Tales of the Rat Fink
November 28, 2006
Ron Mann is a Canadian filmmaker who specializes in documentaries about alternative culture; be it comic books with Comic Book Confidential (1988), a famous dance craze with Twist (1992) or marijuana culture with Grass (1999). His latest film, Tales of the Rat Fink (2006), playfully profiles Ed “Big Daddy” Roth who helped popularize the customization of cars in the 1950s. Roth saw automobiles as much more than just modes of transportation but rather blank canvasses just waiting to be adorned with his stylish artwork or to be rebuilt from the ground up in his own unique way.
From an early age Roth had a natural aptitude for this vocation with strong grades in auto shop and art. He loved tinkering with cars and this interest quickly developed into a passion. He was a maverick that wasn’t interested in being part of “square” society and went from drag strip racing to customizing cars with the pivotal meeting with Von Dutch, the first person to pin stripe cars. Roth knew he had met a kindred soul and together the went into business giving cars all sorts of cool custom paint jobs, like flames, that made them look fast even when parked. Soon, Roth and Von Dutch’s work was in high demand.
Fed up with the way cars looked and were being designed in the 1960s, Roth began building his own cars with fiberglass bodies. This material allowed him to create his own distinctive looking vehicles. He became a one-man industry, making t-shirts with his whacked out artwork (Tom Wolfe described him as “the Salvador Dali of the custom car culture.”) and models of his cars that became a huge hit with kids. He was smart in that he realized that the money lay in merchandising. The revenue from that allowed him to build his own cars.
Mann does a fantastic job of taking us back to the ‘50s with period music and plenty of archival footage. However, his documentary is far from traditional as he has Roth narrate his own life but voiced by actor John Goodman. Mann also gives several classic cars their own voice as they tell their own story and how they contributed to hot rod car culture. It’s an unusual move that takes a little getting used to but for those who have seen Mann’s other documentaries it is merely a natural progression of his idiosyncratic style – kind of like Roth himself.
Mann animates still photographs and instead of having someone drone on about the different kinds of paint jobs, shows it through stylized animation techniques and footage of cars being customized. Throughout it all, he has Roth’s most famous creation, Rat Fink (his answer to Mickey Mouse – a bright green mutant rat – whom he had grown tired of and created a symbol of everything that was cool and dangerous about the hot rod culture), bridges each segment via animated interludes and accompanied by the surf music of the Sadies. Tales of the Rat Fink does an excellent job immersing us in the custom car culture, how it came to be and its distinctive characteristics. This documentary takes a nostalgic look back at a time when cars had their own distinctive look; they were works of art – something that is missing today in our current homogenous culture. Its unorthodox approach may put off some but it does mirror the gonzo the look of Roth’s artwork and takes it away from the stuffy confines of traditional documentaries.
“Big Daddy Lives!” is a rare, archival interview with Roth who talks about how he designs cars and the criteria he used to do this. This extra provides fascinating insight into the man and his work.
“Ratfink Reunion.” To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Rat Fink, Roth and Von Dutch did a customized paint job on a car together. It’s great to see these two artists doing what they do best.
“Big Daddy’s Garage” features galleries of his rough sketches for t-shirt designs, stills from the 2006 Detroit Autorama that featured a collection of many of Roth’s classic cars, samples from the Rat Fink comic strip, and other artists’ interpretation of Rat Fink.
“Interview with director Ron Mann.” A friend turned him onto Roth’s work in the 1990s and in 2000 he decided to make a film about the man but when he died suddenly in 2001 Mann shelved the project. A few years later, he got the idea to tell Roth’s story from the point-of-view of his cars.
“Deleted Scene” is a brief clip that shows the Rat Fink merchandise explosion with model kits, t-shirts, hats, etc.
Also included is the theatrical trailer.
Finally, there is a music video for the Sadies who provided the music for the documentary. It’s animated and features Rat Fink with members of the band.