Headin’ out on the highway
What are you rebelling against?
Racing wheels have represented a masculine teen rite of passage from very nearly their dawn. The cycler image still seduces youth, even as the actual vehicle has become an economical alternative to a plain ole’ Chevy, Ford or Toyota.
Yet, the motorcycle in film actually treads into a wealth of symbolism, ranging from the gun slinging Ole West, a special type of “road” movie and a period of hippie communal lovin’ and acid droppin’.
More obviously, there is the gangs on wheels cliche, with the males wearing helmets, boots and black leather jackets, as a tight-jeaned, bodacious babe holds their waist with her long locks blowing in the wind of the open road.
Motorcyclists and their riders got a bad rap stemming from a July 4, 1947 incident in which a biker gang turned the mainstreet of Hollister, Calif., into a drag strip. Newspapers branded bikers as a social menace. Come 1964 several members of Hells Angels were accused of gang rape in Monterey, Calif., leading to the attorney general circulating warning letters to law enforcement agencies.
Chastised as threats in the don’t rock the bucket ’50s, nonconformist national security investigations by Sen. Joe McCarthy touched the film industry for supporting Communism, and, concurrently, teacher and preacher morals squads targeted comic books (particularly crime and horror entries) and rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis the Pelvis style dancing.
Against this backdrop, Marlon Brando introduced us to Johnny Strabler, a cap and black leather jacket wearing “Wild One,” a symbol of a hoodlum rebelling against the status quo. Add Britches (Yvonne Doughty), as his vixen-like moll hanging on with her hands clasped around his waist adorned as a sultry tigress with a skintight sweater (accenting heaving breasts), tight fitting jeans, black jacket and black boots.
Loosely based on the 1947 Hollister invasion, “Wild One” (1954) eventually turns gang members against themselves. The subtleties of the film emphasize the efforts of cast and filmmakers to avoid stiff censorship policies. Both critics and scholars perceive the bike as a phallus symbol expressing the rider’s ambivalent sexual confidence and attribute the trophy attached to the cross bars and the rider stroking and polishing it as a representation of male dominance.
Interestingly, the majority of “deviant” bikers were not thugs, rather displaced blue collar workers who rejected middle class values seeking to forge themselves a niche in an otherwise closed society.
Fifties delinquent outlaws evolved into ’60s/’70s communal hippie lifestyles complete with weed and acid trips on western roads to freedom with music of Hendrix, the Byrds and Steppenwolf. Yet as movies glorified the outlaw, Esquire Magazine in the mid ‘60s started advancing that clean cut businessmen and ladies ride bikes, leading to Japanese manufacturers peppering the media with “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” advertisements.
Moviegoers in the 21st Century have mostly had to visit a DVD store or retro-cinema to watch features of outlaw motorcycle gangs harassing anyone supporting established ideas.
The Grindhouse Boys, Tarantino/Rodriguez double bill (“Planet Terror”/”Death Proof”) did inspire homage to the low budget science fiction and prison flicks but even Tarantino co-producing “Hell Ride,” as an overture to legions of silver chrome riding flicks, the dull imitation quickly vanished into obscurity having too many tomatoes on the meter to brand it all cheese and camp, committing instead the ultimate sin (no, not the unclothed mud wrestlers), of grueling, punishing boredom.
Larry (“Chrome and Hot Leather”) Bishop as director/star could not prevent it from falling off box office radar despite a Hades arsenal of violence, graphic nudity, strong dialogue and flagrant drug use.
Still, despite the failure to re-invent, this genre represented some of the same “coolness” as we find now through Potter-mania, teen vampires, costumed heroes, digital 3D and Hannah Montana.
21ST CENTURY WHEELS
Actually, the P.C. movement has legitimized the Harley or Yamaha one, and embraced equality for the recreational aspects, as those riding into the sunset often now have credit cards, a Rolex, grey hairs or other stuff.
Many films have a character on a bike, but the vehicle is merely a prop, not integral to the film’s theme. An in-production documentary, “Biker Mania,” will celebrate the genre’s best with both trailers and scenes from the 1950s until now.
• Sons of Anarchy (2009 TV) — Following the lives of an outlaw biker family (starring Katey Sagal, Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman) in Charming, Calif., many of the bikers are mechanics by day and at night on their Harleys protect truck shipments from hijackers, keep meth traffickers from entering the town and sell illegal weapons to affluent gangs from the Contra Costa (East Bay) community near S.F., where bands with names like MC Hammer and Rancid started in this area near the UC Berkeley.
• Ghost Rider (2007) — The bike meets comic book quasi-superhero as played by Nicholas Cage. After selling his soul to save his dying father, a stunt cyclist, Cage, makes a new deal with the devil to become a supernatural enforcer of justice and vengeance.
• Wild Hogs (2007) — Nostalgic baby boomers/suburbanites flee their politically correct routines for the open road, wearing leather jackets and riding polish chrome cycles. These dudes likely had designer leather jackets on their backs too.
• Motorcycle Diaries (Diarios de motocicleta , 2004) — Dramatizes a youthful motorcycle road trip taken by Che Guevara (leader of the Cuban revolution), who at the age of 23 travels through South America with his best friend prior to completing their medical residencies at a leper colony.
• Biker Boyz (2003) — Colors and plastic now coat motorcycles in this story of African American racing clubs in Southern California. No unlawful actions here, these boys in colorful costumes race for the sport, but bikers still bond by their mutual love for the cycle.
• Stone Cold — Brian Bosworth found himself nominated for a “Razzie” in this over the top sleazy and violent story of a cop infiltrating a Mississippi white-supremacist biker gang ran by a psycho named Chains Cooper. Look for: Machine gunning of Ritz crackers; chains demanding, “I need a new bitch” and an after store fight remark, “You gotta clean up on Aisle 4.”
• Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (1991) — Spoofing the genre, the Cycle-Sluts cruise into a town where a mortician turns people into zombies to work in a radioactive underground mine. When they flee the mountain, they gorge on human flesh, but the Sluts hack off heads using chainsaws, baseball bats, welding torches and a garrote. Look for: Zombie meat No. 1. Campy representation of how once controversial topics became socially acceptable and subject to “Reefer Madness” mockery.
SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND FREEDOM
• Easy Rider (1969) — Representing the disillusioned counterculture generation, bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda wearing an American flag adorned on his leather jacket) and Billy (Dennis Hopper dressed in buckskin pants/shirts) sell some drugs in California then head for the Mardi Gras, searching for freedom and smoking dope along the highway. “Rider” incorporated the Hippie movement into the cycle culture. Wyatt and Billy take a hitchhiker to a commune where they grasp the notion of ‘free love’ and score some LSD. The scope of the social commentary rises as they befriend an alcoholic, square ACLU attorney (Jack Nicholson) who mouths off about a country talking about freedom that’s filled with bigots who frown on partakers of individualism. Prostitutes, a psychedelic trip and reflections on the benefits of materialism versus spirituality hammer viewers.
• Gimme Shelter (1970) — Considered one of the best rock docs, the Stones, Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane, Ike and Tina Turner perform at Oakland’s Altamont Speedway where promoters hired real Hells Angels for stage security, leading to the biker hoods beating up people with knives and pool cues. Look for: Mick Jagger asks, “Who’s fighting and what for,” which bring this response from a Hells Angel on stage, “They told me, if I could sit on the stage so nobody climbed over me, I could drink beer till the show was over.”
• Vanishing Point (1971) — Tossed from the police force for finking about a rape, a deliver driver (Barry Newman) accepts a challenge to deliver a Dodge Challenger to San Francisco in 15 hours. Popping speed and filing the tank, the grassroots race becomes a driver versus the cops in an era where truckers using C.B. radios to beat bear traps was common. Cleavon Little plays a D.J. who’s cheering on the driver and providing occasional tips. Look for: Gilda Texter as the blonde nude motorbike rider. (Originally rated PG, re-rated R in 1998.)
• Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) — An African American man (Melvin Van Peebles) beats a couple of white cops he saw brutalizing a black revolutionary and must now flee South Central L.A. for Tijuana. Made for practically no budget, Peebles bellows, “Brothers and Sisters who had enough of the Man,” this is innovative indie filmmaking at its best with surreal images and split screens. While on the run, he falls into the clutches of a Hells Angels gang led by a woman. Earth, Wind and Fire performs the music. Trivia: Van Peebles used Worker’s Comp funds to finish the movie. How did he qualify for them?
• Mad Max (1979)/Road Warrior (1981) — Post-apocalyptic settings tend to send civilization back to the cycle (thankfully not a horse) and in these film set Down Under, Mel Gibson drove a Ford Falcon XB Coupe “interceptor” in the opener then rode a Kawasaki Z 1 900 in the sequel, along with a Yamaha XS1100E and dune buggies. When society breaks down, murder and vengeance replace law and order. Gibson plays a man pursuing an escaped member of the Berserk gang that vandalizes property, steals fuel and terrorizes the population. Look for: The “Saw”-esque choice provided by Gibson to the villain.
• Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) — Aside from Brad, Janet and the Time Warp, there’s Eddie (Meatloaf) — criminologist Dr. Scott’s nephew — who revs out of the deep freeze on his motorbike swooning the women with his smooth rock ‘n’ roll.
GRINDING THEM OUT IN THE ‘60S
• Born Losers (1967)— Half breed Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin) capitalized on the biker film craze as a stepping stone to his “Billy Jack” script. “Losers” abandoned the cliche of a born-to-eventually-be-good biker rejecting the outlaw lifestyle. Look for: motorcycle crashing into pond. Do you know the name of the movie from which this was recycled?
• Teenage Strangler (1964)— A very low budget blending of the troubled teen premise, including knife fights, rumbles, leather jackets, teen dances and ‘chickie’ races (on same DVD as “Teenage Gang Debs”). Look: Shot in Huntington, check out “old” Huntington High School, Martin’s Restaurant, the Southside and Sheriff Harold Frankel.
Finally, check around for grindhouse or drive-in classic DVDs containing words like “cycle,” “angels” or “gang” in the title, such as “Angels Die Hard,” “Angels from Hell,” “Babes, Boobs and Bikes,” “Cycle Savages,” “Horror of Party Beach,” “Mini Skirt Mob,” “Wild Rebels,” or variations of “Hells Angels on Wheels.” Harvey (“Phil Silvers Show”) Lembeck parodied Brando as an inept Rat Pack bike leader in a series of ‘60s Beach Party films too.
Many of these low-budget straight to drive-in releases feature up and coming stars (Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) breaking into the medium. Searching should not be too hard, according to Motorbiker.org , there have been nearly 1,400 movies featuring bikes, franchise titans like James Bond, Indiana Jones, Charlie’s Angels, The Terminator, and Clint Eastwood have all ridden them.
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