The wheel deal 

Movies with greasy lower pantlegs

There are many movies with great bike scenes: E.T., Better Off Dead and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are just a few. And then there are movies that are all about bikes. Let’s hit the road with six of the best.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Even in light of the 20 years of self-conscious indie weirdness that followed, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure remains a very peculiar movie, all the more so for its enormous mainstream success. It’s got a little of everything: claymation, queer subtext, surreal pastiche, tons of pop culture references, tons of unusual sight gags, a dose of Hollywood metafiction, and a marvelous abundance of strangely-pitched performances. Not to mention the truly odd comic creation that is Pee-wee Herman—I’m sad that the closest thing we’ve got to him now is that ridiculous Carrot Top kid.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, in which the flood-panted man-child hits the road in search of his stolen cruiser, was director Tim Burton’s feature debut. Even with a much bigger budget than he’d had to play with before, Burton retains a film student’s sense of economy and resourcefulness. Better than you might remember.

American Flyers (1985)
Written by Steve Tesich, who also did Breaking Away, American Flyers reprises many aspects of the earlier film: friendship, loyalty, personal spiritual growth, and, of course, competition. Kevin Costner plays a sports physician who persuades his troubled brother David (David Marshall Grant) to train with him for a bike race across the Rockies. Rae Dawn Chong and Robert Townsend co-star. Completely nerdy trivia: The character Muzzin’s nickname, “The Cannibal,” was also the nickname of real-life five-time Tour De France champion Eddie Merckx, who also appears in the film.

.Jour de Fête (1949)
Another feature debut, this time for Jacques Tati—to whom Burton owes a modest debt for incorporating some of the French director’s signature gags into Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The scene where Pee-wee leaves Tour de France riders in his dust is lifted directly from Jour de Fête.

Like most of Tati’s films, Jour de Fête paints man as humorously ensnared by modern technology and convenience. Reprising the role from a previous short film about a training school for postal carriers, the director also stars as François, a small-town postman galvanized by an American newsreel that shows his American counterparts leaping from helicopters and steering motorcycles through flaming obstacles as part of their training regimen. François goes on a one-man mission to bring speed and efficiency (“Rapidité! Rapidité!”) to his own rounds, with mixed results: He can’t get his delivery bicycle under control, nor can he seem to decline when someone offers him a drink at the local tavern. Which happens about every five minutes.

The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
A lonely boy raised by his grandmother grows into a thin, sad competitive cyclist with a face like a newly hatched bird in this oddball animated French/Canadian/Belgian/Latvian co-production. The grandmother, who doubles as his trainer, looks like a goldfish with Coke-bottle glasses and a whistle.

A cartoon villain kidnaps the grandson and sticks him in an endurance race with two other hapless cyclists mounted on stationary bikes rigged to move racing footage through a projector in a theater full of Mafia heavies, who lay bets on who will be the first to drop. To find him, the grandmother enlists the aid of cabaret-singing triplets who survive on frogs they kill with hand grenades. Hard to explain. Impossible to categorize. Highly recommended.

The Bicycle Thief (1948)
Or, ahem, “the classic example of Italian Neorealism.” Contrary to what the name suggests, neorealism wasn’t an especially new trend in 1948 (its roots go back to the first decades of last century), nor was it a purely Italian development. Japan, France and the USSR also produced “neorealist” films from the ’20s onward.

Yet there’s a reason Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 film, about a desperate, unemployed father driven to steal a bicycle for the sake of his family, is the one always held up as a classic example of neorealism: de Sica researched his story in brothels and bars and used amateurs instead of professional actors, a choice that served the classic neorealist themes of poverty and desperate straits with real authenticity, because the actors themselves were no strangers to hard times. No suspension of disbelief required. The Bicycle Thief was spoofed—some would say desecrated—in Maurizio Nichetti’s 1989 The Icicle Thief, about a fictional director whose Bicycle Thief-like neorealist film opens a time-space portal for German supermodels when it’s shown on TV. Or something silly like that. The much better Beijing Bicycle (2001) is basically a Chinese version of the original.

Breaking Away (1979)
What is it with bike movies and class struggle, anyway? This 1979 film pits working-class “cutters” in small-town Indiana against the rich whelps who attend the local college. “Cutters” is short for “stonecutters,” a snobbish reference to the main local industry.

Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) dreams of moving to Italy, home of his cycling heroes on the Cinzano team. He listens to opera, speaks Italian all the time, and generally acts like a college junior coming back after a summer studying abroad, bugging the crap out of everybody with a lot of pretentious new affectations. His dad, especially, thinks he’s gone around the bend, and rails at his wife about him with comic impotence. Then Dave finds the Italians are coming to town for a race!

Ah, sweet Midwestern coming-of-age movie. For all thy flaws, I adore thee still. Breaking Away is an excellent, exuberant movie about the limbo between high school and adulthood. Its tagline all but spells out its defiant attitude: “The movie that tells you exactly what you can do with your high school diploma.” The dialogue is full of red herrings, wry observations about relationships and expectations, and wonderful, weird little cul-de-sacs: “Moochie, you’re Catholic, aren’t you?” “Yeah.” “Did you ever go to confession?” “Twice.” “Did it make you feel better?” “Once.”

smetanka@missoulanews.com

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