Imaginary Rock Gods

Who knew that fake guitar-playing could lead to such a real, compelling documentary?

Air guitars do not exist. And yet, millions play them. This is, in part, why Zac Monro, the 2001-2002 World Air Guitar champion, says that "air guitar is the last pure art form."

Is Monro joking? That's what's great about Air Guitar Nation: It's impossible to tell. Or, as one of the contestants in the air-guitar contests says, "If you tell a joke enough times, you forget it's a joke, and you kind of believe it."

Kind of. Air Guitar Nation is about the fine line between irony and obsession, the moment when a joke becomes an identity. The truth of air guitar comes when it's impossible to separate the act from the individual; thus, Stephen Colbert is not the news-correspondent equivalent of an air guitarist, because we know that he knows that we know that he knows that we know he's kidding. He may present an impenetrable act, but deep inside, he hasn't confused himself with his comedy routine.

But someone like Tucker Carlson is a newsman/air guitarist, because, really, what?

And just as America has produced the great air journalists and air celebrities, it should be the home of the great air guitarists. But, strangely, for the first seven years of the World Air Guitar Championships, the United States was not represented.

Air Guitar Nation tells the story of the first U.S. championships, and their effect on the world championship. When the initial round is held in New York, hundreds of airists sporting noms du rock like "Nikki Tits," "Bjorn Turoque" and "C-Diddy" show up decked out in air-glam gear with well-rehearsed moves, devoid of sound but full of fury, signifying nothing.

The undisputed master is C-Diddy, and the film quickly becomes the story of his air-shredding dominance and runner-up Bjorn Turoque's indomitable will to win/humiliate himself. Turoque is the perennial second-place finisher, the air equivalent of Jim Kelly, returning time and again to the scene of his defeat so that he may, once more, be defeated.

As Turoque flits about the country and world seeking air success, his arch-nemesis of empty-handed shredding, C-Diddy, soars to the heights of imaginary fame. Signing the air breasts of air groupies, receiving the air accolades of air metal-heads, and sporting his signature Hello Kitty breastplate, he is the vision of American Exceptionalism: confidence, poise and swagger predicated on something that by its very nature cannot exist.

When the time comes for the world championship, C-Diddy and Bjorn Turoque head to the international capital of air guitar, Oulu (Finland's sixth-largest city!). There, they encounter what right-wing pundits fear most: Europeans. With hair long or shaved heads, clothed in '80s Spandex or naked and grabbing their air penises, these Euro-airists have that sense of borrowed cool that all non-British poseurs and hipsters have. Indeed, with all previous titles going to the Europeans, perhaps their dominance of the sport is an indication that the conservative commentators are right in their diagnosis of the decline of European spirit, for what could be more nihilistic than playing a guitar that isn't even there?

The winner for the previous two years had been U.K. champion Monro, but before the start of Air Guitar Nation, Monro had decided to retire from the sport, because, he said, he feared that the contest was becoming about the man, and not the art form. Thus, the door was wide open for a new nation to rise and take its rightful place in the imaginary Olympian air.

Now, it's often said by the British that Americans don't understand irony. I don't think that's true, but unlike the British, irony is not our native language. On the other hand, air guitar is our native language, and one can only imagine what would happen in an air-guitar contest when the first Americans show up stinking of liberty and imperial might.

A montage of images of the Iraq war and our disgraced president briefly fill the screen, but the filmmakers and air guitarists of the world quickly make it clear that air guitar is not about blame and shame and simplistic anti-Americanism. Instead, as contest organizer Juka Tikalo says, in creating an international air guitar championship, "peace was always the motivation."

And peace rules both on stage and backstage. In spite of the fevered jumping, strumming and fretting, the contestants carry for each other an international esteem that our so-called "United Nations" would do well to emulate.

Air Guitar Nation works both because of the cross-cultural camaraderie and the built-in narrative tension of the tournament structure. Especially touching and/or disturbing and/or potentially actionable is Bjorn Turoque's obsessive fixation on beating C-Diddy. As the line is crossed from gag to lifestyle choice, the film becomes a gripping exploration of how little we know or control our own minds. It's rare that a documentary has this kind of force, and rarer still that it has this much charm.

One can only imagine what Air Guitar Nation could have done if anyone in it could actually play an instrument.

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