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Tales of the Rat Fink

2006, Starring John Goodman, Ann-Margaret, Tom Wolfe, Matt Groening. Directed by Ron Mann (Sphinx Films).





An iconoclastic painter, cartoonist and industrial sculptor who inadvertently shaped everything from modern car design to graphic illustration and marketing concepts, automobile " Kustomizer" Ed " Big Daddy" Roth is the pinstriped patron saint of hot rodders everywhere. Integrating the Universal monster resurgence of the 1960s with the emerging car culture, Roth created iconic drawings of crazed " monster drivers" with bloodshot eyes and wagging tongues, feverishly clutching gearshifts from atop their tricked-out dragsters. His most indelible creationthe filthy, green-skinned rodent Rat Finksomehow clicked with a nation of car- and creature-obsessed kids, and continues to endure as a gleefully obnoxious symbol of everything bizarre and unique.

Toronto-bred pop culture aficionado Ron Mann has explored the social history of North America in engaging films like Comic Book Confidential Twist, and Grass, but his documentary on Roth's life, Tales of the Rat Fink, may be his most focused effort yet. It's an unabashed celebration of the artist's life and work that illuminates the legendary figure and firmly places him within in the Kustom car movement of the late 1950s and early '60s.

Mann first announced his intentions to make a doc on everyone's favourite Rat Fink way back in 2000, but when Roth unexpectedly passed away the following year, he was left to make a film without the participation of the originator himself. Inventively, Tales of the Rat Fink solves this problem by doing away with the concept of talking heads entirely. Instead, John Goodman steps in to narrate as though he's Roth's monocle-clutching spirit watching from up above, with additional commentary provided by Roth's wildly inventive car creations, who fill in the remaining details via celebrity voiceover.

Unlike most rubber-burning drag racers, speed was primarily a visual aesthetic for Roth, who could make your ride look like it was tearing ass even when it was just idling in the parking lot at Bob's Big Boy. When Roth's own tricked-out hot rod began to turn heads down on the strip with its colourful exterior and hand-painted lettering, the fledgling artist took on a few freelance assignments, adding flamed-out side panels and elegant pinstripes to give his friend's vehicles a personal flair. His personal passion ultimately became a national obsession when car culture reached a critical mass, and Roth's unorthodox, unpretentious designs suddenly made him an unlikely spokesman for budding grease monkeys across the country. He printed his monster drawings on undershirts for car club members—virtually inventing the silk-screened tee-shirt in the process—and lent his image to model kits, comic books and more. Eventually, Roth began to construct one-of-a-kind, way-out motorcars like the Beatnik Bandit, The Orbitron, and Rotar before the fickle public deemed his aggressively unsophisticated style a fad and moved on to the next big thing.

Mann's last pop culture doc, Grass, made frequent use of animated sequences that bridged between each " chapter" of the film and became a distraction of sorts. On the other hand, Tales of the Rat Fink, merges bold, attention-grabbing animation directly into the stylized narrative, creating a cohesive, relentlessly energetic and undeniably entertaining film. As the story unfolds, animator Mike Roberts sends bouncing cut-and-paste photographic elements careening into computer-rendered zipping pinstripes, and newsreel footage colliding with vintage hot rod B-movie cheese, giving the doc a crazed, speed-addled quality that fits in nicely with Roth's gonzo graphics. Likewise, the celebrity-voiced  talking cars (including Jay Leno, Tom Wolfe, Matt Groening and Robert Williams) works better than anticipated, complementing the frenetic visuals of the film and using humor to keep the tone light and enjoyable.

For the most part, Mann concentrates on exploring Rat Fink's mantra of " It's okay to be weird," but in many ways Roth was about more than just celebrating individualism, he was championing a distinct, DIY aesthetic that sneered at the Detroit automobile designers. As Roth got hold of a revolutionary new material called fiberglass, he turned away from simply adorning pre-fabricated automobiles to build a new breed of vehicle from the ground up—a fundamental shift that put the tools of production into the hands of the craftsman, flat out rejecting the assembly-line culture that had dominated the country since the industrial revolution. It's this idea that is far more pertinent in Roth's self-mythology, and the primary reason that he is still relevant today—especially since the rise of cookie-cutter Pimp My Ride-style customizing.

Rather than a straight-up, objective documentary, Tales of the Rat Fink is really nothing more than a heartfelt tribute to Roth, but Mann's enthusiasm and reverence for his subject translates well on screen. While gearheads already familiar with Roth's wildly conceived illustrations and wide-ranging influence probably won't pick up anything they didn't already know, everyone will appreciate Mann's dynamic visual style and respectful treatment of a truly unique artist.


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