Friday, August 19, 2011

The Genius of Breaking Away

This blog is always about displacement, loss, movement, and return. Its poetic and pop culture allusions are subtle attempts to explore these themes.  I'm thinking out loud in this work, trying to use art and activity to formulate some fundamental questions about the ways in which identity is shaped by place and travel.

It's also frequently about the bike, which itself a common metaphor for self-fashioning. Cyclists are always cyclists--we may define ourselves by our passion more than any other hobbyists / participants / players of other sports or hobbies. There's an unmistakable physical aesthetic to cyclists, one we sometimes accentuate with odd grooming and sartorial choices: shaved legs, rolled jeans, obscure t-shirts, bike-chain jewelry, short-brimmed hats.

All that's incidental to the rest of this blogpost, except to say that because our sport / activity / hobby is so esoteric, we simultaneously embrace and disdain moments when the larger culture shines a spotlight on it.

Which brings me to Breaking Away.

The film's approach to class relations are obvious: set in 1979, recession-era Indiana, Breaking Away is about Dave Stoller and his friends, "townie," working-class kids living in Bloomington. They are the sons of "cutters," the men who supplied the Indiana University campus with limestone they cut from surrounding quarries. But those stone-cutting jobs have started to leave town: 
Dad: I was proud of my work. And the buildings went up. When they were finished the damnedest thing happened. It was like the buildings were too good for us. Nobody told us that. It just felt uncomfortable, that's all. You guys still go swimmin' in the quarries?
Dave: Sure.
Dad : So, the only thing you got to show for my 20 years of work is the holes we left behind?
Like most 18 year-olds, Dave and his friends laze about the empty quarries, fight with rich college kids, and fret about their futures. The jobs their fathers worked have made them outcasts in their own town, but even those jobs are closed to them, just like the buildings their fathers built.  

Mike is Dave's best friend, the star of his high school football team. But after graduation, he chafes against the creeping mediocrity he sees waiting for him. Since he can't conceive of a place for himself in Bloomington that doesn't reinforce his failures, Mike concocts mythic dreams of elsewhere that Romanticize the frontier:
Mike: That's the place to be right there, Wyoming! Nothin' but prairies and mountains and nobody around. All you need is your bed roll and a good horse.
This sentiment is reminiscent of the longing of another failed athlete who dreams of a place that doesn't remind him of his failures:
Biff: In Nebraska when I herded cattle, and the Dakotas, and Arizona, and now in Texas. It's why I came home now, I guess, because I realized it. This farm I work on, it's spring there now, see? And they've got about fifteen new colts. There's nothing more inspiring or--beautiful, than a new colt. And it's cool there now, see? Texas is cool now, and it's spring. And whenever spring comes to where I am, I sullenly get the feeling, My God, I'm not getting anywhere. What the hell am I doing, playing around with horses, twenty-eight dollars a week? [. . .] Every time I come back here I know that all I've done is waste my life.
Of course, none of the characters in Death of a Salesman can escape the lot in life that American capitalism has assigned to them, and tragedy strikes when they have the nerve to try.

But Breaking Away is a production of Hollywood, so it's a comedy at heart. Dave is infatuated with Italian cycling and culture. He rides all over the state, but he always has to return home at the end of the day, so his fascination with Italian racing starts to occlude even his daily identity; his ongoing impersonation of an Italian exchange student reveals a desperation to escape his life in the shadow of a University he's been conditioned to believe he cannot attend. But in the end, Dave takes a college entrance exam and does well enough to earn a scholarship. He and his friends use the bike to beat the college kids at their own game, and even Dave's dad starts riding.

So, in Breaking Away, the bike in Indiana serves the same purpose as de fiets in Flanders or le vélo in France: it helps working-class kids transcend their upbringing and aspire to greatness. In the film's climactic scene, the "Cutters" race the exact same model of one-speed bike that the fraternity guys ride, and when they're given such a level playing field, the Cutters win. It's a classic bit of American ideology: in this land of equal opportunity, talent and desire and hard work always triumph.

Or do they? Mike gets on the bike at a critical moment in the race and helps his Cutters team win the race, but in the film's final denouement, he's nowhere to be seen. Dave is rolling though campus on his way to class, but Mike is entirely missing from the new world that the action of the film has created for Dave and his family. So while Dave has an aspirational future ahead of him, Mike is consigned to the viewer's memory as the high school athlete with no prospects of escape.

As a coda, let me close with the lyrics from the Drive-By Truckers song I quoted in yesterday's post. Their similarity to Mike's ideas are what sparked my thinking about the movie:
Mike: They're gonna keep callin' us "cutters." To them, it's just a dirty word. To me, it's just somethin' else I never got a chance to be.
DBT: Sometimes I dream that I had aimed my life in different ways
But there was nothin' to show me a way to get me outta this place
So I just did what my daddy did before me
Only to find the only door I found was closed to me
See, in America, the barrier to entry in cycling is pretty high. You have to have a sizable pile of money to get a race-worthy bike, you need safe roads to train on, and you need the support of mentors willing to show you the ropes. It might seem like an impossibility to urban kids, which might explain why I always do a double-take when I see an African-American road or mountain cyclist here in Omaha.  While I see plenty of working-class people riding Wal-mart bikes on the sidewalk on their way to work, I can count on one hand the number of minority folks I've seen in spandex. And sadly, ethnicity is a correlative of class in much of the U.S. If the bike is going to help improve the world--like it does for the kids in Breaking Away--we'd better start thinking about the cutters we might find in our community.


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  3. You know Mendelssohn's Symphony no. 4 is prominently featured in that film. I hear there is a rumor that the film was almost called "The Boy Who Wanted to be Italian".

    I agree with your points, but what speaks strongest to me is the theme of belonging.

    Most everyone can find a group to be a part of, but I don't know of many that don't pine to belong to a different group; social upward mobility. You can go out and get a nice upper end starter bike, get your kit and your Cinzano hat, ride your bollocks off and register for a race. You think you're in; you have all the prerequisites. Then that group you wanted so bad to be a part of boxes you out in a turn and you end up in the ditch.

    But on your own turf, in your own home town, with your're a king. You can duct tape your feet to the pedals and beat the townies...but the next morning you still wake up in the American midwest, not riding with the Italian squad.

    So is the end result the realization that we might simply be good enough only on certain playing fields, level or not?

    It's amazing how in the end the real joy is found sprinting behind a semi trailer rig, waiting for the next hand signal to see how fast you're going as you ride your ass off pretending that you're leaving that God forsaken town.

    And yes, I know I've attempted posting this several times...typos make me crazy. Third time's the charm.

  4. Eric,
    But how do the costs of entry become lower? Would I ride a Caad10 (or equivalent bike) with Ultegra and give the money to something bigger that helped guarantee that there was more cycling for all? Yeah, I think I would. I don't know if that's a feasible statement or not, but I'd do it if it were for the greater good. Golf this sport is not, I've got super nice things, but they're tools and I'd ride just about as well on mid tier frames and componentry. I don't do it, but if the right opportunity to bring more to our sport presented itself, I would. Would others? I do not know.

    Great post.