Beyond the Multiplex

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" will get you all revved up. Plus: A terrifying ground-level view of life in occupied Iraq.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 29, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

We're bullish on America yet again this week here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ. OK, that's a lie -- as the latest crop of indie films demonstrates, our country is trapped in a slowly worsening nightmare in Iraq, and its energy policy (try to say that phrase without snickering) is pretty much being set in the boardrooms of Big Oil. But, hey. It's shaping up as a terrific summer for movies, even if you have only the vaguest idea that somebody, for some reason, made a new Superman film.

"A Prairie Home Companion" is now such a big hit ($12.6 million and counting) that dozens of theaters across the country are holding "Rocky Horror"-style singalong screenings. Yes, that's unbelievably dorky and sweet, and no, I'm not making it up. (Not sure if this has reached the stage of props and costumes yet, or snappy comeback dialogue.) Beyond the other obvious hits for the Dockers-wearing, Sauvignon Blanc-swilling set -- chiefly I mean "Wordplay" and "An Inconvenient Truth" -- all sorts of other, even less likely films are doing surprisingly well.

Larry Clark's positively cheerful skate-boy adventure, "Wassup Rockers," pretty much blew the doors off the Angelika in downtown Manhattan last weekend, and moves on to Chicago and L.A. this week. Lian Lunson's concert film "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man" did nearly as well. Delving deeper into the numbers, though, is where you find the really good news. Dan Ireland's "Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont," starring Joan Plowright (which I haven't seen, although friends have loved it), has been creeping around the country since last fall, completely below the radar, and piling up close to $900,000. Deepa Mehta's "Water" has grossed $2.5 million. Kevin Willmott's mockumentary "CSA: Confederate States of America," still playing in five cities, has passed $660,000.

I had the impression that Nicole Holofcener's devastating "Friends With Money," for me one of the movies of the year, had been underappreciated. Not true; it's still playing on 38 screens and has grossed $13.1 million. Rian Johnson's Hammett-goes-to-high school cult hit "Brick" is closing in on $2 million. Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne's wrenching drama "L'Enfant," for which I had cynically predicted zilch at the box office, is at $630,000 -- pretty damn good for a downbeat foreign-language film about a guy who sells his own baby. Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine's terrific documentary "Ballets Russes" will end up a little north of $800,000, and that's a movie about a bunch of Russian ballet dancers in their 80s and 90s.

On the other hand, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' "Road to Guantánamo," which I wrote about at length last week, had a pretty weak opening despite tons of media coverage and a modest amount of controversy. Between the people who won't go see it because it's treasonous, and the people who won't go because it's too damn depressing, I'm afraid the American public is pretty much covered. The too-damn-depressing quotient might also be an issue this week, in the case of Andrew Berends' intriguing and frustrating documentary "The Blood of My Brother," the latest (and certainly not the last) in a series of films about the Iraq war that, it seems, Americans are not exactly rushing to see.

Chris Paine's documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is pretty damn depressing too, but it's liable to get people hopping mad, whether or not they buy Paine's overarching conspiracy theory. In the turbulent wake of "An Inconvenient Truth," this movie could be huge among eco-freaks and alterna-car geeks (may both their tribes increase a thousandfold). Finally, I know that Michael Kang's debut feature, "The Motel," sounds like a standard-issue immigrant coming-of-age fable -- Asian-American kid grows up in motel-owning family -- but it's a lot funnier and livelier than that, with some of the best dialogue I've heard all year.

"Who Killed the Electric Car?": After all, it was you and me
Recent history is always the hardest to see clearly, and the most difficult to discuss without rancor. (Let me just say the phrase, "I voted for Nader," and then hide under the desk until you're all finished throwing bricks.) Chris Paine's film "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is a straightforward work of advocacy that wouldn't pass muster as journalism. But so what? Paine never tries to hide his point of view, and while you're free to disagree with his analysis (and many will), his film marks the first serious attempt to come to grips with the brief and extraordinary history of California's electric-car initiative, which resulted, of all things, in General Motors' putting a zero-emissions vehicle on the road.

The facts behind the birth and death of G.M.'s EV1 (and similar vehicles briefly manufactured by Ford, Honda and Toyota) are straightforward enough. In 1990, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), facing a worsening pollution crisis in the Los Angeles basin, mandated that automakers who wanted to keep selling cars in the Golden State had to move toward the futurist's Holy Grail: a vehicle aimed at ordinary human drivers that would have absolutely no nasty crap coming out of the tailpipe. By 1998, 2 percent of sales in California were to be zero-emission vehicles; by 2003, that number was supposed to rise to 10 percent.

In case you hadn't noticed, it didn't work out that way. As Martin Sheen tells us in the film's narration, the big automakers waffled briefly between obeying the new mandate and fighting it, and ultimately decided to do both. In 1996, G.M. began to lease its EV1 in California, to considerable fanfare. The car was stylish, lightweight, surprisingly fast and almost completely quiet (as in, duh, no internal combustion engine). It rapidly became a celebrity commodity in Hollywood; Mel Gibson -- in a scary Amish-style beard -- tells Paine how difficult it was to get one, and Tom Hanks told David Letterman's audience he was "saving America" by blasting one at moving-violation speed down the Pacific Coast Highway.

But that very same year, the carmakers and oil companies convinced CARB to adjust its mandate, removing its quotas and simply requiring manufacturers to build however many electric vehicles were needed to meet consumer demand. G.M. and the other automakers quickly decided that demand did not exist (this may be the most contentious single aspect of the electric car's history). Only about 800 EV1's were actually leased in California and Arizona -- a fact Paine skips over rapidly -- and by 2004 essentially all of them had been reclaimed by G.M. and junked. (A few exist in museum and university collections and, intriguingly, others are reportedly still being driven by G.M. engineers in Michigan.)

This isn't an especially dynamic or visually engaging film. Occasionally Paine spices things up with a hilariously grim black-and-white newsreel about the discovery of oil in Iraq (and all the good things it will bring!) or an excerpt of G.M.'s admittedly bizarre TV ad for the EV1. For the most part, we've got a parade of talking heads: salespeople, engineers, industry observers, alterna-car wonks and former EV1 lessees, all pretty much shaking their heads sadly and wondering how and why this wonderful dream became reality so briefly. We also see the wonderful, quixotic and doomed protest action staged by a few ex-EV1 drivers at a locked parking lot in Burbank, Calif., where G.M. had the last 78 reclaimed cars stashed for several months (before transporting them to Arizona to be crushed).

Paine's position, by the end of the film, is clear: The oil companies and auto manufacturers, eager to protect a massively profitable status quo, never wanted the electric-car program to succeed, and eventually killed it. Consumer bewilderment and apathy were an issue (especially in the late '90s, when oil prices were supernaturally low), but the automakers, he argues, maximized that element all they could by limiting supply, emphasizing the cars' limitations and running ads that made it look like driving an EV1 was tantamount to a close encounter of the third kind. CARB rolled over completely for the carmakers in 2001, when it abandoned any electric-car requirements at all, probably under pressure from the newly "elected" Bush-Cheney administration, which is -- how do I put this delicately? -- Big Oil's prison-house bitch.

Electric-car buffs have long claimed that G.M. and the other auto companies ignored waiting lists with thousands of names when they killed the EV1 and similar models. (Only Toyota's electric version of the RAV4 was ever available for outright purchase -- and Paine owns one.) Although G.M. long denied that such lists existed, a company spokesman in the film now admits they did, but claims there were only 50 or so qualified lessees left waiting for cars. While the truth about that issue may be unknowable, no one denies that every EV1 the company actually made available through dealers was leased. It's sensible to assume that if more had been built, more would have wound up on the roads, and that if more people had seen the EV1 tooling along normally on the freeway or parked at the mall, it would have stopped seeming like some mythical minicar from Mars.

I can't address the underlying engineering arguments for and against electric cars; a quick Google search will lead you into some mighty heated discussions. But Paine's sources largely dismiss the oil barons' two long-standing anti-electric arguments, which are: 1) Electric cars are actually less efficient than gasoline vehicles, when you factor in the cost and the environmental damage of producing all that electricity; and 2) Nobody wants cars that can only go 50 or 60 miles between charges. Essentially, the film's response is that No. 1 is not true, especially in the age of $3-plus gasoline, and No. 2 is both not true (most commuters drive less than 30 miles a day) and grossly outdated. Batteries in the second generation of EV1's held a charge of up to 100 miles, and readily available technology could have extended that range up to 250 or 300 miles, about the same as most gas-tank cars.

By the end of "Who Killed the Electric Car?" you'll be worked into a lather one way or another. Paine crams in more theories, ideas and arguments than the movie can easily hold, but that's OK with me. He sees the Bush administration's hydrogen fuel-cell initiative as an enormous pie-in-the-sky scam, designed to buy the oil industry still more decades of hegemony, and suggests that while the electric car is dead for the moment, it isn't buried. Partly electric hybrid vehicles are on the road now, of course, and the forthcoming "plug-in hybrid" is basically an electric car that uses gas only on trips longer than 60 miles.

Objectivity is an overrated and perhaps an impossible quantity, and I don't mind that "Who Killed the Electric Car?" was made by an admitted electric-car nut. If it gets people talking about the crucial question -- hey, isn't it time we quit driving these damn gas guzzlers? -- I don't see a downside. That said, he doesn't seem to grasp that Americans (and people all over the world infected by the virus of Americanism) flat-out love the internal combustion engine. It's fine, and indeed necessary, to provide people a less destructive, more efficient and more sensible alternative. But it's not going to work if it doesn't get their rocks off.

"Who Killed the Electric Car?" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens July 7 in Boston, Detroit, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; July 14 in Dallas, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Houston, Minneapolis, San Diego and Seattle; July 21 in Boulder, Colo., Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Washington; and July 28 in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Texas, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Miami, Monterey, Calif., Nashville, Rochester, N.Y., Sacramento, Calif., and St. Louis, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: "The Blood of My Brother" goes inside Iraq's Shiite uprising; growing up too fast in "The Motel"
Andrew Berends' Iraq documentary "The Blood of My Brother" has already been embraced by film festivals around the world, and the qualities that may endear it to cinéastes are exactly the same as those that will limit its audience appeal. Berends got extraordinary access to an Iraqi family living in Kadhimiya, a working-class Shiite district of Baghdad, and through them to the anti-American insurgency, or at least that aspect of it that was led, circa 2004, by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr (these days almost a moderate among wacky Iraqi leaders).

There's no question that "The Blood of My Brother" required tremendous courage to film, and it captures a ground-level view of the sweat, dust, danger and chaos that typify daily life in American-occupied Iraq. Much of the picture is exciting and terrifying, and even when Berends goes for semi-relevant metaphorical imagery (many of you will not wish to see a goat sacrificed in loving close-up, I predict) there's tremendous integrity to his technique. There's no voice-over narration, and a minimum of informational text, mainly to identify place and time. The film is almost entirely told through its pictures and the on-screen conversations we witness. (There are also a few interpolated interviews with American soldiers, which frankly seem extraneous.)

I suppose the great strength of "The Blood of My Brother" is that it never tries to make political points in any direction. The family's eldest son, Ra'ad, has been killed in an altercation with United States troops outside the Kadhimiya mosque. Was he carrying a weapon? Was he involved with the armed insurgency? Or was he a mosque guard, whom the Americans should have recognized as such? There are no clear answers, and even his grief-stricken younger brother Ibrahim, who vows revenge against "Americans and Jews," doesn't really know. Berends principally captures Ibrahim and his sisters, mother and friends as confused, angry, recognizably human individuals, grappling with tremendous loss by reaching out -- as we all do -- to faith, family and community.

Yes, some elements in that combination nudge Ibrahim and his friends toward picking up RPG launchers or Kalashnikovs and joining the low-end guerrilla army that shoots at American tanks on the back streets of Baghdad. Berends shoots some hair-raising footage as he scrambles through dusty alleys and tin-roofed houses with al-Sadr's men, but even these headline-making exploits are not the heart of the picture. For better or worse, "The Blood of My Brother" is not a behind-the-headlines investigative work but an intimate, enigmatic exploration of Tolstoy's maxim that every unhappy family is unique (while every happy family is the same).

Ibrahim seems to be an irresponsible and depressed loser, who drifts through life without Ra'ad and is unable to keep the family's photography business afloat. His sister is vaguely unhappy about her lot in life but unable to articulate any alternatives. (As a devout Muslim, she wears the hijab constantly and rarely leaves the house.) Their mother constantly tells both of them that Ra'ad was her beloved and that life without him isn't worth living, which helps family morale no end. Powerful as this film often is, it's also a bummer and something of an existential or psychological dead end: Do the Iraqis hate us because their lives have become boring, depressing and full of hassle? (Opens June 20 at Cinema Village in New York; July 7 in Chicago, Dallas and Portland, Ore.; July 28 in Los Angeles; and Aug. 11 in Boston, with more cities to be announced.)

Let's finish with a genuine upper: Michael Kang's first dramatic feature, "The Motel," follows a chubby Chinese-American 13-year-old named Ernest (played by the wonderful Jeffrey Chyau), who stoically observes life at the suburban hot-sheet motel ferociously run by his immigrant mother (Jade Wu). Ernest wants to be a writer; Mom of course thinks this is a waste of time. Into their world comes a mysterious guest named Sam (Sang Kung), a charismatic Korean-American dude who smokes, drinks, cusses, drives a sports car and brings an alluring parade of white (and black, and Latina) women back to the motel at all hours.

All the ingredients of this coming-of-age fable are individually familiar, but you rarely see them come together so well. Ernest's would-be romance with Christine (Samantha Futerman), the only other Asian kid in town, is perfectly pitched, and Kang has a remarkable ear for the going-nowhere dialogue of teens who are killing time and the oddball adults who kill time with them. Sure, this is sometimes a bittersweet family study, but it also has a funny, dirty ruthlessness that may remind you of Todd Solondz's epoch-making "Welcome to the Dollhouse."

If Sam sometimes seems more like Ernest's fantasy projection of what a studly Asian-American male might be like, he's nonetheless a wonderful character, a font of dubious racial attitudes and useful masculine advice on cars, clothes and girls -- "Never think porn is bad. Porn is good" -- and a tour guide on ill-advised late-night road trips. There were half a dozen occasions, maybe more, when I roared out loud with laughter. This just may be a filmmaker with great things in him; this one's pretty damn good. OK, I can't resist. Here's my favorite line, pronounced by a 12-year-old blond girl in a profoundly pissed-off tone of voice: "Your dick is hard. That means you love me." (Now playing at Film Forum in New York, with more cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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