Art Encounters | Mind The Gap

The broken fence is a metaphor for a gap often spoken of as a term of warning in Ireland. Irish people use the expression ‘mind the gap’ (the phrase originates in the UK in train signs warning passengers to take care stepping off the carriage. It has, however, been refashioned in Hiberno-English). You hear it all the time. But lately I began to think ‘what exactly is the gap?’ Is it the void between us and other people; the distance between me and you? Should I mind the gap, so the void doesn’t become an impediment to a way of life: gobble me up. When I first moved to the country, to a small village called Murroe in Co. Limerick, I was aware of the phrase ‘mind the gap’ only as a term of warning. Beware: don’t fall in between. Since posting my musings on a broken fence in the last Art Encounters, which is about the hole my dog wandered through into my 90 yr old neighbour’s house, my neighbour died. Ever since the phrase ‘mind the gap’ has been on my mind continuously; stuck. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head for the past week. Hence I’m writing about it now.

Maybe I have been thinking about the phrase to mean a sort of care for others; a care for those older or younger. Or at least a sense of becoming mindful of them. The broken fence next door had brought me to the gap. As I thought of the gap between my house and my neighbour’s as a line of communication, I began to think of it as distance between respective generations. So, in this sense, to ‘mind the gap’ is to take care of the distance between one generation and the next. It might even seem like an injunction: look after, take care of, the gap between you and others. Don’t let it get too big. Or, ‘don’t let the gap widen too much.’ Mind the distance between you and others.

The Art Encounters series is concerned with something similar. The series is a way of ‘minding the gap.’ At a certain point in my life I realised nearly all my cultural references came predominantly from a bygone era: the 90s. I work in education, teaching students generally a lot younger me, and recently noticed students saying say ‘yeah, my Dad likes that’ a lot. The generational gap seemed to be widening; I felt, to paraphrase LCD Soundsystem, I was losing my edge. So when I received a request from the HeadStuff boss-in-chief, Alan Bennett, who happens to be an ex student of mine, to contribute something to HeadStuff, I felt challenged to address this widening in writing. I was challenged to mind the gap by writing for an apparently younger audience. I decided to grasp the opportunity to write about stuff that impacted me and to navigate through an internet dominated world. The idea of inserting links to songs and films, using images that are instantaneous, is so different to traditional media. It offered me a way of thinking and doing stuff that seemed terribly of the now. I could write something today, post it today, and that evening it could be anywhere. I could lean on that other HeadStuff boss, Paddy, for techy new generation advice; algorithms, that sort of thing. Paddy is a a great editor who also knows a lot about stuff, a lot about algorithims. Or at least, I imagine he knows a lot about algorithms. 

The gap, then, is a metaphor for the in between; what separates my world from others; one generation from another. Writing the columns every two weeks was a challenge to confront the gap; and in doing so to become more aware of all this new stuff that alters the reader experience; the way we read. I didn’t want to fall in between. I wanted to understand the world my kids are growing up in: I wanted to mind the gap.

I tend to rewatch films I love over and over again. I watch Nobody’s Business, directed by the Jewish American filmmaker Alan Berliner, a lot. It’s a documentary about the director’s cantankerous father, Oscar. It’s arguably his most beautiful and profound film. Berliner made the film at a time when he had already had a lot of success; he didn’t need his father to tell him he was a good filmmaker. But the need to be saluted by a paternal authority comes through as something that fuels Berliner’s creative energies: it is both his blessing and curse as an artist. Over the course of the film he conducts countless interviews with Oscar: a father who is fussy and difficult to deal with. Oscar is also of a different generation to his son; the work-hard-keep-your-nose-clean generation. Alan, unlike his Dad, is a liberal artist, who, to make his films, relies on grants and fellowships. At the film’s end, having explored Oscar’s origin as an East European Jew forced to emigrate to the U.S to escape persecution, and having tried to understand the complexity of a man he both loves and finds difficult to love, Oscar is heard  – in voiceover – saying that Alan is a bum; someone who gets handouts to make films rather than work a proper job for himself. The film is, at this point, over, and the end credits that come across on screen reveal the many organizations and patrons that support Alan in making his films. The irony is that Oscar is dissing Alan while we look at the recognition Alan has received on screen.

Nobody’s Business is, for some critics, a failure of sorts: the film doesn’t do what Alan Berliner apparently set out to do in making the film. Oscar refuses, over and over again, to engage in the self-reflection Alan has made his goal from the outset. He doesn’t want to address his history, his emigrant roots, look into his persecution at the hands of anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to reflect on all that stuff because it really is ‘nobody’s business.’ For Oscar, his backstory has nothing to do with who he is. It won’t make any difference if he goes back over all this history. He doesn’t see the value in looking back and wants only to move forward. And yet, at the same, he is a subject in his son’s film. Against protestations, he has agreed to be in his film.

The end is sad, moving but also funny. It’s moving in that Alan doesn’t receive the gratification he may well crave. He is never praised for documenting his family’s life over the course of the film. He may never have wanted the recognition from his father we suspect Alan craves. But it might well be the case that his humility as a person, his honesty and groundedness as a filmmaker is a by-product of their relationship. At first I thought the film was about Alan’s sadness in not receiving recognition from his father. Now I think it is not about this at all. The film is actually about striving for recognition insofar as it fuels Alan’s creative energy. The film is really about Alan accepting his father’s generation as different to his own; accepting the difference between father and son as vital, as a way of understanding his identity as an artist. 

Nobody's Business Alan Berliner - HeadStuff.org
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Nobody’s Business is therefore a film about Alan’s desire to understand someone who scorns him for not being like him as funny. Does Alan think that making a film about Oscar will compel him to appreciate his son’s calling as an artist? Maybe. It’s one way of looking at things. But I now think its off the mark. It’s better to view Nobody’s Business as a film that concerns ‘minding the gap’; a film about accepting the differences between someone of one generation and another as vital.  Although Oscar and Alan talk a lot, and the film as a whole is marked by the verbal volleyball that takes place between them, we come to recognize their chat as a kind of screwball family banter: serious but how serious? It is in moments of silence that we get a glimpse of the real relationship. The best example is the scene when Alan is inquiring into his childhood via old home movies, asking about his Dad’s super 8 films, and the footage he took of his children. Oscar maintains a silence. It’s as if all he has said until this point, all the proclamations he has made, are now redundant. He sees the traces of his actions in his son. Pushed to reflect on his decision to make home movies in the first place, he now recognises the seeds he planted in Alan to make films.

Watching Nobody’s Business on YouTube again last week coincided with the second anniversary of my father’s death and the unexpected death of the neighbour I wrote about in the last Art Encounters. My neighbour was another old-timer I had struck up a friendship with in the village who had died in the space of a month. I loved talking to both of these old-timers, not because I expected to learn anything new from them, but because I enjoyed the challenge in making intergenerational chat. It is always a challenge to relate to another generation, one we often aren’t even aware we are taking on. To an extent, I was conversing with these neighbours as a way of minding the gap, speaking their language so I could become more confident speaking the language of my kids. Watching the film again got me thinking about the gap that separates my set of experiences from those both before and after me; got me thinking about difference as the motor of creativity; that which fuels us to inquire and research.

Re-watching Nobody’s Business got me thinking about the phrase ‘mind the gap’ as a taking care of the time between me and others, that now has me tapping into a computer. Oscar made videos about his family. His son would go on to become a filmmaker focusing on family. That Oscar doesn’t know he is imprinting his desire on Alan is perhaps the reason for his silence when it becomes an issue in the film. Maybe – if there’s a lesson here – it’s that impacting upon others, minding the gap, especially regarding those younger, takes place through the vestiges of action. Alan makes films not because his father coerced him to, but – I think – because he went about minding the gap when not really knowing it. As much as he might like to think his actions played no role in his son’s decision to be a filmmaker his silence suggests otherwise.

Epilogue:

‘Dad, can you turn it down. You’re embarrassing us.’

‘Why?’

‘Kanye is not cool.’

‘Just listen to this. It’s called ‘Ghost Town.’

‘That one you played all last year was crap. The Life of Paul…or Pablo…or something.’

‘This is short. Just this one song.’

‘No, please.’

‘Just one song. There’s a line on this song that seems to crop up all the time on Kanye’s songs. I think it does anyway. Or maybe it doesn’t.’

‘What’s the line?’

‘I’ve been trying to make you love me. But everything I do just takes you further from me. Listen here.’

‘Jesus Dad. What does that mean?

‘Something to do with trying too hard. If you push something, even love, it backfires.’

“Yeah. So maybe you should stop pushing Kanye on us. No wonder we hate him.’

‘Hate is a strong word.’

‘He’s an arsehole Dad.’

‘It’s not a personality test.’

‘Yea. But he’s a real arsehole Dad. Just look at his Twitter.’

“Ok..Case closed. Put on your stuff.’


Featured Image by ©JKSCATENA PHOTOGRAPHY

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