Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Of Mole-rats and Men

By Chris Herrington

APRIL 27, 1998:  Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ fifth film in 20 years. But with those five films, Morris has redefined and created his own type of documentary storytelling. Where the relation between film and reality would seem to be a given in the genre, Morris scoffs at the very notion that style guarantees truth. Instead, Morris calls his nonfiction film technique an “excursion into a dreamscape,” incorporating stylistic flourishes and metaphysical ponderings into his films in ways that eschew traditional forms.

Morris made his film debut in 1978 with Gates of Heaven. One of the truly great films of recent times, this hard-to-find classic is a portrait of two California pet cemeteries, the people who own them, and those whose pets are laid to rest there. The triumph of Gates of Heaven is that it could have merely been a snicker vehicle, but instead Morris invests it with wonder, hope, sadness, and an unparalleled joy in verbal communication.

Morris’ next film, Vernon, Florida (1981) was a rambling look at the eccentric inhabitants of the title town. It is in the same vein as Gates of Heaven, but stays on the surface where Gates of Heaven aims for the stars. There are still splendid moments, chief among them a man and his son who are absolutely obsessed with hunting turkeys.


Rodney Brooks, robot scientist
Morris’ later films, The Thin Blue Line (1988) and A Brief History of Time (1992), are more widely seen and more readily available. Modern art is inundated with investigations of the slippery nature of truth, but perhaps none are as effective as The Thin Blue Line, which actually freed a man from life in prison. An investigation into the case of Randall Adams, a man convicted of the murder of a Dallas police officer, The Thin Blue Line takes its title from a speech about the police as a protective border between justice and anarchy. But as Morris reopens Adams’s case and we watch the “truth” permutate and distort before our eyes, that thin blue line gains a different, more sinister, meaning. The Thin Blue Line also marks an evolution for Morris into a more controlled, stylized method that incorporates found and constructed images with his more traditional documentary materials. Chief among these were reenactments of the crime from different perspectives, which have since become television staples, but which were controversial at the time. A Brief History of Time, part Stephen Hawking biopic and part adaption of the cosmologist’s best-selling book of the same title, is Morris’ most conventional film, but is still quite successful, especially for its continuation of The Thin Blue Line’s stylistic developments.


Dave Hoover, animal trainer

Morris’ latest achievement, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, combines elements of his two earlier masterpieces to form a film unlike any other. It combines the formal complexity, control, and emotional intensity of The Thin Blue Line with the metaphysical weirdness and wonderment of Gates of Heaven, but there is also an elegiac undertone that is new in Morris’ work. Even more so than Morris’ other genre-negating works, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control resists the documentary label.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control begins, before the opening credits, with a montage of interwoven images. There are robots, rodent-like creatures, a man walking through a topiary garden, clips from an old B-movie called Darkest Africa, the odd sight of a circus clown running around the big top with a skeleton attached to his back. This montage establishes both the form and content of the film, and hints at the mystery about to unfold.

After the opening credits, we are introduced, in four brief segments, to the men who are the ostensible subjects of the film. There is Dave Hoover, a lion tamer who was a protege of industry legend and B-movie action star (including, we learn, Darkest Africa) Clyde Beatty. Next we meet George Mendonca, a topiary gardener who has been working at the same garden since 1938. Then there is Ray Mendez, child insect fanatic and photographer who became a mole-rat specialist after these hairless mammals were discovered living in underground societies similar to termites. Finally there is Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist from M.I.T. whose creations bear a resemblance to the now-famed Mars Sojourner.


George Mendonca, gardener
The remainder of the film tells the story of these men and their peculiar, fascinating occupations. Like the visual montage that opens the film, the stories are interwoven. The talking-head interviews are mingled with other types of footage. Some of this footage is illustrative (scenes of the mole-rats which show the behavior Mendez is describing, for instance), and some is associative (scenes from cartoons and old films). Also like the opening montage, the visual styles vary: black-and-white or color, grainy or clear, sped-up, slowed-down, or in normal speed. Most importantly, there is visual and aural overlap. The sound of one subject being interviewed will overlap with visual images that would seem to pertain to another, implying a commonality among the four components.

It is in this overlap, this series of visual rhymes and juxtapositions, that Fast, Cheap & Out of Control acquires its magical, meditative quality. One of the film’s many strengths is its status as an open text. Many themes emerge from the film, and it is open to each viewer to decide which are dominant. Among the many thematic strands are: mortality, the danse macabre of predator and prey, coordination and its absence, the struggle to control nature, the centrality of work, and the pursuit of mastery.

Of this last theme, Morris himself clearly becomes a fifth subject. The occupational obsessions of the other four men serve as a metaphor for Morris’ act of filmmaking; his pursuit of mastery evident in every delicate, carefully composed visual. Like any great film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is rife with startling images. There are the beautiful nighttime crane shots of Mendonca working on his giraffe, lit from the back so that it glows. There is the unforgettable gleam in Brooks’ eyes, the jittery movements of the mole rats and robots, and the aforementioned circus clown – an image that appears only twice, during the opening montage and at the film’s conclusion.


Ray Mendez, mole-rat specialist
It is this circus clown, forever chased by the specter of death, that serves as the key to the film. Dedicated to the memory of his late mother and stepfather, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control seems to be Morris’ meditation on mankind’s mortality, and his hymn to our humanity. Recurring black-and-white shots of Beatty take on a ghost-like quality, like a skeleton attached to each man’s back.

Lion tamer Hoover and gardener Mendonca are symbols of mortality. They are older men who have dedicated their lives to pursuits that are not exactly growth industries. Hoover talks of the other trainers who have died and is shown training his own successor. Mendonca says, “It took me 15 years to make that bear, I won’t live to make another one.”

On the other side is the future. Mole-rat researcher Brooks and robot scientist Mendez are younger men who have dedicated themselves to the study of creatures who may replace man – the species living below us and the beings we create. “Some people really believe that we are going to replace ourselves by building these machines,” Brooks says. “And that carbon-based life is on the way out and silicon-based life will be what emerges. That may be … there may not be a place for humans in the future.” The film ends with Mendonca wondering what will become of his beautiful creations after he’s gone. As we remember the passions and eccentricities of these four men, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control mourns the day our rat and robot masters inherit the earth.


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