Car follies: The roads are paved with lunatics

April 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

If you are what you drive, what is the guy who drives a car made of grass? Yes, grass: This guy has a car made of grass. He and his wife dress up in grass suits, roll in the grass, then get up and get into their grass car and go for a drive. This is an American fact. It is true.

And then the Button Man. This gentleman has an automobile covered with more than 17,000 buttons. Not campaign buttons or smile buttons or I'm-the-NRA-and-I-Vote buttons, but just old-fashioned, you know . . . buttons. He has clothes covered with buttons, shoes covered buttons, hats covered with buttons and a guitar covered with buttons, with which he accompanies )) himself on a little tune titled, "I'm the Button King!" Who would dispute him?

These masterpieces of American eccentricity are the essence of Harrod Blank's mild-mannered but profoundly amusing "Wild Wheels," a documentary playing at the Baltimore Film Festival tonight at 7. The best thing about it is that, like the cars (45 of them) it chronicles, it has no point. It simply is, take it or leave it, and I certainly enjoyed taking it.

The "art car" phenomenon is clearly quite limited and no favorite of American law enforcement. People who drive cars that look like explosions in neon factories appear to get a few more tickets than the rest of us. But it takes the custom car movement, brilliantly pictured by the legendary Tom Wolfe years ago in a piece that began the so-called "New Journalism" of the '70s, and blows it so far beyond the horizon it's hardly recognizable. These aren't souped-up hot rods (indeed, performance is not the issue) but museum pieces on wheels.

Why do people do such things? Does the cliche, 'Different strokes for different folks,' explain anything? Would it explain, say, the gentleman who had a dream about a car made of wrought iron and woke up determined to make it so? He picked a Volkswagen Beetle because the engine was in the rear and, as he explains without a trace of self-consciousness, "See, that way the gasses and the smoke wouldn't blow up into the passenger compartment."

Lack of self-consciousness is the stylistic essence of "Wild Wheels." Since Blank himself drives a flower-covered VW with a broken television on the roof as an extremely deep comment on the fatuity of American culture, it never occurs to him to phrase the questions that might occur to someone who drove a stock Accord, like: "What the hell is this all about? Really, a '71 Mustang convertible that has been re-engineered to resemble a hippopotamus? Are you nuts?"

In the world of the art car, there is no why. There is only is.

MOVIE REVIEW

What: "Wild Wheels."

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

When: Tonight at 7.

Admission: $6 for general public; $5 for Baltimore Film Forum and Baltimore Museum of Art members.

Call: (410) 889-1993.

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