Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Bizarre and Joyous "Air Guitar Nation"

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The Bizarre and Joyous "Air Guitar Nation"

(from 3/21/07)

  • picture Björn Türoque aka Dan Crane
  • picture Alexandra Lipsitz
  • picture

“There is something that happens to you when you air guitar.  I am not sure if it is on a biological, mental, or spiritual level.  Maybe it happens on all three levels, but it involves checking your ego at the door to have fun and being able to let go of everything.” --Alexandra Lipsitz, director of Air Guitar Nation.

Alexandra Lipsitz insists that while she was making her delightful, crowd-pleasing first documentary, about guitar competitions without guitars, she never worried that audiences would be betwixt, bothered, and bewildered by the weird images and loony finger-synching characters she was shooting.  She figured correctly that if she could be won over by this unwieldy combination of performance art and sport, then so would everyone else.  As the film’s producers (including sister Jane) contend, Lipsitz “infiltrated the world of air guitar until she truly turned native and was completely claimed by it.” 

Indeed Lipsitz (who later produced segments of TV’s “Project Greenlight” and “Project Runway”) immediately became captivated by air guitar playing while filming the inaugural East Coast championships in 2003 at the Pussycat Lounge in New York—there was a turn-away crowd after Howard Stern plugged it on radio--and the first U.S. championships at the Roxy on L.A.’s Sunset Strip.  Yet she didn’t fully connect to it in the same way as the contestants until she traveled to Oulu, Finland for the eighth world championships.  “I was at a rock club called the 45 Special well after midnight,” she tells me over lunch at the Half King on 23rd and 10th, a few days prior to the film’s March 23 New York City release.  “The music was blaring and everyone was air-guitaring and I joined in.  There’s a big difference between doing it in front of your bedroom mirror and in public!”

I ask her if there was anything in her past experiences working in American circuses or serving as a crew member on sailboats in Southeast Asia that would indicate why she became immersed in the air guitar subculture.  She shrugs, “I think it’s the freedom.”  And what about the odd array of obsessive, over-the-top, semi-maniacal performers?  “They aren’t unfamiliar to me,” she says.  “You have to remember that they are much different from who they are when they perform. They’re like other people in I’ve known in the arts—they’re smart and creative, and on stage the best of them display a high level of artistry.”

“If you put us all together in a big room you’d have a lot of creative people who are able to talk about a lot of subjects other than air guitar,” says the “artiste” who sits to Lipsitz’s right in the restaurant. Today a lecturer, journalist, and author (young wannabes must check out his book “To Air Is Human”), Dan Crane was a bored software producer until he discovered that all the years he spent air-guitaring for his appreciative elderly relatives had not been in vain.  Suddenly, in 2003, there were actual competitions being held in America to determine who should represent our nation in Finland.  So until he retired from competition in 2005, Crane performed as “Björn Türoque,” one of the giants of air guitar and one of its sanest advocates. “I do believe there is a purity to playing air guitar,” he says sincerely.  “I also agree with those who say it both completely frivolous and completely serious.  I remember being backstage with one of my competitors at the Roxy and he was joking around and happily chugging down beers, but I could see he was very anxious because he badly wanted to win.  That’s how we all are.  We really want to win.”

Oddly, Björn Türoque’s pursuit of the 2003 world title makes him the de facto villain of Lipsitz’s film. After losing to David Jung’s “C-Diddy” in both New York and L.A., he still tried to spoil his likable fellow American’s march to a deserved world title by representing Sweden at Oulu.  Just when we’re becoming annoyed with him on the screen for being such a bad sport and pain, Lipsitz connected to him offscreen.  “We bonded,” Lipsitz recalls, “when he was bouncing up and down on my bed and lost his balance.  He landed on top of me, really hard, and after that we were friends.”

Also in Finland, the affable Jung (an actor/writer/comic) and Crane became friendlier than they had been in the States.  “David and I became closer the more we competed,” says Crane.  “We wanted to beat each other, but we appreciated each other’s performances—he really is good--and had a lot of beers together.”

“It’s important to note,” interrupts Lipsitz, “that while Dan and David could be friends, Björn Türoque and C-Diddy still didn’t like each other.  Their personalities clash.”

As do their styles.  C-Diddy, garbed like a martial arts grand master, is utterly flamboyant and, though we only imagine his guitar, “electrifying.”  He is part dirty, strutting WWE wrestler and part a lizard-tongue-wiggling member of KISS, with the meticulous rapid-fire fingerwork of a Segovia (this is art!) or Jimi Hendrix. He is always expressive, always playing to the audience, suitable for center stage.  On the other hand, Björn Türoque performs in the traditional, pure style of a guitarist whose band has a great lead singer—think Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, or Crane’s favorite, Jimmy Page. I suggest to Crane that C-Diddy has the distinct advantage because he takes the role of a band’s leader, like a Hendrix, while Crane’s stage persona is that of the star’s sideman, and he says, “I hadn’t thought of that, but there may be something to it.” However, I do point out that Crane has an advantage himself in that he plays a real guitar in bands.  Crane shakes his head and amazes me with a statistic and a fact: “I’d say that only about five percent of air guitarists really know how to play the guitar; it is actually a disadvantage for me that I know how to play.  The problem is that while I’m performing I have a tendency to look down at my hands to see if my fingers are in the right place—the ones who can’t play don’t worry about such things.”

More of a concern for all competitors is coming up with striking personas with memorable nicknames—Craig “Hot Lixx Houlihan” Billmeier is the 2006; U.S. champion Jace “Zombie on a Rainbow, Esquire” Bartet is the current Collegiate Tour champ.  And, Crane says, “almost all of them have alter egos who are much wilder than who they really are.”  And when in character, the competitors are rarely chummy.  “I’m happy to give others advice,” smiles Crane as he looks to the floor, “but if we’re competing, the advice is usually wrong.  It’s offstage that we’re friendly.”  Crane’s remark doesn’t jive with a scene in the movie in which he’s given the cold shoulder at a party by two Austrians who obviously have an anti-Bush’s America sentiment.  “But we got along better after that,” argues Crane,” and after we competed, one of them gave me a hug.  There were many people with cameras backstage but only Alex got that on film.”

While the artistry of Björn Türoque and C-Diddy is apparent during each of their performances--their one-minute staged routines are followed by one-minute of improv to songs chosen by the organizers at each competition—some of their weaker challengers try to establish an identity with shocking taboo-breaking visuals. For instance, Lipsitz includes one nude performer tugging on his dong and giving new meaning to the term “naked ambition.” Mercifully, she did not include the guy who begins his performance by taking a dump.  “He came on stage,” laughs Lipsitz, “opened up what looked like a pizza box, pulled down his pants, did his thing, closed the box, and then began to air guitar!”

“He would have been a hard act to follow,” deadpans Crane.

Like most of the viewers at the screening I attended of Air Guitar Nation, I laughed at the beginning of the movie, feeling as though I were watching something as cuckoo as the world championships of thumb-wrestling, but scam or not I soon found myself sincerely rooting for my favorite air guitarist to be able to claim he is best in the world.  Everyone is so pleased at film’s end—one reason it won the Audience Award and Best Documentary at various festivals—because, as Lipsitz, says, “there is a payoff, a satisfying payoff.  The film would have been different if there had been another winner.  It worked out great for my movie.”

Lipsitz achieved her primary goal of making skeptical viewers who initially laugh at the concept of air guitar truly care about who wins.  But what about her other objective, which is shared by everyone else in the “air guitar nation?”  “We really do believe that we are part of the world peace movement.  It’s as we say: nobody can play air guitar and pick up a gun at the same time.”  To emphasize her genuineness, when our interview ends, Lipsitz gives me a promotional button that reads, “Make Air Not War.”

One might doubt that peace will be achieved through the efforts of the growing world community that is uniting around invisible-guitar competitions.  Wouldn’t that be as absurd as a famous guitar company sponsoring these events without instruments?  Lipsitz smiles, “Did you know that Gibson is interested in doing just that?”

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