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UMA Accidental: UMA Landsled’s Punch a Hole in the Sky


   

When I hear Broken Social Scene’s song “KC Accidental” at the end of UMA Landsled’s debut feature, Punch a Hole in the Sky, my mind can only go to one place: the night I lost my virginity. The track appeared on the Toronto-based indie band’s 2002 release You Forgot it in People, and it was in heavy rotation at every coffee shop, record store, and boutique in my hometown for the next few years. Whatever clout that gave the band, it convinced my girlfriend to dial her iPod to this album, before we took our clothes off, and finally did the deed. To say that it was awkward is an understatement. All I remember from that evening is drooling on her shoulder, and that “KC Accidental” was playing. I guess life was a little different after that, though not that much.

As a result, that Broken Social Scene track is a bit of a sucker punch for me, informing my experience of Punch a Hole in the Sky on the whole. Its ability to return me to this horribly awkward crossroads, and the nonlinear fits and starts it takes to enter adulthood, gives the video a mesmerizingly nostalgic effect, instilling a particular admiration for the skating that spans the whole video. But it also casts those same feelings with a sense of doubt, prompting a reconsideration of the skater’s antics as more of a Neverland populated by perpetual adolescents, or a forest filled with churlish satyrs and elves, figures that in classical mythology represent budding, but as yet unrealized and undifferentiated sexuality.

The crux of this adolescent stasis is presented in the video’s prologue, a scene in which Evan Smith skates the cables of the Oakland Bay Bridge. On the one hand, the clip represents the skater’s utter audacity, with Smith plying his preternatural abilities to ollie off an impossibly round surface, into a bank studded with 2-inch-wide bolts. Viewed from an oblique second angle, and against a foggy backdrop, the skater begins to resemble Peter Pan, dancing on the wires of this enormous edifice as if it were another play thing in the world of lost boys. This image of Smith as mischievous ingenue seems only to be confirmed by what happens next, when he, along with photographer Alex Papke are arrested by a member of the SFPD, suggesting the gesture of wonderment is utterly incompatible with the adult world, and will be quashed by the Hook-like figure of a cop.

If it’s not quite clear who Tinkerbell is yet in this metaphor, the scene still points to the binary between child and adult, and the awkwardness that ensues when these undifferentiated feelings aren’t worked through sooner, and carry on as fantasies of freedom. The image is a confused one: it is merely one of persecution, of punishment, not actually one of sacrifice, a point further demonstrated by the way Smith’s cohort cower by the wayside, before scrambling down an onramp to avoid arrest. Skateboarding is a somewhat harmless endeavor, but the dramatic siege the skaters hope to portray is more of a childish caper, and only shies away from the simultaneous reality of legal fees, criminal records, lawyers, and all the unfortunate administration that is required to process this single act. The skaters can only picture Smith as a hero in this moment, can only see him as on some kind of legendary quest, because otherwise, wherefore is the image of his court appearance, the video of him signing legal documents, of him putting in volunteer hours to clean up public parks with a yellow vest and a grabber tool, or painting over graffiti as a court-ordered form of atonement.

For all the scene lacks in an actual sense of consequence, it nonetheless establishes Smith as the video’s Peter Pan-like protagonist, and transports us through the mist to UMA’s island of lost boys and girls, a sanctuary where the these skaters appear less like humans, and more like pixies, gremlins, or simply part of Pan’s tribal band of young folk, all scattered to the winds of existence by virtue of abandonment or trauma. A world governed solely by imagination. A place, to some extent, of art. It should come as no surprise, then, that in the midst of childhood wonderment, we encounter some incredible skateboarding, reminding us that we shouldn’t entirely let go of this fluidity of identities and ideals. Cody Chapman is one skater who keeps us on our toes, as he cannonballs his way through the streets, springing over fences, bouncing off of walls, and tweaking every gesture with a monkey-like agility. His skating seems to come from an entirely intuitive place, in-tune with his surroundings, though the way he pauses a backside noseblunt on the coping of a backyard pool gives us a glimmering moment of self-awareness. Albeit brief, he stares down the kidney-shaped chasm before him as if in contemplation of his own sense of poise, hinting at, even teasing us with the revelation of his intentions, before he absconds once again, and gets back to scurrying around the streets, pools, and ditches of California.

Chapman’s ender is a hulking kickflip indy, a hyperbolic trick that exaggerates every gesture in such an over the top, and borderline comic manner that it comes off as camp (and that goes for guest skater Roman Pabich’s version later in the video, as well, when he boots one into a ditch, before gliding through the entrails of the LA River). Yet, in spite of the brawny, and almost parodic bravado of Chapman’s clip, the skater who seems to take the greatest relish in idiosyncracy is Maité. Brandishing her skateboard like some kind of noisemaker, she leaves a trail of chaos wherever she goes. It’s fun to witness the jester-like comedy that she throws our way, as she jeeringly leans over the coping to plant a kiss on the head of a mannequin, or jostles herself down a set of medieval stairs seemingly just because it felt cool. For Maité a massive frontside no-comply out of a stone quarterpipe, and smashing a photographer’s camera’s are equivalent outcomes. She just goes on laughing, no matter if she makes her trick or falls.
Both Maité and Chapman’s parts are excellent, but you walk away feeling a little off. The former is less flirtatious and more of a general troublemaker, and, having shown up late to the party in one post-make celebration, Chapman looks a little clueless, cheering even though he doesn’t quite know what’s going on. In short, they’re pictured as children. To blame for this perception are perhaps the project’s actual Tinkerbells: UMA’s art director Thomas Campbell, and the videographer, Jon Minor. The winged fairy was Peter Pan’s caregiver and guide, his messenger and confidante, but she also had a dark side, attempting to hide Peter from the temptation of his old life, and the duties of growing up. She would also reveal that she was in love with Peter, in spite of him being a child, a twist that further’s the Victorian-era sexuality at the heart of this tale, and its sublimation of sexual desire and innocence (and the way women were expected to grow up and become caregivers, while boys could to remain charming adolescents forever).

We can certainly see Tinkerbell’s same latent tendencies in Campbell’s contribution: his design work pieces together less a coherent vision, than a field of utterances and gestures, a folksy aesthetic that draws from the highly stylized illustration of his Beautiful Losers-era work, but which makes the boards and skaters look less human, and more like precious, collectible toys. If the actual mission of the company is somewhat unclear, it is only heightened by Minor’s editing. Bringing his ability to capture the gloomy glamour of skateboarding from his days at Emerica, the result is a video with a strong vibe, a fluctuating feeling only made more pronounced by Star Head Body’s (Smith’s nom de guitare) jammy, psych rock score. But confuse a vibe for a viewpoint we should not. Whereas Minor’s smeary visuals for This Is Skateboarding (2003) and Kids in Emerica (2004) gave tooth to the 2000s’ top pros such as Andrew Reynolds, Heath Kirchart, Spanky, and Bryan Herman, its abstract images lack the same professional aura to counterbalance the bleary effects here, with the exaggerated color correction instilling the video with a somewhat aimless sense of melodrama, and, at best, giving it a shadowy, if ambiguous intensity.
In its idealization of the skaters, the video falls short of the image of coolness they’re shooting for. Lacking some of the adult depth or sense of persona, the skaters ultimately reside in a state of limbo. And by the time Smith appears for the last part, it practically has him looking like Robin Williams in Hook (1991), an aging Peter Pan who, to show just how out of place he is in his old home of Neverland, finds himself on a skateboard, harried by kids. As with the image of Smith skating the Bay Bridge, though, we are presented with some unforgettable images. Much like Peter Pan pirouettes in the sky above Neverland, he pitches an entire 540 over a cinderblock wall in a single unflinching arabesque. His board flutters upright on a kickflip backside 360, before he magically plants it back on the ground, and, later, tap dances along the narrow edge of a canal’s retaining wall to ollie a footbridge. Yet, Smith’s part has a plaintive quality to it, a sense of dissipation. Of youth held on for too long. His approach to historic spots is brashly ahistorical, as when he broadsides the legendary Clipper ledge with a wallie 180, reducing it to a mere drop. And while seeing him clutch a cigarette in several clips gives the footage a true sense of temptation, and a very adult sense of brooding complexity (the implication being that he’s seen some shit), it could also be construed as a kind of pastiche or mimickry, framing the long journey of his skate career as but an extended smoke break.

At 30 years old, an age widely considered a true marker of adulthood, we would expect Smith to be confronted with the fact that the fluidity (read: instability) of a skater’s existence just isn’t so cute anymore (a response I got at having broken my wrist at this age from many of my friends and colleagues, or when I was stopped by cops at the Brooklyn Banks a few years ago, only for them to see that I was in my 30s). Or, to bring it back to Broken Social Scene and the point about losing ones virginity, perhaps the company’s art directors need to get over this boyish fantasy, and take their mint-condition innocence out of the box. In the end, I don’t mean to moralize here, nor am I really suggesting Smith needs to grow up or pick a lane—his and the rest of the skaters’ sexualities and sexual expression is up to them. But I still get a sense of sadness from the skateboarding, that, in all its spectacular ability, it is done for its own sake, and therefore describes a state of being lost. Take Smith’s ender as a final example. Flipping into an alley-oop frontside wallride, he epitomizes lightness and grace, but for all the fluidity of his choreography, and rewriting of convention, it leaves us in a painfully ambiguous situation. We might be thrilled, but we’re like all the Victorian women who fell in love with Peter Pan: able to appreciate the beauty of the skating, we nonetheless have to come to grips with the fact that the skater is off in his own Neverland, just vibing out.•••


(Special thanks to Jake Kassay for the conversation on this one, and all the other ones.)