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Wagonmasters celebrates America’s love affair with the station wagon

by Mark Burger

There’s something indefinably yet undeniably American about the station wagon. Somehow, despite success overseas, the roomy, gas-guzzling automobile feels as American as baseball and apple pie.

And, there’s no more quintessentially all-American station wagon than the Wagon Queen Family Truckster, the pea-green, wood-paneled, eight-headlight monstrosity piloted by Chevy Chase in the original National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Was that almost 30 years ago? Was that Eugene Levy  who sold Chase’s Clark W Griswold the Family Truckster? Was that the corpse of Imogene Coca’s Aunt Edna tied to the roof during a torrential downpour en route to Cousin Normy’s house?

Yes it was (on all three counts), and perhaps Vacation was a harbinger of the beginning of the end for the station wagon — even though the Family Truckster, despite mishaps and disasters along the way, made the journey all the way from Chicago to Walley World in California.

But now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the station wagon may well be viewed as an endangered species.

Filmmakers Chris Zaluski and Sam Smartt recognized this after Zaluski read an article in Forbes Magazine about Volvo’s decision to discontinue station wagons in 2011.

“It made me think that this could be an interesting documentary,” Zaluski related. “The wagon represented an integral part of American culture, and now that vehicle is all but dead. What does that say about American culture today?” Zaluski, an MFA graduate student in documentary film at Wake Forest University, decided to make that statement in a new film, Wagonmasters, a tribute to what was once among the nation’s most popular model of car. The film will be screened 7 p.m. Saturday at Krankies Coffee (211 E. 3rd St., Winston-Salem) and then again at 8:30 pm Sunday at A/perture Cinemas (311 W. 4th St., Winston-Salem).

In many ways, the station wagon has been eclipsed by its automotive “descendants,” the minivan and the SUV.

“We did not choose the topic solely because of wagons, per se,” Zaluski continued.

“For me, filmmaking is interesting because it allows the filmmaker to take an object that has a particular meaning and turn it on its head. In this case, showing the wagon — which is viewed by most people in my generation as the most uncool car you can own — as an important part of American culture that is still beloved by many.”

Indeed, Zaluski and Smartt (whose family owned a station wagon when he was young) took their cameras on a crosscountry road trip to explore the magic and mystique — so to speak — of the station wagon. “The film was shot all over the place,” Zaluski said, “which is what made it so fun to produce.”

During early research, Zaluski discovered the American Station Wagon Owners Association  whose president, Tim Cleary, lives in Charlotte. He and Smartt met with Cleary at the 2011 Charlotte AutoFair, and the documentary was born — with Cleary becoming one of its principal characters. “We knew that we had the people and the history to make a fun, entertaining, and reflective film.

“We traveled to Los Angeles, Wisconsin, Vermont, Ontario and Detroit, just to name a few places,” Zaluski said. “We wanted to capture different wagon enthusiasts from various walks of life. Our hope was that by showing these folks who live all around the country, it would help establish the station wagon as a symbolic American icon.”

In addition to Cleary, Wagonmasters profiles numerous station-wagon owners and aficionados, including a Winston-Salem woman who plastered her Volvo station wagon with peace slogans and calls it “the Peace Wagon” and an owner in Kernersville who turned his GTO hot road into a station wagon.

“Furthermore, the wagon as a symbol of Americana and postwar culture really spoke to me,” said Zaluski, “and it was something I thought would be fun to make a film about. I love documentaries that mix archival pop culture with modern footage as a way to show where our society was and where it is today — and, hopefully, where it is heading. I felt this topic would allow us to do just that.”

The filmmakers are scheduled to be on hand for both Winston-Salem screenings to discuss its making with members of the audience. The filmmakers are currently submitting Wagonmasters to film festivals with an eye towards locking down theatrical distribution.

Admission to the screenings is free. Due to limited seating at A/perture cinemas, it’s recommended that people reserve their tickets via http://wagonmasters.eventbrite. com/ For more information, visit the official website: www.wagonmastersthemovie.com.

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