A short man with glasses and a pinstriped dress jacket describes his vehicle to the valet: make, color, and distinguishing characteristics, in this case, the fuzzy orange dingleballs that proudly proclaim the owner's singularity. The lithe attendant squints for a moment, surveying the sprawl, before expertly pinpointing the desired conveyance. He appears undaunted by the metallic hedgerow, wading in and deftly extracting the selected bicycle from the intricate bramble of twisted handlebars, spokes, and reflective pedals over which he is guardian. The owner nods his thanks and tools off into the dusk, pale calves darting like silverfish from beneath the rough hems of his cutoff Ben Davis pants. But for the rest of the crowd gathered at the Bike Film Fest at the La Pena Cultural Center, the night is just heating up.
The Bike Film Fest, a benefit for the Bicycle-Friendly Berkeley Coalition, is in its third year and, as always, it has drawn a large group of two-wheeling devotees -- commuters, messengers, racers, daredevils, health nuts, and simple Sunday afternoon hobbyists. It is an intensely physical group, especially for a gathering at which the promised "BMX Freestyle Tricks and Mountain Biking Madness" appears only on video. But the popularity of the Bike Film Fest has grown in parallel with the sprawling, man-powered auto-annoyance event known as Critical Mass, and while the BFBC has run out of French bike messenger movies from the 1940s, the group has never had to resort to showing Breaking Away or The Bicycle Thief.
"This year," explains 31-year-old Vince Rubino, who is a bioengineering major at Merit College and one of the organizers of the benefit, "we decided to take submissions, you know, turn this into the Sundance of bicycle movies."
While entries were sparse at first, bike-loving filmmakers from all over the country eventually responded with vivacity, putting the BFBC in a position where it could afford to turn movies away.
In the darkened sold-out theater, bicycle historian Leon Dixon shows a collection of rare footage from the National Bicycle History Archive of America, highlighted by an animation piece in which Curious George learns to ride a bicycle and joins the circus. The hapless adventures of the little brown monkey elicit childish giggles and curiously emphatic words of encouragement from the crowd. Until the end.
When Curious George and the Man With the Yellow Hat tool off in a big, shiny, state-of-the-art automobile (a sign of all that was right in the world less than two generations ago), a great, hollow groan tumbles through the crowd, followed by a gruff voice in the back of the room: "You should never have done it, George."
Hisses leak out of the corners, and 48-year-old Stephanie Blockheed observes to no one in particular, "We're still trying to overcome the mythology generated by the ignorant fantasies of the 1950s. Barbie dolls, automobiles, and the three-martini lunch."
While this is the sort of statement, when made in connection with a cartoon about an inquisitive primate, that might be derided with the epithet "Only in Berkeley," there are plenty of San Franciscans here, and all of them agree with the anti-car sentiment. After all, this is a function where nearly 200 people have given up their Sunday afternoons to watch five hours of movies -- all about bicycles. Cars, even in charcoal drawing, will not be tolerated.
"If you think about it carefully, bicycling is a much more efficient form of transportation than driving," explains Rubino. "Take into account parking, insurance, and registration; it can be a monetary issue as much as an environmental one. We've all seen the devastation caused by automobiles.
"When you think about it very closely, it becomes kind of an egghead thing."
Indeed, on the program -- among the arty films about bicycle romance and flat tires, and the eye-catching documentation of off-road cycling and lowriders -- are pieces produced by the Japanese Bikecology Movement and the Union of Concerned Scientists, proposing market-based, bicycle-centered solutions for traffic jams, polluted air, and foreign oil dependency. Those proposals are nothing this crowd doesn't already know about. Many of the bicyclists here -- including the entire BFBC board -- hail originally from New York City, where the streets were made bike-savvy long ago. And if there are more audience members who work in the sciences than in messenger services, one reality links all together: Everyone has good gams.
"If you hang out with bicycle riders long enough," says Celia Nesticki, a tawny-colored gal with tiny red braids tied into her turbulent hair, "you realize how much more enthusiastic and fun they are. I suppose it's like anyone who exercises on a regular basis. We just have a lot more energy."
Tonight, the spectators, who will vote on the movies later, are energetic. After a screening of Bill's Bike -- a gem from 1939 that sparkles with the help of two brilliant foley artists and a band that performs a whimsical live score filled with sorrowful accordions and a trilling clarinet -- folks settle in with their ballots to prove that moviegoing can be an active sport.
As the The Bicycle plays, folks holler and sway as if they are riding a holographic roller coaster, nearly jumping out of their seats when the protagonist makes a sudden stop during his fierce ride through Manhattan. During other shorts, bicycle thieves are loudly damned; Transit Man is loudly admired; pretty bikes and pretty bicyclists are loudly desired; Afghan amputees are applauded; and the life of S.F. bike messenger Markus Cook is remembered with a song performed by his band L. Sid.