Archives for the month of: November, 2015

Bicycles play an important role as the intimate mediating machinery of childhood. They offer children physical, emotional and symbolic independence, and are also a means of social interaction – of play, competition and performance. For example, it is striking how intense many people’s memories are of being taught to ride a bicycle by their parents, which suggests it is a paradoxical moment for us; learning to ride a bike is a moment of close physical and emotional contact, and of traumatic separation, and so the meaning of the bicycle is similarly ambiguous, symbolising both freedom and isolation.

This song, ‘Riding Bikes’, released last year by the American rock band Shellac, captures the childhood experience of childhood friendship mediated through bicycles in a typically succinct and sparse fashion. The singer and guitarist, Steve Albini, explains the song in the following way:

“Riding Bikes” is in the context of children or adolescents riding bikes, where it’s a mindset and an activity put together. Like, you and your friends go riding bikes and that implies a certain degree of intimacy or closeness with your friends. You’re not just riding bikes, you’re having adventures, you’re breaking things, you’re stealing things, you’re causing minor vandalism — all that sort of stuff.

 

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Fausto Coppi (1967)

Fausto Coppi

was a fantastic human being

most at ease when alone

 

Invincible in the mountains, he

was a fantastic human being

 

Took leave of this world prematurely,

fausto coppi

fausto coppi

A poem about the great Italian cyclist by Jorgen Leth, the Danish experimental film director whose work includes three remarkable films about sport cycling, A Sunday in Hell (1976 – about the Paris-Roubaix race), Stars and Water Carriers (1974 – about the Giro d’Italia), and The Impossible Hour (1975 – documenting an attempt on the hour record). Somewhat improbably, for a director of art cinema, Leth has a subsidiary career as a commentator on Danish TV coverage of the Tour de France.

The photograph at the top is probably the most famous image of Coppi (who is the visual model for ‘Champion’, the stoic protagonist of the French animated feature Les Triplettes de Belleville (Chomet, 2003), and who died of malaria at the age of 40), apparently passing back a water bottle to his arch-rival, Gino Bartali, during the 1952 Tour de France in a gesture of condescending generosity or pity (although Bartali insisted he was handing it to Coppi).

John Foot’s history of Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare! (Bloomsbury, 2012) discusses Coppi’s career in fascinating depth.

 

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I have no idea what the original source is for this image of prolific Hollywood action star Vin Diesel (Mark Sinclair). Of course, the joke is that the perfectly named Diesel is most closely associated with the hyper-kinetic and spectacular Fast and Furious series of films that fetishise cars – in particular American muscle cars and expensively modded street racers. Diesel is in the news today due to the announcement that he is planning a series of spin-off films from the original seven films.

The juxtaposition of this star, who is the embodiment of transnational cinematic masculinity, with a girl’s bicycle is intrinsically comic, but this image also belongs to a tradition of publicity photographs of American film actors posing on bicycles. Often showing actors cycling around sets or studio backlots, these apparently casual, off-guard shots demonstrate a crucial component of the paradoxical ‘star system’ that emerged in the 1920s in the US and which insists on the one hand that stars are people ‘just like us’ – approachable and ready points of identification – while on the other reminding us continually that their lives of wealth, celebrity and self-indulgence couldn’t be more different from ours. In this respect, especially when ridden by an awkward and self-conscious star, the bicycle signifies ‘ordinariness’. It is a demotic vehicle.

Steven Rea’s 2012 book, Hollywood Rides a Bike: Cycling with the Stars is a fascinating and comprehensive visual history of photographs of actors, film-makers  and other media celebrities posing with bikes.

A new video for ‘MUCH’, a typically dense, angular track, by the brilliant LA rapper, Busdriver. A low-budget, simulated single-shot video (with the cuts disguised when the camera moves into dark stairwells), it opens and closes with Busdriver riding a kid’s bike. There is a small genre of music videos featuring singers on bicycles, and this has a tangential relationship to these, but by contrast with the celebration of conspicuous consumption in many contemporary music videos, the absence of speedboats, cars and luxurious houses is especially striking. Although we see him throwing banknotes onto a fire at one point, the sight of him riding a little girl’s battered bike that is far too small for him is the perfect rejoinder to the machismo, self-importance and profligacy of many celebrities.

Hip hop videos featuring cycling are not so much a sub-genre as perhaps, a micro-genre. This video by Australian duo Hugo and Treats, which blends poetry with rap and combines treated samples from tapping and scratching the bicycle frame and wheels with samples from (of course) Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’, is surely the most thematically single-minded example.

From the same year, this video by Austrian rapper Skero is a more explicit parody of hip hop video conventions, the extraordinary array of custom-built and modified bikes substituted for the lowriders, luxury jeeps and sports cars that typically feature in these videos.

A recent video featuring young Austrian street trials rider, Fabio Wibmer. Aping the short films made by Danny MacAskill, this promotional film for the Osttirol region of Austria (and for a range of other products) belongs to a tradition of trick cycling that extends back through the early films of trick cyclists made by Lumière and Edison to circus and music-hall or vaudeville performers. It is a good example of what might be termed the ‘digital cinema of attractions’.

This film employs some of the conventions employed in MacAskill’s films: a narrative frame; smooth, mobile camerawork; largely empty and unpopulated spaces; absence of dialogue; and a credits sequence (derived from Jackie Chan’s films) that includes out-takes of failed attempts at the stunts, demonstrating the authenticity and the physical difficulty of the apparently impossible tricks that Wibmer pulls off.

This is even more evident in the ‘making of’ documentary:

Three undated multiple-exposure ‘chronophotographes’ by French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey (probably from the 1880s), showing differently attired men riding ‘safety’ bicycles and, in the middle image, a tricycle. Inspired by the multiple-camera ‘series photographs’ of British photographer Eadweard Muybridge, Marey developed a camera that allowed him to take multiple photographs in quick succession on the same negative, allowing him to study human motion, or humans in motion, in a level of detail that was impossible by eye alone. It’s not clear what these protocinematic images were for – they are reproduced on different webpages with no explanatory context –  but this lack of context makes images such as that of the naked man dismounting a moving bicycle all the more intriguing.

Marey bicycle

Marey bicycle c. 1885-90

Marey bicycle dismount

This audio recording, taken from a 78rpm disc, is a comic monologue about learning to ride a bicycle, one of a series of recordings by the performer Cal Stewart in the persona of ‘Uncle Josh’.

Inevitably, of course, Uncle Josh went on to buy an automobile some years later, at the point where bicycle manufacturers were moving over to making cars, having perfected the necessary production processes and infrastructure, and having generated wide-spread demand for private mobility.

A friend who is doing research into cycling cultures, Joanne Hollows, sent me the link to this clip from a US sketch comedy show broadcast around four years ago, featuring a self-important cyclist navigating the streets in Portland, Oregon.

Funnily enough, I came across this clip in the same week, a video – apparently serious – shot by a ‘bike vlogger’ of his ride across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Indirectly, both of them suggest that one of the fundamental problems over road-use, one that extends back at least to the 1870s (and the clashes between pedestrians, horse riders and cart drivers, and supposedly reckless cyclists, who were attacked in the UK as ‘scorchers’ and ‘cycling cads’), is the well-established sense of an individual’s entitlement to personal, independent mobility. This sense of an absolute ‘right’ to free movement demonstrated in these clips in similar ways is fundamental to modernity and, of course, has underpinned the development of the car, and so one of the questions posed by these clips is whether the crucial transport problem is not one of how to increase mobility but on the contrary how to decrease it – deceleration not acceleration.