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Friday, Oct. 5, 2007
'Air Guitar Nation'
Playing with an invisible friend
What is it that makes a man, in the heat of the moment of an Yngwie Malmsteen or Iron Maiden guitar solo, grimace, thrust their crotch, and place hands on an imaginary guitar? "Air Guitar Nation" — is a documentary that seeks to answer that burning question.
Perhaps those of you with only passing knowledge will find the whole air-guitar phenomenon a bit silly. Well, along comes this insider's look to prove to you that you are entirely correct. Not that the director — an accomplished player of invisible guitars — ever intended that. But he does succeed in increasing tolerance, if not understanding, of this much-maligned — dare I say it? — art form.
Unbeknownst to those of us who, well, have lives, for about a decade now they've been holding air-guitar championships in Finland, and the event has managed to attract contestants from all over the globe. This documentary follows the American contenders from 2003, the first year in which America participated, and also a year when they took home the prize.
Director Alexandra Lipsitz takes his subject as a serious pursuit, but fortunately not too seriously. He makes the case that air guitar is a form of performance, but whether it deserves to be public on the stage as opposed to private in the bedroom is far less clear. The conundrum is summed up by one Belgian contestant at the championships who says: "You're not there to make a fool of yourself. You're there to play guitar." Except there is no guitar, hence the foolishness.
Karaoke gets away with people pretending to be Kurt Cobain or Kumi Koda, but at least they have to put up or shut up in the vocal department. No such skill is involved with air guitar. Indeed, judging by the performances on display in the film, the primary skill required is not musical, but rather the ability to make a face like your underwear is two sizes too tight.
And yet the very nothingness of air guitar has its proponents. The founder of the Finland championships praises its "abstract, intangible" qualities, while calling it "the last pure art form." More likely, it's part of a recent tendency — think Paris Hilton, "Big Brother," YouTube — in which people think they should be famous, or at least in the spotlight, for no real reason or talent whatsoever. Or, as air guitarist C-Diddy puts it, "You don't have to be a rock star to be a rock star." Democratizing, yes. Accomplished, no.
"Air Guitar" follows C-Diddy (real name David Jung), as he wins the trials in New York City and heads off to Finland for the championships. Clad in some sort of Asian tourist-shop robe and with a "Hello Kitty" mask as a breastplate, Jung earns applause (and devil horns) through his manic gestures, pained expressions and frenzied riffing, but he doesn't go a long way to dispel the "not make a fool of yourself" part of the equation. His primary rival is a fellow New Yorker, Dan Crane, aka Bjorn Turoque. Crane, an actual guitarist for once, is more inclined toward hyperactive power chording, but it's the more exaggerated, on your knees with tongue-hanging-out big-hair metal stylings of C-Diddy that wow the crowds.
Larger questions remain unasked: Why exactly do people play air guitar? Asian-American C-Diddy notwithstanding, the film makes it clear that it's a largely white-boy phenomena. Why is that? Hard rock still lacks the funk, and unlike house or hip-hop, its fans need something to do with their bodies other than shaking booty, and shredding air fits the bill.
Is this also a sign that rock has grown so old and flaccid now that its moves of strength and intensity — the "windmill" power chord, or the Hendrix genuflection — have become ironic and the stuff of parody? Inquiring minds want to know, but Lipsitz's doc is purely fan-boy.
How original is air guitar, anyway? Wander the Marunouchi area on a fine day and no doubt you'll spot a salaryman who's mastered the fine-art of air golf, yet no one has proposed championships for that. Rock 'n' roll, however, has always had an overblown sense of self-importance, so perhaps the ascendancy of air guitar as an actual performance is appropriate. One looks forward to the crowd-surfing speed trials and the groupie triathlon.