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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Review: The Bug Movie

Mike Smitka

The Bug Movie: Life and Times of the People's Car Produced and Directed by Damon Ristau, Co-Produced by Jason Willenbrock and Tory Alonzo. Chassy Media, November 2016. $14.99 Downloand/DVD, $17.99 BluRay. Available at https://www.chassymedia.com/product/the-bug/.

Publisher's Description: The Bug Movie is a feature length documentary film about the most recognizable and beloved vehicle on the planet: The Volkswagen Beetle. From its dark past in pre WWII Germany, to the Summer of Love, this car captured the hearts of millions of people worldwide. This film explores not only the history of this automotive icon, but also the intense emotional connection it has with its owners past and present… Including Ewan McGregor and his experience with his first VW Bug as a sixteen year old.

I am not a "car guy." My drives have never had a nickname, and seldom get cleaned. The rusted through body panels on my 1988 pickup truck are going to get more rusted. My son can point out cars of note on the opposite side of the freeway. I'm not sure what a Tesla looks like. I live close enough to Hershey, PA that I could visit the classic car fest come October. Indeed, as a member of the Society of Automotive Historians I receive an invitation to their dinner there. I've yet to make it. For me this documentary was thus an introduction to the culture of car buffs, in this case those in love with the classic VW Beetle. Three sorts are depicted in vignettes that develop over the course of this video. Some grew up with memories of it as the family vehicle; for others their strongest memories came through The Love Bug and the other five Disney Herbie films in which a 1963 Beetle was the star. Some just like fixing up old things. Restoring a Beetle to working order is feasible: so many were made that parts remain readily available.

The story that runs throughout and helps tie this documentary together begins with hauling a Beetle out of the garage where it had sat for two decades, after the man who was fixing it up passed away. His widow and her son deliver the partially disassembled car, replete with parts wrapped in paper, to an enthusiast. The first stage is cleaning out packrat debris, and then pushing it from the storage shed onto a trailer. Over the subsequent year it is brought back to life, step by step: fixing up the engine and clutch, painting, and finally starting the car for the first time in 23 years. The film concludes with the new owner fulfilling his promise, driving back to show the pristine-appearing car to the old woman and her son. There are similar, shorter segments. One focuse on a man who loved the Herbie films as a kid. He eventually tracks down #10 of the 26 "expendable" vehicles used in filming the Love Bug, first in the series. It proudly sits on display, replete with the dings it received in a stunt for the film.

I'm interested in the history of the industry, and there's a bit of that, with shots of the Beetle from the its origin in the 1930s to the end of its use as the standard taxi in Mexico. That story ends with the camera panning a hedgerow of Beetles awaiting the crusher, all an identical green, one of which is "saved" by an enthusiast who carts it back to the US. Likewise there's material on the arrival of the car in the US, from 2 in 1949 to 163 in 1950. However, there's no systematic analysis of the company, of the VW parallel to Ford's focus on a single model that led both companies close to failure. We get a little bit on what distinguished the Beetle from less successful small cars. There are hints of its global spread, but other than scenes from Mexico there's no treatment of how – again like the Model T – it came to be produced in multiple countries. Likewise the "pad" (in modern parlance, rolling chassis) was, as with the Model T, adapted to serve as a truck, a tractor and as the classic dune buggy. There's little on the production aspect, of the implementation of rigid automation in Wolfsburg, nor is there any discussion of Ford-like vertical integration into parts production. So while there are tidbits for those with other interests in the industry, the documentary really is by, for and about enthusiasts.

One takeaway for me were sequences where enthusiasts reflected upon their infatuation. Two noted that their passion was not really rational, restoring an old car that they wouldn't drive much, and that furthermore wasn't so old or unusual as to be fit for a museum. Another noted that working on an old car was a change of pace, something he could do for an hour by himself; yes, he liked VWs, but critical was the practicality of it. They were built to be endlessly repaired, and doing so doesn't requiring having a specialized machine shop. Puttering around, yes, but with the feasible goal of actually getting the car at hand back on the road. My family never had a second car, nor a spot where my brothers and I could have worked on a "junker." I don't have the skills needed, but I certainly can understand the attraction of fixing things up.

My most vivid memory of a Beetle is developing moderate hypothermia en route back to my Harvard dorm from my first cross-country skiing trip. I was shivering uncontrollably by the time we arrived; with four of us in the car we'd had to periodically open windows to defog the windshield. It was a robust design, but very much a German one, unsuited to extremes of temperature. Images of quirkiness and cuteness pervade the documentary. Design shortcomings dominate my memories; I'll never be an enthusiast. This documentary added to my knowledge of Volkswagen, particularly its history in the US market, and with footage from its early history in Germany. Most important, it has helped me appreciate a bit better the mind of the enthusiast.

See another mention of this documentary at jalopnik.com