Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

fast, cheap & out of control (1997)

Errol morris’ existential documentary “fast, cheap & out of control” (1997) often has the feel of a fellini movie – with its big top scenes and nino rota style music score by caleb sampson.  But if the “circus of life” attitude is prevalent throughout, it is tempered by a somewhat somber mood concerning the human condition.  Somber, perhaps because there is a belief held by some of those interviewed for the film, in the inevitable decline of humanity.  Maybe this is the reason the films’s title and the names of the principal humans involved are all presented in lower case letters.   Well, maybe…

Fast, cheap & out of control, examines the lives and work of four men, all of whom are involved in vocations that are admirably unique.  They are, in order of their first appearances in the film, dave hoover, a wild animal trainer, george mendonca, a topiary gardener, ray mendez, and expert on the naked mole rat and rodney brooks, a robot maker.  Emerging from the exploration of these wildly disparate careers, is the theme of life, human and animal, real and artificial. 

Mendez and brooks began their careers with a fascination for insects – brooks for how they moved and mendez particularly interested in their societal structures.    Brooks as a young man loved to build computers, then became enthralled with the world of robots.  Even after entering a career as a robot maker, he was startled to see one of his creations actually move.  He was responsible for the movement, after all, but was never-the-less intoxicated by the belief that he somehow created a form of life. 

George mendonca, it could be said, is a creator of life as well – specializing in huge animals sculpted from bushes.  A haunting shot, near the start of the film, features a giraffe seen from a low angle, darkened skies pouring down rain.  Stunningly photographed by robert richardson, the “green animal” seems just in time to board Noah’s ark.  This may be seen by some as a strangely apocalyptic image for such a beautiful film, but as we will see, an appropriate one. 

If the men seem exceptionally nerdy, human bonding is seen as essential as told in the story of dave hoover’s developing relationship with a childhood heroe –  lion tamer and “B” picture star, Clyde Beatty.  First introduced to lion taming by beatty’s films, hoover later met his idol in the air force and the two became friends. 

Although all four of these intriguing gentleman are given roughly equal screen time, it soon becomes clear that the circus milieu of hoover’s profession will act as the major metaphor.  As a microcosm of life, it is rarely surpassed.  Fellini was well aware of this and so is errol morris.  Every variety of humans is found here, as well as a startling array of animals.  Morris frequently places commentary by all four subjects over circus footage.  We see images of balancing acts – a man balancing a glass of water on his forehead, dogs balancing on a spinning wheel and women atop large rubber balls.  Life, it would appear is seen by the filmmaker as, indeed, a balancing act – for man and beast alike.  As hoover and mendez attest, we learn by trial and error.  Hoover even had a near death experience in his act, when a lion’s claw got tangled in the band of his wristwatch.  The lesson learned by hoover?  Never wear a watch again – at least not while dealing with man-eating animals.   

According to rodney brooks, evolution is as important in the creation of robots, as he feels it is in man’s.  “Inside the human brain is a reptile brain.  Inside a reptile brain is a fish brain.”  All life is connected – even artificial life, which he sees as an evolutionary extension of man – and the final exalting level of man’s journey.  In a surreal piece of stock footage, we see a man walking a robot on a leash.  The leash won’t be necessary for long.  But george mendonca has a conflicting view, explaining in-depth why hand shears are superior to electric shears.  It is the human touch that makes them so effective. 

Despite this, man is always learning.  As rodney brooks points out, “I seek to understand life by building something lifelike.”  And ray mendez explains that people come to his mole rat exhibits to “find themselves in another social animal, to find common ground.”  And much common ground there is.  Mendez discusses how mole rats are always able to “find the alien in their midst”, sensing by smell (these weird little animals like to roll around in their own feces and urine) which rat may be a newcomer, and behaving with the mandatory scorn.  Hoover feels lions are very conscious beings, always “scheming” , he reports.  Mendez believes the source of stability for all living things is the fear of death.  It keeps us, for the most part, in line.  But there are differences as well.  He states that mole rats are forced to separate the sick and dying from the heard.  By contrast, when the chips are down, humans “culturally let everybody die.”  There is an undeniable air of the poetic, as morris follows these words with a shot of empty shoes at the foot of a circus net. 

The title is explained when brooks discusses a theory that thousands of tiny robots could be used to explore other planets.  Such robots would be “fast, cheap and out of control,”  With many robots, the loss of one or two would be less damaging to the mission.  These comments are accompanied by shots of World War II paratroopers leaping from planes, and are followed by mendez describing how “soldiers” protect the mole rat nest. 

As with all forms of life, keeping animal sculptures (and the plants that form them) alive is a constant battle.  There are heavy storms that weigh them down and, of course, insects.  It may all begin and end with insects – or insect like robots. 

A final note of philosophy comes from ray mendez: “Only in captivity can an animal get to reach old age.”  This may say more about the human condition than anything else in the film.  Eventually,  death is the ultimate fate of all living things, except perhaps, those that are artificially created.  As rodney brooks suggests, all carbon based forms of life may be on their way out.  Stock footage from old clyde beatty serials, shows volcanoes erupting and earthquakes rattling the planet.  After this we are shown a circus clown being chased by a skeleton.  But there is hope for the continued existence of mankind, according to morris, who uses footage of beatty emerging from the ruins with a small boy and other examples of trembling humanity.

The final image is of george mendonca, umbrella in hand, walking through his topiary garden as a steady rain falls on him and his creations.  Errol morris may believe, not in the decline of man, but in what he would probably refer to as man’s proper place in the chain of life.   This is not an apocalyptic rain after all, but rather one conducive to life – in all its forms.

CREDITS: Directed by errol morris. Photographed by robert richardson. Music by caleb sampson. With: dave hoover, george mendonca, ray mendez, rodney brooks.            

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April 23, 2013 - Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, documentary, film directors | , , , , , , ,

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