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Doc Explores American Car Culture

26 Aug, 2006 By: Holly J. Wagner

Rat Fink (above, with Roth) 'made being weird cool,' said director Ron Mann.

When Ed Roth gave himself the nickname “Big Daddy” for commercial purposes, he never dreamed he would end up the father of so many trends.

But it was “Big Daddy” Roth who pioneered hot rods, cruising, dragsters, custom auto paint, T-shirts with images and logos — nearly all the elements of American car culture that live on today in the form of dubs, spinners, pimped rides and logo clothing — before he died in 2001.

Growing up in Toronto, director Ron Mann was among the legion of youngsters who idolized Roth and his counterculture cars and caricatures, especially Rat Fink, Roth's green, hairy, bloodshot-eyed, fly-swarmed Garbage Pail Kid version of Mickey Mouse.

“We just dreamed of California,” Mann said. “It was the music of the Beach Boys, singing about little deuce coupes, this car of mine, those songs really made me want to move to California. And Ed Roth, I would drool over magazines [that featured Roth's cars and drawings] like ‘Car Toons.' I would go and buy Rat Fink models and wear Rat Fink rings. It was the anti-Mickey Mouse. I think you identified, as a kid, with Roth's monster graphics, mostly because your parents hated them. He sent a message out into the culture that being weird was cool.”

Tales of the Rat Fink (Shout! Factory, prebook Oct. 6, street Oct. 31, $19.98) is his tribute, but it's also a fun ride through American car culture from the Model T to Route 66 to hot rods, dragsters and street racing.

It traces the history of custom cars from the post-World War II era to the end of their mainstream heyday, as well as Roth's enduring influence on far-flung aspects of popular culture.

But even if viewers don't remember the American Graffiti days, the edgy, animated presentation sets this movie apart from typical documentaries. John Goodman voices Roth (in the form of a floating, cutout head) to narrate the film. A handful of stars, including Jay Leno, Ann-Margret and the Smothers Brothers supply voices for museum-piece cars. When Mann sought Goodman for Roth's voice, he had no idea how easy it would be to bring him on board.

“I called John up to lend his voice to Roth and his agents called me back in 10 minutes, and he agreed to do it,” Mann said. “When I met John on the set, I asked him why he agreed. He was a fan, and Roth was a hero to him. He went to a car show in New Orleans to get Roth to sign his models and stuff. When he was leaving, Ed said to him, ‘One day you are going to play me in a movie.’

The film's playful structure of surreal image juxtapositions, contemporary teen-film clips, iconic car ads and newsreels — all stitched together with modern animations — helps capture the innocent rebellion of the era and Roth's iconic status among 1960s youngsters.

“It was how we moved from squareness to awareness,” Mann said.

“Roth led to this awakening that happened for a lot of people. Every kid kind of related to the graphics, the eye-popping monsters. It paved the way to the '60s.”

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