Of Mole Rats and Men

Errol Morris does a job on American work-force eccentrics

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control sounds like an old exploitation title, but it belongs to the latest of the idiosyncratic documentaries of Errol Morris. This one interweaves interviews with four men of peculiar occupation, linked only by their study of animal form and function. Dave Hoover trains big cats for Clyde Beatty's circus; George Mendonca is a topiary gardener for a private estate in Rhode Island; Rodney Brooks designs robots at MIT; and Ray Mendez studies the social patterns of African naked mole rats, having designed the habitat for them at the Philadelphia Zoo.

What makes the film so lovely--it's one of the best films of the year--is that Morris isn't using these guys for freak value. As funny and sometimes touching as his earlier works, like Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, were, they still carried a gentle but unmistakable undercurrent of arch amusement for the pet morticians, turkey hunters and other oddball crackers they chronicled.

Even in The Thin Blue Line, though it raised the tabloid crime reenactment to the level of cinema art, Morris somehow imbued the interviewees with a quality of corn-pone comedy. In Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Morris, rightly, views his subjects as being no more obsessive, or their work no more absurd, than that of, say, a documentary filmmaker.

Of the four, roboticist Brooks is the only one whose work has any practical "real world" applications. Yet he somehow seems the least secular, the dreamiest, maybe the most melancholy. His basic designs are modeled on insects, and operate without direct programming to any specific task--his guiding principle is that a machine will just naturally do whatever it's designed to do.

Bald and wide-eyed, with an elusive accent (Australian? South African?), Brooks is touched with a vision that he isn't fully comfortable with--the idea that consciousness is a product of activity and sensory input, not the other way around. He jokes that perhaps God gave us consciousness so that He'd have an easy way to interface with us. He also speculates that the eventual result of advances in robotics could be the replacement of carbon-based life with silicon-based.

Indeed, this is the source of the film's title: Brooks' proposal to NASA that single Martian-surface probes be replaced with large numbers of his inexpensive, independently operating robo-bugs, which he characterizes as "fast, cheap and out of control."

In his mild-mannered way, he's apocalyptic, yet Brooks doesn't seem like a sci-fi nerd. There's something quietly moving about this robot man's reflective humanity.

Hoover, the animal trainer, speaks respectfully of the huge beasts he works with, and Morris captured amazing scenes of him holding mangy, harried, cloudy-eyed lions at bay and bending them to his will. There's no visible machismo in what he does, and he's frank about how his secret is all bluff and misdirection and psychological manipulation. The idea, he says, is to "get their minds off eating the guy in the white pants."

The wittiest and most animated of Morris' interviewees is the one with the narrowest field of interest--mole-rat fanatic Mendez, who wears bright colors and a bow tie. The endearingly disgusting rodents--hairless burrow-dwellers with grotesquely enormous incisors, they both eat their own shit and then roll in it as an olfactory ID badge--captivate him because of their social organization: Against long-held zoological orthodoxy, they're mammals who live like colony insects, with a queen and workers.

"They're these amazing mammals that break the rules," Mendez enthuses, inadvertently providing Morris with another metaphor for humanity.

The inference that emerges from the intercutting between these men is insistently reductive to the human experience: Humans are mammals, mammals can be just like insects, insects are really just machines. The wild card is topiary sculptor Mendonca--how to explain a pure artist? This elderly, soft-spoken man works on intuition alone, shaping animals from trivet with a pair of hand shears, by the traditional method of cutting away everything that doesn't look like his subject.

Morris overlaps the interviews with scenes of the circus performers, of the robots, of the comically oblivious mole rats clambering over each other shot by the masterly cinematographer Robert Richardson. Morris also uses stock footage--of cartoon robots, of the tin-pot robot heavies from The Mysterious Doctor Satan and Zombies of the Stratosphere, and of the handsome, young Clyde Beatty battling winged Lost City warriors in the deranged 1936 serial Darkest Africa. This mad collage is driven forward by Caleb Sampson's Philip Glass-ish music.

Yet for all this directorial flash, the film is probably Morris' most personal work. It comes as no surprise to see that it's wistfully dedicated to his late parents--though Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is patient, complex and highly controlled, there's a real urgency to Morris' attempt to integrate four unique viewpoints into some answers about life.

As inquiries into consciousness and existence are wont to do, the film eventually starts going around in circles, and, with the lulling music and hypnotic pace, the last 10 minutes or so border on the monotonous. But to complain that Fast, Cheap & Out of Control doesn't have a satisfying ending is, more or less, to knock it for failing to figure out the meaning of life.

The wall that Morris runs into is the same one which gives the film its beauty--paradox. Our species seems, in many respects, little more than savage beasts held at bay by psychological conditioning, rodents nesting cozily in our own filth, fast, out-of-control robots who treat life cheaply.

Given this, how can there be room for a topiary gardener, or for a man who studies another species he readily--almost proudly--admits is "completely irrelevant" to us? And how can a movie about the animal, mechanical nature of humanity be so impassioned, so charged with the spiritual?

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Directed by Errol Morris.
Rated

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