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Courtesy of Thrasher Mag

September 28, 2017

Sherman | Absurd, Radical, Fancy: on Avant-Gnar and the Right Way to Move

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More than three years after the Vice article which put them on the map (and almost two years after the next Vice article which let everyone know that, yea, they’re still hanging around somewhere on that map), skateboarding’s least reverent crew, Fancy Lad, released their fourth full-length movie one week ago to much… acclaim?

The Fancy Lads are are an amorphous collection of giddily impoverished and moderately talented skate-rats from Boston, whose main schticks include (but God knows are not limited to) inventing vaguely skateboard-related four-wheeled contraptions, not landing their tricks, splicing forgotten VHS clips into their edits, shaky camera-hands and yelling. FL4: The Final Chapter, this most recent opus of theirs, brings all of these “techniques” (and so many more) to a sort of inglorious and completely captivating fixation.

The movie’s “frame story” revolves around a bunch of (literal) Craigslist actors at an audition for FL4 itself, where the lines they (poorly) recite are just variations on the Lads’ ad-libs throughout the actual video. There’s a recurring duo of talking puppets in the shapes of an “F” and an “L,” who tell grumpy grandpa jokes about the athletes. There’s a full segment where “Gnardo,” a new crew-member, lands his tricks on his ass more often than on his feet. At one point in the movie’s first half, there’s an interlude in which a sentient beer-machine walk-rolls to its death at the hands of one of the Lads, who shotguns a puncture-wound into its chest and leaves it screaming on the ground while some grimy vaporwave beat slowly crescendos. (The crew — for at least a little bit of explanation — lists Narragansett Beer as one of its sponsors.)

This is all to say, I guess, that in the Fancy Lad universe, skateboarding is more the medium (or maybe better yet, the excuse) than it is the point. The Lads are weirdos first, skateboarders second, filmmakers third and skate-filmmakers, like, twentieth. It’s why Adult Swim — network television’s mecca for absurdist humor and stoner comedy — wanted to give the crew an opportunity to release a Fancy Lad edit under its auspices, which culminated in 2015’s momentous (?) Video History, a seven-minute montage of mind-numbing post-comedic “action” “sports” which still stands as the crown jewel of the Avant-Gnar micromovement

This term “Avant-Gnar” — coined by “CEO” Nick Murray to describe the loosely coagulated handful of crews (Fancy Lad, Beez, Golden Egg) which were releasing left-field edits around the turn of this past decade — is as much a joke as it is a fitting descriptor. It’s a joke, obviously, because none of these guys take themselves seriously enough to be on the progressive end of anything, let alone a $5 billion industry with close to 12 million worldwide constituents; but it fits because — as utterly strange as it seems — they are on its vanguard.

It’s no coincidence that the Lads first made it big with a segment on Adult Swim, or that they’ve drawn comparisons to the likes of such anti-humorists as Neil Hamburger; with their awkward jump cuts, found-footage ethos, imperfect overdubs and, um, singular deployment of a green screen, they’re cut pretty obviously from the same cloth. But as with their late-night cartoon(ish) counterparts, the Lads’ art doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it suffers from a complex and seldom-acknowledged anxiety of influence, whether anyone would like to admit it or not. The humor in the comedy of, say, Tim and Eric (perhaps the closest of the Lads’ creative relatives) is the result of a classically unholy coupling of smart and dumb, high(brow) and low(brow), praised and forgotten — it’s conceptual art built up from the mass-media-turned-rubble of 80s and 90s sitcoms and music videos, the form and function of an infomercial or crummy home movie with the mentality and methods of a postmodernist. Like practitioners of early video art, today’s best comedians of the absurd — among whom you’d better believe I’m placing the Lads — make meaning and unmeaning weave in and out of each other by nurturing bizarre associations, visual and otherwise, that are willfully paradoxical and obscure.

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Where an Adult Swim creation breaks off — or rather goes beyond — is in the incongruous imposition of narrative onto stuff that will just never make any sense; the humor of Tim and Eric, for example, derives from an always-already fruitless anti-attempt to make the unreadable readable, to inject sense into the willfully nonsensical. The only difference with the Lads, then, is that instead of using 80s television as their raw material, they use the sport of skateboarding itself: Give Paul McCarthy’s Painter a pair of Etnies and put him on food stamps, and you’ve got yourself a Fancy Lad.

To this tune, the Lads’ supreme innovation lies in deconstructing what it means to do or play a sport, and presenting us at least with a rubric for something new. As it stands in the athletics of today, it seems as though one can either play to win or else work towards making oneself the best you that you can be. Neither the former — with its glaringly masculinist overtones and “FOOTBALL!“-ish imbrication within broader and not-so-innocuous economies of winners and losers — nor the latter — wherein going on a run almost physically feels like some Michelle Obama-type figure urging the homines economici in all of us to get up and Move™ — leaves much if any room for creative expression outside of an appeal to buy more of your team’s merchandise and watch them win on your hi-def TV this Sunday.

This isn’t to say, though, that the sport of skateboarding — were it even to drop all associations with the hypercommercialized competitions about which so many polemicists have cried wolf — isn’t itself caught up more than most of its practitioners would like to admit in a mentality closely not all that unrelated to some other more “mainstream sports.” Skaters don’t have much grounds for critiquing the shallowness of a baseball game when 99 percent of the sports media we consume is officially sanctioned by this or that company, and it’s hard to make fun of those joggers over there in their short-shorts when, in hour eleven of practicing your switch tre, you look down at your G-Shock Watch to realize that you only have five minutes before you have to leave if you want to pick up a Soylent on the way home in time to pre-order the limited edition signed Chris Joslin pro-model deck off of The Berrics’ website, or whatever.

So the genius of Fancy Lad isn’t in their creation of new tricks, nor does it necessarily have to do with their irreverence towards skate-culture conventions. That’s part of it, for sure, but I think their critique of the game gives us more than a wacko alternative to Street League. When the Lads miss more tricks than they land, they give us some third option, a way to interact with the concrete world(s) around us in ways that don’t entirely depend on getting better, scoring sponsors or even making the trick. The point, if we listen to what Fancy Lad is saying, is more about making those unwitting associations with the sidewalks and stair-sets we walk down every day, regardless of whether they’re the same ones seen by everyone else.

Troy Sherman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at tsherman@cornellsun.com His column Troy to The World runs alternate Thursdays this semester.