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Speed habit
Art Arfons broke land speed records for two decades before a monstrous car crash sent him back to his workshop. "The Green Monster," Tuesday night on PBS, tells his amazing story.

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By Jeff Stark

June 29, 1999 | Racing across the Bonneville salt flats in Utah at just over 580 miles per hour, you can see the Earth curve on the horizon. Art Arfons first noticed that effect while chasing the world land speed record in a jet car. Then he lost sight of it as his car lifted off the ground and crashed in a twisted heap of metal and fire.

Arfons is the subject of the documentary "The Green Monster," a one-hour program that airs Tuesday night on the PBS series "P.O.V." From the film's opening shot -- a silhouetted Arfons curls his helmet under his arm as smoke curls behind him -- it's clear that first-time director David Finn sees Arfons as a hero. It's a scene that evokes the brave and severe early astronauts, who were similarly compelled by a desire to do something that no one else had done.




"The Green Monster"
Directed by David Finn

 

Arfons is an unlikely hero. With only three years of high school and no formal engineering experience, he decided to build his own car after stumbling upon his first drag race in the 1950s. His second car set a world record its first time out, and from that point on he was hooked on speed, debuting a newer, faster car every year or two through the late '50s and '60s. His brother Walt also raced, and for years the two topped each other's records, breaking speeds of 200, 300, 400 and 500 mph.

The intense rivalry eventually drove the brothers apart, but the two continued to compete until Art Arfons nearly died in a disastrous crash in 1971, which took out two bystanders and killed a journalist who was in the passenger seat. Later, Walt's son died in a hydrofoil wreck.

Finn seems nearly as obsessive in collecting footage as his subject is about cars. And Alan Oxman, who spliced together "Happiness" and "Welcome to the Dollhouse," is a genius editor, weaving together family interviews, Finn's gorgeous Bonneville location shots and amazing archival reels. (The early drag racing sections are a blast and the crashes are sickeningly spectacular.) Matador, the indie record label, produced the film and lends songs by Pell Mell and Kustomized to the soundtrack.

Like all good documentaries, "The Green Monster" is about much more than its subject. In the end, it's about the fine line between obsession and mania, and about finding a single reason to live, then realizing that there's more to life than that reason.

"The Green Monster" airs Tuesday night, at 10 p.m. EDT on PBS stations. Check your local listings for times.
salon.com | June 29, 1999

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About the writer
Jeff Stark is an associate editor for Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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