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Road and sound

[This article is in no way intended to inspire the acts it describes.]
It began with Rendezvous. The film was lesser known by the full title: C’était Un Rendezvous (‘It Was A Date’). The director, Claude Lelouch, was arrested after its first screening. The film went underground. It was coveted and passed between a knowing few. The film entered the realm of myth and shadows.

The film is simple. It opens to the sound of a beating heart in the blackness as a tunnel approaches. At the end of the Port Dauphine tunnel on the Paris Périphérique we are belted around the head by the primal scream of an engine. We are the eyes of the driver who we do not see. The only soundtrack is of the engine, tyres, gearbox and exhaust. It is shot in a single take. It has no dialogue and no commentary. We never see the face of the driver or the make of his car. The onboard camera is attached to its front bumper. The only narrative is the passing of bitumen and blurred Parisian landmarks. The car roars through red lights as flocks of pigeons take flight. It veers across the width of the streets on the racing line at speeds well over the limit. It slices through traffic up onto the curb and down one-way streets in the wrong direction.

After nine minutes the car slides to a stop. The anonymous driver climbs out and embraces a woman who is standing there waiting for him. It was a date. Other than this brief nod to narrative the film is just road and sound.

The mythology grew. Who was the driver? Why was this filmed? Was the director really arrested?

The story goes that Rendezvous was filmed at 5:30 one morning in August 1976. Lelouch attempted to get official permission to close the streets that formed his route. He was denied permission, so he shot early morning during the Parisian holiday season to minimize the risks involved with other traffic. Lelouch later told officials the person behind the wheel was a Formula 1 driver. For some time it was assumed the car itself was a Ferrari 275 GTB, as suggested by the soundtrack. It had a gyro-stabilised camera mounted on the front bumper. The short length of the film was due to the physical limit on the reel of film (ten minutes) that could be installed in the camera with this setup. No special effects or alterations to the film were employed.

At one crucial corner near the L`ouvre, Lelouch arranged for an assistant to stand with a walkie-talkie. The assistant, Elie Chouraqui, was told to use the walkie talkie if he spotted traffic which could endanger themselves or the public. The driver hurtled around the blind corner having received no word from Chouraqui. He later learned that the walkie-talkie stopped working before he showed up.

In an interview with Automobile magazine (2003) Lelouch confessed that there was no Formula 1 driver. He was the driver:

‘They took a look at the film, and the chief of police called me in,’ Lelouch recounted. ‘He read me a list of all the offences I’d committed. It was never-ending. When he finished, he gave me a black look and asked for my driver’s license. He contemplated it for a few moments, then gave it back with a large smile on his face. He said, “I promised I would take your license, but I didn’t say for how long.” I was stupefied. It was a symbolic punishment. Then he added, “My children love your little film.’’’

The Physics Factbook lists his top speed at 220km/h, three minutes into the footage. Lelouche said that the top speed attained was more like 140km/h. The soundtrack was indeed of a Ferrari 275 GTB, though it was overdubbed upon images filmed with a Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9. Some fans took issue with the fact that Lelouche overdubbed the soundtrack. It seems odd for Lelouche to demystify, when it was mystique that carried his film. It had been hailed as an towering example of the power of cinema verite.

The facts behind the film are less interesting than its force. In one review, it was noted that:

 Over the years, C’était un Rendezvous has come to represent something more than an adrenalin rush. It uniquely captures a time and a spirit that seems a long way away from today. Politically incorrect, anti-establishment and overflowing with a primitive passion – it is everything the bureaucrats hate. Which perhaps explains the cheers and whoops of delight at recent screenings.

 Rendezvous was bound to spawn imitators. One pale version was a YouTube video directed by Jeremy Hart titled The Fast and the Famous (2009). In it the comedian Jay Leno takes a Mercedes-Benz AMG SLS Gullwing on a sedate spin through the hills of Los Angeles. Leno discusses Rendezvous in his film, and spoils the whole thing with inane banter. Rather than speaking through the language of the engine, we have Leno’s explanations. Rather than anonymity we have celebrity. The film cuts to his face in the cabin.

The premise of Rendezvous descended into comical farce at the hands of the Slovenian artist Janez Janša. His film C’était Un Rendez-vous Déjà Vu (2007) is a direct remake – retracing Lelouch’s route and mimicking its style. As with Lelouch’s film, his piece runs for nine minutes and features the roaring soundtrack of the Ferrari. To anyone who has gaped at Rendezvous, Janša’s parody might bring a laugh. Instead of strapping a camera to a sports car, Janša strapped his camera to the shell of a tortoise. Domenico Quaranta writes:

The camera’s point of view..is much closer to road level, and at the end of the video, when the vehicle stops and we come face to face with the waiting date: not an attractive blonde this time, but a tortoise. According to Janša, the remake was filmed with the camera mounted on the shell of a ‘Golden Greek’ tortoise, accompanying its ‘race’ through the streets (at a speed which never exceeded 0.32 km/h) and then compressing the film to 9 minutes. Like in the original, ‘red lights are ignored, one-way streets are violated and centre lines are crossed.’… Even the breaches of the highway code appear comic, when the perpetrator is a tortoise which has to be directed and protected by a team of crouching helpers, who take on not only the Parisian traffic, but also the comprehensible protests of the police, traditionally insensible to the demands of art.

At the heart of these films lies a ludicrousness. To place rationale upon them in terms of a ‘race’ or ‘art’ or ‘cinema’ is missing the point. The loving reunion at the end of Rendezvous makes it clear that the film is the antithesis of rationale. It is incomprehensible to the mind – it speaks to the heart and the gut. Rendezvous is a film about passion. As it is passion that fuels the irrationalities of love, so it is passion that fuels the urge to drive at deadly speeds down the racetrack, or the road.

The public were distracted by the facts of Rendezvous. Janša brought out the comedic ridiculousness of it, and sought to defuse the fear with farce. Others took it more seriously.

The torch of illegal driving films was taken up by Le Prince Noir –‘the Black Prince’ (aka. ‘Pascal’). In September 1989 this Frenchman, who never revealed his true identity, filmed an obscure piece of underground cinema on the Paris Peripherique. He took a Kawasaki ZXR 750 motorbike on a high speed trip around the Paris ring road. He completed the 35km lap in 11 minutes 4 seconds, at an average speed of around 190km/h. This feat would have gone unknown if not for the fact that he strapped a video camera to his fuel tank and filmed it. The Black Prince avoided debate over speeds by including the speedometer within the frame of shot. The speedometer shows he reached a top speed of over 250km/h in morning traffic.

As with Rendezvous, the film was only known about by a small group of fanatics until its resurgence via the internet. Information on the character that made it remains sketchy and sparse. There were rumours he was killed in a repeat attempt. However contacts have reported to a journalist that the Black Prince remains alive and has never been caught.[1]It may be that the best tactic for the criminal, as for the artist, is to do what we do and to keep our mouths shut.

Rumours of death also surround the Black Prince’s more well-known successor, known as ‘Ghost Rider.’ Ghost Rider did a similar run on the Paris Peripherique, that clocked in at 9 minutes 57 seconds. The comparison was debatable, as Ghost Rider’s run was done at night, with less traffic and a superior machine. In response he began doing his runs in broad daylight.

Ghost Rider cultivated his own mythology through his moniker and the title of his first offering to the genre of illegal first-person perspective driving film: The Final Ride (2002). He is clad entirely in black — helmet, tinted visor and leathers. He rides a black Suzuki GSX-R1000 K5. His films have been described as ‘a continuous traffic violation.’ Like the Black Prince, he includes the speedometer within the shot. It’s nonetheless hard to say how fast he’s going. The speedometer stops at 299km/h.

Ghost Rider deliberately antagonises the police, goading them to give chase. In one filmed incident he was chased by six police cars and a police helicopter. The figure weaves through the law as if it were traffic. In Sweden a person must apparently be caught in the act to be charged for their offences. He rides without licence plates and at speeds that deter pursuit. For a time he was on the top ten most wanted list in Sweden – at number 1. He said: ‘the police know who I am and what I do. But they are still not a hundred per cent sure of my identity, so they can’t do anything.’

Ghost Rider has styled himself as a comic book figure brought to life. In the Marvel comic books, Ghost Rider is a supernatural stunt rider, infused with the spirit of a demon, who rides in a blaze of hellfire. The real-life figure who gave himself this name similarly skirts the realms of the heroic and the damned. As one commenter notes:

 Ghost Rider has built up a myth that seems destined to endure: There are many in the motorcycle community that believe the real Ghost Rider died in an accident in 2005, whilst some of Stockholm’s youth claim with conviction that he really is a ghost and can ride through walls to evade police.

We need a villain of the road. We need a villain to distract us from the times we might accelerate through yellow lights, or speed just a bit when we’re late for work. We need him so that we might nip home just around the corner after that one too many, and look at him to say: at least I’m not doing that. In our hypocrisies we are holy.

There is no moral or legal justification for doing a wheelie at speeds in excess of 300km/h in heavy traffic. But it’s there – as potent a symbol of reckless defiance to life as you’re likely to see on film.

The world record for the fastest motorcycle wheelie is held by Patrick Furstenhoff, who is associated with a group called the Swedish Wheelie Team – a group of motorcycle stuntmen. His record wheelie was at 346km/h. Motorcycle News and PB Magazine have both printed claims that he’s the man behind the visor of Ghost Rider. Others say there might be several professional motorbike riders who have played the part on camera – including Joakim Karlsson who was killed in May 2005. Whoever it is they’re likely to keep their head pulled in.

The faceless style of these first-person movies serves several purposes. If you’re going to involve yourself in illegal high-speed hijinks on public roads you don’t really want your face to be part of the performance. Anonymity also facilitates the creation of rumour and mythology, which is crucial to the financial success of these films. And for the viewer the first-person perspective brings us on board for the ride, to give us the untainted eyes of the driver.

The figure weaves through traffic with a supernatural sense of foresight. To misjudge the sideways movement of a car changing lanes is to invoke the fiery death of himself and of innocent strangers. The rider overtakes traffic faster than the traffic passes objects standing still. Gaps seem to open up before him, as if the rider does not merely see the road, but what is about to happen on the road – a fraction of a second before it does. Sometimes the impression is no longer of speed, but of an odd sense of stillness. You can see in his reactions that the rider is calm. There’s grace and precision to the movements that may be borne of madness but also, undeniably, of skill.

These are movies engineered to impassion. Their first-person perspective ensures this. Our mind tells us that these people are lunatics. The tales of death that surround these figures stem partly from the incensed belief that it’s impossible to survive such a thing. It inflames us to have our better judgment denied, and to see that for some, doing such things, and living through them to harm no-one, is at least possible too.

Judgment finds its truest expression in facelessness. The blank visor of a riding helmet, as with the comic book superhero or the villain, is a mask of shining anonymity that reflects only a vision of one’s self.

Most describe these films as the crazed acts of dangerous maniacs, who should be stopped. Sportsbike riders have said they give everyone a bad name through adolescent antics that should be kept to a racetrack, where those present have at least the right of choice.

The figures themselves make little attempt to justify their actions. In response to the controversy surrounding Rendezvous, Lelouch is reported to agree with those who accused him of putting his own life and other’s lives in danger. He did it anyway, seeing this as an acceptable risk. Lelouch points to contingencies he had in place to abandon the shoot the moment he saw it as dangerous to the general public.

Ghost Rider shares this view of minimising risk. He says that ‘to ignore the dangers is to be more dangerous.’ Rather than maniacal heedlessness, the figure explains that a team of 15-20 people were involved in one European shoot, including a doctor and assistants with walkie talkies to report oil on the road or trains or congestion at an intersection:

When people tell me I am a potential murderer, I would like to point out that in three years, there has not been a single accident… It’s obvious that I take risks, but as I said before, we try to limit risk as much as possible. There will always be a potential risk of accidents, but until now, I accept this element of risk.

 When asked how he thought other people think of him he responded: ‘hopefully, that I am an idiot. An entertaining, dangerous idiot. I’d hate to think of anybody copying me.’ He acknowledges his conscience by saying ‘my worst nightmare is that I should hurt somebody with my riding. Worst nightmare, I mean that. Christ, I don’t know how a man could live if that were to happen.’

Ghost Rider has apparently been involved in community programmes to educate young motorcyclists, and seems genuinely concerned about the likelihood of being imitated. From trawling evidence on internet forums about Ghost Rider I’ve seen scant evidence of anyone looking at his actions in these terms. The consensus seems to be that he is an anomaly – the ‘entertaining, dangerous idiot’ in his words – whose actions are deemed too insane to be imitated.

In Australia, 68 per cent of us have witnessed illegal street racing on public roads.[2] It is difficult to say what impact these sort of illegal driving films have on driving behaviour. My personal reaction is one of fascination rather than any urge to imitate. With the illegal Cannonball runs in the United States, the drivers were ‘warmly received by the press and public alike, rather than being condemned for being reckless.’ Ghost Rider says ‘many responded [to his films] by saying it’s dangerous or criminal, but they look at the pictures until the end.’

They appeal to anyone who’s been stuck in traffic, with a simmering demon on their shoulder and an inkling of freedom in a foot pedal. They appeal not because we applaud them, or would like to imitate them, but because it’s the sort of thing we’ll never do in real life.

It’s said that Ghost Rider began making his films as a reaction to another offshoot of Rendezvous – the Getaway In Stockholm series. This series is also filmed in Sweden and involves cars rather than motorbikes. It was claimed that the Getaway In Stockholm films – which depict illegal road racing with mounted cameras, and luring the police into high speed pursuit – were staged. However similarly to the Ghost Rider films they involve anonymous (and apparently professional) drivers. They also share a penchant for soundtracks featuring terrible, tinny electronica, and narration you wish would be drowned out by the roar of an engine.

In an interview, one of the protagonists, who calls himself Mr X, was asked if the films have any ‘message.’ He responded: ‘A race track in Stockholm would no doubt cool the interest for a sequel.’

[Interviewer] Everyone understands that you place entertainment value ahead of people’s safety. How would you feel if a close friend or relative to you was run over by a maniac?

[Mr. X] That would, of course, be a tragedy.

[Interviewer] Were you ever hesitant about being involved with this film?
[Mr. X] No.

Neither Mr.X nor any of the Getaway In Stockholm team has ever been caught. When asked what the police could do to catch him his advice was simple. ‘Supercharge their cars.’[3]

The backlash needed a face. It found it in August 2002 when a nine year old girl and her seven year old friend were on a pedestrian crossing in Helsinki Finland after shopping for school books at the start of semester. A 32 year old male driving an Audi S3 Quattro was allegedly speeding and ignored a red light. He hit the nine year old who was thrown 20 metres. The girl could not be revived. Copies of the Getaway In Stockholm movies were found in the driver’s glove box. It turned out he was an importer of the movies. The man served nine months of an 18 month sentence.

If the people involved in making these films make scant attempt at justification or rationale then that’s because there is none. Passion for speed exists in the absence of rationale. It is as irrational as attempting to climb K2, or making a sculpture, or typing these words. It is as irrational as any passion. If the sculptor was to put the lives of others at risk then we’d call them a dangerous idiot too. Instead they toil in obscurity, and we call them nothing.

These films are street art and they are madness. In the simplicity of road and sound they communicate only the sensations which impel people to commit these acts in the first place.

It is passion for our obscure little pursuits that gives shape to our lives. Not our reasons. Passions that some would reduce to numbers on a speedometer, or a stock market report, and which others would live deliberately. To learn like the lines of a roadmap in order to forget again, and then so master. A baseless chase for the roar of the insignificant that can be our fuel, or it can be our fireball. Some make it more literal than others.

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Thomas Rye is a 32-year-old writer based in Melbourne. He writes mostly non-fiction stories. His work has appeared previously in Island, Overland and Wet Ink magazines.

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