Breaking Away Ted White shyly hopped up on the low stage at Cell Space, simultaneously basking in and waving off the raucous adoration of 300 bicycle enthusiasts. The highly oxygenated crowd packed into the Mission District hall on the first day of Bike Summer had just pedaled in Critical Mass, the last-Friday-of-the-month ride. They were pumped for the premiere of White's documentary, We Are Traffic!; he was apprehensive. "Maybe you'll feel differently" after the screening, the filmmaker joked. "I'm going to feel relieved."
White shot his first footage of Critical Mass in early 1993, just a few months after the ride began, although it wasn't until '96 that he got serious about making a film. "I saw strategies for political action and comments on urban life coming out of Critical Mass," White said when I caught up with him a few days after the premiere. We Are Traffic! is a kind of sequel to Return of the Scorcher, White's 1992 cult classic, which spotlighted the importance of non-motorized transport in China and numerous other countries. Or, as his new film begins, "We aren't blocking traffic. We are traffic."
The American bike movement is one of the few remnants of '60s counterculture, and at its best, as We Are Traffic! illustrates, Critical Mass blends anarchy, a social statement, and hilarity. In one sequence, a rider blocks a line of cars at an intersection with a sign reading, "Thanks for Waiting," while a bevy of cyclists cruises by; when the drivers begin blaring their horns in impatience, he flips the sign over to display the instruction, "Honk If You Love Bicycles."
One also senses Abbie Hoffman's spirit (or Steven Bochco's) in a showstopping "opera" sequence: While a policewoman slowly drifts in and out of the frame, her mouth open in a prolonged, slow-motion shout, an aria plays on the soundtrack.
Some of the more enlightened bike activists, like Chris Carlson, view motorists as potential accomplices in the crusade to save San Francisco from the automobile. "Most people involved in political movements are looking for enemies, and I think that's so shallow," White says. "Trying to break down the schism between cyclists and drivers is really important. Chris is looking for allies, and believe me, they're there."
We Are Traffic! plays one night only, Monday, Aug. 16, at the Roxie, with a 1934 Joe E. Brown comedy set amidst a marathon bike race.
Following up on an item here a few weeks back, AMC marketing director Tony Adamson informs the cultural historians in the crowd that the chain began showing commercials before the feature at the end of June. The ads -- which are filmed in 35mm and debut exclusively in theaters, in case that impresses you -- start before the advertised show time and run with the house lights up, Adamson emphasizes.
This latest affront to moviegoers has drawn some criticism in West L.A., Adamson admits, where a chunk of Hollywood's work force lives. "The more avid the moviegoer, the less likely they are to change their attitude," the AMC man says. "They like to think of themselves as purists." Blame Europe, Adamson says, where commercials are now de rigueur before films. ... It's not right to follow that with this: Happy 100th birthday, Mr. Hitchcock.