Thursday 12 December 2019

Flat tyres: "The Bikes of Wrath"

The Bikes of Wrath feels ominously like the kind of documentary of which we now get one a month: essentially a tricked-out video diary of a quirky, wacky or otherwise outlandish journey undertaken by camera-ready individuals with suspicious levels of disposable income. (The forerunner of these would be Ross McElwee's questing 1986 curio Sherman's March, which rather sadly appears to have slipped out of circulation here in the UK, and would merit a spot on the release schedules more than any of these callow pretenders.) Here, we're presented with five varyingly hairy Aussie lads who set off by pedal bike from Oklahoma to California in a 21st century retread of the route followed by the put-upon Joad clan in John Steinback's Depression-era landmark The Grapes of Wrath: that title's a dreadful pun - it's barely a pun at all - but it has its basis in something, I guess. Why do it? Because it's something young men with time and money on their hands can do. Why make a movie out of it? Well, a) because digital cameras have made it substantially easier to make movies like this, and b) because it might show the world how quirky, wacky or otherwise outlandish the filmmakers are, as they might on, say, their Instagram account. Why release it? Because there's a gap in the schedule where this type of film usually goes.

And so, with a weary heart, we set out once more, through a series of piecemeal encounters with The Great American Public linked by readings from Steinbeck's original text. The boys are seen pestering waitresses with questions about the American Dream; stopping to repair punctures and nurse road rash, talked up as major obstacles in a film otherwise entirely lacking in any sense of jeopardy or peril; endlessly explaining what they're doing to passers-by, partly because what they're doing needs some form of explanation, partly to set up what they want to get on camera; and, at a particular low point, busting out the guitars and harmonicas for a roadside Bruce Springsteen cover. (Here, the film becomes indistinguishable from an audition tape for a constructed reality show.) Beneath the padding, there remain glimpses of this project's noble intention: to set migration then against migration now, and to show that, when you get down to it, people are actually friendly and generous, and generally all right. Yet the footage The Bikes of Wrath uses to illustrate this is almost completely arbitrary. Even if the good people our heroes met offer smiles, handshakes and $100 bills, it doesn't cancel the harsh reality of the baying Trump mobs the film observes in passing on a hotel television, and adopting the same unwaveringly pious tone as a Coldplay concept album on the subject isn't going to win anyone over to the cause. We're left clinging onto some nice scenery - because you can't point a camera at this part of America and not capture nice scenery, especially during the magic hour 90% of the film appears to have been shot at - but, really, this is the stuff of Gap years, not revealing, enlightening or entertaining cinema.

The Bikes of Wrath opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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