Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On - At The Movies #23 - Fast Cheap & Out of Control (1997, dir. Errol Morris)

Errol Morris mostly makes documentaries. But like any good documentary filmmaker he’s still telling a story, just using true parts instead of things he made up. Morris has been responsible for some of the most interesting and thought provoking docs of our time – not just political bludgeons like what passes for a documentary in the wake of Michael Moore’s films, but docs designed as films first, tell
ing their unique stories and letting the viewer think about the topics brought up in the process. He’s covered subjects as diverse as pet cemeteries and the meanings of them for the pet owners, a convicted murderer whose case left a lot of gray area (so much so that the ruling was later overturned and the man freed based largely on compelling evidence and a confession brought forth in Morris’s film), physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara, and others. What unites his films is not a set of ideas he keeps going to, but a process of discovery. A question is posed early on – Why are pet cemeteries important to these people? Is there really enough evidence on hand to put this man to death? What drives Stephen Hawking? Is McNamara really the architect of the Vietnam War that he’s portrayed to be? – and then he asks a lot of questions around the topic, rather than going in to find a preconceived conclusion.
When many people have approached Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, it’s with a measure of confusion. Here we have four different people doing four totally unrelated jobs. Morris takes his usual thorough approach to digging into their work and what drives them, but keeps cutting in between them, not offering obvious signifiers of why the four are put together in the same film. It’s referred to throughout the IMDB reviews with a slew of words trying to say without saying outright that it’s an odd film, referring to the “unconventional” structure, the cast of “misfits,” it being “about the thin line between genius and madness,” or using adjectives like “unusual,” “quirky,” “arbitrary,” “disjointed,” when they don’t just come right out and say that it’s weird. I think a lot of what’s hard to get a handle on is that the film is not merely trying to present a simple story of different four peop
le here. In fact, it’s probably the subtlest and most entertaining examination of the philosophical treatise of what it means to be human ever put on film. I know that’s reaching pretty far, especially when the material you’re using to make that leap is examining the careers of four eccentrics, all of whom study behaviors to varying ends. In the film we meet Dale Hoover, the
Lion Trainer, George Mendonça, the Topiary Gardener, Ray Mendez, the Mole-rat Specialist (and former entomologist), and Rodney Brooks, the Robot Scientist, and each of them spends a roughly equal amount of time telling us about their work and their thoughts about it.

The way they’re edited together in the film – which is a mixture of film, video, cartoons, mediocre serial films from the 40’s, TV shows, and comic book images – one talks for a little, then another talks for a little, each advancing their own story bit by bit in a non-linear progression. Sometimes these interviews are laid over images of a different interviewee’s work, sometimes over their own. And bit by bit, their interviews start to connect ideas, which makes the juxtapositions that at first seem so odd – one recurring set of shots under varied narrations is of the audiences at the Lion Trainer’s circus – start to make sense. While the Mole-Rat Specialist, who has devoted himself to studying the behaviors of the insect-like communities of one particular mammal, theorizes not about his beloved subterranean rats, but the spectators who see displays of his work at zoos: "They're looking to find a common ground... they're constantly trying to find themselves in another social animal” and the Robot Scientist says of his job that he is "Understanding life by building something that is life-like" the Lion Trainer and the Topiary Gardener live in the thick of the natural and social organizations that the other two theorize about, but unknowingly reaffirm their ideas with unprompted lines like "They're all different though. They're like people” and "You can't control them any more" - referring to wild animals and plants, respectively. As the film moves on, it keeps drawing lines that are then unwittingly picked up from another one of our narrators – the Robot Scientist studies behaviors and thought processes and speculates about the differences between man and machine; the Mole-rat Specialist works in areas about the social organization of a “hive” of the small mammals and extrapolates those ideas to human social organizations; the Lion Trainer constantly anthropomorphizes his big cats and other animals, giving insight into the behaviors of some mammals higher up the evolutionary ladder; and the Topiary Gardener brings it all back to the earth, opining that with his plants – or here you could substitute any life – "It's a touchy situation. You're fighting the elements... It's a constant battle all the time." Parallels are constantly drawn between the human, animal, and plant kingdoms – as when we see humans walking on balls after seeing bears do the same earlier – and the urge of man to tame nature crops up over and over.

I like to think of the film as an examination of order vs. chaos in four parts. The brilliance of how Morris overlays his interviews and images deepens the relations between those parts and shows his mastery of the medium, finding philosophy in the most unlikely quarters and asking a lot of questions without going in to find a pre-formed answer – just letting the questions themselves make for the meat of the film, and inspire new questions in turn. And drawing things up to a completely untidy closing, our Topiary Gardener offers this final line of the film: "As long as I live,
I'll take care of it. I don't know what'll happen after that." He’s in for the haul of life, and who knows what happens after that? That’s a question for another film.
- Patrick Brown

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