For more than 100 years we’ve been riding bikes and going to the movies. In this new dandy series we examine how two of the world’s most noted pastimes intersect. When and how have two wheels been caught on film? Over the next six months I’ll be examining cycling in films. It’s one part film review and one part bike nerd exploration. From coming of age nostalgia, to surreal escapism, to film noir and everything in between, here is the first story in the series: Bikes on Reels.
Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Now and Then: Rose-Tinted Glasses, Raleighs, and Rebellion
Story by Cayley James
Do you remember your first bike gang? You know the first time you banded together with friends and felt invincible and giddy and free as you cycled around your neighbourhood with inside jokes and reckless sense of abandon? Even now, pushing 30, I get a little jolt of excitement when I ride with three or more side-by-side. I've sung the praises of solo-cycling in the past. But there's such camaraderie in numbers it's hard to ignore. And there's an undeniable link to youth. Cycling is often consigned to burgeoning adulthood in film and TV. Bikes are often pitted as superior and a more versatile option than cars. Stranger Things - which we have all binged on Netflix, indulging in the 80s horror send up, and at this point and if you haven't seen it, I'm sorry, but you should - tapped into this trope gleefully. Banana seat bikes, ubiquitous in Spielberg films, are used to outwit and outrun adults and their vehicles. Whether it's ET taking flight by bike or the multi-car pile up that Eleven causes. We know kids on bikes are a force to be reckoned with.
I saw Now and Then (directed by Lesli Linka Glatter) for the first time at a sleepover in 1995 at my friend's house. I think it was the first film I had seen with swearing in it. That was cool. What was cooler still were the four girls at the centre of the film who tooled around their Midwest town with a transistor radio strapped to their handle bars of their one-speed cruisers singing along to the Archies. Now and Then was unmitigated escapism in the most literal sense for me. My unsupervised pedalling was limited to an east end street. From Kingston Road to Pine Avenue. My own universe was tiny. Now and Then is far from nuanced - it’s nostalgic schlock at the best. But it still manages to be a piece of pop culture that looms large in the memories of women my age. It fits into the very popular mould, thanks to the format forged by Louisa May Alcott in Little Women, of four young female friends learning about life and all that jazz. Also the prop department must’ve had a field day buying 60s bikes - as there are dozens seen throughout. In this version of the past children barely ran or walked - they just biked.
(From L to R) Gaby Hoffman, Ashleigh Aston Moore, Christina Ricci, and Thora Birch
Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Besides occupying the four girls format Now and Then is also a shameless rip-off of Stand By Me. Set in the late 60s - this female centric alternative is complete with a nostalgic voiceover (replace Richard Dreyfuss with Demi Moore), school yard archetypes (the fat one, the smart one, the latch key kid, the firecracker ... and a dead kid). The film opens with the adult versions of our tween heroines converging on the eve of Chrissy's (Rita Wilson/Ashleigh Aston Moore) due date. She's joined by Roberta (Rosie O'Donnell/Christina Ricci), Teeny (Melanie Griffith/Thora Birch) and Ali (Demi Moore/Gaby Hoffman) who have come to support her in her time of need. Their mini reunion quickly trades its contemporary setting for the summer of 1969. They are four 13 year old friends set on saving enough money to build a tree-house - but that is a barely noted plot point - the narrative is quickly consumed by our young heroines being catapulted into adulthood through a series of harsh PG-13 realizations. Whether its dealing with divorce, uncovering the truth behind a dead kid, kissing boys, nearly drowning, or the allure of the occult - this is a pretty silly and overwrought hour and forty two minutes.
Where the Stand by Me Boys wandered unwittingly on foot into the greyness that is adulthood. Now and Then zipped through a sampler menu of difficult truths to the smooth sounds of late 60s FM radio (Freda Payne, The Archies, The Supremes ... it's an amazing soundtrack). They sip cokes at a gas-station pit stop and talk about what the best way to stuff your bra is, steal the clothes of skinny dipping 90s-tween heart throb Devon Sawa and push the limits of their friendship with practical jokes. In these strange isolated scenes it's a license to perform. In one particularly bizarre moment they talk about Vietnam to a veteran hitchhiker (aka Brandon Fraser…oy vey) who offers them cigarettes. Now and Then deconstructs friendship's growing pains. It has become rote for my friends to claim which character speaks most to us. In the same way people do with works that focus on group dynamics versus the individual; Mean Girls, Sex and The City, Girls ... Little Women.
Brendan Fraser as the very believable Vietnam Vet - Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema
In rewatching it - the trek struck me as a similar to Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - where Mick Kelly pedals with her teen paramour Harry Minowitz to a wooded swimming hole. There is hyper specific definition of what it was like to cycle the handful of miles:
"The wheels he borrowed were the kind for boys - with a bar between the legs. They strapped the lunches and bathing suits to the fenders and were gone before nine o'clock...There was sand in the road and they had to throw all their weight on the pedals to keep from bogging. Harry's shirt was stuck to his back with sweat. He still kept talking. The road turned to red clay and the sand was behind them. There was a slow song in her mind...she pedalled in time with it."
I love that "throwing all their weight" - it's not sweet or serene. There's a heaviness to their escape and Mick retreats into her mind. Meditating on the rhythm of the song (and the cadence of the pedalling) in her head. It isn't celebratory, it's trying. Clawing out of their everyday into something new. That struggle is what is missing in Now and Then.
But back to adults in cars and kids on bikes. Cars are synonymous with adulthood, they're steeped in regret and tragedy - while bikes maintain innocence, enthusiasm, and promise. Ali’s dad leaves in the middle of the night throwing his suitcase into the back seat and drives away as she peers out the window. Roberta’s mother died after being pinned to a tree by a car. Even the Vietnam vet lacks direction, hitchhiking, seeking peace of mind. While Ali's car in the beginning is littered with cigarette butts as she heads back for the reunion. The only adult who rides a bike in the film is Old Pete, the town ‘crazy’, who turns out to be a hero in the Boo Radley tradition.
Old Pete in the graveyard. Photo Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Watching it now, it was clearly not made for 7-year-olds to watch at sleepovers. It's steeped in this campy self-aware nostalgia - loud prints and ham-fisted cultural references that could only be intended for older audiences. The creators missed the mark. Instead they made a film that could inspire a quiet wanderlust beyond the cul-de-sac in its VHS-renting teenaged audiences. With bikes as an emblem for freedom at the centre of the narrative, I remember watching and thinking, that's what I need - a cruiser no gears. I would be able to go wherever the hell I wanted to when I wanted to. It still holds true.
But even though bikes can't provide a total escape from reality, they are still the key to freedom, adulthood and independence.
Next up: The zany and dark escapades that are Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and The Triplets Belleville.
Cayley James is dandyhorse's associate editor. She works in film and loves to ride her bike.
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