About a half hour into Gnarleans, a musical sequence comes alive that fully defines the kind of freedom sought by not just contemporary skateboarders, but modern day New Orleanian youth. A group, having spent the night rolling around the CBD (Central Business District), congregate around the back of a truck. They talk, they goof, then they drive, with one riding his board alongside the car. As the song carries on and the beat goes higher, one kid sitting in the back, Jazz, holds up his right hand and flips the bird to something just ahead of the frame. It’s a group of cop cars. He smirks slightly, but soon enough returns to stoicism, as he enjoys the breeze. Freedom is the main point of expression to this docu-collage of playhouse cityscape escapism and day to day routine-ism. For these cats in the biggest small town in America, things just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.
Director Raul Buitrago’s sprawling visual palette made of concrete, marble, street lights, and parking garages represents a beautiful interruption and a cut in the fabric of the views tourists seek when out at night. The skaters of Gnarleans openly mock and/or have genuine fun, give or take, with passers-by on the street. Some, clearly from out of town, look on and smile, taking pictures with their minds that will inevitably be pushed away for memories of beads and booze. Some, usually older adults who probably are working in town, cower or look frustrated when trying to navigate around someone else’s skate trick. It’s funny to watch such positive antagonism, which often leads to positive experiences. Like a stranger hopping on a board for a quickie, or someone making conversation and commentary real fast. It’s a very niche community, but one that couldn’t be tighter or more articulate.
“It’s strictly murders out here.” “Generation thing.”
In one voice-over monologue, over footage of the same kid wandering train tracks, we hear the story of violence over the course of decades and families, separating neighborhoods and houses, brothers and sisters, by way of a continuous cycle of tragedy. It’s all around them, with reminders living and breathing in the setting of the city itself. Somehow, by utilizing this blood spoiled landscape to their sporting advantage, they can flip the script and recontextualize their environment. It’s more than just hopping around makeshift ramps and grinding on walls for them; it’s a stress relief system and a paradigm shift.
Gnarleans though, for all of its video poetry, doesn’t quite hits its stride until it gets closer to the finish. Throughout its non-narrative of following three particular skaters, throughout the moments of wordlessness and meditative stillness, there’s a missing strength in its dramatic thread. We return every once in a while to Jazz who is trying to stick the landing on a wall maneuver on the roof of a parking garage. He comes closer and closer, sometimes throwing his board in disgust, other times just cussing himself out. Outside of his metaphorical trip in not quitting on this one move, on this one mental bridge to cross, Gnarleans acts mostly as an extended night in the life of exercise where nothing of much consequence happens. It’s all in the editing and the editing is more poetic essay than a story. That’s a good thing for the up close and personal photography, but ultimately not so much for anything truly connective.
Impressive, flowing like and with the wind, Gnarleans is just that and only that. It’s an element of nature, behaving despite the humidity, but not lifting anyone or anything up. It just whistles through and between people. That’s nice.
RATING: 3 / 5
Gnarleans can be viewed in full on the vimeo player below.