So what do a wild-animal trainer, a robot scientist, a mole-rat specialist, and a topiary gardener have in common? Improbably enough, there are many different answers to that question in Errol Morris' 1997 documentary Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control, which makes associations between four interview subjects whose lives have never overlapped. But the first answer is this: They're all a lot like Errol Morris—obsessive, passionate, iconoclastic, and one of a kind. From his 1978 debut feature Gates Of Heaven, Morris has refused to play by the documentary rules, whether in choosing his eccentric subjects (a California pet cemetery in Gates, an execution-device designer and Holocaust denier in Mr. Death, the numerous colorful characters in his First Person series) or with his radical style, which defies both the austere PBS model of talking heads and archival footage, and the fly-on-the-wall vérité of Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker. His audacious use of staged reenactments in The Thin Blue Line set the stage for many disreputable TV news-magazine segments to come, but they also freed an innocent man from death row. And though the follies of the Bush administration have lately inspired him to expand his scope to the political arena in The Fog Of War and Standard Operating Procedure, Morris' focus is no less acute and detail-oriented, and his stamp is still unmistakable. He's one of only a small handful of filmmakers who can be identified within a few seconds of watching a movie; the director's credit is superfluous.
Perhaps more than anything he had directed previously or since, Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control is a window inside Morris' thought processes, because the film's peculiar rhythms and associations are entirely self-generated. Otherwise, you'd be left to wonder why someone spliced together footage that might have comprised four episodes of First Person a few years later. Linking interviews from four guys who don't know each other and operate in entirely different fields sounds like an editor's worst nightmare, and it's made more confounding by the fact that there's no unifying chronology. There are a lot of ideas floating around—some specific to what the men do, others more abstract and philosophical—and it's Morris' challenge to bring order to them without making the film contrived or forced. This no doubt took a great deal of planning in the interview stages and raised all sorts of transition problems in linking one subject and observation to another, but the miracle of the film is that the connections feel intuitive, as if Morris were making them on the fly.
The four subjects are the type of men who would never think about retirement, because they care too much about what they do: Dave Hoover knew he wanted to be a wild-animal trainer at the circus from the early age, when he watched his hero, actor and trainer Clyde Beatty, appear in cheesy serial adventure movies with titles like Darkest Africa. He's a veteran performer at the Cole Bros. Circus, working a 40-foot ring with ferocious lions and tigers spry enough to dash across a football field in three or four seconds. Ray Mendez thought he'd received some sort of divine blessing when he learned of the naked African mole rat, and threw himself eagerly into studying a creature that burrows underground and lives in stable, constant temperatures. (It has no hair because it doesn't need heat, it doesn't have the ability to shiver because it's never cold, and it doesn't sweat because it's never hot.) Rodney Brooks is an MIT robot scientist who strives to create machines that function independently from human control, and imagines a future where silicon-based life forms replace their carbon-dependent counterparts. And finally, George Mendonça is a gardener at a Rhode Island topiary garden that features shrubbery in the form of animals, including a giraffe, a bear, and an ostrich, among other whimsical creations.
Perhaps inspired by Federico Fellini's "circus of life," Morris swoops deliriously from subject to subject as if filming a four-ring circus, and the effect is more hypnotic than illustrative. All his stylistic tics—including the same jarring mixed formats (from color-saturated 35mm to super-grainy 8mm) that his cinematographer, Robert Richardson, used for Natural Born Killers, plus a Caleb Sampson score performed by the Alloy Orchestra—are designed to break down viewers' defenses and make them more receptive to the film's steady stream of abstract ideas. Early in the film, we're learning the basics of mole rats and hedge-trimming, and before we realize it, our minds are open to ruminations on life, death, consciousness, and the very nature of human existence. Really, the best possible explanation for how the movie works comes from Dave the animal trainer, who explains in this clip how "four points of interest" affect a lion. In this metaphor, we're the lion:
Dave talks about the lion getting confused and agitated, and it's possible to have that reaction to Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control, which assumes viewers will adjust to its unconventional wavelength. But the process of working through the movie and trying to understand it goes hand-in-glove with what these four men (and Morris) are laboring to do themselves: Create order out of seeming chaos. Dave knows that those lions and tigers would eat him alive if he didn't distract them with chair legs and other bluffs to make it seem like he's in control. George regularly defies the will of nature by sculpting his gardens in a way that the elements constantly seek to undo; when a storm wipes out a giraffe's head in mere seconds, he speculates it'll take three or four years to restore. Ray and Rodney both work in fields where the actions of the individual, be it a mole rat or a robot, can seem irrational, but make sense when they're part of a collective with a common goal. This leads Rodney to the conclusion that sending 100 one-kilogram robots to do a job that might be given to a single 100-kilogram robot is the best solution; as an example, he says that when watching a school of ants carry breakfast cereal across the floor, some might drop it, but the task continues. Hence the title of Rodney's paper about the use of robots for interplanetary exploration: Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control: A Robot Invasion Of The Solar System.
Of the four, George seems like the odd man out. He isn't a deep thinker or innovator; the most practical insight he has into his job is that hand shears are a must, since electric shears would botch the detailing. While Ray and Rodney ruminate about how the study of robots and mole rats are a means of understanding themselves, George doesn't get too introspective about what he does. He's a gardener, and a very skillful one at that, but he never gives the impression that hedge-trimming provides him with any insight into the nature of being: To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a hedge is just a hedge. But toward the end of the film, George utters perhaps its most important line: "As long as I live, I'll take care of [the gardens], but I don't know what will happen after that."
Morris dedicates Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control to the memory of his mother and stepfather, and by the time the film reaches George's quote, it's evolved into a profoundly moving meditation on death and what it means to be human. George may be a simple guy, but he's singular, because there's no one around that understands how to tend to these topiary creations quite like he can. Contrast that with the lives of a mole rat or one of Rodney's miniature robots, which are entirely expendable, because they function together and can take over a task whenever another one fails or perishes. When these four men die, there may be other scientists or trainees waiting in the wings, but it won't be quite the same world without them and their idiosyncratic pursuits. An accountant can be replaced. A man passionately devoted to the study of the naked African mole rat? Not so easy.
But like many meditations on death, the film is ultimately life-affirming. For all of Rodney's talk about humans creating machines to replace themselves, he also seeks to "understand life by building something that is lifelike." That spirit of exploration and investigation—not to mention a boundless affection for eccentrics—has been a guiding force in Morris' work since Gates Of Heaven, and Fast, Cheap & Out Of Control is driven by an almost magical curiosity. That's what connects him to his subjects, and in clips like the one below, what connects his subjects to their little corner of the world.
May 29: Battle Royale
June 5: Dead Man
June 12: Wet Hot American Summer
June 19: The Boondock Saints (with special guest Overnight)