Archives for the month of: May, 2016

Among the many films about bicycles and cycling, films about bicycle messengers constitute a significant sub-genre. Delivering messages was one of the first uses velocipedes were put to in the 19th century and throughout the history of the bicycle, which is itself a communication medium, it  has been used to deliver messages. The first bicycle messengers appear in cinema in the early 1900s, typically functioning as a narrative expedient, as with this early Keystone comedy, Bombs! (Griffin, 1916), featuring the comedian Al St. John (whose skills as a trick cyclist in vaudeville theatre had led to his employment as a screen performer a couple of year earlier).

St John makes a brief appearance as an insolent bicycle messenger, cycling up the steps of a building and into the office of the newly elected mayor and stealing a cigar from one of the office workers before unwittingly delivering a parcel bomb. Even this early on, the image of the bicycle messenger as maverick is already in place.

The bicycle messenger begins to move into the foreground in the 1980s (as bicycle messengers begin to appear more prominently in TV dramas literature, and autobiographical writing) and the film Quicksilver (Donnelly, 1986), which features Kevin Bacon, whose previous film Footloose (Ross, 1984) had made him a star,  establishes the template for most of the subsequent films about bicycle messengers in terms of plot, characterisation, cinematography, and a mise-en-scene of loading bays, alleys, underpasses, lifts, reception desks and diners. It tells the story of a stockbroker who quits his job after making a catastrophic loss and becomes a cycle courier.

However, one of the most comprehensive surveys of global bicycle-messenger culture is this feature-length documentary The Godmachine (Steffen, 2007), which has just been posted on youtube.

Made by a New Zealand-based film-maker, the film is built around interviews with couriers working in different cities and, alongside an advocacy of bicycle-use in cities, it gives a nuanced account of the attractions of this profession and the global culture that has emerged around it. It is partly celebratory, as is suggested by the title, which is derived from the mystical reflections of Auckland-based courier Mike Nailer, who regards cycling as ‘the creation of energy’, but is also attentive to the hardships of this punishing job. A New York messenger, Kevin, describes the messenger community as a ‘family’ but also reflects that he doesn’t know many people who have stuck with the job for more than ten years. ‘I’ve seen over the years, like, ten, fifteen guys die. Messengers, you know? I’ve seen girls get wracked up. […] It’s kinda like this – like a big machine you know, and people get grinded up in it every once in a while.’ It is a telling comment that recalls the famous opening scene of the British New wave film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, 1960) in which the protagonist Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney) (who operates a lathe in the Raleigh bicycle factory) relates his maxim: ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down.’ Kevin’s observation challenges assumptions that the shift from industrial production to a ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘information economy’ results in emancipation, equality and the end of work.  The figures of the cycle couriers populating these films remind us of the vast army of workers doing poorly paid, physically dangerous, sometimes deadly work in order to keep the modern city moving.

 

 

Mentioned to me by my neighbours, who are cycling enthusiasts, this sketch from the third episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was first broadcast by the BBC in October 1969, still has some satirical bite. When mainstream cinema is dominated by pretentious, spectacular, reactionary and largely humourless American superhero comic book adaptations, the idea of a heroic ordinary repairman is as funny as ever.

I remember just such a bicycle repairman, a Mr Ives, who wore a boiler suit and sported brylcreemed hair, and worked from his garage on the estate on which I grew up in the 1970s. While bicycle shops still offer repair services, this figure of the oil-stained, flat-capped mechanic is a poignant sign of a period when British roads were far more empty and bicycles were used more widely by adults and children for getting to and from work, school and the shops.