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John Goodman never had a chance to own a flashy car. When he first got excited about hot rods while growing up in St. Louis, he was too young to drive.

"Cars and girls were out of the question when I was in junior high school," he says. "I could talk all the lingo, but I didn't know what to do with a wrench in my hand."

By the time he could drive, other interests surfaced, like football. By the time he was famous and could afford one, he didn't want the extra attention of a flashy car, he says. But nostalgia for his old fascination came back when he was spotted by legendary hot rod builder and counter-culture pioneer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth during a car show in the Louisiana Superdome in the late '90s.

"He came right up to me and said he wanted me to play him in a movie," Goodman says. "He gave me all these hats and T-shirts and a Rat Fink doll and we just started talking."

Roth inspired generations of young hot rodders, and he was also a talented artist who helped launch the underground comics movement and the careers of other artists such as Robert Williams. He's even credited with creating the first individually painted message T-shirts. As a teenager, Goodman was inspired to copy Roth's comic book images on T-shirts with Magic Markers and sell them to friends.

"The first one I did was called 'Beaver Patrol.' I sold it for 50 cents," he says. "The next morning, his dad was at my door and made me take it back."

Although Roth passed away in 2001, Goodman serves as his voice in Tales of the Rat Fink, which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and will play this week at Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center in advance of its opening in New York and Los Angeles. Directed by Ron Mann, who freely adapted Roth's autobiography Confessions of a Rat Fink, it details Roth's creative years from the 1940s through 1965, when he created outrageous cars and was part of a growing alternative art scene. The animated documentary film includes voiceovers by many other car-enthusiast Roth fans, including Jay Leno, Matt Groening, Brian Wilson, Ann-Margret and Robert Williams.

"Ann-Margret still rides a lavender flower Harley," says Mann.

Mann and Goodman were both childhood fans of Roth and underground comics, Zapp comics and Mad Magazine. Mann also had forgotten about his early hobbies until he went to an art exhibit in Dallas in 1999 and saw one of Roth's paintings. After tracking down a copy of Roth's autobiography, he decided to do a project documenting Roth's multimedia talents. The creator of Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Grass (1999), Mann has made a career of documenting underground and outsider artists and culture.

"The history of the 20th century is audio-visual," he says. "If it isn't on video, it didn't happen."

Ironically, Tales features very little film of Roth. The only footage of him comes from an appearance at the Reno car show Hot August Nights a couple of years before his death in 2001. Tales combines still shots with animation by Michael Roberts and vintage footage of hot rodding in movies and on television.

Hot rodding was a product of the post-war years.

"Vets came back and they were still looking for the thrill of death," Goodman says. Many veterans were extremely skilled mechanics and they started working on contemporary cars or older Fords, like the arcane looking Model A's, and reworking their engines for speed. But the driving age in California was 14 and teenage boys also got excited about working on cars. Roth was just 12 when he started driving.

Reworking the chassis into more muscular and flashy bodies also became part of the craft. The hot rodders didn't like the blimplike curves on the massive vehicles Detroit was producing. Turning assembly-line pieces into unique vehicles became a wide-open working class art form. They were pimping rides 50 years before MTV got into cars.

Youth culture grew around both racing for speed and cruising. California authorities started cracking down on drag racing on public streets, and hot rodding took on an outlaw status. The place of the car in youth culture was set and would later be chronicled in movies like George Lucas' American Grafitti.

After serving in the military for several years, Roth returned to California in the mid-'50s, started a family young and opened his own car shop. He was one of the first hot rodders to start painting cars to make them look fast even if they were standing still. Flames and pinstriping became part of the scene.

Roth was a gifted illustrator and began drawing individual T-shirts for guys in cruising clubs. He would draw a cartoon of someone's car and then add a comically grotesque monster driving it and add a nickname. Before that, T-shirts were underwear, and it was enough of a statement for James Dean or Marlon Brando to wear plain white ones in the movies. Roth's shirts were popular with drivers and immediately kids wanted to wear them, too.

"Kids liked them because their parents hated them," says Mann.

In 1960, Roth created a sort of alter ego in the Rat Fink. Just like he loathed Detroit's lack of style, he hated Mickey Mouse for his banal corporate persona. As an anti-Mickey, Roth drew a vulgar, sweaty, hairy rat with bulging eyes. Mann's documentary shows footage of Steve Allen, the television host who coined the term Rat Fink, but that's not the whole story.

"It was 'Rat F***.' He told me that it always was Rat F***," Goodman says. "Mickey Mouse was such an impudent stooge."

But even toned down, many kids loved the image and that built interest in everything Roth did. With his signature goatee and creative flourishes, he had an appeal for different generations. Hot rodders liked his cars and kids wanted his T-shirts and any comics with his name attached. Mad Magazine eventually made Roth into a serialized character. Roth took the money he made from shirts and comics and poured it into new vehicles. Fiberglass enabled him to craft his own auto bodies and he started building cars completely from scratch, striving for ever more absurd shapes.

The circle fed itself as Revell, a toy model producer, started to offer replica versions of Roth's cars, including his first fiberglass breakthrough, which he called "Outlaw." Roth's hot rods were the only models that were not replicas of mass production Detroit cars.

Many kids identified with Roth's characterizations.

"Growing up, you identified with Roth because outsiders fit in," says Mann. "He made being weird cool."

But Roth wasn't merely rebellious or an outsider, his work was generally commercially successful (though Roth himself never became wealthy) and at the same time was aesthetically inspired. Tom Wolfe, who makes an appearance in the film, recognized the phenomenon in his chronicle of the early custom car shows, which first appeared in Esquire Magazine and later as the book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. In it, he called Roth the Salvador Dali of the movement. He is probably one of the most famous artists to spend so much time in a mechanic's garage.

Detroit also recognized Roth's talents and he became a star at car shows, even after the absurd dimensions and failure of the Rotar, a space-age vehicle that was supposed to generate a cushion of air. Roth seemed to know no artistic or mechanical boundaries as he devised new cars. He fused retro features like the huge chrome grills and molded lights of old cars as well as designing new space-age and even asymmetrical shapes crafted out of fiberglass.

"I thought we would all drive to work in bubble cars someday," says Mann.

The film is an adoring portrait and follows Roth's career through its heights, celebrating his successes and his eccentricity. Mann chose to animate the evolution of hot rods by having celebrities voiceover personalities of different vehicles. The treatment is a little too whimsical, but captures the ways in which people tried to transfer personality to their cars. And it reflects how people became enamored of a lifestyle built around cars and cruising. The Beach Boys wrote "Little Deuce Coupe" about one of his cars.

The film doesn't delve into why Roth articulated an outsider identity and doesn't spend much time on his divergence from the counter culture. For many teenagers, the guitar and rock 'n' roll became more interesting than hot rods, but Roth also turned his back on hot rodding. He thought hot rod design was perverted for a television audience and lost touch with driving. Though he had paved the way for non-conformism, he never embraced the political side of hippie culture.

Mann says that Roth claimed to have no sensational personal issues, and the movie barely touches on his family life, his five sons or his divorce from his first wife. It also stops well before his conversion to Mormonism. But Roth never lost his interest in designing cars and continued to go to car shows. He was even enlisted as a consultant when Chrysler created the hot-roddish PT Cruiser.

Mann's film is a portrait of the artist as an overgrown kid hooked on cars and drawing gross cartoons in the margin. While Roth helped legitimize hot rodding and started other counter-culture movements, he kept moving and never got pegged as a relic of any particular moment in time. There's something pure of spirit about Roth himself that gives the film a feel-good aura.

"Ed was a visionary -- he was someone who always looked forward," Mann says. "He was a dreamer. That's why he inspired so many people."

TALES OF THE RAT FINK 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thu., Sat., Sept, 20-21, 23; Tue., Sept 26

Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Art Center, 1724 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 525-2767: www.zeitgeistinc.

click to enlarge Ed Roth holds the model version of his early fiberglass- - bodied masterpiece The Outlaw. - SPHINX PRODUCTIONS 2005
  • Sphinx Productions 2005
  • Ed Roth holds the model version of his early fiberglass- bodied masterpiece The Outlaw.
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