If the average professional sports telecast held a fraction of the charisma of a Bruce Brown production, the healing effect it would have on this great nation could scarcely be quantified. Balmy and unpretentious, soaring yet deeply approachable, the infectiously watchable style Brown pioneered with his sterling run of documentaries starting in the late 1950s introduced Americans to a new category of sports, and a new way of looking at them. An enthusiast of these so-called “action sports” in his own right—skiing, skateboarding, car and motorcycle racing, and especially surfing—Brown understood intimately their visceral thrill and their visual appeal, offering them to the audience not as pre-packaged trends, but as flashpoints in the continuum of an alternative way of life. The name he gave to that life, in his immortal 1965 surf documentary, was The Endless Summer, and he made living it and filming it look equally effortless.
With his follow-up, Brown seemed intent on pushing that effortless impression to its limits. His portrait of the motorcycle racing world, On Any Sunday (1971) is unavoidably entangled with an inventory of injury, embarrassment, and general physical wreckage. We witness racer Mert Lawill in a dogged fight to retain his American Motorcyclist Association’s #1 ranking, obsessively grinding down his bike’s engine components to shed extra weight, only to hazard into a disappointing (and curiously breakdown-prone) season. Meanwhile, a bodhisattva’s unfettered grin belies the shocks sustained to off-roader Malcolm Smith’s sciatica and groin as he traverses sadistic courses of deserts and mountains. Comparatively unscathed, Hollywood gearhead Steve McQueen trades less distinguished results for the fleeting anonymity of his racing pseudonym, Harvey Mushman.
McQueen’s inclusion proved integral to On Any Sunday’s financing. Even still, budgetary constraints found Brown jury-rigging a 12-volt camera with with 24-volt batteries to replicate prohibitively expensive slow-motion effects for some of the film’s most elegant (and, in the case of a Daytona Speedway crash, catastrophic) moments. Onscreen, Brown gives hobbyist tinkering pride of place, laying good-natured commentary over the colorful and hapless homebrew engineers riding custom-built monstrosities up a previously unclimbable hill, or chasing the land speed record on experimental bikes at Bonneville Flats. Technological advances (whether motion-picture or horse-power) improve the state of the art, but they also make it more accessible. Brown’s vision of the sport’s champions sharing race courses and screen time with weekend warriors is nothing if not democratic. It’s also a demystified antidote to the exaggerated hold of “outlaw biker” culture—from The Wild One (1953) to Easy Rider (1969)—on the American cinematic imagination.
Brown’s easygoing tone and affable asides seem designed to paper over the incumbent counter-cultural rift in 1971, and motorcycling’s associations with it. Vietnam is a non-concern for his many draft-age racers, whose taste for danger comes instead with the pursuit of point standings and RPMs. Their Las Vegas rides, contra a famous bestseller of 1971, are free of fear or loathing. And should Endless Summer’s surf-rock score have proved too cool, studio composer Dominic Frontiere’s kitschy orchestral theme aims On Any Sunday squarely at the hearts and minds of Middle America.
Selecting the film for his series at Anthology Film Archives this month, documentarian John Wilson signals Brown’s narration as an influential point of departure. It’s an influence that feels unlikely at first. Wilson’s voiceover in How To evokes the private eccentricities of an urban tang ping. With his broad, bighearted voice, Brown’s aspirations are clearly more mainstream. And yet both share an abiding capacity for wonder at the hands of their subjects, a capacity which can transcend specific topics and styles and—intermittently—make contact with the universal.
On Any Sunday screens tonight, August 24, and on August 27, at Anthology Film Archives as part of the series “John Wilson Selects.”