Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Of Bicycles, Venice Beach, and Orion Griffiths . . .

It’s February, so of course I spent my SoCal Sunday riding a bike near the ocean. Believe me, Venice Beach presented itself like a movie set, full of skateboarders, bikers, strollers, vendors, and crazies of all descriptions. Not to mention sun, sand, and tall, skinny palm trees. I could imagine hearing Randy Newman belting it out on the soundtrack: “I love L.A.”

My own town, Santa Monica, has a nifty new Breeze bike-share system I was eager (OK, scared but willing) to try it. Fortunately my husband, the technological brains of the family, helped out. You download an app, then use your mobile phone to unlock one of the sturdy lime-green bikes from its resting place. Since Santa Monica abuts Venice, reaching Venice Beach was a simple matter. I came home feeling good, and with my knees and elbows still intact.

Being me, I spent some of my bike-riding time thinking about movies that feature bicycles. Of course there’s Vittorio De Sica’s post-war Italian neo-realist masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief. In this 1948 film, a bicycle is the key to livelihood of a man from the working class. When his bike is stolen, he and his young son desperately search the streets of Rome to track down the thief. Quite a far cry from my Sunday joyride.

Bicycles are also at the center of an inspirational coming-of-age story set in Bloomington, Indiana.  But these aren’t the humble two-wheelers used by workmen to earn their daily bread. Breaking Away (1979) focuses on the sleek bikes that glide along race courses like those in Italy and France. It’s the tale of some appealing young locals who compete against arrogant frat boys at Indiana University’s annual Little 500 bicycle race.

Cycling plays a major role too in The Triplets of Belleville, a wacky French animated film from 2003.  In it (to the extent that anything is clear in this surrealistic delight) a Tour de France competitor is kidnapped by some sinister gamblers, only to be saved by his elderly intrepid grandmother and some nightclub singers who have come along for the ride. Ooh la la!

Venice, California, has had its own share of movie close-ups. Its sparkling beaches, seedy alleys, and unconventional lifestyles have appeared in dozens of Hollywood films. Long ago the arcaded streets of Venice were featured in Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil, standing in for a Mexican border town. But more recently Venice has played itself, in such varied films as The Doors (1991), White Men Can’t Jump (1992), The Big Lebowski (1998), Thirteen (2003). And Lords of Dogtown (2005).

 In Venice, anything can happen. This past Sunday, while I was on the Venice boardwalk on my lime-green bicycle, I stumbled upon something that was almost better than a movie, because it unfolded right before my eyes. It was a handsome, hunky young Brit gathering passers-by around him so that he could put on a show. His particular skill was balancing: he could do impressive handstands while perched on teetering platforms high above the crowd. But his #1 talent was working that crowd,  keeping up a colorful stream of patter, alternately teasing and cajoling us into paying attention. It was a stellar performance, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that he had Hollywood in his sights. The child of circus performers, he’d come to the U.S. and landed an ensemble role in the recent circus-slanted revival of Broadway’s Pippin. Now he’s in L.A. studying acting and dreaming of his big-screen break. I can’t help with that, but at least I can spread the word. Orion Griffiths, I salute you!

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