Film Reviews

Four-ring circus

Documentarian Errol Morris is by far best known for his 1988 feature, The Thin Blue Line, which is often described as the only film that ever got an innocent man off death row. But he got his start with a very different sort of material: His first two films, Gates of Heaven (about pet cemeteries) and Vernon, Florida (about life in a small town) were droll, delicate studies of human eccentricity, marked by a wry world-view and subtle, but never condescending, satirical observations.

In fact, The Thin Blue Line is the least typical of Morris' nonfiction films: Its production was an unexpected detour from his usual work. He had been interviewing inmates for a different film altogether when convicted murderer Randall Adams told him his story. Nearly everyone on death row has a story about how he was framed, but Adams piqued Morris' interest. After a little research, Morris became convinced of Adams' innocence and made the film that proved, at the very least, that Adams had been improperly tried.

Morris never finished the project he had been working on when he got sidetracked by Adams, and his subsequent movies have been few and far between. After Thin Blue Line, he made his sole fictional effort, a version of Tony Hillerman's detective novel Dark Wind, which was badly reviewed and barely released. Ironically, Morris' flashy fictionalized storytelling techniques--so effective in Thin Blue Line that they stirred some controversy--didn't work as well in real fiction. A Brief History of Time--a biopic/science-instruction adaptation of Stephen Hawking's bestseller--combined the technical sophistication of Line with the filmmaker's earlier fascination for extraordinary eccentrics.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control marks something of a return to the manner--or at least the matter--of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. Morris interviews four grown men who have lived to realize what many would regard as adolescent dreams: Dave Hoover, infatuated as a boy with wild-animal trainer Clyde Beatty, followed in his footsteps and became a circus lion tamer; George Mendonca tends an elaborate topiary garden, carefully shaping and maintaining his own collection of faux wildlife; biologist Ray Mendez studies mole rats, a relatively recently discovered mammalian species that lives in the sorts of communities more associated with social insects; and Rodney Brooks is an M.I.T. artificial intelligence scientist whose robots exhibit forms of animal behavior.

Fast, Cheap is, in formal terms, the most intriguing of Morris' films to date. He doesn't merely intercut the four stories: He frequently mates the voice of one subject with visual footage more obviously relevant to one of his other interviewees. The effect is to emphasize the common aspects of their dreams and lives rather than the differences.

At the same time, he doesn't seem to have an organizing agenda; certainly, whatever drives and unifies the film is far less clear than in The Thin Blue Line, whose single-minded goal--freeing an innocent man--was more crucial than its tangential aesthetic aspects. Most apparently, the four subjects here are all engaged in different ways of taming the animal world--by whips, guns, and psychology; by scientific study; by creation of controllable, cybernetic "animals"; or, in Mendonca's case, through symbolic effigies.

In his earlier studies of eccentrics, Morris' style was essentially naturalistic, with no cinematic "tricks" or flashy devices. But those were nearly two decades ago; now the filmmaker seems to be searching for ways of expanding the language of documentary without losing the generous, humanistic touch that so distinguished his first two films.

Strangely enough, he has achieved this through a devious technique that gives the illusion of eye contact during interviews. And he's done it through what should be an alienating mechanical intrusion. He and his subjects talk to each other through a system of monitors, cameras, and half-silvered mirrors, so that, by looking directly at each others' images, they are actually looking straight into the camera.

It seems ass backwards, but, in this case certainly, it works. At times, particularly with the somewhat wild-eyed Brooks, the sense of direct contact is almost unnerving.

The actual interview footage isn't what leaves the strongest impression, however. The strange editing strategy provokes all sorts of questions about the relationship of the four stories. Cinematographer Robert Richardson provides all manner of diverse textures, in the style he developed on such Oliver Stone films as Natural Born Killers and JFK. (He does the same in Stone's new U-Turn, to far less benevolent or enlightening effect.) Scenes of the men at work are intercut with circus footage, old cartoons, and corny Clyde Beatty serials. By the end, "the circus" has become the movie's dominant metaphor.

No matter what ideological or aesthetic connections we may read into the juxtaposition of these four lives, Morris seems to be hinting, all he is guaranteeing us is wild amusement...a four-ring circus, if you will, any part of which we are welcome to focus on.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Directed by Errol Morris. Starring Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, and Rodney Brooks. Opens Friday.

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Andy Klein