Circle the Wagen begins with the end in mind, and suffers as a result.
Circle the WagenDirector: Ryan Steven Green
Cast: Dave Torstenson, Charlie Pecoraro, Andrew Ross Wynn, Pete Sottnik, Greg Triebel, Luke Hadsall, Matt Josef, Rich Kimball
Rated: Not Rated
US DVD release date: 2014-08-26
Documentaries take inchoate reality as their subject and then mold it into narrative, which is why their stories are often less interesting than how those stories have been assembled. Circle the Wagenis, ostensibly, a buddy/roadtrip/docu-dramedy that looks at the Volkswagen subculture in the United States as two friends work to get “The Croc,” a ramshackle 1972 VW bus, across the country, In the film, however, the story takes a backseat to how it has been put together. This is not the objective of the filmmakers, however, and is only apparent because the film—like its participants—is so focused on reaching a predestined conclusion that it develops a number of blind-spots along the way. Those blind-spots are where Circle the Wagen gets interesting, but it’s difficult to laud the film that fosters accidental intrigues.
The story follows Dave Torstenson, a flighty idealist with a quick smile but sad eyes, and his friend Charlie Pecoraro, a nearly useless co-pilot with a pipe-smoking affect, as they drive—intermittently—down Route 66 in a baby blue bus purchased on eBay for $787. Their journey is recorded by director Ryan Stevens Green, whose only camera time comes during the film’s end credits, whereupon we see that he has edited the film inside of the bus, which has since been renovated into his office. “I just found that while I was inside ‘The Croc’ I could be very productive with my time, and it was just inspiring,” he says.
It’s a sentimental resting spot for “The Croc”, and the film’s sentimental conclusion follows from the sensibilities of its protagonist, Dave. We first encounter Dave as he drives (not the VW bus) in his hometown of Beatty, Nevada, a place he describes as “20-30 miles West of the Nevada Test Site, where they tested above-ground nuclear weapons.” Later he explains with nostalgia how a science teacher back in high school would regale him with stories of observing the bomb-tests as a kid. Dave’s introduction is inter-spliced with a voiceover of his parents, who talk about their son’s first car, an 1985 Toyota Camry that broke down the year he graduated from college. As she talks we are shown —one of him with a hand over his mouth in despair and another of him waving, his back to us, as the Camry is towed away.
Dave is always thinking in the past tense, and his addiction to the past imbues the film as a whole. Indeed, the film’s first image is a black-and-white photograph of a caravan of wagons, and text overlaid on top draws a parallel between, on one hand, the tradition of “circling the wagons” to protect and assist a downed party, and, on the other, the current iteration of that benevolence in the vintage VW subculture in America. As it’s used in the film’s title, the conflation of past and present is a neat rhetorical trick, but as a way of thinking it can become a slippery slope to idealism or even obsession.
Conspicuously inserted anecdotes of started but failed projects —such as eating 61 ounces of a 72 ounce steak, or the near-completion of a woodworked bass guitar—contribute to the portrayal of Dave as a modern day Sisyphus who is tortured because he knows he can never quite finish his projects. But Sisyphus’ true punishment is to have his present become repetitive; that is, to be unable to tell the difference between past and present. Dave’s ultimate success, by driving “The Croc” down Route 66 and into Los Angeles, is to finally feel the glory of being content in the moment. Because the project is complete, he betrays no steadfast desire to return to his interest in the VW bus culture. “For me it’s probably not going to go much beyond this,” he says at the end of the film.
His friend Charlie, however, ultimately catches “the bug,” as he says; however, what he thinks is adoration for VW vehicles actually veils something much more debilitating. What he “catches” by the end of the film is Dave’s tendency to conflate past and present. Charlie writes on the bus “Charlie sits here” despite the trip having ended, and later we see him express interest in buying a vintage VW vehicle flipped by one of the VW diehards in the film. Already primed to this sort of idealism of the past, as evidenced by his Victorian era smoking pipe, Charlie wants to join the vintage VW scene because it will become an affect of the past that distinguishes him in the present.
Unlike Dave, Charlie never works on the VW bus. Dave’s labor helps him understand the difference between functionality and idealism, a difference many members of the vintage VW community understand and harp on throughout the film. But because the final pre-credits scene shows Charlie expressing his interest in a renovated VW bus, the film makes clear that it’s not interested in the difference between functionality and idealism. Instead, Circle the Wagen ends on a note of vintage VW optimism that pushes it closer to an advertisement than a documentary.
In fact, its bright-eyed optimism in the benevolence of strangers ignores reality. After all, Bill Kinder of the Blue Swallow Motel, whom Dave and Charlie entrusted with keeping “The Croc” maintained, puts a “For Sale” sign on the bus and allows its windshield to be cracked. As the film ignores reality, it also refuses to acknowledge other curious aspects of the cross-country saga. Dave’s exasperation with Charlie’s incompetence around the vehicle and the fading cultural/artistic symbolism of the VW bus are two topics the film could have examined, and yet the opportunity passes by because of a conclusion already decided upon.
The best documentaries are dynamic, shifting focus depending on which direction reality takes them. This isn’t to say that they submit to reality’s will, unable to narratavize the abstract. It’s just that roadmaps follow a predetermined path, and the best views are not always visible from the road.