PART 2 of 3
In Part 1 we talked to Chengdu resident Carl Parker about his experiences traveling solo on a 150cc motorbike into remote areas throughout Xinjiang and Tibet. This issue we continue the interview with his thoughts on the film he made during and after three summers of solo travel. Employing what he calls "motography," the film, titled The Return, is essentially a one-man show, entirely shot, narrated, and edited by Parker.
So what's up with "motography?" Motorcycling and photography—how did you get into these things?
I've only been riding motorbikes for six years. It started in the U.S. I Frankensteined my own Magna together, and after I got that up and running, I pretty much knew that was it ... . I knew riding was the thing, and to me, it's the next best thing to flying. It's basically like dancing down the road.
Photography—that actually is something I can largely say is due to China itself. I became aware of how fast things were changing here. If I, or anyone, has the ability to travel in this country, it only makes sense to take as many good shots as you can. There is a practical side to it too: The more things change as time goes by, the more value photographs acquire. Mixing the motorcycle riding and the photography together into what I call "motography" ... it's a cheesy name but I love it.
What's it like filming yourself while riding?
That's actually a really important aspect of it—trying to do your own filming. The first [ride] was just clips wherever I felt excited, so I'd be riding and holding the camera out here. By the second time I decided I needed to start tripod work, getting myself in front of the camera making commentary. Behind the camera you're a technician; in front of the camera you're a performer. You pick the shot and then you set up the shot and then while you are doing the whole process you're thinking about the light, the angles, where am I going to stand? If I stand in this frame, where is my head going to be? If I set up the frame, and I stand right here, am I gonna waste five minutes talking to a camera headless?
[A fellow biker, who engineered the film's sound] summed it up—that probably the most difficult part when you're riding alone is you fall in love with your privacy. You can feel lonely, but you also love this freedom to not have to ask anyone else, "So what do you want to do?" [There's no] "I don't feel like doing this today"; you do feel like doing this today, and that's one of the biggest benefits of riding solo.
[Solo filming] is really weird, because you have to mentally set up and capture yourself on camera—there's no directing. It's all spontaneous commentary. It's weird to look at yourself, and it's weird to hear yourself, and then it's weird to edit your own footage looking at yourself. And the whole time, you're sitting behind your computer getting fat while you just want to get out on the road. That's some kind of torture.
How much distance do you usually cover on a trip?
Usually when you are on the road, you don't really have much time, so you really just have to kind of push. If you're riding a 150[cc], you can cruise about 60 kmph flat out on good roads, and you are coving over 8,000 km in one month. You feel the pressure when you get back on your saddle, and what's even worse [is when] you have to stop [because] you're like, "This road is nice." You gotta stop, undo your bags, get out the tripod, get out the camera gear. ... Is this going to be a video? OK, you take out the video camera then ... do it, ride it, ride out, ride back, make sure it's OK. If it's not OK, you have to readjust the camera angle, ride out, ride back, check if it's OK. Check any other angles you could get while you're here. And then you get back on again. ... [I]t takes time, and it breaks your mental rhythm. When you ride and you ride for hours you get into a rhythm: like fresh air—smack!—wind—smack!—sun—smack!—rain—smack! You are constantly hit with the environment. It's invigorating to me.
What's your goal with the movie?
I want the movie to educate and show people the parts of China that are largely unseen. I want people to hear a story that has a little bit of philosophy in it, a little bit of some reflection, self-honesty. I want to encourage people to go visit these regions—and it doesn't have to be by motorcycle—because they are special, and they are changing. Ultimately what I want is more people to go out there and have experiences and make personal films and movies.
You assemble all these ideas and your experiences into one unified work with the music—it's blood, sweat, and tears in that movie, straight on. There are parts of it where I'm just showing chi fan, or I'm just giving you some geological facts about the desert or the wild camels—I want to keep those parts in there because I think that they're informative. But towards the end of the film all these experiences come together into something that I think is greater. And it's simple. And it's crude. But it's still unique, and it's its own creation.
Some of your friends also helped out with the making of the film—[Chengdu band] Proximity Butterfly, for instance ...
I wanted to make this a film that had some good, strong music in it. I don't like seeing films that are like multi-million-dollar films—you put on this music and it's just this very neutral, innocuous kind of music, know what I mean? Like it's music, and it's got a rhythm and it's got a beat, but there's not really much else there. There's no energy; there's no drive, or if it's sad, there's no real sadness ... it's got to have emotional impact. I wanted it to have visual impact. I wanted it to have educational impact ... . The film wouldn't be anywhere near the same if it hadn't been for the impact of their music throughout the whole thing, especially at the ending.
What kind of feedback has the film received so far?
Overall the response from the public has been incredibly positive. I get e-mails ... if someone said that it helped put them back to a level, balanced state of mind, a healthy perspective on life, that's important. And then I've got lots of people that love it because it shows them a part of the world that they never really knew anything about. Then there are some who are just like, "Well, man, you can do this—I can do this too!" And you can't really ask for much more than that. I mean, sales would be nice ... .
Are you planning to make any more movies like this?
I think it's a completely unique creation. If I wanted to make another film like it, good or bad, I couldn't do it, because the creation of the film is intimately tied with the experience. I can't replicate the experience—I wouldn't even want to. I mean, I would—but not for the sake of making a film. I will go out there again and take pictures, but I don't think I want to break my bones just to make a good film. ... When a piece [like this] is created, it's created with an awareness of a certain time—either a certain time in your life or a certain time in history or a certain time in the culture and your skill levels are at a certain level at a certain time. To a certain extent you have to let the work go, and you have to move on to the next kind of project ... How about a fictional film based on motorcycling?
Like Easy Rider?
Similar. But I got crazy little ideas, like using serious animation. It doesn't have to be purely guy on film riding down the road on a motorcycle meets some villagers and hangs out and they give him tea and everyone is happy. And then you think about how my life in America is so different from their lives and you can really get into the psyche of a human being out in that kind of vast environment, where you are really exposed and the feeling of isolation is great, but with that feeling of isolation there comes a feeling of connectedness.
Being out in that landscape also allows you to get access to a pretty wild mindscape as well and the contrast of lifestyles between, for example, in a place like that where you have to rely on things like intuition and your gear, and you don't have a lot of support, just besides the people you meet, which is plenty—in contrast with living in New York, working in a cubicle. It would be cool to have some way of showing almost a psychotic brick between these two mindsets and those lifestyles and the things that worry people in these certain kinds of situations.
In the final Part 3 Carl talks about China's position in the global motorcycle market—and gives his advice for fellow motorbike travelers.