Lionel on one of his bikes

The Italian Machine

By Salgood, February 20, 2011

So, why “The Italian Machine Project”? Lionel was Jewish after all…?
The machine in question was a bike, a Ducati Super Sport in a film that featured a fictional version of Lionel and captured a bit of the mythical version of him many remember.

The Italian Machine was actually meant to be a 60 minute long TV film for CBC before the head of CBC Drama removed Cronenberg from the editing of the final cut to create her own 30 minute long version, or so the story goes.

Cool, the CBC is hosting it on-line as part of their 75th aniversery! [thanks to Gary McKeehan for the heads up!].

“It’s central character is based loosely on real ‘legendary acid and pot dealer’, general trouble maker, writer and photographer, Lionel Douglas [played in the film by Gary McKeehan], who was killed in a freak motorcycle accident in 1979. It features an array characters all to familiar to me, and displays Cronenberg’s classic off beat approach to his subjects.”

“When motorbike fanatic Lionel learns that a rare and prized Ducati has been bought by a rich art collector purely for the purpose of display, he enlists the help of his friends to liberate the motorbike.”

I am a Cronenberg fan, so I’d have been happy to discover this film on it’s own merits as some of his early work. But that it stars a fictional version of my Father was a serious +. I was very happy when Film 4 posted it on their site for a while. I pulled a copy for myself at the time. The only other way to get it is via a rare anthology DVD of his short films i could not find locally and don’t have the means to buy online. The real Lionel, my father, was an interesting guy, i can see how he might inspire fiction. He has for me as well. This version is an exaggerated caricature, but I think I recognise the source material.

I’m told that the premise may have been influenced by a true story about a bike being displayed as art and Lionel’s reaction to the idea “how can they not want to make it go!!”. The other guys in the film with him are loosely based on people who he shared a garage with behind his house. I remember bikes in parts there, being worked on all the time, made to go a bit faster and bit smother, tuning till they hummed like instruments. And the giant tank of industrial green de-greaser used to clean your hands and chains, with it’s own pup action tap. Funny detail to remember, but as a kid I really liked that green stuff, and the way it smelled. And I liked the space. I think the loud sound of engines was too much for me sometimes, suspect i’d have run out when they fired up one of the bikes. But there was always lots of talk, jokes, arguments and laughter back there. And the smell of metal, oil, cleaners and gas.

That garage, and him talking with other people around the kitchen table about all sorts of crap, astrology to philosophy, these are probably the strongest aspects of my memory of my father.

He and Cronenberg were close friends I’m told, they went to university together and rode bikes out at mosport speedway a bit one summer. i don’t know if they bonded over it or if he caught it from my dad, but Cronenberg still professes a love of Ducaties.

Fun fact, did you know the the teleportation pods from his version of The Fly on a Ducati motorcycle engine? It’s the piston head and cooling fins turned upside down. Coincidently, shortly after i moved out from home i rented a studio on Dupont with a freind, it had been a prop building shop for a guy who worked for Cronenberg, and when we came to see the space before taking it, the Fly pods were there along with a bunch of other cool stuff from his films.

I personally don’t know Cronenberg, when Lionel died i lost touch with a lot of his friends. But i suppose i must have met him when i was a kid. My grandmother says there was a time when the two were inseparable, and my mother kind of remembers him though she didn’t really hang out with a lot of Lionel’s crowd. I’ve read that an early longer version of the film included an appearance by Gary McKeehan’s son as Lionel’s son in the film, me. But i was cut by the CBC i guess.

As i understand it, this film was meant as a little tribute to him. Lionel was a larger than life kind a guy; he left a mark on a lot of people. I love the name of the film, in subtext, it fits Lionel perfectly, if not ironically [not the least bit Italian, he was of Russian Jewish decent, with a touch of Turkish in the family tree I’m told]. I’m not sure if i’ll use it for the book project this site is parlty research for, hopefully Cronenberg won’t mind my borrowing it for now.