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On the road again 

American movies can't get enough of knights in black leather

What does it say about the national fear factor that two of the most era-defining, parent-freaking, youth-inspiring films of all time centered on guys astride their motorcycles?

What was it exactly that made kids flock to see Easy Rider (1969) and The Wild One (1954)? Was it the overt sexuality of that enormous metal phallus propelling trouble down the highway? The fetishy leather? Or was it something deeper than aesthetics? Maybe the biker films that flourished in the '60s, with their irreverent heroes expressing disgust with the American way, were just too radical a truth serum for the status quo to bear.

In the tradition of the Western, where society's norms and individual freedoms stage a climactic face-off, the classic motorcycle drama often features characters spouting off about our democratic society's ironic lack of individual liberty. Some movie-goers shook their heads in disbelief at the lawless, nomadic biker lifestyle portrayed in flicks like 1966's The Wild Angels. Others just enjoyed the plight of the modern savage, the thrill of motorcycle chases, the guttural start of a Harley and the endless street brawls.

But the films actually touched a nerve with many, like the kids who saw their own alienation mirrored in the glazed expression of the motorcycle movies' heroes. Easy Rider, made for less than $500,000 by a bunch of counterculturarians, grossed $50 million and crystallized a zeitgeist.

As usual, the good folks at the Starlight Six Drive-In have capitalized on the kitsch value of another era's fears with Drive Invasion, the annual Labor Day fest of B-movies, bands and bitchin' car and bike shows. Day two of the Sept. 4-5 event centers on the great American icon of the rebel biker, the dropout culture's poster child, the establishment's worst enemy, and the drive-in exhibitor's best pal with screenings of the following films.

The Wild One (1954)

Marlon Brando surely launched a thousand masturbatory fantasies when he appeared with his somnambulist stare astride a Triumph in this first motorcycle-scare picture. Based on a real-life 1947 incident in which 4,000 bikers terrorized the small California town of Hollister, director Laszlo Benedek's powder keg is lit when the Black Rebels gang of bikers, led by ice cold Johnny (Brando), ride into town and head-butt with the locals who'd rather they just move on. But in the grand tradition of the biker film, The Wild One asks just who the savages are, the bikers or the town's precariously "polite" society, which lapses quickly into anarchy when threatened. In the film's climactic scene where Johnny is chased by a lynch mob of crazed citizens through the town streets, the biker becomes as pitiful a scapegoat for society's ills as Frankenstein's monster.

Producer Stanley Kramer intended the film to illustrate American intolerance for outsiders, but censors demanded the filmmakers tone down that subversive message. Nevertheless, The Wild One remains an archetypically '50s film loaded with the cliches of the age, from goofy rear-screen projection of the cyclists on the road to the bebop slang Brando unloads on love interest Mary Murphy. The biker doesn't seek a specific destination in his existential travels, Johnny tells the clueless good girl, "You don't go any one special place -- that's cornball style. You just go. You've got to wail, you've got to put down some jive."

Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider was a Deliverance for the counterculture -- asserting the same scary message that when you venture outside the big city, you take your life into your own hands. In Easy Rider, middle America is a sticky trap where rednecks wait undercover of night to bust some hippie skull.

Dennis Hopper's Western-influenced tale of Los Angeles hippie bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) traveling across America was as much a defining moment in American culture of the '60s as Woodstock or Kent State. Hopper has said that the film's downbeat ending signaled that the hope and optimism of the '60s was truly over. Though apparently not for the film's cast. The drug-taking that unfolded onscreen was merely an extension of a chaotic production in which Hopper's maniacal personality, Fonda's drug-fueled conversations with his dead mother (captured during the film's famous New Orleans cemetery scene) and actors too stoned to perform helped lend a frisson of countercultural cinema verite to the film.

Some of the film's self-conscious moments of cool seem dated today, but the film is distinguished by an affecting performance by Jack Nicholson as a drunkard Southern lawyer whom the duo pick up along the way. And Hopper's use of music from Hendrix, Steppenwolf and the Band to orchestrate the bikers' travels anticipated a pop music-infused movie culture.

The Wild Angels (1966)

B-movie impresario Roger Corman's sensational, shocking (even by today's standards) biker film capitalizes on the element of sleaziness lurking beneath Peter Fonda's lanky demeanor and blinding Crest grimace. Fonda plays Heavenly Blues, the gloomy leader of the Hells Angels, presiding over wild parties, gang rape, desecration of corpses and enough Nazi paraphernalia to launch a Fourth Reich.

This low-budget production is loaded with talent-in-the-raw, too, from Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern as a doomed cycle couple, to future cult director and Wild Angels editor Monte Hellman and Peter Bogdanovich offering uncredited screenplay assistance and assistant director service.

There is an undeniably cathartic thrill value in Wild Angels -- the kind of raw, primitive appeal that separates exploitation fare like this from the more polished, "classy" work of the major studios. Where else could an audience find a scene as tasteless as the one where the Angels try to eulogize their fallen comrade Loser (Dern), but end up throwing a debauched party in the church where he lies in state, dancing, drinking, pillaging and, in a truly bad-taste moment, raping the dead man's lady (Ladd).

The film was originally targeted at the rogue drive-in element but quickly broke through to the mainstream and made Corman beaucoup cash. The period touches are campy enough to keep modern viewers entertained, from Fonda's back-teased tramp girlfriend Mike (Nancy Sinatra), who looks like a refugee from a Detroit trailer park, to Ladd working herself into a pre-Wild at Heart froth over the death of her lovable Loser.

Knightriders (1981)

No film was better served by the cheese ball trappings of the drive-in circuit than George Romero's goofy medieval-meets-motorcycles spectacle. The sole voice of actorly reason in a cast of bad haircuts and tortured line readings, Ed Harris is the grand poo-bah of a group of traveling Renaissance fair performers who offer a 20th-century spin on medieval sport by jousting on motorcycles. If you thought the Renaissance fair was a geek fest, try a Renaissance fair circa the 1980s filmed on the fringes of Pittsburgh, featuring Stephen King as a knuckle-dragging audience member. Romero paints the audience for souped-up jousting matches as drooling heathens, and the performers as people who live by a code of honor. As the jousters resist crass commercialization and battle internal conflicts, it becomes clear this is a metaphor for Romero's close-knit filmmaking community and his struggle to maintain integrity. That explains the painful earnestness and brazen amateurishness of the film, but doesn't relieve the tedium of sitting through it.

Screening Sat., Sept. 4, are Repo Man (1984), 13 Ghosts (1960), Revenge of the Cheerleaders (1977) and Switchblade Sisters (1975).

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