Reviews

100 Years of Harley Davidson by Willie G. Davidson

Adam H. Cook

No company has done more to perpetuate the Biker myth.


100 Years of Harley Davidson

Publisher: Bulfinch Press
Length: 288
Price: $65 (US)
Author: Willie G. Davidson
US publication date: 2002-10
Amazon
"I'm hip about time."
— Captain America in Easy Rider

Somewhere in the Hollywood formula of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-again a crucial step was left out. It is this: boy gets himself a motorcycle and the chick goes wild. Ever since the iconic opening scene of Laszlo Benedek's The Wild One, featuring Marlon Brando and his rakishly tilted biker cap astride an iron pony, the image of the outlaw, bad-boy biker has been permanently imprinted on the minds of the American public.

In this day and age, to own a motorcycle is to embrace the twin values of freedom and liberty, and to participate in the dream of life on the open road, a life mythologized by the beat writers of the '50s. The myth is recast every so often, as Easy Rider attests, and the nature of the Biker morphs from outlaw to outcast to outlaw again. But the core image has remained unsullied in popular culture since Brando's shattering performance. Prior to "The Wild One," the perception of Bikers was closer to that of computer geeks in the early '80s: they were a subculture of gear-heads who loved to race and muck about with 'lube.

Today, bikers are rebels, bikers are dangerous, and, incredibly, bikers are utterly mainstream. The myth of the Biker, sold up and down Madison Avenue and Century City, is that buying a motorcycle will transmogrify a flavorless personality into El Diablo incarnate, or at least as close as leather chaps can get you. The pitch is simplicity itself: Motorcyclists court danger. Chicks dig danger. Get yourself a chopper and you'll be swarmed by a bevy of scantily-clad nymphs in no time. QED.

In the United States, it seems fair to say that no company has done more to perpetuate the Biker myth, and benefit from its retelling, than Harley Davidson. Begun from humble origins in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, Harley Davidson in 2003 has firmly established itself as the flag-bearer of the Biker-mystique created in the 1950s. From H.O.G. (the Harley Owners Group) to the Hells Angels, diehard Harley owners are a tight-knit and exclusive group. Just ask any other biker on the rode. Harley riders only wave to other Harley riders, and only ride in formation with other Harley riders. What some see as arrogance, Harley owners defend as commonsense. Anyone with a couple hundred bucks can buy himself a bike, but only someone who has 'made it' can afford the thousands it costs to get a Harley. They also wax eloquent about the respect and good sense of other Harley riders, in contrast to those who ride the latest knock-offs. Like every other animal on the planet, they seem to prefer the company of their own kind.

100 Years of Harley Davidson is a big, heavy, coffee-table sized tome of a book. Rich with photographs and illustrations, readers learn how Harley's early success came directly out of building superior racing bikes. The company survived the great depression and two world wars by winning military contracts, and their bikes' reliability and toughness during these years made the name upon which the brand now rests. I suspect that even critics of motorcycles (as health hazards, as noise-polluting civic menaces, etc.) would acquiesce on at least one point: these bikes are gorgeous. To gaze on Harley's 2002 VRSCA V-Rod, with its trim lines and taunt yet low-hung chasis, is to witness machine-as-art. This seems rather fitting for the breed in general, as the evolution of the motorized bicycle (witness the incredible Guggenheim retrospective in 2001) seems ever nearer to approaching the apotheosis of machine-as-sex.

Any fan of Harley Davidson, from the purported 640,000 H.O.G. members to the sweaty-palmed dentist feverishly contemplating buying his first bike, will enjoy this homage to the company. At a suggested retail price of $65, though, perhaps only someone who can afford a Harley would be interested.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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