The dark side of the motorcycle, the figure of the lone rider transposed to modern times.
It was well before dawn, still into the night, approaching one of the few straight lines disrupting the bending and banking celebration that is the French N85 road, after Grasse and Saint-Vallier. I had left Nice a little earlier, as a starting point for a long journey back to Paris through the scenic Napoleon path. The fresh mountain air, two Italian espressos and the focusing on swiftly balancing the bike between curves were requested to keep me fully awake. In the headlight beam, through successive layers, thick curls of mist were soaking up most of the light, throwing back the nearby landscape to absolute darkness, as well as the portion of the road beyond. The poor visibility forced me to reduce speed. Dropping a gear, at the exact moment I was releasing the clutch lever, two yellow spots, sparkling and motionless, arose from nothingness. A hundred yards ahead, barely finding time to brake and avoid it, and I had already passed the obstacle, ultimately lost it in the black void of the rear-view mirror: a majestic deer, planted on the asphalt, paralyzed until the engine noise compelled it out of its numbness, his sliding shoes reverberating in a distraught syncope on the wet pavement.
Until then, I had yet seen hundreds of these warning signs for animals hazards, I had frequently slowed down, aware of a credible threat, legitimate, but still virtual, completely fantasized and built on some hearsay stories: torn front car bumpers and mighty boars, terrific impacts, swerving and distressed bike riders. So, that night, that very event and that deer with its antlers raised towards the great Beyond vibrate in my biker consciousness as the strange jump from an ancient threat to reality, the unique meeting with a long-dreamed creature, as legendary as its famous sibling, the medieval Christian deer, symbol of the Divine Word, which overawes and converts. On my bike, familiar and solid object, tangible, I had crossed the border, brushed for a moment against the scary shadows of the night.
Vehicle for rebels, loners and marginal, the bike runs in imaginary and strange lands as an obvious mechanical counterpart to the ambiguous traveller, worrisome or evil. Cinema and literature have taken over this association, naturally derived from the black knight, the renegade cowboy and their faithful ride.
UNDER THE HELMET, THE FACE OF THE DEMON
“Where my horse has trodden, no grass will ever grow.”
Attila the Hun is merging with the stallion Balamer who carried him through many battles and conquests. Raised as a model of destruction and terror, the animal extends the power of the tyrant who guides it. From a more distant and tumultuous past comes the vision of a Centaur, half-man, half-horse creature, mixing brute force with intransigence and martial resolution. The mythological association settles and spreads away, until the 1950’s Hells Angels, Sonny Barger hooked on his Harley’s handlebars. Therefore, vice, deviance and crime team up with chrome exhausts, and sketch the new face of the evil biker, who will infiltrate the cinema of the Sixties to the present day. Procession of threatening insanes, infernal gangs, at the forefront of a motorcyclist casting directed by the Devil Himself … Let us be dragged away under the ground:
“Thus I descended out of the first circle
Down to the second, that less space begirds,
And so much greater dole, that goads to wailing.
There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls;
Examines the transgressions at the entrance;
Judges, and sends according as he girds him.”
To Minos of Dante’s Inferno (Canto V, Divina Commedia, fourteenth century, translation Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) answers this other Minos in Fear Over The City (Peur sur la ville, Henri Verneuil, 1975): Pierre Waldeck / Adalberto Maria Merli, a one-eyed and misogynist serial killer is being chased by the Police Officer Jean Letellier / Jean-Paul Belmondo. In a Paris populated by gangsters, easy girls and Renault driving cops, Minos, dark glasses on glass eye, rides from crime to crime on a blazing 900 Z1, the wicked response from Kawasaki to the legendary Honda CB750 Four.
The same 750 Four, enhanced with a BMW R90S bubble fairing, will later help the cause of a time travelling cyborg chase. From the bleak cruelty of the psychopath to the radical dehumanization of the monster, James Cameron crossed the gap in 1984. Inflexible metallic creature, machine that understand none but machines, the Terminator T1 / Arnold Schwarzenegger tells us that the tool has no soul, that familiar appearance could be deceptive and bitter, and discourages us to hope for a kind future.
Pushing despair still further, Don Sharp creates Psychomania in 1973, a particular vision of the post-mortem existence: a gang of rad bikers “The Living Dead”, roams the English countryside terrorizing the charming little village where they grew up. Under the leadership of Tom, distant rider cousin of Alex from Clockwork Orange, and guided by boredom, they all decide to make a pact with the devil, by collectively committing suicide to come back as undead creatures. Some of them succeed and the gang regroups right away, identically resuming its previous activities, continuing its pointless and harmful existence hooked to the handlebars of the same BSA bikes, drowned in the foggy and muddy British middle-class interzone.
This thick fog extends with uncertainty. Fantastic mask and gradual shifting towards the Strange, which surrounds the furious motorcycle chase of Michael Emerson / Jason Patric with David / Kiefer Sutherland, punk vampire of The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987). Honda XR and XL modified, with extended forks like steel canines, scream through the night and race until losing control and skidding dangerously close to a cliff. Mechanical violence tears apart the delusion of an ordinary teenage rivalry to reveal the adamant inhumanity of immortal creatures. Engines challenge the silence, the machine gains its own life and overrides the will of the rider, a mere pilot blinded by the headlights, it transports from one place to another, and like ferryman Charon’s boat, enables to cross the Acheron towards the abode of eternal shadows.
Panhead and dust smother or reflect the silvery rays of a malevolent moon, on the Highway 66, where the devil worshipping, renewed in the Sixties by the Californian Satanist cult (Church of Anton Szandor Lavey) and enhanced with opposite influences: Hippies and Rednecks, takes over the wild pack in Werewolves on Wheels (Michel Levesque, 1971). A murky sect drugs a whole gang of bikers and bewitches the leader’s girlfriend, who consequently turns into a werewolf and infects his companion before terrorizing the rest of the band. The close likeness between a lycanthrope and a hairy biker adds to the confusion of genres, and highlights the extent of a common vocabulary: bestiality, freedom and marginality. Thus, the character of the uncanny biker is never very far away from its original model.
AGENT OF CHAOS, THE INSTRUMENT OF SALVATION
From the unsettling weirdness, the lasting impression of odd elements lurking in the background, to the dull anguish and fear that infects completely, the motorcycle strikes as a privileged vehicle for terror and crime. Its foreboding advent stirs up discomfort to come, its violence predicates anarchy, it necessarily imposes itself as a conveyor of Chaos. Blades / Tom Savini leading them, the post-apocalyptic gang of bikers in Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) shatters the Monroeville Mall’s font door, last bastion of Civilization against hordes of converging zombies. Only two survivors manage to escape with a helicopter, towards a seriously compromised future, while the bikers annihilate themselves in the waves of their own disarray, agents of pandemonium, victims of their own nature.
The tragedy is inescapable, and fate sometimes seems to contrive the danger inherent to motorcycles. Rabid, by David Cronenberg (1977) starts with an accident. A Norton Commando 850 crashes on a country road, leaving the pillion passenger inanimate. She wakes up later in a hospital, reacts badly to the surgery and generates an organic dart under the armpit, which transforms into a rabid zombie anyone she stings. The vehicle may be trivial, however it marks the absolute origin of chaos, the zero point, the trigger element of a mysterious destructive chain of event.
Even when not creating trouble first hand, the motorcycle still lingers close to the action, underlining tool of the shifting from standard life to oddness. Its anti-social aura predestined it to feature as an item of distortion, its singularity secludes it, and leads us to a universe enclosed in hazy contours. In Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (Dan Hoskins 1989), a gang of bikers called “The Cycle Sluts” enters into Zariah, zombie-infested city. Utterly B Movie, Troma film combining supernatural, bikers, horror and low budget production, the narrative does not matter here. The aberration fully reigns, and only the irony of an extremely distanced stare will clearly reveal the motorcycling symbol: the bike runs perfectly on unsteady grounds, under any circumstances it rides away from the standard world and does never hesitate to take the curve leading into outlandish territories.
It throws us at the heart of the disaster, or, like Meat Loaf’s chthonic chopper (Bat out of Hell, released in 1977), rescues us from a demonic threat, from the infernal forces struggling to seize our soul. This truly is a crossing vehicle, in both ways, a device to get into the strange lands, to weaken the customary landmarks while sinking into the abyss, then to regret, to worry, to quiver and shudder, until shivering in terror, and to finally turn around and get the hell out of wherever we are.
Chased by an army of demons, last humans in a cinema overrun with infected spectators, George and Cheryl jump on a Cagiva WRX 125 luckily parked near the popcorn machine to ram their way through the baleful crowd, to reach salvation and the other side of the screen. Demons, directed by Lamberto Bava in 1985, and produced by Dario Argento, uses the bike as an escaping tool, a mechanical floating raft on a sea of evil. Thanks to the engine power, which enables to jump out of the traffic, because speed startles the enemy, the bike becomes a saving rocket, a mighty machine that challenges fate and the numbness of the rabble.
Although, sometimes the battle is lost. The rider must try one last and sublime move, final assault of an over-revving engine, eyes locked on the opposite shore. Dashing into an extraordinary jump over the ravine of The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012), the Kawasaki KX250F driven by Curt / Chris Hemsworth crashes against a invisible force field, and forever disappears into the depths of a void. To the horror film tribute, The Cabin in the Woods adds a motorcycling reference, reminding us of Evel Knievel’s Grand Canyon jump attempt.
THE FALLEN KNIGHT, THE GUARDIAN ANGEL
The motorcyclist who rides alone is in exile. He severed ties, left his family to look elsewhere, on the road, the bestowed balm that will soothe his many wounds. The reasons to wander are diverse: deceived or impossible love, betrayal, rivalry, difference and dismissal. He has no friends anymore, only randomly encountered shadows, only reasons to move forward into strangeness. Outlines gradually fades away, the reason falters in favor of a landscape populated with evil spirits, reflecting inner torments, a mind succumbing to the poison of memories. No blood here, no scary monsters. Rather a mental shifting, a psychic journey through the nightly wraiths, daydreaming in scattered illusions, like James losing himself from make-believe to disarray, riding an Electra Glide in the dim forest of Twin Peaks (David Lynch, Mark Frost, 1990).
The motorcycle also performs the role of a mysterious genie, charged with ambiguous energies: passion, violence, danger, rebellion. In 1986, the Bad Blood of Leos Carax (Mauvais Sang) flows with Denis Lavant and Julie Delpy fleeing on a XT bike. Escape from Society, from the law, from the foreshadowing fate in the form of a still unnamed virus. And the time of the get-away composes a dreamlike interlude, a short while out of space and constraints, consequences, an instant that runs off reality, when everything seems possible, when actual sensations let briefly believe in a yet impossible future. Moving couple, struggling not to succumb motionless, who tries to oppose the merciless fate, and who reincarnates later with Luke / Ryan Gosling on his Honda XR 650R with Romina / Eva Mendes in The Place Beyond the Pines, by Derek Cianfrance in 2012.
At the onset of You And The Night (Les rencontres d’après minuit), by Yann Gonzalez (2013), the motorcycle and its driver are linked in the anonymity of a symbol, mythological creature guarding a mystery and supporting the immediate shifting of spectators in a fantasized place. The passenger (Kate Moran), who is carried away in the night, endures the powerlessness of dream, separated from her lover and propelled to a different time, she represents her own analytical version, prescient vision of a tragic end when dawn will sharply terminate the wonder story, when the tale will surrender to the touching reality of a new love cycle.
The discomfort, the sense of uniqueness, Baudelaire’s spleen are running through the veins of the solitary knight, of the lone rider, and are inspiring his everlasting quest as well as the borderline condition that comes with it. Like the Black Prince racing traffic on Paris ring road, the fallen hero fights the sadness of the soul by staying close to Death. Suicidal behaviour brings desperate attempts to exist alongside the border, because nothing really means anything, and others remain inaccessible. The universe and its landmarks are inverting, what shone turns off to darkness and the shadows slowly vanquish. This is the ultimate oxymoron, suggested by Nerval in the introduction of Chimeras (Les Chimères,1854), the black sun of El Desdichado (translation Richard Sieburth), symbol of its own negation and vision of doom.
“I am the man of gloom – widowed – unconsoled
The prince of Aquitaine, his tower in ruin:
My sole star is dead – and my constellated lute
Bears the Black Sun of Melancholia
And twice victorious, I have crossed Acheron:
My Orphic lyre in turn modulating the strains
Of the sighs of the saint and the cries of the fay.”
Whoever comes through becomes the hero of a dark world, living at night, a figure out of Hades sporting fantastic attributes: the vampire Blade / Wesley Snipes, eternally hunting its own kind, unable to embrace its infamous fate. Powerful and fast, sharp as the modified Ducati 944 ST2 or the Buell XB12R he rides in treacherous darkness.
Or the Sergeant-at-arms of the Devil, the dirty work specialist, infernal executioner riding a Harley Panhead on fire: the Ghostrider, collector of depraved souls incarnated in 2007 by Johnny Blaze / Nicholas Cage, motorcycle stuntman (on a Buell X1 Lightning) contracted by Mephistopheles / Peter Fonda (patriarchal figure and unexpectedly evil, Easy Rider lost in the Underworld). In a fury of metal and rage of fire, the rider and his vehicle merge into one walloping creature, incorruptible, intractable and deadly, Death personified, a new interpretation of Hesiod’s Thanatos (Theogony, VIIth-VIIIth century BC, translation Hugh G. Evelyn-White):
“And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods.”
The merger still performs deeper into the illusion of dream, materialized by the claws of the nightmare-man emerging from a Vmax 1200 engine. According to A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins, 1989), Freddy Krueger assumes the destructive power of the machine, is mixing and blending with the Eighties crazy roadster to treat his victim grafted to the saddle with a final punitive ride.
Should they arise from Limbo or should they happen in our real world, occult powers always pick their victims out, and interfere extensively to direct human existences as they wish. Thus, some are protected, their quest supported, like Dean Corso / Johnny Depp in The Ninth Gate (Roman Polanski, 1999, inspired from Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte in 1993). The angel / Emmanuelle Seigner gets involved in the intrigue on a BMW R1100S, to save him from the useless death awaiting him outside Fargas house, to influence the fate in the account of a higher will.
FROM CARNAL POSSESSION TO MECHANICAL DEMON
If the Norton Dominator 650 running on the highway in The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves, 1967) inflames a young couple’s senses, it’s for another couple (scientists Monserrat / Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey) to enjoy it, antique and treacherous mirror or the prime. Between sorcery and science without conscience, tired and jaded, they endeavour to subdue Mike Roscoe / Ian Ogilvy to their experiment, in order to share the full range of feelings and emotions he experiences. Motorcycle, magical and multiplier item, intensely condenses their forgotten youth: sensuality, lust, stamina, chills and tensions, like a totem anchoring a sensory transmutation. The ancient fountain of youth in response to the fear of death approaching.
The vehicle, mechanical and solid structure, is gradually wrapped into a veil of mystery, and the darkness that surrounds it insidiously hooks on its engine intricate shape. A new identity is forged, evil and vicious. The tool wakens and hits in the shadows. This demonic reification occurs when the man, the pilot, becomes one with its machine. When sweat mixes with engine oil: like the Berliet White-Corbitt 666 operated by the SOC, overloaded with explosives in The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953), and their reprise: the GMC M211 in Sorcerer, by William Friedkin in 1977. Until Stephen King’s Christine, and the cinematic representation as a bright red and chromed Plymouth Fury, by John Carpenter in 1983.
Finally, the demon turns into a motorcycle: the Norton Commando 850 in I Bought a Vampire Motorcycle (Dirk Campbell, 1990). A biker gang murders a Black Mass celebrant, his mind and his blood then take possession of the bike, that Noddy / Neil Morrissey acquires the next day. The machine transmutes into a mechanical vampire, hemoglobin thirsty automaton that gets rid of its rider and continues its extermination dash at night through Birmingham suburbs. The exorcism sealing this episode epitomizes the ambiguous relationship between a rider and its machine, the need to enslave what was once worshipped, the fear and hatred of a potentially lethal object, the transfer of a pagan cult, a modern Golden Calf that we want to burn after adoring it. As the ancient gods that Racine’s theatre employs as malicious figures, forcing humans to pay the price of the mistakes and errors of their makers.
Phaedra (Jean Racine, 1677, translation Robert Bruce Boswell):
“The Gods will bear me witness,
Who have within my veins kindled this fire,
The Gods, who take a barbarous delight
In leading a poor mortal’s heart astray.”
The only way to finally control the object might happen when breaking free from the sometimes misleading passions. To escape fate by taking back the control of the handlebars, when eyes are ignoring the passing scenery. Or repelling the onslaught of a vacillating mind, which succumbs to the anguish of the night, to avoid a nocturnal vision standing on the edge of the asphalt, a scary and icy white lady marking the end of the road.