True grace displays harmony with the environment. Moving gracefully is the opposite of showing-off. If you’ve ever watched a cat move across a room: that’s graceful. A cat would make the same incredible leaps if no-one was watching; it’s not about inviting an audience. Those leaps and feats of balance are about connecting with a space, feeling everything. Yes, cats are mostly moving because the sun has moved, or someone’s put out food, but they know the texture of their world, while we – for the most part – can only look. In Matthew Marsh’s second short film about parkour, Imagination is Everything, what strikes me is how grounded the traceur is, how enlightened. His heart has no loose seams. He’s at one with the world.
Tim Shieff doesn’t seem to walk places; he cartwheels. And not the graceless, bungled cartwheels of drunken street revellers, but the liminal cartwheels of an acrobat; the kind that have perpetual motion, as if in harmony with deeper cycles. There’s a shot where we just watch Tim turn in perfect circles, silhouetted against a tower block, slowed-down, so we have time to feel the centrifugal force, as if his limbs were spokes on a wheel, and that rotation was as eternal as the turn of the Earth. Slow-motion is used here not to make things look special, but to show us the specialness of fleeting scenes. In reality, you would see a blur when Tim moves. Observation is only possible at reduced speed. Otherwise, he’s too deft for us.
What I like about parkour is that it’s an art form with no baggage. Unlike street art and the would-be Banksies of the world, no-one who does this is selling anything. There is no monetary value to what Tim Shieff does. He can be photographed in the act, or filmed doing it, but parkour won’t lead to a career. It’s closer to religion than commerce. Traceurs, like Tim, are seeking control over the body as a means to free their minds. When a monk fasts, or takes a vow of silence, they’re doing the same thing. A cloistered existence is one that shuts out artificial joy, not true joy. Monks are happy because they have time to feel. Like them, Tim leads an unhurried life. He doesn’t use parkour to race around. He uses it to distil what matters to him, and to build on that knowledge. When he moves, all you can think is how wasted your own movements seem, how sapped of life.
There’s a lot of sky in Matthew Marsh’s film. And sunlight. Although the film has an urban setting, the concrete doesn’t stay in your mind the way the brilliant colours do. We’re seeing things from Tim Shieff’s perspective. His surroundings don’t define his thoughts. Azure is a good colour for Tim, because it seems heroic as well as otherworldly. When he does a handstand, so secure are his feet in the wide blue yonder, it’s as if he was trying to push away the gravestone city, and leave only uncharted space. Again, it’s that idea of the metaphysical being expressed physically, much the way a swami sleeps on a bed of nails, not to show-off his own resilience to pain, but to show his choice: not to follow society’s way of thinking.
Tim Shieff has the build of a gymnast. He uses fire-escapes like gymnastic rings, as a way of testing his strength, rather than fleeing his troubles. Like all true athletes, he’s an ascetic, training religiously to reach his goal. You can almost see the thousand small moves that go into each of his bigger leaps, as if all the hours of preparation were sifting, and the perfect leap was pure gold. He has an assiduous air, unbowed by hard work. He isn’t in it for the glory. There’s just something about parkour that nourishes him. When he speaks about it, he sounds like a monk explaining the value of prayer. You keep expecting him to talk about an adrenaline rush, but Shieff puts the emphasis on calm; how he feels “within himself”.
I envy traceurs for the same reason I envy cats: they exist in the present. There’s a special, ineffable joy to being in the here and now, with no festering doubts or tiger’s claw anxieties. Most of us only feel within our own skin during sex, and even then, it’s fleeting. To be a physical being for any continuous length of time is damn tricky in these modern times, with rampant distractions leading you astray, and the worst of your past always camped out front. Cats, and traceurs, don’t seem to feel this way. They touch what matters. Their happiness is tangible. No ledge can frighten them, because they don’t see ledges, or scenes of falling; they see exalted spaces. How dignified it is to feel larger than your fear of death.