22 June 2016 | JohnH9
Choices and consequences, living in the fringe Bike Courier culture
A lone bicyclist pedals in slow motion, light reflections glisten off rotating spokes, as beside the rider, city lights reflect off shop windows, themselves reflected off shop windows. The first thing you notice is the profound filming technique. The Alley Cat is illuminated with artistic precision, using insightful application of light, shadows, and color, the scenes are inviting, sometimes enchanting, and the city is vibrant. Bicycling has never looked so good. The opening riding scene is intermixed with a brief emotional and engaging discussion between two woman. We don't yet realize that the films protagonist, Jasper, is being introduced and partially defined in this brief prelude.
Next we see Jasper, a Chicago bicycle courier intently riding, this is not only a statement of her job, but also of her culture. Bike Couriers have become a fringe culture, centered around people who love and excel at bicycling. It is young, dangerous, low pay and physically demanding. Couriers closely bond via shared experiences, dangers, honed skills, and shared physical activity, much like a sports team, or military unit.
The film primarily occurs in two halves, the race-and the post race ride, both largely, and masterfully defined via bicycling. The film name derives from a bike race created by couriers, racing through city streets to check points. The race serves as a backdrop for presenting Jasper's choices and the rigid dilemma created by them. Events during the Alley Cat race will play a vital role in triggering the second half of the film - post race. As Jasper rides, we 'hear' her narrating her thoughts. Ullrich brilliantly captures the introspective nature of bicycling here, allowing generous time to filming the act of riding. Her choice of actress, Jenny Strubin, makes a perfect fit. Strubin has a compelling screen presence, is intense, often serious, and contemplative. Strubins role is often essentially that of a silent actress, conveying her emotions via expression, here she excels at the difficult task.
Between the race and post-race segment, we experience significant changes in illumination. During the race, when all is bright and glittery, and post-race, darkness prevails. Following the Alley Cat race, Jasper's face is almost consistently shrouded half in darkness.
While Jasper presents a sympathetic character, she is not without fault, we see that she is suffering in her dilemma. Yet while she is the victim of her circumstances, she is also the author of them. Jasper struggles with hard emotional issues. Yet she cannot fully recognize her own flaws, so she relives them ride after ride, never seeing the full truth that is spoken to her.
With all it's ramifications, Jasper has unintentionally become the resolute and complete cyclist. Her existence, her very DNA resounds with riding, human interaction has become secondary. Time and again, she makes excuses in order to avoid people in favor of riding. She routinely neglects meaningful contact even those she would most wish to bond with.
The story is brilliant in it's logic and understanding of human nature, of the exuberance of riding, human frailty, of human interaction and self actualization.
But there are some story flaws, a side plot of a race-cheater is hinted at,yet never brought to fruition. Other than Jasper, most characters are thinly defined, some, almost literally, are props in a race. Jasper's lone post-race ride treads finely between the intended drama and a caricature of a dystopian 'Wizard of Oz'-like journey, with a series of strange, yet unpleasant, encounters along the way. Of course that is not to say there are filming flaws. I don't like to mention budget as a factor in film quality, but this film clearly transcends budget significantly. This is not 'four people in a room talking' or a 'monologue in a car' as so many lower budget films are. This has a large rich cast, vast amounts of movement in a wide ranging area. It is a full road movie, and no budget could improve the filming. That said, it certainly would be interesting to see what Ullrich could do with a multi-million dollar film fund.
All in all, Marie Ullrich's 'The Alley Cat' is spectacular, animate, living art, she has done an amazing job of portraying the feel and introspective nature of bicycling, she's created a character who will haunt the imagination long after watching and re-watching the film. Jasper becomes one of those iconic figures, like Mad Max, Solomon Kane, Hyakkimaru, who run on endlessly to fight their monsters.