Monday, February 28, 2011

Bicycle Film Festival

Those who like movies about bicycling had a feast this weekend in Chicago, as the tenth edition of New York's Bicycle Film Festival brought seven hours of bicycling cinema to town.

The Festival was comprised of five programs spread over Friday and Saturday nights. Each program was anchored by a featurette of less than an hour, preceded by an assortment of shorts, many of cyclists doing crazy stunts, ranging from the acrobatic to the sublime, sometimes with grace and sometimes with catastrophic results.

There wasn't a program without a sampling of BMXers launching themselves into flight. The ultimate was the legendary Matt Hoffman, subject of the longest of the festival's offerings, "The Birth of Big Air," produced by Spike Jonz and Johnny Knoxille and a few others.

Hoffman was an early pioneer of taking to flight on the bicycle, doing somersaults and spinning around. He dominated the BMX scene for ten years beginning in 1986. He constructed a huge ramp in his back yard in Oklahoma in an attempt to propel himself higher than any person on a bicycle had gone for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. He crossed the line from being a BMX rider to becoming a daredevil, earning him the respect and favor of the ultimate daredevil, Evel Knieval, among the many interviewed in the movie.

He was ever pushing the edge. One of his competitors lauded, "Everybody thinks everything has been done and then he does something that no one had dreamed of. He did that six or seven times during his career."

His doctor was kept busy patching him up. "There's not an extremity that he hasn't broken," he commented. Injuries often sidelined him for months at a time. "Every day I get up," he admitted, "I think, this is a day I could die."

The same could be said of the New York bicycle messengers portrayed in two of the main features. The man who has captured their escapades better than anyone else, legendary helmet-cam photographer Lucas Brunelle, featured in "Lucas Brunelle--Line of Sight," commented that riding in traffic in Manhattan is "the greatest roller coaster in the world, because every time you ride it you think you're going to die."

No one would dispute that watching the messengers ride full tilt against fast rushing traffic, slipping through cracks of congested traffic and insanely charging into intersections without hesitation against red lights, slashing through the cross traffic. There were frights aplenty watching these seeming madman taking outrageous risks, defying all sense and logic. It was utterly breath-taking and had me antsy to get back at it, as I too, as a messenger, know that incomparable adrenaline rush of riding all out amongst the gas-guzzlers, intensely alert to all the dangers and stimuli.

"There are few things in life that demand complete and total focus, and this is one of them," Brunelle said. "What we do is based on skill, not luck. Its chaos out there, but you see a pattern." He is a sage and a poet as well as an exceptional cyclist and film-maker. Those narrow, impossible cracks he and his co-conspirators ride through with such aplomb "are the areas we exist in." They are almost beings of a different order inhabiting a universe of their own. "You can do crazy things here," he explains, referring to New York, "and no one cares, because its so fucked up anyway." Many cheers to Brunelle for his life and his years of stupendous film-making.

"Riding the Long White Cloud," another of the longer features, followed seven professional skateboarders on a bicycle tour of New Zealand with skate boards lashed to the back of their bikes seeking out places to flamboyantly skateboard as if they were BMXers. None of them had toured before and discovered that touring was more of a challenge than they anticipated battling head winds and rain and long climbs.

"Everyone seems to be thinking the same thing, what have we gotten ourselves into," one commented. They manage only 300 miles in ten days, half of they had hoped. After they completed their ride one admitted, "I don't think I will ever ride my bike again." It was disappointing that they didn't endure long enough to discover the joy of touring.

The only other segment on touring was also about a short trip that failed to convey the transcendent aspect of the long tour. "Tokyo to Osaka" followed twelve Americans riding fixed gear bikes on a 400 mile ride through Japan. This was more of a stunt that a tour. None carried panniers. They enjoyed the experience more than the skateboarders in New Zealand, but gained little more than a whiff of the true essence of touring.

Most of the films were of the high-adrenaline nature, even the two on touring. Among the few quiet, reflective moments in the festival fare were mechanics truing wheels or building bikes. There was a bit of poetry, too, watching cyclocross racers in "The Cyclocross Meeting," another of the anchor features. It provided some nice meditative spells without dialogue simply showing some prolonged glimpses of top US riders Barry Wicks and Adam McGrath competing in races in the US and Japan.

Just as BMXer Matt Hoffman was constantly trying to come up with some new stunt, there are people all over the world still trying to figure out some new bicycle antic. One short featured a guy riding up the renowned Stelvio Pass often ridden in the Giro d'Italia no-handed while playing an accordion and various other instruments handed up to him along the way. He was more successful than the guys in another short who tried to invent a rideable tandem unicycle. They had to settle with just riding two separate tandems while cradling a board between them.

There was plenty of the bizarre. One of the toppers was cyclists serving as human bowling balls hurling themselves into ten plastic barrels arranged liked bowling pins going for a strike. A little less nonsensical sporting activity adapted to the bicycle is polo. Bicyclists riding around with mallets trying to hit a ball into a goal is a fast growing, legitimate sport. The short that gave a sampling of this new sport, "We've Got It on Tape," wasn't long enough.

The festival was not for the squeamish. There were crashes and collisions aplenty. Cyclists were being battered left and right. Film-makers did not shy from close-ups of gaping wounds, even in the Japanese touring short. Hoffman thudded to the ground all too often in his attempts at the impossible. Wife and friends poked at his comatose body after one severe fall, finally briefly rousing him from a coma that went on to last three days, putting him out of commission for months. During his hospital time his friends knocked down the huge ramp he had built that could have been the death of him, then blamed it on a strong wind.

Though the vast majority of the films were documentaries there were a couple of short narratives that were among the highlights of the festival. "On Time," a Bicycle Film Festival greatest hit from 1985, followed a bike messenger having a bad day. He crashes his bike and in his quest to complete his delivery is chased by a cop and later some kids who mistake him for a bike thief. He manages to evade them all with clever and humorous ingenuity. The other narrative short,"Day Labor," was equally humorous and not without social satire.

At times I was beginning to fear that there was nothing new to add to the bicycle film genre, as some of the shorts became a bit repetitive, but then along came a delightful new jolt. Seven hours of bike films was hardly enough. The closing film of the festival, the documentary on Lucas Brunelle, certainly left me wanting more, not only of Brunelle's footage, but any footage, while at the same time making me hunger to be out there on my bike. It was an exalting ride home, even in a cold rain. I was only sorry I wasn't part of a single file pack chasing the wheel ahead riding like Brunelle's madman through the canyons of Chicago's downtown, the local messenger playground.