stares straight at the camera, we might laugh at a frown, whereas we might cower at a smile. The latter expression is often quite creepy: a pour imitation of sincerity, it exposes his awareness of the camera, making us discomfitingly aware that he knows our laughs—say, when he tumbles over a rail and is tossed on his butt—come at his expense. It’s a kind of outsider comedy, as Kadow plays into the discomfort with self-flagellating glee: for his ender, he 5050s a long flat bar, clearly setting up for a kickflip out, but rather than deliver the heroic gesture, he makes a mess of our expectations, instead dangling a half flip off the very tip of his toe. Gotcha, it seems to say, before closing out the video.  
In many ways, what one experiences from Kadow’s skating is the feeling of laughing and crying at the same time, a tragicomic conflation of anger, trauma, pleasure, sadness, release. This combination of pleasure and pain complements Kadow’s appreciation for discipline. The way he does a 360 flip, you’d think the board had done something to deserve a spanking. When he tail drops from one handrail onto another, he commands the board to bend over. But much in the same way that skating had brought him into contact with the city’s underbelly, his sense of discipline and rigor has also instilled in him a kind of perverted sense of craft. Perhaps it’s because he used to work at Superiority Burger, a restaurant owned by former punk legend, and all around evil culinary genius, Brooks Headley, which presents fine dining at the price of a hot dog, and believes that good food can speak for itself. It’s an experience that would instill a kind of humility, a sense of service and duty to others that plays out in Kadow’s skating, and underpins his clownish procedures, giving them an element of respectability, and earning our sympathy. I find it in the lumberjack outfit Kadow wears when he hurtles himself across a bike lane for a gap to manual somewhere in Chelsea. Maybe it’s because Kadow has had to work a job that informs his vision of skateboarding, or the fact that he worked with Headley, but his handsome vision of a mountain man, flannel shirt tucked into straight-legged jeans, leaping over such a commonplace spot, and elevating such an ordinary trick, hits me at a gut level. It conveys the same pride (and sinister sense of humor) that Headley has in serving his high end cuisine, made from the best produce imaginable, out of a clumsy paper boat.

Still, regardless of whatever altruism and inherent goodness we might read into his skating, he’s not looking for a pat on the back, with the presiding feeling in Triple Backflip remaining one of disaffection. It’s is a hard thing to pull off on a skateboard. Generally, skating requires a pretty extreme level of commitment from its participants, and even when its most talented adherents want to demonstrate their proficiency, their pantomimes comes off as practiced nonchalance (see every other skate clip filmed at a skatepark on TikTok). But disaffection on the other hand suggests a lack of interest. He expends his efforts frivolously by simply tapping a silver metal stanchion with his board, hardly performing for the camera. We see it in the way that he absentmindedly tips himself off a long flat bar, as if he grew bored by the end of the grind. Many of his fashion choices, too, make sure we know that he doesn’t take any of this too seriously: a shirt that reads “STRESSED, DEPRESSED & BAND OBSESSED” or a sporty pair of sunglasses that bring out his inner country bumpkin.  
Overall, his ambivalent attitude contributes a masturbatory quality to a lot of the footage, with a sluggishly rotated back 360 down a four stair demonstrating that he’s just doing it to get it out of his system. But how should Kadow’s indifference make us feel? Should we really be so bothered when he flaunts skating’s unspoken etiquette and conventions? Does it really offend us so much? It makes me think of his part in Blessed (2018), when, at the end, he ironically sneers, “Skateboarding is the ultimate challenge.” Back then, I took his statement as a joke on skateboard marketing, how the rest of the world understands the activity as an extreme sport not unlike the no holds barred world of UFC, or any other form of neoliberal toxic masculinity. But I wonder if there isn’t another way to interpret the remark in light of his more recent skating. Perhaps what he means by “ultimate challenge” isn’t jumping down giant drops or flipping in and out of every trick, but something else, a statement of exasperation. You can see it in his predilection for hazard, when he 5050s a wooden bench, before ollying a cobble stone flat gap right after. I know these benches, the enamel paint on their surface is so thick and tacky your butt leaves an impression on them when you sit down. As a result, he’s forced to seek out the spot during the inhospitable depths of winter, when the bench, along with the rest of the world, is frozen stiff, and, though you are numb from the cold, it hurts more than ever when you hit the ground.

Once again, all roads lead back to the anti-hero of Taxi Driver, with Kadow’s misplaced hopes and emotional numbness recalling the scene when De Niro attempts to take Cybil Shepherd, who plays a wholesome political campaign volunteer, to dinner and a movie, but instead treats her to a skin flick. The scene is equally heartbreaking and terrorizing, with De Niros’s desire to share some kind of intimacy with a person, to express care, only able to come out, to be vocalized as something perverse, equally representative of a problematic relationship to desire, a limited amount of outlets in which to express it, and of honest misapprehension. As with much of Kadow’s skating, the scene draws out the various complexities in how the skater plays the fool—clueless but hopeful, deranged but romantic, pent up but trying, alone but together, self-aware as an outcast, but still desperately trying to make his way in the world, at the whims of power, but still believing he has free will. All together, it boils down to the emotional dissonance of holding fast to a lonerish childhood passion as a way to find contact with the physical world, no matter how painful or profane it has to be to finally feel like you’ve touched something, or someone. In the end, Triple Backflip offers us a punk poetry, a cruel optimism about anyone’s ability to wrest beauty from the grips of squalor. The four minutes it takes to watch the part very much burns with the intensity of De Niro famously holding his fist over a flame, both showing the lengths his character will go just to feel something, just for a sense of meaning and purpose, as well as setting the scene for the violent self-sacrifice that follows.
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