Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1997)

6. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

I’m not sure why but, after “A Brief History of Time,” Errol Morris didn’t make another movie for five years. It was his longest hiatus since the seven year dearth between “Vernon, Florida” and “The Thin Blue Line.” I suspect the documentary-maker’s problem with finding funding can probably explain the gap. Either way, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would usher in a new creative period for Morris. He would be busy for many years to follow, creating new films, shorts, and even a critically acclaimed television series. In many ways, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” is the model for Morris’ “First Person” TV show.

“Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” concerns itself with four eccentrics, each interviewed in Morris’ trademark fashion of intimate conversation and kinetic direction. Dave Hoover is a lion tamer, who has pursued the job out of a childhood love of Clyde Beatty’s jungle adventure serials. George Mendonca is a veteran topiary designer, spending most of his adult life cutting bushes and trees into specific animal shapes. Raymond A. Mendez is a zoologist who has a special affinity with the naked mole rat, photographing the animal and designing specialized pens for the creatures. Rodney Brooks, meanwhile, is a robotics technician, determined to design machines that are as human-like as possible.

What do these desperate individuals have in common? Morris’ editing often has the interviews overlapping. Footage of Hoover training lions sometimes play under Mendonca describing his method of cleaving creatures out of foliage, a parallel being drawn between the different types of animals. Mendez’ describing the behavior of naked mole rats sometimes meets Brooks’ footage of scurrying robots. The inverse happens as well, insect-like robots and naked mole rats beginning to seem similar. Morris’ thesis seems to be the places passion leads us. Each interviewee pursues their eccentric goals because of their love of the subject. Sometimes, their passion for these unusual objects pushes into obsession. It’s not impossible to follow a line from the obsessive turkey hunter of “Vernon, Florida” to the eccentrics on display here. However, Morris’ approach is more positive this time. These guys are doing what they love. Moreover, each of the men’s interests deal with how the natural world and the world of man interacts.

Of all the guys Morris converses with in “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Raymond A. Mendez and his love of the naked mole rat is probably my favorite. His interest in the bizarre rodents began with his hope that a mammal that acts like an insect existed. The mole rats are just that. They leave in ant-like colonies and have a similar social structures. A queen births countless new mole rats every day, while workers and soldiers populate the underground tunnels. Mendez’ passion for the squirmy mole rats has him designing a specific habitat for them. He describes finding the right material for the enclosure, how to hold the mole rats, and the creature’s unusual toilet habits. Through his discussion of the species, an odd philosophy emerges. In the wild, the rats would be eaten by predators or stomped by elephants. In captivity, they’re given longer lives. Mendez seems to suggest that creating a civilized society and sympathy are linked. Also, he delivers a really cute anecdote about keeping a few mole rats as pets.

Rodney Brooks lends the film its title. Brooks’ insect-like robots line up directly with Mendez’ insect-like mole rats. Brooks begins the conversation by pointing out that real life animals don’t operate perfectly. Ants fall down, wobble, and stumble. Thus, scientists should strive to emulate these aspects in their robots. Perfection isn’t natural. This philosophy extends to Brooks’ approach to sending robots into space. Don’t send one expensive robot. Send a thousand inexpensive ones. Equally fascinating is Brooks’ thoughts on how robots work. A machine doesn’t have thoughts and yet it sometimes function intuitively anyway. Brooks seems keen to align the chaos of the natural world with the perfected world of engineering, finding the most success in a happy middle ground.

Dave Hoover’s interest in lion taming began with Clyde Beatty’s adventure serials which he happily describes as “corny.” This passion was egged on by a childhood priest, who smartly figured the world needs lion tamers as much as it needs anything else. Hoover takes a fairly casual approach to the animals he works with. Or rather, a casual approach to what they could do to him. Hoover describes an incident where a lion dragged him through a cage, nearly bit his hand off, and another event where a lion nearly escaped. Despite the lions being able to tear his head off, Hoover still bonds with them. He describes his favorite lion, John John, as an ornery but lovable creature. Through the specific ways the lions are trained, Hoover presents another way mankind and the natural world balance each other. Hoover also describes his profession as a dying breed with his current apprentice being the only one to stick with the job. (Considering the lions look emaciated, old, and sick, I doubt most people would mourn the passing of the lion tamer.)

The least obviously interesting of Morris’ subjects is George Mendonca. Topiary carving is not an art form that can be properly conveyed through interviews. Mendonca also gives the driest of the interviews. Despite a robot engineer and a zoologist being in the film, the topiary artist is the most technical person interviewed. He describes how a topiary must constantly be maintained. An inspiring moment concerns a topiary being destroyed in a storm. Mendonca simply started again, which is all he could do. He’s set in his ways, preferring a pair of hedge clippers over anything else. He also admits his own age, how he probably won’t live long enough to see another complex topiary grow to fruition.

With “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Errol Morris makes extensive use of stock footage. While ants and insectoid robots are being discussed, footage from “The Deadly Mantis” and “Them!” are inserted. As Hoover goes on about how Clyde Beatty’s films inspired him, Morris shows a considerable amount of footage from the serial, “Darkest Africa.” Morris even tosses in footage from “GoBots,” “Gigantor,” and “Bobby’s World” for less well-defined reasons. While these images definitely connect with the movie’s subject, sometimes it feels like Morris is padding out the run time with this footage. If you cut out the stock footage, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would run considerably shorter and little of value would be lost. If Morris had utilized his trademark reenactments a little more, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would probably be better off. Even those sequence, such as a long moment devoted to circus performers, seem to drag on.

“Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” would be Morris first collaboration with composer Caleb Sampson, taking over for Philip Glass. Sampson’s music could be compared to Glass. While he doesn’t pile it on the way Glass does, Sampson’s soundtrack does feature some repetition and building strings. However, Sampson’s work is quirkier then either of Glass’ previous scores. The music can be soaring, powerful, and meaningful. Just as often, Sampson replicates the calliope of a circus, to underscore the specific scenes in such a setting. As always, the music is the secret glue that holds Morris’ films together. For a film that’s already slightly disconnected, Sampson’s graceful soundtrack becomes essential to maintaining the spiritual continuity between scenes.

Directly after “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Errol Morris would begin work on “First Person.” A television show that ran for two seasons on Bravo – back when Bravo was a classy cable network instead of another trashy reality show station – the show essentially brought Morris’ style to television. In many ways, his sixth feature is a test run for the series. Both tout the use of Interrotron, Morris’ patented style of having an interview subject look directly into the audience’s eyes. “First Person” would also focus on individual’s telling their stories, often detailing their private passions. In this way, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” is a bit like four episodes of “First Person” cut together. While not Morris’ most seamless film, “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control” is another impressive effort from the documentary's most interesting filmmaker. [Grade: B]

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