"In the ultimate form, all of this stuff is looking at Other."—Ray Mendez
Nobody makes documentaries quite like Errol Morris. From The Thin Blue Line, where his taut retelling of a murder case led to the release of a falsely accused man, to Mr. Death, where he allows a seemingly mild-mannered designer of execution equipment paint himself into a corner as he defends his theory that the Holocaust never happened, Morris likes to point his camera and allow subjects to reveal their deepest secrets. Sometimes, those secrets have enormous repercussions, as when he lets Stephen Hawking explain the workings of the cosmos in A Brief History of Time. And sometimes…
Sometimes his subjects just seem rather odd. Take these four men, for example. Dave Hoover is a wild animal trainer, disciple of lion tamer and movie hero Clyde Beatty. George Mendonça shapes topiaries, tending his gardens without an audience. Ray Mendez is an entomologist whose studies have turned him on to the wonders of naked mole rats (stop sniggering—that is what they are called). Rodney Brooks builds robots.
None of these men know one another. Each lives in his own world. But like the individual acts in a circus—and Morris plays on the circus theme throughout his film—they form a complete show, a series of precarious dances with chaos. In old Clyde Beatty jungle movies, chaos could always be contained by the will of a strong white man. Beatty could take out his whip and his gun and nature (and natives) would bow down before him. But these four white men are always aware that their attempts to tame nature are both exciting and frustrating.
As their individual stories accelerate, Errol Morris keeps their threads relatively separate. But quickly these men begin to inadvertently comment on each other, and on their relationships to nature as a whole. Brooks talks about teaching robots to solve their own problems, while we view images of circus acrobats testing their balance. Mendez talks about the brutal pragmatism of naked mole rats (like eating their young to keep from taxing the food supply) while we see Brooks' insectoid robots learning to interact.
The result is a subtly structured journey through the relationship between humanity and the outside world. We learn how each of these men came to join their respective fields. How does each handle his corner of the "natural" world, and what are the risks and relationships they have discovered along the way? How do robots or naked mole rats or plants or big cats deal with chaotic situations?
Ultimately, each man comes around to the conclusion that dealing with nature is really dealing with an alien other "that exists irrelevant of yourself," as Mendez remarks. Brooks speculates that robotic artificial intelligences "will be aliens to us." Mendonça ruefully notes that topiaries require constant maintenance or "you will lose control over them." And Hoover, always concerned with the possibility of death, tells a story of fighting off a cage of panicked lions. As he remarks earlier in the film, "It's new every time you go in, and you have to be alert—constantly."
The same might be said of Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control itself. Morris mixes traditional color footage, black and white, video, and various film stocks to force the audience to constantly rethink every association we make as the film progresses. The film is well served by an anamorphic transfer and a relatively clean print that only shows minor scratches. Unfortunately, audio is only offered in 2.0, not that there is much more than talking in the film, and Philip Glass wannabe Caleb Sampson only turns in a serviceable score. And there are no extras whatsoever (except a couple of trailers for other movies).
But Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control is well worth viewing for those searching for an engaging documentary. It takes at least a second viewing just to begin to see the possible interconnections among these men and what their individual experiences suggest about our own attempts to define, control, and understand nature. Very few documentaries lend themselves to repeat viewing, usually laying all their cards on the table right away, but Errol Morris encourages constant interaction. Indeed that is one of the key themes of Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control: how we interact with the Other suggests a great deal about how we view ourselves.
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