Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, Contributors, Essays

Wild angels and easy riders

Ryan Gosling in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’

He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up ‘cicle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of highway 101

As The Place Beyond the Pines begins, Ryan Gosling ritually readies himself to ride his motorcycle in a circus show. His ripped body, covered in mysterious tattoos, advertises a life on the road, punctuated by rest stops in strange places. As stoic as any gunfighter, rodeo rider or rock star, he strides through crowds of fans, trading coded greetings with fellow cyclists. Is this sexy stud the last American hero? Not when the open road curves into a cage for wild angels and easy riders.

In the movies, it’s men on motorcycles who inherit the American cowboy paradigm of footloose freedom and rugged individualism. Like Shane and Ethan Edwards and Hawkeye—and a slew of Western wild bunches—chopper nomads are cursed or blessed by their affinity for the frontier, the unwillingness to trade unfettered speed for roots, the glamour of seductive macadam for civilization’s mix of pleasures and discontents. Harley-Davidson studs dress to kill, their sexy attire an affront to men in gray flannel suits. Their hogs signal powerful (and provocative) transport, often of the sexual kind. Nihilists, dreamers, rebels, sociopaths and lost souls, these bad boys are born to be wild, their exotic Otherness inspiring lust or loathing.

So zip up your black leather jacket and pull on your motorcycle boots for our celebration of vroom-vroom biker flicks as The Place Beyond the Pines hits the screen.

“The Wild One” (1953)

“What are you rebelling against?” “What have you got?”

So tacky and airless it looks like it was shot on a TV soundstage, The Wild One nonetheless nailed the quintessential biker stud and style for all time. That’s largely thanks to Marlon Brando, still volcanic in his Streetcar Named Desire burn-up-the-screen mode. Johnny and his Black Rebels vroom into Wrightsville (so perfectly named) to shake things up by posturing on the wrong side of square, the right side of cool.

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