Sunday, July 1, 2012

See You in the Movies

It is a well-known fact that nearly everyone is planning on writing a movie, and the few who aren’t are wishing they would get off their cans to try. The difference between my statistically unrealizable movie and your statistically unrealizable movie is that mine actually has a built-in, sure-fire audience: starving motorcyclists. They can only watch World’s Fastest Indian so many times.

This won’t be my first attempt at the practically impossible, oh, no; I’m a slow learner. I was cutting up reels of super 8 at my kitchen table in Hoboken long, long ago. Then I took an NYU screenwriting class—of course! me and nine-tenths of New York City!—and met others with the home-splicing habit (some of whom were even on the brink of graduating to 16 mm). It may have been that era’s great democratic medium, but without YouTube it was like playing air guitar: nothing issued from the effort. The need for a venue birthed the collective called Film Crash, which favored the back rooms of bars and clubs. If you were young and had either seen a poster or attended that screenwriting class too, all of nature could not stop you from wanting to make movies then. I immediately enlisted a founding member to collaborate on a screenplay. Not my first, and not my last, to find permanent residence in a filing cabinet. The paper on which it is written is as yellowed as the idea.

Although these early efforts failed—failed in some intrinsic, fading-ember kind of way, the way most assays into making art fail, miserably—one idea I had as soon as I started riding should have succeeded. Perhaps because I conceived it as made by someone else. This unknown should have made a documentary on privateer racing, focusing on one particularly driven weekend warrior, the type who worked forty hours solely for the purpose of blowing the proceeds on fuel, tires, and inevitable emergency room visits. That level of incredible and largely inexplicable passion would have made as absorbing a film as ever took on a type of human madness, and packed an art house to unreel it.

When, more recently, I embarked on writing about long-distance riding and some of its more outrageous practitioners, I secretly figured I had found another such subject for the perceptions that only the big screen is capable of delivering. The friends with whom I discussed my book’s ongoing research would invariably envision it not written, but exposed: “I can see it now!” They would then go on, avidly, to cast it too. It was a movie forced uncomfortably between hard covers, I began to feel.

But if no one with the means to realize it in that form has yet seen the cinematic potential in a tale of weirdo cranks who sacrifice so much to gain an equal amount of ineffably personal happiness, I do. And so it is that I am once again joining the ranks of dreamers, waitresses, and the ghost of myself long ago. I am writing a movie.

In it, I want there to be plenty of pure sensation, conveyed visually and aurally: the sound of an engine in the dark, steady and unremitting; the cone of light always ahead describing the small space into which the bike forever moves; and then . . . the hours. The time that both collapses and expands at once, extending in opposing temporal directions. The long ride’s road lies on the map not from west to east but from past to future. On a bike, the present vanishes both ways.

One day it came to me (and probably should have occurred much earlier than “one day”) what the movie will really be about, beyond a slightly warped love story, or a single mother, or the bike that can always be improved, or a scenario with some valuable outsider cachet, being the heretofore unexplored minority world of long-distance record chasing. It will concern a strange familiar: the kind of person who does something that partakes of death in order to fully live.

We all know this is what we are doing, even though we also enlist denial every time we head out to ride, or else we wouldn’t. (Denial is a healthy, and necessary, part of life, until it isn’t.) It’s the other guy who is courting danger, we think. The unprepared, the unschooled. The unlucky.

When it is someone who is not like us because he is better than us—someone we aspire to be, and therefore have spent time imagining being—who is the one who gets taken, it cracks the thin glass of our denial. The possibility suddenly feels real. Very, terribly, real.

There is a motorcycle movie I hadn’t yet seen, and it came to me courtesy of my harmless dollar-store addiction. (See? Denial in action.) I have to say, the dollar store is a more or less appropriate place for this one, notwithstanding its laudable earnestness as well as its setting in the world of road-racing, which is ridiculously vastly more interesting than car racing and puzzlingly remains one of the best-kept secrets from the public at large. Idiots.

The movie is Flat Out, the 1999 story of racer Stewart Goddard, paralyzed from the waist down in an accident but determined to ride again. (Interestingly, although Goddard plays himself, co-wrote the script, and otherwise situates the film solidly in fact, the turning-point accident is onscreen transposed from racetrack to pickup truck, presumably to deflect the notion that racing is perilous. But if not, where is its meaning? And meaning it has, make no mistake.) As he says a few too many times—Note to self: don’t repeat dialogue—“I’m just trying to get back a part of me that was taken away!” But one line will truly resonate with us all. “You wanna take up something safe? Try bowling.”

That’s what the ideal motorcycle movie gets at. The fundamental fact that the thing we do in order to feel most alive could not perform its function without also showing us the view from eternity’s edge. We all go to the grocery store fully expecting to come home with the bags; too, we go on every ride as if at day’s end we’ll draw down the door to the garage once more. Just like always. Yet one day, whether on meaningless errand or mowing the lawn or Sunday ride, “always” becomes different.

The truth that we do die, inevitably and every one, is lodged somewhere in the very center of the experience. The knowledge is like salt. Brutal, bitter, desired. It makes it taste like something.

[I now write the occasional column for the estimable CityBike magazine, which is available only by subscription and to the lucky ones who happen to live in San Francisco and its environs; if you are not so blessed, I'll post my contributions here. Until you move there.]


Anonymous said...

Glad to see you back, if only on occasion. Another film from a few years ago that you should find is American Café. It’s just an amateur film of two guys trying to build quasi-café bikes in time for the Crud Run west of Madison WI. Since I’ve been part of it from approximately inception and am friends with many of the “stars,” I can’t really tell whether or not it’s any good. I like it.

I will miss the Crud Run twice a year, but my wife is starting her new job in New Paltz and dad, daughter and dogs are left behind to sell the house. We’re looking in the Stone Ridge, High Falls, Hurley, Kerhonkson, somewhere else area……….you have nice road, Melissa, and I’m looking forward to two wheels on them.


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Bert, I'll definitely look for (and with luck find) "American Cafe."

What terrific luck to be headed to these parts (she says humbly). Every time I go out the door I am amazed anew: gorgeous scenery, fabulous people, and yes, great roads. You'll enjoy our ragtag group of riders.

See you around!

Anonymous said...

Talking of film and motorcycles... have you ever come across this rather specialist event.
There have been some intersting screenings over the last few years and it seems to be growing.
By the way I was guided here having read The Perfect Vehicle a while back and have found plenty of interest. Poignancy abounds.

Paul in England

Shybiker said...

Good for you. Your vision is so sharp and poetic that the world benefits from hearing it, either on the page or the screen.

Your opening amused me. Yes, thirty years ago, also in New York, I contemplated a career in film. I made several 16mm shorts which were used for years by my school (Hamilton College) to teach filmmaking. My crossroads came at the time of deciding whether to enter NYU film grad school or BU law school. The decision was tipped by my romance with a fine artist whose skills vastly eclipsed mine; one of us needed a "real" job: i.e., a means of financial support. I abandoned (or, more hopefully, postponed) my artistic dream to be the patron of hers.

Also, you're so right about the hunger among motorcyclists for cinematic representation that goes behind the drivel we're served (e.g., sportbikes leaping from train-car to train-car). What you describe is alluring and has that built-in audience.

Good luck!

Sal Paradise said...

It's baffling that there is such dearth of good motorcycle movies. Movies with real compelling characters I am following some good blogs, anyone of which could be a movie.

Rode through Stone Ridge Saturday, met some great fellow riders at the Last Bite and then swam in the river. Beautiful scenery beautiful water, and beautiful people. Does it get any better?


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Paul, welcome to the Poignancy Club! And thank you for the film fest info, which I'd heard of but never fully "attended."


SB, I wonder for how many of us filmmaking is "the road not taken." In addition, for me, law is another fork in the road not taken--one I'm increasingly regretting, finance-wise. You are smart (in so many ways).


Sal, I know, I know. Let me try to remedy this sore lack!

And no, it doesn't get any better than that. Give me a shout the next time you're going to have as good a time as that. I want in.

Pierre Sim said...

Bonsoir Melissa,
How strange! I wanted to write to you lately. I am back in the Ontario country, at home, finally. Yes, I ride my Tmax a few times a week on highway 344 along the Ottawa River. By myself since all my friends consider motorcycling like a great danger. Coincidence? I just submitted a synopsis to a Quebec famous actor (Paolo Noël). Like you said, we all dream of film making. My script is entitled Les anges de la colline. It is about a group of criminals similar to the Hell's Angels.
The treatment of the movie would be like the ones produced by Quentin Tarantino. I am a big fan of Pulp Fiction and other movies of Mr. Tarantino.
I will write you directly soon.

Anonymous said...

Nice to read local posts. I’m still in Madison WI, but my wife’s at work in New Paltz. I’m selling the house here and we’re attempting to buy one around Kerhonkson on a couple acres. She’s also looked at a few in Stone Ridge, which could be even handier since my 7-year old is likely to go to High Meadow. Besides the beauty of the area, it seems every tiny town has great places to eat and that is uncommon…..


Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Pierre, I will expect a seat at the premiere.


Bert, Stone Ridge was my old home, and my son went to (and loved) High Meadow.

Yes, having great places to eat is one benefit of living where city people have their country houses: they demand nice food.

Shybiker said...

Hi buddy,

Here's something I thought might interest you. A female motorcycle-blogger just issued a challenge: for riders to post a picture of themselves wearing their motorcycle boots and their favorite non-riding shoes AT THE SAME TIME (one on each foot).

I did it here:

Her challenge is here:

Her picture is here:

Hope all's well in your life.

Charles Statman said...

She Devils on Wheels best biker flick EVAR!!!!

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I am a she-devil.

I wonder how the movie "The Young Cycle Girls" ("ravaged--robbed & busted from county to county!") is. The poster may well be better than the flick. Good, because I have it above the guest bed.

For anyone who has been needing the full citation list of movies in which Moto Guzzis appear (as well as a pretty thorough list of movies in which they don't, some of which sound so bad they're great), here you go:

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

SB, that challenge is the most awesome thing. You met it with a BOOM (-sha-boom).


Shybiker said...

Thanks, Melissa. I was thrilled you took a peek. It was a unique opportunity to express my dual nature.

Sal Paradise said...

I went to shybiker's blog and I have to admit was awful confused for a couple of minutes!!

Cool pictures.