Bulldozing the familiar world

Published Wednesday, June 01 2022 at 12:20 pm
Bulldozing the familiar world

A man is falling down a hill. When the tumbling stops, he makes a goofy face and tells the audience to be careful around construction sites. He proceeds to enter a bright green outhouse that’s immediately airlifted by a crane. He emerges unscathed, albeit with toilet paper trailing from his shoe.

The man is actor Dave Hood, star and creator of the direct-to-video children’s series Real Wheels. It’s educational slapstick, with Hood narrating the ins and outs of trucks, or construction equipment, or race cars and spaceships.

Judging by the worn slipcases of my VHS copies, There Goes a Bulldozer (March 1994) was my favorite. Here, Hood interviews construction workers, explains the layers that go into a building, and details the mechanics of welding torches and hydraulic hammers.

Bulldozer was essential to my earliest concept of aesthetics, insofar as visual awe is the primal soup of anyone’s personal aesthetics. That the tape begins with a montage of explosive demolitions likely helped. Cement mixers, cranes, eighteen wheelers and backhoes would elicit an excited squeal whenever I saw them from my car seat.

I thought my love of heavy machinery was a true childhood obsession, but my parents couldn’t confirm that when I asked. The best they could offer was that I sat on a tractor…once. The YouTube comments on Hood’s videos confirm how shallow my fascination. There are many from people who vividly shared in what I could remember only dimly.

A top comment on Bulldozer reads: “This was one of the first things that made me discover that I wanted to be an Equipment Operator. Fast forward 27 years, and I've been a proud member of the Operating Engineers Union for almost 11 years.”

On There Goes a Truck, which features Hood’s sometimes cohost Becky Borg, user Motorhome Man writes: “they’re pretty much the reason I wear jean jackets. I also drive garbage trucks now.”

And, in the words of party4lifedude: “This brings tears to my eyes.”

The denim in question, sported by Hood and co-host Becky Borg, in There Goes a Truck (1994, VHS Tape).

I was happy to see these videos had been so formative in people’s life choices. It makes sense, as construction equipment broadens a kid's understanding of scale. It presents a bigger world, and posits an emergent one.

This may be why one of the few art reviews I regret writing involved a steamroller. The roller was modified into a music box that played the US National Anthem. I gave the show a positive advance writeup, because I was still a fledgling and too stunned by even the idea of big art or a known artist to be truly critical. But the actual experience of this big art and its big ideas felt cold. The clean college gallery seemed to profane the steamroller’s original utility.

The artist, Dave Cole, has made many works about labor, including an American flag knit by two excavators. The exhibit I reviewed was titled American Lullaby and made opaque critiques of patriotism and infantilism—as if a steamroller playing the National Anthem wasn’t also facile.

Cool abstract frame from There Goes a Bulldozer

Big machinery needs no conceptual scaffolding to be cool. Big machinery is cool because it is big and helps to create the world we inhabit everyday. My reminder of this came a few months prior to the steamroller, when my boyfriend’s job put him up at a hotel in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, and I tagged along.

This was a particularly vast part of the state, full of highways. After his daily training, Boyfriend and I would drive the hotel’s surroundings, landscapes seemingly without direction. We listened to Girls’ Generation and saw dirt piles, sand piles, gravel piles, and all the machinery that carried these elements to and fro. Here was construction’s real grandeur, in the format I remembered: seen from a car window. No wonder I got so excited as a kid.

The roadside display that is a landscaping firm, I realized, could serve all sorts of visions, and no gallery was needed. The aforementioned girl group Girls’ Generation must’ve realized this too, because their next single, “Catch Me If You Can,” was filmed at a construction site.

Taeyeon takes the lead in Girls' Generation's "Catch Me if You Can" (2015, music video, dir. Toshiyuki Suzuki) 

Hood’s edutainment, Girls’ Generation's yassified roadwork attire, Cole’s steamroller—apparently there are many ways to reimagine construction. Here’s one more: the Looney Tune “Porky’s Building,” directed by Frank Tashlin and released in June 1937. In it we find our porcine hero bidding on a municipal construction project: a brand spankin’ new city hall.

The city building commissioner pits Porky against a temporary nemesis, the never-again-seen Dirty Digg, in a race to complete the building first. True to his name, Dirty Digg ends up cheating, firing his crew and replacing them with a rapid-fire “brick laying machine.”

A go-getter rabbit who wants to help pesters Porky over and over: “How about me, Porky?”

Porky refuses, and literally cries “Woe is me!” He finally relents just before Dirty Digg’s tower reaches a Babel-sized 77 stories: “A-a-alright, g-g-go in t-there and f-f-fight!”

And so the rabbit does just that. He becomes a mason with super speed, totally outpacing Dirty Digg with the use of his hands and ears alone. At the cartoon’s conclusion, the rabbit’s t-shirt reads “SUPER COLOSSAL BRICK LAYER.” Porky holds him up to the crowd’s massive applause.

Somewhere between the absurdity of these gags and the labor they depict is where I hope to find my groove for this month of June. Over the next 30 days I’ll be writing and posting here daily. The aim here is not epiphany, which is always elusive. Instead I seek discipline.

Writer Anne Fadiman describes the familiar essay thusly: it’s not a confession. it’s not an analysis. Yet it contains elements of both those forms. That’s what I’m doing here. There are no limits on form or technique or even content really. The deadline is the only restraint necessary.

OSHA violations after dark in another frame from "Catch Me If You Can" 

The final bit in There Goes a Bulldozer involves Hood seemingly astral projecting after he steps on a rake. He’s soon run over by a Caterpillar-brand steamroller, then lifted by a loader and buried under dirt.

The light body horror ends when Hood stirs at a worker’s words.
“Wake up! You’ve been dreaming.”
“Boy, I was dreaming,” Hood says.
“And you still haven’t moved this pile of dirt.”

Then Dave Hood gets to work. It looks like I’ve already started, too. Time to lay bricks. Time to move dirt. With you reading these words, telepathy begins, and so has my attempt at metamorphosis. Here comes the super colossal bricklayer. How about me, Porky?

[30 days of June: No. 1/30]

Frame from colorized version of Porky's Building (though I'd encourage you to check out the original b&w print instead)
Future image of me after I write for 30 days straight. (Both this image and the lead are from Hood's Bulldozer)