Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Capsule Film Reviews: American Flyers

The only film I was ever in was as an extra in the wonderful Peter Yates and Steve Tesch film Breaking Away (20th Century Fox, 1979). It was my first year in beautiful, leafy, colourful, hilly, limestony, and gothicy Bloomington and they were filming Breaking Away on campus, still the most beautiful college campus I have ever seen, and in and around Bloomington.

The one thing that has remained in my memory about Breaking Away has to do with expectations. Many people I knew didn't expect the film to be very good. Bloomington, after all, was a town with more than ample opportunities for film viewing, particularly foreign cinema film viewing, and we were jaded about Hollywood. Even the reviewer for the student newspaper, the IDS, the Indiana Daily Student, had negative things to say about the film when it premiered at the Indiana University Auditorium in the centre of the older part of the campus. Things changed, however, when positive after positive reviews of the film came in from critics like Janet Maslin at the New York Times and Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times and the film was nominated for and won the Golden Globe for best film comedy or musical and writer Steve Tesich was nominated for and won an academy award for original screenplay.

When I saw the film for the first time I was surprised by just how good Breaking Away, this wonderful coming of age film about four young men (Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quad, Jackie Earle Haley, Daniel Stern) just out of high school and floundering around for what to do with their lives, was. I liked that it was not your typical Hollywood film and that it was more like the slice of life foreign films that I adored at the time. It seemed real to me. And, of course, I enjoyed seeing places on campus and in and around my beloved beautiful Bloomington that I knew and loved. I also enjoyed the town versus gown, cutters versus college student, tension theme that structured the film, tensions which ended in our cutters taking on and defeating the gownies at the annual Little 500 bike race at the end of the school year, even though, in my experience, those tensions were exaggerated in the film.

Recently I watched another Tesich film in which bikes and a bike race again play an important role, American Flyers (Warner Brothers, John Badham, 1985). Though on the surface American Flyers is a film about bikes, American Flyers, like Tesich's earlier Breaking Away, is less about bikes and bike racing than about family, family tensions, brotherly love, literal and metaphorical, and friendship. In American Flyers Kevin Kostner and David Marshall Grant play brothers Marcus and David Sommers who are on a quest to compete in and win the Hell of the West bike race in Colorado. I don't want to say much more about American Flyers and spoil the films wonderful misdirection and emotional power except to say that the bike riding sequences are great and that it was filmed, in part, in the great city of Madison, Wisconsin. There is one downside to the film, the 1980s corporate rock that serves as the soundtrack for the American Flyers. That said, I give this wonderful slice of life film between three and three and a half stars out of four.

Tesich, by the way, is unaccountably absent from Richard Corliss's and David Kipen's screenwriter as auteur polemics, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in American Cinema and The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of Film History. One can certainly make a compelling argument that both Breaking Away and American Flyers are Tesich films. One can also compellingly hypothesise that the European quality of Breaking Away is as much if not more due to Peter Yates, an English director who cut his teeth in the British new wave realist cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, than Tesich. On the other hand Tesich was born in Jugoslavija, took degrees in Russian at Indiana University and Columbia University, and was likely familiar with foreign cinema particularly the various new waves and their attempts to bring greater realism to the screen. Tesich's European background may also explain his obsession with bicycle racing. Or did Tesich become obsessed with bike racing when he was at IU and was a teammate of Dave Blase who rode 139 of the 200 laps, including the last lap, of the Little 500 for the Phi Kappa Psi team and won? Blase was the model for Dave Stoller (Christopher) in Breaking Away. All of this makes further research necessary if we are to truly understand the question of authorship in Breaking Away.

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