Bikes on Reels: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

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. Read Part 1 here.


Image from Pee Wee's Big Adventure courtesy of Warner Brothers

Bikes on Reels Part 2

Paul Reubens and Sylvain Chomet take you on a couple of adventures with velocipede obsessives.

Cayley James

Last month I wrote about the way bikes shuttle us from childhood to adulthood.

Currently I would very much like to return to a more … idyllic time. I started writing this piece days after the American election. When pretty much every person I spoke to was at a loss for words. 90% of my conversations that week involved silent head shaking. The film’s I had selected for this month’s piece were a much needed reprieve from the political twilight zone we’d wound up in.

Although they may appear to be as far removed as you can get from current affairs, Pee Wees Big Adventure (1985) and The Triplets of Belleville (2003) are an enlightening combo that critique greed and selfishness while vaulting empathy and community.

Theyre David and Goliath type fables that feature protagonists who face insurmountable odds, conquering with ingenuity and compassion. In both movies cycling is not only central to the narrative it is intrinsically bound to the characters propelling the action. 

For some it might be hard to think of a time before Paul Reubenss slapstick, slapstick, camp influenced alter-ago existed. Developed during his days at the Groundlings in the late 70s, Reubens found significant success in the early 80s with a late-night stage show (that was recorded and broadcasted as an HBO special) and as a regular guest on Letterman. By the mid-80s it was a popular enough schtick to take him to the big screen. Apparently inspired by Di Siccas neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves - Big Adventure was Tim Burtons first time in the directors seat. It managed to transform the cheeky subversive material of Reubens stage show to a G-rated childrens feature film that was pure entertainment.

Released at the height of Regans morning in America age of lopsided obsessions with family values, rampant homophobia in pop culture, and skepticism of dissenting voices; Pee Wee managed to spring from these shallow shortsighted years and become an indelible subversive, pop culture icon.


Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Pee Wee’s Big Adventure hinges on our heros bike being stolen and his obsession to get it back. The red vintage Schwinn is Pee Wees one true love. With its chrome details, wide handle bars and retro fenders(!!!) its the platonic ideal of a mid-century bike. It’s the kind of bike they used to ride around studio lots delivering mail in the 40s and 50s.  Depicted with reverence we see it in an angelic glow and kept safe behind a series of security checks in Pee Wee's backyard. He coos: "you're the best bike in the whole world" before he sets off.


Image Courtesy of Warner Brothers 

Hes chummy with the BMX team and is the crush of Dottie the bike mechanic. But his bike is also the object of fascination for the towns coverall  wearing bully Francis who ultimately steals the bike. Told by the police its unlikely to ever be seen again! Something Im sure many readers have had to deal with. He sets off on across country journey following a hollow lead from a hack psychic, believing it to be in the basement of the Alamo.

The loose structure of meetings with our wandering hero makes room for delightful social commentary (of the Warner Brothers variety.) He crosses paths with a host of archetypes of the road: the ex con, lovelorn waitress, bikers, and train riding hobo. Theyre eccentric empathetic dreamers.

And they all love and respect Pee Wee for his dedication to this bike. Despite the madcap zeal there are moments of quiet reflection. Perhaps most memorably in the head of a dinosaur as Simone the waitress and Pee Wee watch the sun rise over the desert. In between double entendres ("But what? Everyone I know has a big but!") Pee Wee advises on chasing your dreams. Of believing in the impossible and making it happen.

Cycling can be shorthand for community, for camaraderie and collective good. Pee Wees love for his bike is a universal hope for humanity. I couldnt help but be reminded by Don Cherrys bike riding pinko jibe back during the days of Ford. And how happy I am that I identify as one of those ‘pinkos’ and that cycling in Toronto is slowly but surely building in numbers. In a recent report I read from Ryerson University it was noted that - unsurprisingly - people are more likely to cycle when there is a vocal and supportive cycling community in place where they live.

Theft of a cyclist (not a bicycle) is what is at stake in The Triplets of Belleville. Sylvain Chomet's animation is steeped in melancholy but equally vibrant, violent and visionary. He utilises classic cell-animation and marries them with modern sensibilities. His characters (or caricatures), with their exaggerated features, nonsense language and animal like gestures are fantastical critiques. His images evoke Felix the Cat and early Warner Brothers or Disney shorts, but also surreal mannered filmmaking of German expressionism. Characters are defined by shape and animalistic attributes.  There’s a mechanic who looks like a mouse and cyclists that wheeze like exhausted workhorses. The identical bodyguards that serve the wine-swilling millionaires are literal walls. This is a sinister story that lie's beneath the fantastical in Chomet’s version of the mid-20th century. Road cyclists are being stolen to ride in gladiator style Tour De France race on stationary bikes for fat cats in Belleville. If they keel over a skeletal henchman will kill them in cold blood.

Before all of that though, the film opens on a tranquil home in rural France - the Eiffel tower is spotted on the horizon - and theres a small round boy who lives with his small round grandmother. He sits and sighs alone in his room all day and she wonders what she can do to make him happy. She finds clippings of bikes tucked under his bed and she buys him a tricycle.
Courtesy of Les Armateurs

Jumping ahead an untold amount of years hes a sinewy cyclist with outsized calves. The joy is gone from his eyes as he trains on the cobbled streets in the rain. His singular obsession is matched by his grandmother’s dedication. Shes not just his grandmother but his trainer and his mechanic - her pace whistle the soundtrack to his life and quite a bit of the film.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-00-02-51                    Image Courtesy of Les Armateurs

During a race the three cyclists lagging behind are kidnapped and shipped to Belleville to participate in the aforementioned cycling royale. The tenacious grandmother doesn't give up. She paddle boats across the ocean to save her grandson from his unknown fate. There she meets the  Triplets, one-time vaudeville stars who deify the past and who help get her grandson back.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-00-20-09                         Image Courtesy of Les Armateurs 

In the climactic end to the film the triplets and grandmother save the cyclists with the help of a couple of well timed grenades and frying pans to the heads. They survive a hail of gunfire to dismantle the stationary bikes - but the dedicated riders keep on peddling. They propel the platform through the winding streets of Belleville. Oblivious to the fatal predicament they have found themselves in. Their gaunt eyes fixed on the back-projection of winding roads through mountain towns. Ignoring the fatalities that lay in their wake. Bikes, as much as they’re representative of community they are also the distillation of commitment and perseverance.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-00-22-42                           Image Courtesy of Les Armateurs 

Just like Pee Wee, Triplets is a story about obsession and love. Love for a thankless sport, a grandmothers love of her family, eccentrics’ love of the past and the villains particular love of control over the gifted. Each of the films end in absurd chase scenes. One through a Hollywood studio, the other through the streets of an imaginary city that feels like Paris, New York and LA all at the same time. They are self aware send ups to cinema's past that exaggerate and distort but still resonate with heart. Yet neither have happy endings, their adventures simply come to a close because they survived. Pee Wee's is a bit more light hearted to be fair.

Watching these films I couldnt help but feel hope. Tenacity in the face of bullies. Pee Wees technicolour, surreal, slapstick dreaming came out of a very dark age. Its no surprise that Reubens reprised the character earlier this year with Pee Wees Big Holiday. Perhaps in the midst of this collective heartbreak and mind boggling fear of the other, that has overwhelmed popular sentiments around the globe, when I see films like these I have a foolish belief that we can still make things okay.

Next up: Spend the Holidays bingeing High Maintenance. 

Cayley James is dandyhorse's associate editor. She works in film and loves to ride her bike.

Related on 

Toronto Vintage Bicycle Show through the years

The Routes Film

Bicycles in Film: Some of Tinseltown's top two wheelin' moments

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