Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 10 July 2004
Manifested in a circus act are examples of basic human emotions. Clowns provide comedy, performers do stunts; each is applauded for their triumphs and sympathized for their failures. And despite its dull luster when seen beside more contemporary entertainments, the circus contains an inherent and timeless reality. It is in turn a near perfect microcosm for collective existence.
This claim provides justification for recurrent images of the circus in Errol Morris’ aptly titled Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Though only one of the four people interviewed in the film is affiliated with the greatest show on earth, the frequent images of the Big Top reinforce the film’s central theme: the attempt to decipher human behavior.
The film is a documentary (a term, here especially, whose lack of description should be noted), though it is more akin to Frankenstein than it is to Hoop Dreams. It concerns four idiosyncratic men with even more idiosyncratic (alas, a word inescapably used in reviews of Errol Morris films) occupations.
Dave Hoover is a wild animal trainer (lion-tamer). Heavily influenced by Clyde Beatty (the only celebrity the profession has cultivated), he realizes no one in his field will ever attain a celebrated status close to his predecessor’s.
George Medonca, topiary gardener, is also employed in a dying art. His work is confined to the garden of a rich widow: Green Animals, which he vows to maintain for as long as he lives.
Both Ray Mendez (mole-rat specialist) and Rodney Brooks (robot scientist) speak with gleeful excitement. Mendez has devoted his life to studying a mammal whose society resembles an insects’s (the only mammal known to do so). Brooks builds robots in an MIT A. I. lab.
The men and their work are, at first, seemingly unrelated. Two are dying professions, two will grow in future research; all are abstractly based upon shaping, manipulating, stifling, and studying the tendencies of an independently evolving agent, be it a wild lion or a robot with six arms. The more that is said, the more closely aligned the four and their careers become.
Given this knowledge, patterns emerge in both the visuals and monologues. Brooks speaks in voice-over of his robots, and images of Mendez’s mole-rats or Medonca’s Green Animals are seen, implying that there is a similarity between each man’s work and philosophy. Though the film operates as a sequence (the title signifies a beginning; the credits an end), there is no sequential drive to the film. It is a motion that stops, restarts, and meanders. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is sprawling in its directions.
In addition, there are several, deeper layers of subtext: in my favorite sequence, there are images of robots and teams of insects — they depict, briefly, the progression of technology or natural evolution. The sequence culminates in a scene from The Deadly Mantis. The footage displays a giant preying mantis attacking a fort somewhere near the Arctic Circle. This in-joke suggests that in spite of our attempts to control our surroundings, nature is inherently uncontrollable and the attempt to do so will potentially result in withdrawal — such is the case with legions of sci-fi films with monsters produced from nuclear experimentation, which makes the footage from The Deadly Mantis all the more apt and clever.
The selection of these four men and their studies, particularly, are arbitrary. In abstraction, they are points on a sphere; in interviewing them Morris is approaching life’s central truths. The closer the paths become, the more similar are the men’s philosophies. Ultimately, each is doing the same thing: controlling nature as a means of understanding one’s self. In the same way as the four characters perform their respective duties, watching the film is a potentially self-reflexive experience. The final triumph of Errol Morris’ champion documentary is that the film, itself, is a study parallel to each of the men interviewed.
Among numerous bits of extraneous information (why hand shears are better than electric shears and why lions are distracted by the legs of a chair are but two subjective facts learned) are moments of transcendent insight. Granted, musings over the behavioral tendencies of the naked mole-rat may seem irrelevant (or irreverent or both), though Mendez’ and his depicted colleagues’ disassociated musings over self-discovery become increasingly relevant. To discount their ability to offer relevant philosophy is to disregard their status; these are not characters, these are actual people.
The ambition of the film’s philosophy may overwhelm its style at times, though its technique merits equal praise. Caleb Sampson’s score is perfectly attuned to the film (mimicking a circus theme). The visual component of the film is delivered in panicked inconsistency (oddly, this is a compliment) — film stocks vary as often as the format (8, 16, and 35 millimeter; film, video and black & white are all prominent).
In the words of Brooks, who also supplies the film’s title, “You analyze it almost too much, life becomes almost meaningless.” The same may be applied to critiquing the film. In addition to its ability to be scrupulously analyzed, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is totally entertaining, which is perhaps the most praised remark that can be given to a documentary.