During the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, Hilde De Roover and I spent a day together while her boyfriend Cis attended to his world cinema program. We watched Miike Takashi’s, The Happiness of the Katakuris, which was mercifully less brutal than his other films in the program that year. After the movie, we both needed a break from the festival and decided to walk through the city. We stopped in the old center, the little that had survived the German bombing in World War II, and sat in a café to eat pumpkin soup.
Hilde and I had been born a month apart in 1963 and we’d enjoyed an easy rapport during the year since we met; we jokingly referred to each other as ‘brother and sister.’ Our lives had travelled in remarkably parallel paths, so it felt as if we'd known each other a long time. The conversation turned to our current relationships, hers with Cis and mine with Jenny. We’d both fallen in love in our early twenties with people who had left us at thirty. Hilde recovered from her disillusionment in Seville, Spain; I described my trip to the Greek Islands, regaining my confidence at the peak of Tinos. We admitted that the relationships of our thirties, in reaction to the disappointments of our twenties, were exalted friendships with admirable, smart, generous people . . . whom we didn’t love romantically. Hilde thought as she approached forty that perhaps she was ready to upset the status quo again to be in love. I replied that I’d done my time in the love racket and the best I thought life could offer now was the cautious partnership I shared with Jenny. It began to rain and we paused to watch a dozen umbrellas opening simultaneously outside, as in the opening credits of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Back in Minneapolis after the Rotterdam Festival, Hilde and I met more often. Cis travelled frequently for his work at the Walker Art Center and, when he was out of town, Hilde would call me to have a drink or see a movie. We watched Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge at the Heights Theater in Northeast Minneapolis late in its original run. The Heights was built in the 1920’s and its Beaux Arts interior had been recently restored. An organist played Tin Pan Alley repertoire before the movies and descended on a hydraulic lift into the floor, turning to acknowledge the audience’s applause as the curtains on the screen opened. The Heights was the ideal location for the baroque, self-aware fantasy of Moulin Rouge and we literally cheered at this unapologetically excessive romp through the musical pop culture of our youth.
We met another friend for a drink after the film and raved about it to him, (quoting from “Nature Boy” - to love and to be loved in return) while he studied us with an interrogatory expression. The next time I saw him, he asked bluntly, “Are you and Hilde having an affair?” Genuinely surprised, I responded, “Are you crazy? She lives with Cis. I live with Jenny. We’re friends and we have fun together.” But his question suggested a dangerous thought to me, “If I have this much fun with Hilde as a friend, what would it feel like to be involved in a more intimate relationship with her?"
Six months later Cis, Hilde and I began a playful bicycle race, ‘Tour de Force,’ that would alter the next chapter of our lives. I documented the events in my 2010 film Bike Race.
Lance: And Eddy and I started to have a repetitive argument about the best bicyclist in the world.
Hilde: Lance Armstrong or Eddy Merckx.
Lance: ‘Cause Lance Armstrong equaled the record of the famous Belgian from the 70’s, Eddy Merckx.
Hilde: In number, not in heart and bone.
Lance: So we adopted their names and Eddy and I were out for a casual bike ride and he started riding faster and I started riding faster and then pretty soon, without knowing it, we were racing. And I said, “Okay, let’s just have a race to decide actually who’s the champion, Eddy or Lance, and we’ll set up routes that are mapped in advance.
I played Lance Armstrong in the drama and Cis was Eddy Merckx; Hilde acted as the reporter interviewing the racers, recording the audio footage that would later provide the narrative structure for the film.
Hilde: It’s the first race of the Tour de Force. How are you feeling?
Lance: The wind is strong and I’m a little concerned about the first leg of the race being directly into the wind, but all in all I feel confident.
Hilde: Okay, Eddy?
Eddy: You know, the first race is always touching and feeling, as they say. So we touch and feel and I’m sure he will see more my back than my front.
Hilde: Okay, the wind in the back. Good luck.
Our mock-nationalistic arguments about Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong initiated a low-stakes, playground competitiveness, which evolved into a Jules and Jim love triangle for which the consequences were suddenly more significant.
Lance: Between the third stage and the final stage of the Tour de Force there was a party and, in a way that was typical for Eddy, he encouraged the two of us to dance together.
Hilde: We danced and danced and then the two of us were on the floor on our belly, the top of our fingers almost touching each other.
Lance: And between our hands was a crack in the concrete, like a barrier. And then your pinky came creeping across the line and touched my pinky.
Hilde: With energy and electricity and warmth for me.
Lance: Our hands began to get closer and closer to each other and start to touch each other.
Hilde: Just the fingertips . . .
Lance: Just the fingertips at first and then eventually a whole hand was in a hand and you had an enormous smile on your face. And I just looked in your eyes and I said, “This is actually happening.”
On September 27, 2002 Hilde and I crossed a line both literally and figuratively, acknowledging that we were in love with each other. During the final stage of the bike race a few weeks later (in the small town of Ghent, Minnesota) Hilde and I confessed to our partners what had happened and we rode away together from the bike race in the backseat of a car.
Lance: We were driving away from Ghent, Minnesota and I was being jostled about in the backseat feeling kind of sick, but I was holding your hand.
Hilde: And I looked up at you and I said, “Well, I hope we like each other.”
I've wondered a few times in this collection of essays . . . how do films shape our expectations for romantic love? Hilde’s line at the end of Bike Race captures our circumspect approach to love’s second act in middle age. The tone of Hilde’s sentiment reminded me of the end of The Graduate when I first heard the audio. Dustin Hoffman’s character has willfully disrupted the wedding and fled with the woman he loves, a successful gesture of romantic myth-making. The two lovers sit in the rear of a bus and the camera dwells on them longer than is customary, longer than is comfortable. Both the characters and the audience are given time to consider, “now what?” Reputedly, Mike Nichols didn’t rehearse the actors for that shot. He started the take and simply didn’t call ‘cut.’ The discomfort that Nichols elicited from Hoffman and Katherine Ross is authentic. The uncertainty of the future emerges, the knowledge that after every action, no matter how thrilling, a mundane ordinariness inevitably ensues. In the anti-heroic story the measure of character consists, not in achieving one’s expected goals, but in the confrontation of self that occurs in the emptiness that follows that accomplishment.
I waited seven years after the events to make Bike Race, hoping that Cis would give me permission to use Hilde's audio recordings from 2002. It was obviously a much less happy story from his point of view. Cis gave a magnanimous ‘thumbs up’ and I supplemented the original documentary footage with that of Hilde and me reflecting back upon the race from the vantage of 2009. I edited the story from these recordings and then brought in drummer Dave King to improvise in response to the audio; I was making a sequel-in-spirit to Bike Ride and wanted to reproduce the style of the earlier film.
Acting and storytelling in an animated film occur for me with a pencil, drawing in response to an audio track. When I started blocking out the character performances against the sound with gesture drawings, it was surprisingly easy to conceive of my own life as a movie. The thematic relationships in Bike Race felt like a premeditated literary form, the structure of the race reflecting the parallel dynamics of the love story. It was as if the life that was the material for the documentary film had itself been written. In self-consciously performing the theatrical melodrama of the race, Cis, Hilde and I were perhaps playing out our subconscious destinies.
In the essay “Scenes from a Marriage,” I suggest that Sayer had written the end of our marriage as a script and had handed it to me to read; this was clearly an act of semi-conscious will, of creative work as wish fulfillment. But who wrote Bike Race, the beginning of my second marriage? Life wrote Bike Race. It’s a documentary film. But then, I presumably wrote the film in the act of editing the sound and animating the performances. After playing my role as actor in Sayer’s script, I apparently learned the lesson that it’s better to be the author of one’s own story.
I presently think that Sayer’s film about the end of our marriage was itself a documentary. Her script derived from the same process of thematic discovery that I pursued with Bike Race, but her writing anticipated and motivated events, rather than organizing them after the fact. Furthermore, Sayer’s script now appears to me to be the first act of the documentary film that Hilde and I have been continuing to make over the last fourteen years. From this perspective, we are continually writing ourselves and our relationships into being, at the same time that we are being revised by those we know and love.
Does life perhaps have its own internal aesthetic shape, unrecognized beneath all of the seemingly unrelated daily events and apparent only in recollection? Or is my awareness of this order entirely a function of my own desire for meaning, an imposed narrative fallacy that helps me to understand my behavior? I currently like to believe that my partnership with Hilde was always fated to be, that we arrived at the crossroads toward which our individual paths and histories had been leading us; that at least is the script of February, 2016, a snapshot pulled from the flow of time. I also know, that just as the present revises the meaning of the past, so too will the future ultimately rewrite this present story.