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Automorphosis: Presented by the Maryland Film Festival Saturday, July 19, at 8:45 p.m., in the parking lot across from the Charles Theatre

July 18, 2008
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I realize the following confession is tantamount to heresy around these parts, especially during this time of year, but I hate art cars. Hate. Loathe. Can’t stand. Actively despise. I understand the personal-expression aspect and nonconformity of the enterprise and not being another zombie cog in the mundane birth-work-pay taxes-death machine, but all I see when I look at art cars is a car. It’s not that I don’t think it is art–I accept anything as art that wants to say it is. It’s merely art that has nothing to say to me.

Which is why filmmaker, photographer, and art car artist Harrod Blank deserves the following praise. The California native–and son to the great documentary maverick Les Blank, a tireless chronicler of traditional music and the director of the superb garlic doc Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers and the now legendary short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”– got turned onto art cars in the early 1980s, and ever since he’s become an advocate of the enterprise. And as in his 1992 Wild Wheels, Blank’s new documentary Automorphosis is wisely less interested in gawking at the art cars themselves than getting to know the people who create them.

Automorphosis starts off with Blank in autobiographical mode, explaining how and why he got started creating his own art cars. It’s not an indulgence; it’s a preface for what’s to come: a refreshingly human look at the individuals who have decided, for their own reasons, to turn their cars into mobile expressions of their obsessions, their vulnerabilities, their passions, and their joy. Automorphosis includes some of the more famous unique individuals–mentalist Uri Geller, “Salvation Mountain” folk artist Leonard Knight–but the movie’s most compelling figures are its ordinary citizens: the German immigrant who loves hamburgers, the golf player who turns to the copper in pennies to alleviate his arthritis, the severely burned stock-car racer who started collecting horns so as not to become a hermit, the patriotic World War II vet, and the simply unstoppable “Spoon Man.” (No irony there: Few things this decade may surpass the unexpected, blithe joy of the “Spoon Man” rapping. Seriously.) Art cars themselves still do little for me, but Automorphosis is a wonderfully sincere look at a small swathe of humanity that has decided to make art cars. A must see.

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