'It's difficult to go against the grain,' says Harrod Blank early in this documentary about art cars. He knows that from experience, having turned his 1965 VW Beetle into an art car called Oh My God!, while believing that he was the only one to do something so weird. Yet he made it through the inevitable isolation and alienation to discover that he was far from the only one, that he'd unknowingly tapped into an American tradition, one that has become an increasingly important component of his life. When I moved to the US in 2004, I didn't see a lot of eccentricity, at least not the sort that people live and breathe. In England, every town has an eccentric or two to spice up everyone else's lives. My local eccentric was named Jake Mangelwurzel, a colourful character who rode around on a bike with a toilet on the back, married his dog and lived in a house with a moat and a car on the roof. Not having someone like Jake around makes life quieter and sadder.
Automorphosis revealed to me that there are indeed eccentrics in the US, beyond the folks who simply live on Route 66 or build the world's biggest something or other. Not everyone in the film is an eccentric, because if Blank does anything beyond fill 76 minutes with a wild menagerie of colourful and imaginative art cars, it's to seek answers to the simple question of why someone would choose to do this and he found many such answers. Some are eccentrics, sure, but there are almost as many different reasons to get into this obvious community of creators as there are people to have them. For some it's a compulsion, for others it's therapy. Some want to make a personal statement with their vehicle, others use theirs as commercial advertisements. For some it's an extension of who they are as a person, while others are simply artists painting on metal. A few cross a line to create behemoths that must cost a fortune to run and may not even be legal.
Blank is obviously passionate about his subject, this being only the latest in a body of work that has taken him a long way. When he realised that he wasn't the only person with a vehicle like this, that there were others around the country with their own art cars, he began to photograph them and eventually put them into a documentary, called Wild Wheels, which was picked up for repeat broadcast by PBS, bringing publicity to this community. As he explains in this film, more and more art car owners emerged, showing up to his screenings with their vehicles. Inevitably for a son who followed his father, Les Blank, into independent filmmaking by obtaining a degree in theater and film arts, he ran with it, creating Driving the Dream, a preview of this film that ran 29 minutes but grew into this feature length documentary. He co-founded a gathering, the Art Car Fest in San Francisco, and is currently creating a museum called Art Car World.
We learn about Harrod Blank in Automorphosis by looking at others and realising that they're in much the same situation that he is. For most of the colourful characters he introduces to us, and he shows us many such people, this has become a life, a vocation, a definition of who they are. In fact that's the biggest success of the film, working well as a smörgåsbord of art cars, a riot of imagination that decorates the screen throughout without ever becoming boring. Many creators get a little time to explain why they did what they did but nobody gets much. There are poignant moments and a few dynamics that run through the film but there are no opportunities for any of them to get particularly in depth. This is an introduction, an ambitious and wide ranging one, but still just an introduction. I get the impression that if you get hooked on the idea after seeing this film it'll become a gateway drug that may drive you all the way into Blank's next art car film.
While Automorphosis often feels like a scrapbook or a cabinet of curiosities, there is some subtle planning behind it if you look beyond the surface. There's a growth to what we see, that may in some way mirror a neophyte's journey into the world of art cars. Initially customisation manifests itself through paint jobs, like the tartan car, the Mondrian car or the car striped like a zebra. Then objects begin to appear on the vehicles and here we start to see differences. It's obvious that for some people it really isn't specifically about cars, it's about everything. Sure, the button king has a car that's covered in buttons, but he has a coffin and an outhouse done up the same way. We aren't told which came first, but at some point it took over enough to warrant a trademark. Harry Sperl drives a cheeseburger trike because he lives Americana, even though he's German, but he sleeps in a cheeseburger waterbed too and has shelves of them in porcelain.
These folks didn't interest me as much as those for whom their car is their first and perhaps only creation, especially when there's obvious dedication to their personal statement. They don't look professional, they look real, outward manifestations of inner selves. Ratgirl Cheri Brugman aims for a horror/scifi theme, with her car adorned with severed heads and dead babies, plus fire that breathes out of the bonnet. To her the vehicle is a way of fighting depression by demonstrating who she is and validating that through shock factor. The gloriously gloomy Rebecca Caldwell built a Carthedral, a 1971 Cadillac hearse with a Volkswagen Beetle on the roof, all done up with stained glass and ornate embellishments. It isn't surprising to find that she lived in it for a while, because it's as truly original as she is. She ended up finding both isolation and belonging at the same time. These women drive their creations, maybe not every day, but enough to be real.
I could easily go on about the other sights you'll see in Automorphosis but just a list of the art car aficionados who appear in the film would be as long as this review is already. There's one in the end credits that runs and runs, reinforcing the lesson we learned during the film, the same one that Harrod Blank learned many years ago, that in an increasingly plastic, uniform world, there's still room for individuality, imagination and creativity. He ably demonstrates this by bookending his film with children, suggesting the cars they want to drive when they grow up. At the outset, it's the brand names you expect, relecting only what commercials tell them is cool, but after the film wraps, it's pure imagination. That's what I took away from this film, not the parade floats or advert cars, not vehicles that are truly obvious in hindsight, but the unique visions of dedicated individuals that are both outsider art and a much needed affirmation that originality isn't dead.
Automorphosis begins a theatrical run at FilmBar in Phoenix on the evening of Thursday, 17th March, with 7.00pm and 9.00pm screenings and a Q&A from director Harrod Blank. There will be art cars present, though I don't know which. Blank is Californian but given that his Art Car World is in Douglas, AZ, there could be quite a few interesting vehicles on show.