A Motion Picture as a Time Machine

This past Sunday, taking a break from weekend chores, I sat down to watch a video. At least a couple of times every year I have to watch the film On Any Sunday. I can’t tell you why exactly, except that it just plain makes me feel good. The movie is a stimulus that, in a sense, transports you back in time. It’s kind of like walking into a cigar shop (or cigar lounge today) and all of a sudden, grandpa’s back. Or, opening a fishing tackle box and finding a tangled mass of lures and the stale odor of old salmon eggsâÂ?¦Dad. (Sorry Dad. That was not meant to be your defining assetsâÂ?¦but more of a moment in time that will forever link you to me.) There is even a certain temperature and late afternoon light combination that will spark the memory of my wife looking at flowers in a mountain park. Bruce Brown’s On Any Sunday makes me think of (in no particular order): hot summer days; the smell of grease, oil and gasoline; dust; the color yellow (don’t ask me); laughter; and, yes, even cussing (boys will be boys).

I was twelve years old when I first saw this movie (summer of 1971). It was a rainy summer Saturday afternoon and my best friend at the time and I had nothing better to do. We were not looking to be enlightened by a stream of socially significant consciousness streaming from the silver screenâÂ?¦man, we weren’t even teenagers yet! All we saw was a poster with the picture of a guy jumping a motorcycle and the name Steve McQueen somewhere below the title. We both remembered McQueen riding the bike in the WWII POW escape film, The Great EscapeâÂ?¦looked at each other and said, “Cool!”âÂ?¦bought our tickets and went inside the theater, not really knowing what to expect.

First we had to get over the shock of the movie being a documentary. Had we known this going in we probably would have declined to see it in the first place. I mean, the only exposure to documentaries we had at that time came in the form of short subject films that the school provided from time to timeâÂ?¦teaching us of the perils of poor hygiene and such or the occasional long (aka boring) documentary film covering one of the World Wars or the Korean Conflict. (Today, I love watching these old filmsâÂ?¦what has happened to me?) As a matter of fact, the only good documentaries that I had seen up to that time were the National Geographic Specials that came out a couple of times per year that were narrated by the likes of Alexander Scourby, Richard Kiley, or even Orson Welles. For years I only knew of Orson Welles as a sometimes magician and spokesman for a wine company on TV and “the voice” on the National Geographic Specials (I had no idea about his even more famous past at that time). National Geographic was only a magazine/journal at that time and there was no NG channel. Where National Geographic excelled for a bunch of adolescents was in bringing the PG-rated version of a men’s magazine into the house. For some reason it was OK to look at naked women from other counties, even to the extent of “showcasing” them on the coffee table, but get caught with a Playboy and it was all over! But, I digress.

The film was great! On Any Sunday follows the “sport” of motorcycling from backyard dirt tracks and hill climbs to the professional racing circuit. Though it uses motorcycles to demonstrate the point, it’s really a little bit about all of us, regardless of whether you happen to ride or not. It’s about living life to the fullest and enjoying the people your around.

The cinematography was (and is) amazing (even though I believe it only shot on 16mm stock) as I had never seen such action, as depicted in this motorcycle film, slowed down so muchâÂ?¦to be able to see the individual pieces of a bike in such detail or the grimace on the face of a competitor was definitely something new. The music was decent too (by Dominic Frontiere)âÂ?¦a somewhat lighter (snappier) version of the music you often heard accompanying football films of the time (and still do). And, of course there was the title song which was catchy and decent enough, kind of reminded me of a Burt Bacharach tune. On Any Sunday was funny while being seriously awe-inspiring at the same time. It was full of tension, followed by relief – in other words, a roller coaster of excitement. And who knew that it would become such a source for emotions later on. As my friend and I walked out of the theater, we looked at each other and exclaimed at the same time, “I can do that!”

When I got home from the movie, I immediately went to work lobbying my brothers and pestering my parents to get us (me) a “bike.” Being an exuberant pest myself and having enough bodily reserves in the form of my brothers, we finally wore down our parents and came to an agreement. We boys would find a way to finance it, our dad taking care of the remaining hundred or so dollars and the sad look on our faces when we couldn’t quite come up with the amount we needed, while mom finally consented to let us in the vicinity “the thing” (lots of promises were made that day I can tell you).

That first bike was a Bultaco Sherpa some three or four years old. It only had a 100 or 125cc engine, but was set up as a trials bike and all of us boys, our friends (until they talked their parents into one), and even a sister or two took many turns over the next few months/years trying to figure out how to negotiate a 30 inch diameter log that lay across the creek…without putting our feet down (a la Malcolm Smith in the movie of course)! Many of us, some 35 years later, still wear faded scars that mark those great, but dangerous, days. We are also still trying to figure out how to get on, over and along that log!

This movie got me started loving something that I didn’t even really think about until I walked through the doors of the Cinema 70 that Saturday afternoon. We had mainly bicycles and horses where I grew up. A friend down the rode apiece did own a mini-bike with a 5 hp Briggs and Stratton powering it, but it was touchy and didn’t always start when you wanted it too (although, I can also say that about the Sherpa at times). Motorcycles eventually took the place of nearly all these things. Because of that movie, I had to learn about motors and what it was like to get greasy-dirty…of the smell of gasoline and oil…and what it took to get both yourself and the bike clean again (to Mom’s satisfaction).

My love of motorcycles began on that wet summer day and has continued to the present. Indirectly (through me), and just within my own circle of friends and relatives, On Any Sunday is probably responsible for some 100 to 200 new motorcycle riders – who otherwise may never have known what it’s like to fly on two wheels or pick prickly pear cactus needles out of your …well you know. Although the film is somewhat dated (both the motorcycles as well as the music)…it wears well and the spirit remains the same…just ask my twelve year old!…,”Pretty cool Dad. I can do that!”

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