Bright Lights Film Journal

Kramer and his Bikers

Actors make creepy bikers; generally bikers are less verbose. Watching THE WILD ONE the other night, a big screen filled with creepy “juvenile” behavior, got me to thinking about our associations with bikers and random orgiastic violence. The bikers come swarming over some poor tourist couple like head-tripping egotistic actors’ studio kids, taking out their aggression by licking knives while staring at the square’s wife. It’s the terror of not knowing the proper response. Are they “cool” if you just play along on their weird jive-talk tangents? Bikers are cinema’s version of hornets; just don’t make any sudden moves, just relax and they’ll leave you alone, but don’t let them land on you, etc. One imagines the actors in these biker roles really did smoke reefer at jazz coffee joints on the weekends, but then for the movie they play themselves filtered through the frightened imagination of the Middle-Class Suburban Family (MCSF). What did middle class America do to deserve such filth encrusted scions? Kramer wants to play both sides of the fence, like Officer Krupke.

The best biker films understand how twisted middle America’s vision is in the first place: dad warps these leather clad weirdos into vile caricatures of unemployed enjoyment, his tax dollars at work that’s the democrats for ya – mocking him with their speed and sex partners while he chomps at the bit. Mom sees in them meanwhile the wild boy her husband used to be, and she longs to just jump on the back of a Harley and get punked out. But “longs” is maybe not the right word: What I’m searchin’ for was said best by Kim Morgan, discussing Deneuve in REPULSION as “able to act out what she is so afraid of: the dark sludge of desire.” That dark sludge is the danger zone between sanity and life’s ugliest truths: innate bestial Stockholm Syndrome to the victor goes the spoils duel over me boys with your mighty horns stuff, the stuff civilization seals over with concrete and yet you can always still hear the screaming (a few years with Harry here and it sounds like music).

As viewers we react nervously to these gangs because they represent our over-civilized eloi-like ambiguity about our fate as the morlocks’ dinner. The eloi in these movies smile and try to be nice with the bikers but things are bound to get ugly eventually. Sooner or later someone’s getting beat down, a gun goes, off, a girl gets her skirt torn, a window is broken, neglected chores, dogs on the couch, chain fights, it’s all the same inevitable, so the thing becomes about initiative. Are you going to wait for them to start some shit, or are you going to swing first? How do we gauge just how dangerous a situation this is? With psychos it’s impossible to tell, that’s why you need to just get away from them, fast. But mama, that’s where the fun is.

In THE WILD ONE, sadly, the fun never goes one way or the other. The bikers are merely buffoons who show up the bufoonery of the townspeople; all the hoopin’ and hollerin’ becomes just more Stanley Kramer preaching: the gangs disappear conveniently as the civilized “posse” follows poor Marlon to the cross. Where did they go? They all magically reappear on the empty set when it’s time to accuse Marlon of running someone over. Phoning for state troopers should just be automatic when the thugs pull into town en masse, but that would foil Kramer’s plans for big TV-style moralizing. In Kramerland the authority figure is always a powerless shaky martyr, just as the underlings of Brando’s and Marvin’s gangs are all craven psychos or just acting that way so they can flip it on you later; your prejudgment of my chains and denim lifestyle is what caused the violence, man, not me. Against this slump-shouldered panorama the figures of Brando and Lee Marvin loom like Blindville’s one-eyed kings. Marvin especially grasps the cosmic joke, staying passed out all through his own jail-break, he’s the Chosen One, the drunken trickster come at last to beat the livin’ Christmas out of us. God do we need it.