MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘Wild Wheels’: A Fun, Revealing Ride Into Car Artists’ Psyches


Harrod Blank’s “Wild Wheels” (Monica 4-Plex) is the ideal documentary: entertaining yet consciousness-raising. How many of us have ever thought about people who decorate or otherwise transform their cars? Who would have ever guessed that a survey of such people would reveal so much about the diversity of human nature--or, for that matter, about the enduring value of freedom of expression?

On the surface “Wild Wheels” is light-hearted fun, like the softcover books on eccentric Americana sold at the Soap Plant, but it reveals much more than one would expect about the impulse to express one’s self in as public a way as possible. In his first feature-length film Harrod Blank proves to be very much the son of Les Blank, veteran chronicler of American folkways.

Considering who his father is and the fact that for 10 years Blank has been driving a wildly painted 1965 VW decorated with tin flowers and a TV perched on top, it was perhaps inevitable that he would devote three years, traveling cross-country four times to 23 states, to filming 45 “Art Cars” and talking to their owners.

The range of car artists is amazing, cutting across race, gender and generation. Blank, who’s not sure why he was moved to decorate his VW, suspects that the practice began back in the psychedelic ‘60s, and sure enough, he includes Ken Kesey and his famous bus. Represented are sophisticated artists, such as Larry Fuente, who turned a 1960 Coupe de Ville into a fantastic, bedizened dragon as a comment on opulent American kitsch and turned a Kawasaki motorcycle into a “Cow"--asaki. Even more amusing is the 1971 Mustang convertible transformed by 600 pounds of brass-plated copper sheeting into a rhinoceros.


There are elderly, eccentric rural car artists, naturals for a Diane Arbus photograph, such as the man who, after a bout of insomnia, was inspired to cover himself and his car--and his guitar and even his mailbox and his casket--with buttons, and “The Original Rhinestone Cowboy,” who covered the interior of his house as well as himself and his car with fake jewels. Then there’s the man who glued 1,400 horses to his Buick Skylark to help himself recover from alcoholism, and the man who fought off grief over the loss of his wife by encrusting his car with semi-precious stones as a memorial to her. Some of the most pleasing vehicles are the simplest: an Oldsmobile paved with mirrors, a car covered entirely with real, live grass, a VW covered with 1,400 flashing lights.

Some individuals decorate their vehicles to express religious or ecological concerns, while some of the comparatively few women into car art seemed inspired by feminist impulses. One man, haunted by his memories as an abused child, covered his Datsun with toys to bring joy to children. The weirdest of Blank’s interviewees explains that he has made his car look like a spaceship so as to make “a psychic link with aliens.” Not surprisingly, some cars serve primarily as advertisements, such as a Cadillac decked out like a chicken in order to promote a family-owned fried chicken stand.

Blank touches upon the problems owners of such cars have had with vandalism, insurance and expensive repairs, but his main thrust is to celebrate freedom of expression. As he says himself, “Once you start putting things on your car you never stop.”

Playing with the 64-minute “Wild Wheels” (Times-rated Family) is K. D. Davis’ “Over the Hedge,” a whimsical 10-minute survey of garden shrub sculpture.

‘Wild Wheels’

A Tara release. Producer-director-editor Harrod Blank. Narration writer-director/sound editor David Silberberg. Cinematographers Paul Cope, Harrod Blank, Les Blank. Music consultants Charles Linville, Rex Doane, David Mayers, Jetsun Eddy, David Silberberg. Sound Jim Kallet. Running time: 1 hour, 4 minutes.

Times-rated Family (suitable for all ages).