Kar Gawk

Ron Mann's adventurous RIP for hotrod artist and icon Ed Roth

Kar Gawk

"I just drew the cars. Once I got 'em to a point where they looked right, I stopped and drew 'em again out of glass and steel." So said the legendary King of Southern Kalifornia Kar Kulture, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth. If you were alive in the Sixties, then you're already familiar with Roth, the artist/mechanic who created outrageous rolling art out of two-bit jalopies and newfangled fiberglass, thereby securing a place on the American drag strip that's never been equaled, rivaled, or forgotten. But, if you're new to Roth's peculiar art, well, Ron Mann has you covered.

One of SXSW Film's favorite directors (Grass, Go Further) has made sure that no one ever forgets Roth and his righteous designs by making the artist the focus of his new documentary, Tales of the Rat Fink, a 500cc turbo-charged, extra-leaded experiment that promises to blow the lid of those krazy kar kreeps once and for all. The Chronicle spoke with Mann earlier this month as he put on the film's finishing touches.

Austin Chronicle: Rumor has it that this isn't your average Ron Mann film, and since we haven't had a chance to screen it yet, what do you say to that?

Ron Mann: Well, yeah, this film is very weird. It's not even really a documentary; it's a hybrid of animation and film. Instead of interviewing people, we interview cars, so that these cars tell the story of Ed's life.

AC: It's docu-mation!

RM: Yes! Absolutely: That's exactly right. John Goodman plays Roth and narrates his life from heaven. Jay Leno's in there, Tom Wolfe, Matt Groening, Ann-Margret, Billy Gibbons, Robert Williams – they all play cars. We just use their voices, and they tell the story of Ed's life and the history of hotrodding. It's pretty weird. We don't know if I've smoked too much marijuana or not enough, and I'm not really sure myself, but it's definitely a stoner film. I don't know what to make of it, to tell you the truth, but Austin audiences will get it, I know that.

AC: Who've you got doing the music?

RM: We've got this all-girl band, the Sadies, that did the soundtrack – over 40 cues – and they're going to be coming down and playing the Continental Club the night of the show. Tom Wolfe might even make it.

AC: You've mixed animation and live-action before – on Comic Book Confidential – but the vibe I'm getting from you is that Tales of the Rat Fink is working on a whole different level.

RM: It's the first film that I can say that I haven't a clue what I've done. Even in the mixing booth, and this is a 35mm 5.1 mix on the film, the mixer turned to me and said "Do you have any idea what you've done?!" And, in a way, I was kind of clueless. When you see the movie, it's like Fantasia meets Devil on Wheels! To me – I'm at heart a cultural historian – the film is about an important part of our lives in that period after there was kind of a craze for taking these old jalopies and seeing how fast they would go on the dry lake bed. And, then, when that got too "dangerous," the cars themselves were painted to look fast, and the whole movement of custom-car culture moved into the realm of art. It's something that's pretty important to talk about as we come to the point in car culture that we've sort of ended up at. I mean, you look at the cars today, and they're kind of going back in a way to a certain type of finessed look.

AC: You can't help but think that if Detroit had patterned some of their designs on Roth's work they might not be in the bind that they're in today.

RM: That's the thing: Roth was ahead of his time. His cars now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They're like rolling sculptures. There's a whole generation of kids today who are working on their cars, and he's inspiring them to ... to ...

AC: Go further?

RM: Yeah! Right! That's funny, too, mainly because of Go Further, people have kind of tagged me as a filmmaker who's pushing the environmental message, and now here I come with this big car movie. But, really, in a way, hotrodders are great environmentalists, because they're taking these old junkers and rebuilding them over and over and restoring them instead of using them as landfill. In fact, the animator, Mike Roberts, is going to be looking for an old hotrod while he's in Austin, something that he can take back and work on in his garage.

AC: You've got a history of bringing films wet to South by Southwest. How much more work do you have to do on Rat Fink?

RM: Plenty. I've been pretty much burning myself out working on it. I've hit the wall and flattened a couple of times trying to finish this thing. So many people love Ed, and, ultimately, that's what it is: a loving tribute to Ed Roth. And it's really funny! In my very quirky kind of "Ron Mann style." end story

Tales of the Rat Fink

World Premiere

Saturday, March 11, 9:45pm, Paramount

Monday, March 13, 11am, Paramount

Friday, March 17, 4:30pm, Paramount

From the Archives:

The Merry Hempsters Hit the Road

Ron Mann and Woody Harrelson's 'Go Further'

The Toronto International Film Festival

A first-timer's diary

How You Became a Criminal

An interview with Canadian documentary filmmaker Ron Mann about his newest film, Grass.

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