STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/06/2013

Between Concrete and Abstract

By John Dixon Mirisola '11

“We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.”

It’s hard to keep from laughing when Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words fade into focus at the beginning of  From the Borders, a film about skateboarding. The connection between the 1884 quotation and the subject of this alumni film seems paper-thin, an absurd reinterpretation of a New England giant.

But it doesn’t take long for that shallow reading to earn a deeper meaning. Shots of this brotherhood of skateboarders rattling down rural roads and overgrown mountain paths make it clear that these Vermont boys had more on their minds when they invited us to consider surfaces.

Surfaces imply borders—those separating skateboarder and landscape, urban and rural. And borders imply relationship. Director Tom Mull ’13, a communication arts graduate, splices together scenes of pristine green hillsides, beat-up city ledges, lumbering black bears, rusty backwoods drainage ditches: Here are nature and society, and at the crux, a small machine of wood, metal and urethane.The joke of the Emerson quote becomes profound and uncanny, a truth hidden in plain sight.

Indeed, Tom and his brothers Charley ’07, Dave, and Steve ’15—along with fellow riders Alex Fararra and Nate Benner—demonstrate a studied eye for the uncanny throughout the film.

That’s why I catch myself laughing. It’s funny to watch young men on wheeled machines spinning and sliding over cracked New England stairways and root-split sidewalks precisely because that’s not how we do it. It’s easy to forget that the order we’ve imposed upon ourselves can still be subjected to our imagination—to that part of us that has remained wild. And it’s refreshing to spend some time observing six individuals who have carried an untamed spark across the border into our towns and cities.

The Mull brothers grew up skateboarding together in rural Vermont. For these boys, the “skate and destroy” mantra popularized through the ’80s and ’90s by West Coast skateboarders—a reaction against what those riders saw as the stiflingly rigid “concrete jungle”—never resonated. Vermont has more cows than people, and more wilderness than cities. The kind of skateboarding that grew out of this landscape was, instead, deeply nonviolent and ecologically conscious.

At Gordon, philosophy professor (and dedicated skateboarder) Brian Glenney encouraged the Mull brothers to think deeply about what they could communicate on their boards. He encouraged them to consider skateboarding as an art-form, a sort of dance with the landscape. At the same time, Tom delved deeper into his study of filmmaking, honing his technique working on independent films with Toddy Burton, associate professor of communication arts. The result was From the Borders, a profound yet broadly accessible effort. “He’s so poetic with the juxtaposition of his images,” Burton commented on the film, “and he navigates so well between the concrete and the abstract.”

It’s hard not to laugh at this use of “concrete” in conversation about a skateboarding film. But that’s what makes it so true.

To view a trailer or purchase the film, visit

John Dixon Mirisola is a communications specialist in the Office of College Communications at Gordon.



Dave Mull