If you happened to wander by the Guild Cinema Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you might have seen a van parked outside with hundreds of brass ornaments and trinkets and $15,000 in Susan B. Anthony coins soldered to its body.
You might have also seen a little sedan painted entirely in the style of Mondrian, and a Volkswagen bug covered with CDs, vinyl records, and functioning instruments (drums, a guitar, and a keyboard).
“Automorphosis,” a documentary film by Harrod Blank, examines the trend of car art, and it does so with little pretense and a lot of soul.
“Automorphosis” is, in more ways than one, about therapy. It’s about feeling trapped and car art’s unique ability to force one’s identity out into the world (what better art gallery than the open road?). It’s about loneliness, and how car art can help affirm one’s existence by bringing laughs, joy, shock and surprise from others. This is what perhaps drives Blank, whose famous “camera van” (which is exactly what it sounds like) is able to literally capture the faces of awe and delight as the vehicle passes.
Its most significant finding, perhaps, is that there is no generally applicable reason why people all over the country are expressing themselves creatively through their automobiles. Everyone who does it is different. The goal of “Automorphosis” is to explore, and revel in, the diversity in car art.
The beginning of the film is at once humorous and poignant, explaining that corporate advertising alone defines most people’s taste in cars. A little girl says she wants a Corvette because it’s “sexy;” a little boy wants a Chevrolet truck because it’s “rugged.” There’s no “personality” in a car, the film asserts, that hasn’t been predetermined by its marketers. Car art, then, is a way of injecting one’s sense of self into a largely lifeless object. It’s a way of turning what is considered a simple tool into an actual form of expression in which people can find meaning.
The examples the film gives are numerous, and they range from hilarious to endearing to heartbreaking.
There’s Elmer Fleming, the “Spoon Man” from South Carolina, who drives a truck with spoons nailed into the exterior simply because he enjoys the attention, and likes to make people smile.
There’s Carolyn Stapleton who glued discarded cigarette butts onto her VW beetle and called it “The Stink Bug” to send an anti-smoking message.
Then there’s Steve Baker, who covered his van with pennies, believing that being surrounded by copper would help his arthritis.
More than anything, it seems car art is about finding oneself in a way that is also engages others. As Harry Sperl, proud owner of a motorcycle shaped like a hamburger, puts it: “I like to confuse people. It keeps me alive.”