The Heartbreaking Beauty of Pool Dunks
INT. LIVING ROOM — CLOSE ON MAN’S FACE — NIGHT
A middle-aged man’s puffy face. He has bags under his eyes and a receding hairline. His eyes are flecked with red.
WIDER ANGLE —
STEPHEN is sitting in a leather chair in a comfortable room. The only light comes from an expensive lamp beside his chair. His tie is loose around his neck. A glass of whiskey is balanced on his belly, loosely controlled by his left hand. On his ring finger we can see the indentation where a ring was once worn. We hear the tinkle of ice against the glass as he breaths in and out. Suddenly he glances up, as if he has decided something.
Alexa, bring up that video.
(soft, friendly voice)
Which video, Stephen?
THE video, Alexa. The one where I’m happy.
Your wedding, Stephen?
That was terrifying and stressful. You know the one I mean.
Also terrifying and stressful. I want the video where I’m happy. Bring it up.
Are you sure, Stephen? Remember what happened last time.
Now! I need it now.
OK, Stephen. I’ll have something ready to calm you down if you need it.
CLOSE UP ON STEPHEN’S FACE
The light changes and on his face we can see reflections of what he is watching. He is serious, uncomfortable at first. We can hear sounds from the video: music; shouting. Suddenly he is shaking, tears and snot covering his face. And through the tears, smiles come. Laughter alternating with sobbing.
Yoshida Kenkō, the 12th century Japanese monk and poet said:
Branches about to bloom or gardens strewn with faded flowers are worthier of our admiration — in all things, it is the beginnings and endings that are interesting….If man were never to fade away but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us. The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.
This is captured in the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, a view of beauty which prizes the impermanent and incomplete. Cherry blossoms are so beautiful because they fall from the tree so fast.
The concept can be illustrated with this tea bowl from the Edu period.
Or from this pool-dunk video uploaded in 2015.
These guys, some childhood friends, perhaps some sets of brothers and a coupla guys from down the street, these guys, in this video, made an extraordinary work of art. A masterpiece which provokes a complex mix of emotions, emotions which will changes as it ages.
Let’s take a look at a couple of those emotions.
The video captures an endless summer: a bunch of guys with no responsibilities and a sweet-ass pool.
They’re too old for their parents to run their day-to-day lives, but not old enough to have to take responsibility for themselves. There might be a girlfriend here or there (or a boyfriend, I guess, but let’s face it…) but no one who is going to affect their behaviour too much.
By accident, or through intuitive genius, they did everything that happiness-experts suggest you do. They have a community, a series of challenges (both making the shots and making the film), no stress, physical exercise and sunshine. Each night (we imagine) they sank into bed awash with endorphins, nothing on their minds but vague ideas for the next day’s dunking.
They are completely free of self-consciousness and doubt. They think that this thing is worth doing and so they are doing it. They think it is cool and assume that you will to. Their joy is infectious.
Yet for all their contagious happiness we pity them, for they are cherry blossoms who do not know they are blossoms. Soon there will be jobs and college and declining testosterone and sitting in chairs all day and commitments and self-awareness. Gravity is pulling hard on these glorious flowers and they have no idea they are about fall from the tree.
Poised on the edge of manhood these Vitamin-D-soaked virtuosos are both physically capable and emotionally unrestrained. At this threshold they are all potential. They can become any kind of man: an astronaut, actor, soldier, athlete, doctor. All paths seem open.
But a breath later paths start being taken and the infinity of options rapidly decays.
Some of these guys will go to college, one or two might stick around to work for their Dads (my money’s on “Burt-Man”). This glorious ‘we’ is about to be shattered into a bunch of ‘I’s. The YouTube Beatles will have to split, and this video is them playing Get Back on the roof.
The viewer’s sadness comes from a suspicion that these sages:
- will never be happier.
- have not appreciated (1.).
- will at some point realise (1.).
- will be never be able to recreate this peak happiness.
Perhaps there was a party to mark the end of that glorious summer. The gang swaggered in, connected a phone to a huge television and put on the video.
People loved it. Girls looked at them through eyelashes. Boys said, “no way!” and “oh my God, sick!”. Highs were fived.
And in that moment of glory, swollen with the acceptance and admiration of their peers, appeared a crack into the void.
It’s over. The thing they worked on day after day has been done. Finished. Now it’s time for college, work, uncertainty, and they’ll each have to face that alone.
Time and Beauty
For us the power and meaning of this video will subtly change with time.
Let’s say that the amount of joy you get from watching this video is always the same, regardless of how long it’s been since it was made.
Sadness, however, is a function of time. Watching the video in 2015 would be pretty much entirely joyful. Then, with each passing month the sadness rises; we know they are growing up but are uncertain how that’s working out for them.
At 20 years the pain we feel at the impossibility of recapturing youth overtakes the joy the video inspires. This sense of loss peaks about 27 years in, then a strange thing happens: the video starts becoming less sad.
Imagining these wizards at 40 we can’t help but think of faded versions of their teenage selves. But once they’re in their 50s they’ve switched categories and are now a new thing. Thinking about those old guys doing this is delightful.
Wabi-sabi and self-awareness
A key feature of wabi-sabi is incompleteness. For all their vigour and athleticism what these prodigies lack is self-awareness.
The minute or so of skippable fucking about (S.F.A.) at the beginning shows what they think is cool. They have a strongly held belief about what a cool thing is. This thing.
And this thing.
(They were half right.)
They are completely unaware of both their status as cherry blossom and their enormous privilege (e.g. their terrible choice of name: “White Flight”). To become decent adults they will have to lose this, but in becoming self-aware they will also lose their capacity for unexamined joy.
There is hope though, for us fans of pool-dunking and Japanese aesthetics. As Kenkō reminds us, gardens strewn with faded flowers are also worthy of our admiration. If youth is unrecoverable there is still a beauty to be found in age and decay: both remind us of the transience of all things and the preciousness of existence.
Frank Sinatra found this beauty in the late ’60s when he stopped the old schtick and recorded a series of songs facing up to ageing. In September of My Years he sings,
One day you turn around and it’s summer
Next day you turn around and it’s fall
And all the winters and the springs of a lifetime
Whatever happened to them all?
Seeing these princes dunking at 30 would be too sad. The blossoms are still in freefall. However, past 40, when they are leaves on the ground, and when they know they are leaves on the ground, such a video would again be beautiful.
Wabi-sabi on the way up; wabi-sabi on the way down.
INT. LIVING ROOM — CLOSE ON MAN’S FACE — NIGHT
STEPHEN is sitting in the darkness. Suddenly he starts energetically wiping the tears from his face.
Alexa, I want you to call me “Big Money Seabock”. And I want you to get hold of Ben-Jammin. We have work to do.