All Charged Up

Chris Paine was still flying high Monday morning from the screening of the film he wrote and directed—Who Killed the Electric Car?—at the Los Angeles Film Festival two nights previous. First, it was great being back home from promoting his provocative documentary on the road. It was also nice catching up with several people interviewed in the film who attended the screening at the Arclight Hollywood. And then there was the overwhelmingly positive response from the festival audience, mirroring receptions he'd received previously at Sundance, Tribeca and points in between.

“It was super exciting,” Paine said by phone, over the din of visiting relatives. “You have these moments and then you think it must be all downhill from here.”

Of course, downhill is the preferred terrain for drivers of cars that rely solely on electricity. Paine was one of those drivers of an electric vehicle (EV), having first become interested in the technology after reading a magazine article about a former aircraft designer who was developing such cars for General Motors. Paine later wrote GM inquiring about the cars, which eventually led to his 1997 lease of their EV-1, what many enthusiasts still consider the premier electric car.

“I had my socks blown off,” Paine said of the driving experience. “I could not believe how fast they were.”

Fast-forward about a half decade later, and GM was not only failing to extend leases and preventing EV devotees from purchasing their cars outright, but America's former mightiest automaker—which had poured a billion dollars into electric-car development—was secretly whisking perfectly good EV-1s away and crushing them.

Paine by then could be counted among the EV-1 activists—including Seal Beach's Doug Korthof, who pops up often in Who Killed the Electric Car?—who formed loose support groups to monitor, shame and bemoan the automakers for slowly killing the electric car, which California had mandated be phased into fleets to help clean our dirty air. But what particularly struck the filmmaker was the lack of mainstream media attention to the issue.

“The electric car story was so buried,” Paine said. So, after executive producing the motorcycle racing film Faster, he turned his camera lens at the electric car.

“I started filming it as a comedy,” he said. “Why would anyone have a funeral for car? I thought I'd been living in LA too long.”

The cut of Who Killed the Electric Car?that opens in Orange County on Friday does have its comedic moments, and it does indeed begin with a funeral for the EV-1. Eco-minded actor Ed Begley Jr. even peels off one of the film's funniest lines during his “eulogy,” when he admits electric cars would not have suited all drivers, “only 90 percent of them.”

But those damn facts kept getting in the way. “That's the problem with documentaries,” Paine said. “They have a life of their own.” And the life that was evident in Who Killed the Electric Car? was not a comedy, but “an American tragedy.”

“This was the first car GM ever branded its own logo on, and they just hauled them off to the crusher. How could a company be so myopic? . . . It is still shocking to me; it's like GM invested all their money on one color in Vegas, believing oil prices would be $2 a gallon for the rest of time.”

Of course GM and the rest of the American auto industry are used to losing bets. Remember when they saw crippling chunks of their market shares disappear during the oil crises of the 1970s, when the Japanese leapfrogged USA's hulking hunks of metal with more fuel-efficient fleets? Anyone notice the same thing happening again as Detroit's SUVs and trucks collect rust at dealerships as caravans of gas-electric hybrids roll off Toyota sales lots? Will that damn “I want my MPG” ditty ever leave our heads?

Beyond the high price of petrol, there are the mounting problems of air pollution and global warming and dwindling oil reserves and international terrorism, and pretty soon clean, viable solutions would seem foremost in the national interest. But in Paine's film, the oil/auto lobby sticks to its story: that EVs were too expensive to make, the battery range was too short, consumers did not want them, long waiting lists were a myth, plugging them in overnight (the non-peak generating periods) would lead to rolling blackouts, there are not enough power plants, EVs are dirtier and use more energy than their gas-burning counterparts and on and on until you can pretty well sum it all up as: The Big Lie.

The Big Lie rolls on. During a KTLA Morning News report from the Peterson Automotive Museum to promote a recent show there, the museum rep showed off an EV-1 to reporter Gayle Anderson. The rep noted that GM made disabling the vehicle a condition of showing it off there, and when Anderson asked why these cars were no longer available considering rising gas prices, out spewed The Big Lie.

Paine did not know about the KTLA segment, but he shows the exact same EV in his film. Chelsea Sexton, who loved the EV-1 so much that she became a sales specialist for GM, is seen next to the car, reiterating how great they are and that Peterson is one of few places where the public can see them. Seems innocent enough. But Paine just received word “that I will never be invited to the Peterson Automotive Museum again.” He then mentioned that the Smithsonian recently removed its own EV display—and replaced it with a robotic Hummer SUV. Both museums rely on contributions from corporations like GM.

Paine's cinematic case against Big Oil/Big Auto includes the public record, insider information and damning internal documents. Given this industry campaign to disappear EVs, it's no wonder he's heard comments across the country from people who did not know electric cars even existed until they saw Who Killed the Electric Car?“That's why I'm so happy this movie might reach people, because [what the industry has done] is not going to be the permanent legacy of this car.”

You can get mighty pissed watching his film, but the picture does end on a high note, as several of those who systematically help deconstruct The Big Lie maintain that they believe viable, affordable, battery-powered, standard household plug-in cars are coming sooner rather than later.

“Technology does not stop,” Paine said. “The characters in the film are hopeful, and as a documentary filmmaker, I take my cues from the people in my movie. If we don't do it, the Chinese will, and we'll all be importing their cars. It's a no brainer at this point.”

Read the review of this film: “Funeral March.”


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