#FrancisOnFilm: Minding the Gap

22 February 2019

What are friends for? Aristotle thought friendship could be about the pleasure friends share, how friends could be useful to one another, or how friends recognize the virtue of one another. Feminist philosopher Marilyn Friedman asked what friends are for over twenty years ago, and film-maker Bing Liu explores it today in a very different context: skateboarders growing up in the depressed town of Rockford, Illinois. In Minding the Gap, up for best feature documentary in 2019 and available on Hulu, Liu chronicles the effects of abuse and domestic violence on his own life, the lives of his friends Zack and Kiere, and the life of Zack's girlfriend Nina and infant son.

These and many other accounts of friendship agree that friends care for one another. But accounts of friendship differ fundamentally about what caring for a friend means and requires morally, especially when the friend acts wrongfully or harms others. Should friends be supportive and non-judgmental, should they attempt to improve one another, or should friendship wane with the recognition that the friend has harmed another? What if the friend's life is not going well, if he is disillusioned or alienated, or if he himself has been victimized? What if the friendship crossed lines of culture or race? Liu's film poses these questions quietly and deftly, spliced among scenes of the friends soaring rhythmically together as they skate the Rockford streets.

The title of the film, Minding the Gap, suggests that these questions do not have simple "yes" or "no" answers. The title invites the viewer to ask, what's the "gap"? Surely not the poor fit between British trains and British train platforms—the scene is Rockford, Illinois. A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, is the only reviewer I've read who speculates about the gap intended by Liu: "The title can be taken to refer to the chasm between hope and reality, or to the fissures that separate people from one another and from their own best selves. But it also suggests the possibility of self-awareness and the healing power of reflection."

These are grand gaps, but I was struck by more mundane ones: between what friends share with one another, what friends don't say to one another, and how friends' paths to or away from success diverge. Liu's film recognizes that friendship must navigate these gaps, most likely imperfectly. In so doing, friends must be aware that there may be much they do not know about what has affected or motivated the other, and that much more might have been asked or said. And friends must also be aware that their positions may differ; from the very start of the film, Zack wonders suspiciously what Bing will ultimately make of all that he is filming. These gaps counsel against judging friends too quickly.

The title also invites the viewer to "mind" the gap, here too in several ways. Is the viewer to be careful of the gap, to look out for it, or to be mindful of it? Or, is the viewer to tend it, as one might a pet or a small child? Or, is the viewer to be bothered by it, irritated by it? I think it is all of these. Gaps between friends can be small dangers to the friendship. Gaps are also at times to be protected; friendships need space and harmony, like the flow of separate skateboards. Yet gaps are also an obstacle, to be adjusted, closed—or avoided if possible. These are all ways to navigate the need for judgments about whether gaps are tolerable, beneficial, or ultimately destructive.

In a couple of days, we'll know whether Minding the Gap won the Oscar—yes or no. If you see the film, you'll be brought into the subtle moralities of friendship—not yes or no, but more or less.


Comments (1)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, February 23, 2019 -- 11:14 AM

There are many 'gaps' in the

There are many 'gaps' in the record of natural history. Some are mostly related to creatures (other than humans) which came and went, usually to never be heard from again. We have been hearing about generational gaps, for several generations. Relativism seems to have something to do with this. When I hear someone say, 'don't judge me', I wonder what they really mean. Are they saying: If you are my friend, you must tolerate my quirks and FAILURES of judgement, regardless of how foolish and/or self-destructive they may seem? When I was a young man and was offered advice/counsel from someone more world-wise or experienced, it was considered, before being either accepted or dismissed. This was not only good form, it too was seen as a form of friendship: a strengthening of bonds. So, now, people appear to go directly on the defensive, without even thinking that someone might know something they do not; might have their continued welfare in mind; rather than leveling an insult or put-down. I think friendship is harder now. Perhaps the film will win an award. That is good---if it is deserving of such.