Minding the Gap
This extraordinary debut from documentarian Bing Liu weaves a story of skateboarding, friendship, and fathers and sons into a coming-of-age journey of courageous vulnerability. Over the course of several years and with his camera always at the ready, Liu records the rocky paths into adulthood of Keire and Zack, two friends from his own skateboarding community in Rockford, Illinois. As he does so, deeper parallels gradually emerge that ultimately draw the filmmaker into a heartrending confrontation with his own past. With an eye for images of exhilarating poetry and a keen emotional sensitivity, Minding the Gap is a powerfully cathartic portrait of fledgling lives forged in trauma and fighting to break free.
The Criterion Collection presents Bing Liu’s documentary Minding the Gap to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on this dual-layer disc. It has been encoded at 1080p/24hz and is sourced from the original digital files.
It feels a bit ridiculous to be commenting on how the film looks on the disc considering how it was shot (between 2012 and 2017 using a number of different digital cameras that vary in quality) but in all it does look very good. Some of the older footage that gets spread out (and takes up all of a minute or so of the film) can look a little rough since it varies between standard-definition and low-end high-definition, but most of the film (which was shot in high-definition) looks very sharp and clean, encoded wonderfully so there are no severe artifacts present. The film can be very bright and colours look incredible, reds, pinks, greens really coming to life. Black levels even look very good and that murkiness I usually tie to digital photography is rarely a problem. It’s actually one of the better presentations of high-definition video that I’ve seen.
The film’s soundtrack is presented in 5.1 surround in DTS-HD MA. It’s a documentary film so I wasn’t expecting much from it, and most of the audio does focus to the center but it does spread out a bit. The mix really only shows off when it comes to the film’s score, which, like other documentaries of late, aims for an ethereal, dreamy quality that is almost a cliché by this point. Still, it works, and it’s mixed impressively, moving effectively around the viewer accompanied with the lower channel rounding things out nicely.
Criterion packs on some great material for this release, and I was impressed with the overall quality of the content. Criterion includes not one but two audio commentaries for this release: one featuring director Bing Liu on his own, the other a group effort featuring Liu and the film’s stars Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan. Both tracks were recorded remotely in October 2020.
Liu’s solo track is more along the lines of a technical commentary, the director offering background to the project, talking about specific scenes and how they came about, and explaining how he was able to get the film made and released. He also explains how he captured certain moments, completely by accident in a number of cases, and talks about other sequences he filmed but didn’t use. For example, it sounds as though he did follow Zack and Nina to the hospital for their child’s birth, though didn’t use it in the end as he felt just jumping to them having the baby seemed to push the narrative. I think the most interesting portions of his track come down to when he talks about editing as it sounds like he did really struggle with it, and he admits a lot of that comes down to his personal attachment to the material. He credits editor Joshua Altman for reining him in and showing him how to properly construct a narrative from the material. The biggest surprise, though, is that Liu says there actually wasn’t a lot of material shot for the film.
I liked listening to Liu recall the experience and talk about everything he learned while making the film, from narrative to editing. He impressively carries the track on his own, too, never running out of material to talk about. In the group track—with Johnson and Mulligan—he ends up staying more to the sides, interjecting every so often, asking question, and just directing the conversation when it needs to be pushed along. All three are recorded remotely and after some technical checks and my weekly reminder that I’m old (they refer to Final Destination as a movie that is “so old”) the conversation takes off and goes off in a number of different directions. They of course talk about the experience making the film, share stories around certain sequences that appear—providing further details we didn’t get to see—and share where they are in their lives now, which includes how they’re dealing with COVID lockdowns (and Zack is apparently sick, waiting on test results) They also cover how the film has changed their lives since its release, with the biggest change/possible annoyance being they are constantly contacted over social media. It does sound like just three friends just talking and loose most of the time, though the tone changes around one incident in the film, where one participant doesn’t feel like talking about it and another is pushing it a little bit. Catching up with everyone is probably the highlight of the track, and impressively, despite them all calling in remotely, it does end up sounding like they’re all in the same room together.
Criterion then includes some new video content, starting with the 33-minute A Very Tricky Balance, presenting a collection of interviews with director Liu, producer Diane Quon, and executive producer Gordon Quinn. This is a making-of of sorts, all three recalling the genesis of the film, from a bubble of an idea to the finished product. Surprisingly this ends up expanding more on what Liu covered in his solo commentary in regards to the editing of the film, with mention of test screenings where audiences gave feedback, helping them find the focus of the film, or what other elements should be brought up, as well as finding the proper tone. There were other subjects that were to appear in the film before the focus was put on Johnson and Mulligan, and some brief footage around them shows up here. Quinn even talks a little about Kartemquin Films, its history, and its program that led to the film getting finished. The backstory behind the film is nowhere near as straightforward as I would have thought, which leads to one of the more gripping talking-head featurettes I've seen in recent memory.
Liu also catches up with Nina Bowgren, who he talks with remotely for 16-minutes. Bowgren gives an update about her and her son, and it’s pleasing to hear they are doing very well. Skateboarder Tony Hawk also pops up to offer his appreciation for the film and its portrayal of its subjects, pointing out how you can tell the film was made by a skateboarder. He also talks about his foundation and talks about working with Keire Johnson on a handful of things. He talks for around 12-minutes.
The disc also includes four outtakes, all with introductions by Liu and running about 21-minutes total. One scene is more of an extended sequences around one of the subjects moving, and there is also an alternate ending, which Liu was 100% sure he would use in the film at the time. That footage Liu mentions in the commentary around the birth of Bowgren's and Mulligan's son appears here, along with one of the other subjects that got dropped from the film: a father (and skateboarder) that actually worked to be in his child’s life, almost like a counterpoint of sorts to one of the film's main themes around absent fathers. Disappointingly that's all we get for deleted material, but I was just pleased to see some of the material Liu mentions in some of the other features.
Criterion then includes a 2010 short documentary by Liu, Nước, which profiles two Vietnamese immigrants who came over to the States under very different circumstances: one came over with their parents, while the other was adopted by an American family. Their experiences are wildly different, though sadly end up sharing similar details with both going through dark periods. The film is just the two talking in voice over, which could be death for any sort of film, but Liu does an impressive job with the film’s editing, keeping it visually interesting with its mix of footage of its subjects and old photographs, which gives it this wonderful lyrical flow, outside of one moment where the a black screen is present for a lengthy period (I swore out loud, thinking my player had died). It runs 23-minutes.
The disc then closes with the film’s trailer and an insert featuring an essay by Jay Caspian Kang.
I really loved going through all of the material, finding the film’s production and the process around its editing to be endlessly fascinating. I really wish the release featured more of Liu’s work, including his skateboarding montages and videos, or maybe some samples of rough edits for the film just to see its evolution, but as it is the supplements offer one of the more satisfying looks into the making of a documentary that I can recall.
The film is, of course, available on Hulu, but I think admirers and fans, along with aspiring filmmakers, would do well to pick this up. I really loved going through the extra material, not only to learn where everyone is now, but also to listen to the passionate Liu go over the evolution and thought process behind his incredibly personal film. It’s a solid edition all-around.