TALES OF THE RAT FINK
(Ron Mann, US, 78 mins.)
"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement -- a surrealist in his designs."
-- Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965)
You've got to give props to any documentarian who steps outside the Ken Burns
box of archival footage + omniscient narrator + soporific soundtrack = high-minded hagiography. Granted, I found his Jack Johnson doc to be a powerful thing (and I've enjoyed other works), but the Burns family style -- see Burns, Ric -- is getting stale.
As befits a film about an unconventional character, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Toronto's Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) kicks the box to the curb, although not so far
that he reinvents or destroys the form. Tales of the Rat Fink is constructed from the expected documentary elements, but they appear in unexpected configurations.
Roth with the "Rotar"
First of all: the narration. Although Mann takes advantage of third-person commentary, most is first-person -- despite the fact that Roth, AKA Mr. Gasser, passed away in 2001. While it's becoming commonplace to string together old
interviews to create an eerie from-beyond-the-dead monologue, as in the Oscar-
nominated Tupac: Resurrection (A.J. Schnack's upcoming Kurt Cobain doc utilizes
the same technique), Mann does something a little different. In this case, Roth
fan John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) recites Big Daddy's life story as the man himself. Goodman's dry, gravely pipes are a perfect fit for Roth's eccentric image.
Mann moves further away from the box with the color commentary. Since Roth
was a car customizer, the picture is packed with hot rods and roadsters. They contribute to the narration. You read that right. Although the documentary includes lively animation, zippy graphics, and boffo sound effects, these are actual cars.
Celebs from the worlds of art, literature, music, movies, and television provide
the voices. The cars don't move, but their headlights pulsate as they speak.
Kudos to Mann for such an original idea. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well as Goodman's low-key narration. In fact, I found it distracting at first, but I got over it.
It's just as well, since the voice talent can't be beat: Wolfe, Ann-Margaret, Paul
Le Mat, Brian Wilson, Robert Williams, Matt Groening, and Tom and Dick Smothers. Huzzah! Further, Tales of the Rat Fink corrects a problem I have with many documentaries and docu-dramas -- it provides context. So much so that it serves more as an overview of an era, Southern California in the 1950s and '60s, than a portrait of a personality. Sure, I learned a few things about Roth -- and Goodman does his bit to bring the guy to life -- but I never got a feel for what made him tick.
When Tales played Seattle this fall, the consensus seemed to be: If you're a gearhead, check it out. If you're not, take a pass. I beg to differ. As a Dr. Fiberglass of the chassis, Roth was an artist as surely as Von Dutch, Sailor Jerry, and other California cats who inked, airbrushed, silkscreened, etc. Whether the surface is a
car, a T-shirt, or the human skin, it's all still art, and I enjoyed the film on that level.
Along with Vancouver instrumental quartet the Sadies, Mann goes out of his
way to fill his frames with an irreverent look and sound that reflects Roth's gonzo aesthetic. It may not be "fine art," but I prefer films about outsider artists anyway, like Sick (about "supermasochist" Bob Flanagan) or In the Realms of the Unreal
(about Henry Darger, whose work is currently on display at the Frye Art Museum). Tales of the Rat Fink may not top those two, but it's a welcome addition to the fold.
"The big paintings that are sitting in the art
galleries now...they're hanging on a wall and
they're not groovy. If you can apply that grooviness
to what's happening now -- that's where it's at."
-- Ed "Big Daddy" Roth on Kustom Kar Kulture
Roth with the "Druid Princess"
Shout Factory releases Tales of the Rat Fink on 11/03/06 -- just in time for Christmas gift-giving. And who wouldn't want a green, warty, bug-eyed rodent in their stocking? Because that's exactly what Roth's mascot Rat Fink, the anti-Mickey Mouse, looks like. Granted, I'm a bigger fan of the Mouse than the Rat -- especially in his Sorcerer's Apprentice guise -- but I'll take the Mighty Fink over the Minnie Mouse anyday.