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Death Metal: Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

Death Metal: Chris Paine's "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

The movement of documentaries into the mainstream has brought forth its share of negatives to go along with the obvious positive of a more inclusive market. Coupled as the upsurge has been with the rise of reality TV and the accessibility of DV, I suppose it shouldn’t come as a shock that the popularization of the nonfiction film has — instead of bringing on a cinematic revolution — progressively led to a distressing dilution of the form. With frequently disheveled entries making their way into theaters, most containing nary an aesthetic bone in their body and lacking any desire to interrogate the typical talking heads format, recent efforts have often proved unsatisfying, sadly un-layered. And breakout hits like “Spellbound” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” — predicated on shallow suspense and cute kids rather than a significant delving into the details of clearly attendant issues of race and class — only compound the trend, proving that despite any perceived spectatorial shift towards seriousness, the taste for fluff remains.

But rather than remain disheartened, I suppose I could also look at it this way: The documentary form now serves many diverse functions, and mass entertainment happens to be one of them. And, as with fiction films, perhaps I should consider each on the particular merits of what it aspires to — whether that be pop, art, or activism – and not presume every entry should be as rhapsodically provocative and fulfilling as, say, “Night and Fog,” or “Chronicle of a Summer.” Accepting these distinctions, it becomes easier to appreciate Chris Paine‘s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (its cheesy digital graphics and employment of other “special effects” to jazz up its visuals notwithstanding) because, though its expose style precludes nuance, it packs a wallop in its piecing together of the reasons why General Motors (along with other interested parties) sabotaged the battery-driven electric car it built back in the Nineties (lovingly called the EV1 by its proponents) and unleashed to a small segment of the car-crazy California population.

Like many other political docs, it may not tell you much in the broad scheme of things that you don’t already know: Big corporations are bad, politicians are in their pockets, and the concept of a “free” market in an era of bank-rolled and uncontrolled lobbyists is ludicrous – but Paine breaks it down into the gory details, and this postmortem is self-flagellatingly fascinating. Given that we’re now occupying a country in possession of vast reserves of oil (but no WMD), this ode to the little-car-that-could becomes even more topical and urgently pressing, with implications far wider than the reach of the EV1’s electric mileage.

It begins unpromisingly; you can only see so many images of cars sped up and kaleidoscoped with the camera’s gaze shimmying over the gleaming parts before you begin to feel as if you’re watching an infomercial, narrated by Martin Sheen and complete with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson. The worst thing about this protracted advertisement is, of course, the fact that, after hearing numerous testimonials about how amazing the vehicular product is – no gas required, little maintenance necessary, zero emissions — the realization hits: You can’t buy it, even if you’re sold — which you will be. The rest of the documentary traces the number of reasons — from conventional customers to governmental timidity — why you cannot. While at first this strategy seems flawed, it gradually dawns that this ingenious structuring channels the potential buyer’s buzzkill in another direction; by stymieing that most all-American of impulses –t he consumerist urge — the filmmaker instills a sense of thwarted desire so profound it may just have its intended effect of inspiring individuals to action or, at the very least, alertness.

What “Electric Car” also makes vivid is the willfully ineffectual way political discussions are framed in America. As corporate interests dominate the debate and effectively set the parameters, the perspective gets increasingly skewed beyond either common sense or public good. So instead of conversations pursuing the enticing possibilities of mass-producing the electric car, talk instead turns to damaging short-term solutions like drilling the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, and the hydrogen fuel cell becomes the trendy new future-forward model (a cleaner alternative to the current one, sure, but also still reliant on– no surprise–fossil fuels).

Phyllis Diller in a scene from Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Looking down from the director’s helicopter at the carcasses of crushed EV1s– so threatened was GM by evidence of its creation that it had existing models destroyed–damned if I didn’t leave the theater in furious mourning for the loss of a car the existence of which I hadn’t even been aware two hours prior.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]

Take 2
by Michael Koresky

Chris Paine’s appealingly, appropriately prefab documentary purports that today’s socioeconomic American landscape is haunted by the ghost of the electric car–to be specific, General Motors’ now very defunct EV1, launched in 1996, which would require no gas or oil changes, simply a tidy little plug-in recharger. Originally designed as a reaction to the Zero Emissions Mandate, decreed by the California Air Resources Board looking out for its state’s escalating pollution crisis, the EV1 also emerged as a potential step toward energy conservation and a cut down on CO2 emissions. In telling the sad tale of this forgotten hunk of metal, shielded from mass consumption by a host of possible conspirators (greedy oil companies, an indifferent American public, wanton battery technologies), Paine trumps up his case to grandiose tragic dimensions — it’s an effective sit-up-and-take-notice approach that’s permeating movie screens elsewhere this summer: with its alarmist soul-sister “An Inconvenient Truth” also burning up the box office, 2006’s staunchly left-wing environmental-political docs make no apologies for their direct-address populism.

That said, Paine’s entertaining expose often plays less like a raise-the-roof Michael Moore rampage than an extended “20/20” segment. There’s a knowing levity to the film, and God knows Paine seems to feel the sheer futility of the effort (it’s almost the point) when he parades a host of talking-head B celebrities across the screen to talk about their beloved lost EV1s: “Baywatch“‘s Alexandra Paul and “thirtysomething“‘s Peter Horton certainly get a lot of face-time. Yet Paine’s reliance on star testimonials, such as those of the loopy-eyed Phyllis Diller and a pointy-bearded, rather Mephistophelean Mel Gibson, almost makes the whole enterprise backfire. Rather than make the case for the EV1 as the representation of a never-to-be-recaptured environmental consumerist Shangri-la, it comes across more like the car of choice for Hollywood’s rotting eccentrics. It’s a slight shot in the foot for an otherwise enlightening, persuasive film that will at least make people aware that solutions are out there — even if they get squashed as often as they spring up.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Film Comment.]

Ed Begley Jr. in a scene from Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Take 3
by Lauren Kaminsky

Who killed the electric car? Henry Ford did it with the internal combustion engine. But unbeknownst to many, General Motors resurrected the electric car in 1996, in the form of the EV1, only to kill it again in 2003. The first death was more influential, but much less dramatic: if it was indeed a murder, it appears to have been an unpremeditated accident of technological innovation. But according to director Chris Paine, the second death of the electric car was a vast criminal conspiracy.

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” is at once an investigation into the disappearance of GM’s sporty, compact EV1 and a eulogy to the dearly departed, literally beginning with a hokey mock funeral for the car attended by a bunch of the EV1-obsessed nuts who double as talking-heads throughout the film. This Greek chorus of car freaks includes the director himself as well as Mel Gibson, who does nothing to improve the image of EV1 fanatics. They may not be compelling, but their evidence is: like them or not, Paine and his band of EV1 cultists are right that GM’s EV program was prematurely aborted under suspicious circumstances. But is that a crime?

The criminal metaphor sounds increasingly shrill and naive as a parade of CEOs, managers, engineers, politicians and other supposed baddies explain how it came to pass that GM abandoned its EV program. Unfortunately, Paine doesn’t have the investigative or scientific chops to really do this subject justice by connecting the dots and thereby proving rather than implying causation. How and why did hydrogen displace electricity in the quest for alternative fuel, and how do they compare in terms of cost to the environment? Nitty-gritty questions such as these don’t seem to interest Paine, hell-bent as he is on convicting those responsible for the murder of his car. So much about Paine’s film is persuasive and engaging, but by focusing on the car he misses out on an opportunity to really investigate the opposition to alternative fuel sources by the powerful oil lobby — a story as old as the automobile industry itself.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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