Wheel to Reel: Bicycles and Big Screens

New cyclists in the city are easy to spot. They’re like insects that are able to fly but aren’t that good at it. “Eyes trained accurately to measure distances and muscles accustomed to prompt obedience are especially able to cope with the exigencies of our crowded thoroughfares,” wrote Isabel Marks in 1901. “When watching the stream of cyclists amidst the sea of vehicles and horses it is easy to distinguish between the ordinary rider and the expert” (p.6).

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the bicycle in my life. I grew up riding them, and I never stopped. I got rid of my last car over twenty years ago, and I’ve ridden bikes as my primary form of transportation in a dozen different cities since.

A scrap of ephemeral zine fodder in a package from my BMX brother Brian Benson.

In Cycling and Cinema (Goldsmiths Press, 2019), Bruce Bennett writes about kids, old women with funny hats, and, of course, movies. Though Premium Rush (2012) is noticeably absent, cinematic cycle adventures of the 1980s like E.T. (1982), BMX Bandits (1983), Rad (1986), and Quicksilver (1986) all receive thorough analysis. Bennett organizes these analyses around several theatrical themes: comedy, work, sport, gender, childhood, and technology. Along the way he encounters everyone from Danny MacAskill and Alfred Jarry to Francis E. Willard and Pee Wee Herman.

In one of my favorite lines, Bennett writes, “The bicycle and the film camera are technologies of mobility.” They’re both escapes, one through the physical, the other through the virtual. He continues,

In this respect, they exemplify the cultural transformations that characterized modernity as industrial capitalism remodelled the social and physical landscape (p. 19).

Like Lynne Kirby in her book Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Duke, 1997), Bennett takes a long-lens historical view of the two technologies in question. Paul Virilio famously argued that the technologies of war and the technologies of film parallel each other (e.g., guns and cameras, shooting and such). Bennett goes back to photographer Eadweard Muybridge and media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “The movie camera and projector were evolved from the idea of reconstructing mechanically the movement of feet. The wheel began as extended feet…” (p. 181-182). Muybridge’s late-19th century, rapid-fire camera studies of race horses just pre-dates motion pictures and illustrates the connection McLuhan made between feet, wheels, and film.

Bennett ends with further connections brought on by the internet, GPS, and ubiquitous screens. Conflating the physical and virtual, we not only map, track, and film our routes as we ride over long distances, but we also view similar routes while riding stationary bicycles. Escape is available in many forms, and the bicycle makes many of them easily accessible.

As Frances E. Willard would say, “Go thou and do likewise!”

References:

Bennett, Bruce. (2019). Cycling and Cinema. London: Goldsmiths Press.

Kirby, Lynne. (1997). Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling: Trick Riding for Amateurs. Oxford, UK: Old House.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Virilio, Paul. (1989). War and Cinema. New York: Verso Books.

Willard, Frances E. (1895). A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle with Some Reflections By the Way. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books.