Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

(USA - 1997)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, Rodney Brooks
Genre: Documentary
Director: Error Morris
Screenplay: -
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Composer: Caleb Sampson
Runtime: 80 minutes

Errol Morris' debut Gates of Heaven (1978) was an introduction to a great documentarian who got seemingly uncommon people to tell wonderful stories to his now famous Interrotron that explained just how different, or perhaps similar, they were. The results were interesting, unusual, mysterious, emotional, and funny among many other things, especially since Morris remains pretty much invisible, refusing to clue you in to when he's smirking and when he's compassionate. The results weren't particularly cinematic though, as the film was essentially a one camera documentary where talking head interviews were edited together. This didn't hurt Gates of Heaven, a film Roger Ebert has called one of the 10 best ever, because the interviews were so compelling the rest was basically irrelevant. But what if Morris could make a documentary that instead looked like an art film?

He first tried doing just that with 1988's A Thin Blue Line. The film was so powerful it got a new trial for wrongfully convicted Randall Dale Adams, eventually getting him off death row and even released from prison. Prior to becoming a filmmaker Morris had worked as a private eye for two years, and as a piece of investigative journalism the film was invaluable in that it embarrassed the law so badly they were forced to finally do the right thing. From a cinematic standpoint though, the film didn't really work as a whole. It had two highly effective halves - the talking head interviews and the noirish reconstructions excellently scored by Phillip Glass - but in essence one distracted from the other and the facts were overwhelmed by the subjective reenactments. In a way, Morris had lied to tell the truth.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control declares Morris' arrival as an expert filmmaker. It retains Morris' brilliance for getting interesting stories rather than predictable boring cliches out of his interviewees, but it presents them in the kind of poetic kaleidoscope you might associate with the late Derek Jarman.

Ace cinematographer Robert Richardson does one of his best jobs. It's very rare that you'd see such a respected lensman, a guy that had recently shot films like JFK, Natural Born Killers, & Casino, work on a documentary. That said, after looking at Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, maybe if more documentary directors were willing to take chances like Morris this could become the place for great cinematographers. After all, the Hollyplastic product is totally on autopilot, and seemingly half of each film is added after it's shot, which reduces the chances of doing anything exciting or experimental to the odds of winning the lottery. I don't know how much freedom Richardson had here, but it sure looks like a lot because the film was about mixing rather than matching. Seemingly every time there was an edit there was some kind of change whether it be in film stock/texture, filters, color or black and white. Then there are the unconventional angles, the motion effects, and so on.

The genius here is clearly Morris because he combines all this odd footage of his interviewees work with the interviews and found footage of old movies and cartoons into something that is dreamlike but has a fairly logical flow and somehow feels like it all belongs together. The footage associated with each interviewee has its own rhythm that fits their job, but what makes it virtuoso is the way it's combined. The editing turns four simple fairly consistent pieces into a symphony of endless time changes.

The challenge for Morris is to find ways to connect the disconnected. I don't think Morris evolution has made him less of a documentarian. The film is still the interviews, but now we are asked to look at them in different ways. It's more manipulative than Gates of Heaven because Morris is making decisions of when to mismatch the talker with his work and when to employ the found footage, but everything in film is decisions because every filmmaker more or less chooses what to film and what makes the final product. To me Fast, Cheap & Out of Control was more thought provoking and required more active viewing than Gates of Heaven did, so I'm going to say that beyond being far more interesting to watch the new style is also better when done right.

That Morris is able to make the film work is truly an achievement because the four individuals Morris interviews start off seeming like they have nothing in common. The subjects are Dave Hooper, a wild animal trainer who works in the circus with lions and tigers, George Mendonca, a topiary gardener that uses the cut and wait method to trim bushes into animals, Ray Mendez, a naked mole rat specialist that studies them and in various ways displays them to the public, and Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist that builds robots. Soon, we realize they have unusual jobs that they love and which define their existence. By the end, they all seem like mad geniuses that just had different callings in life, but like every human are obsessed with controlling their surroundings in whatever ways suit them best.

I found this film refreshing because it doesn't present the same old people. There's nothing more boring than things like watching people who shop so they can show off a bunch of useless flashy junk or go to parties and get drunk in hopes of finding a mate that's wasted enough to sleep with them. If there are a million places in your area to engage in frivolous empty routines, if that's really so interesting why not just go yourself rather than watch someone else do it? I might not want to switch places with any of these guys, but their work is at least interesting to watch and they are able to convey with passion why they feel it's interesting to do. I can make a decision on my interest in their jobs because they go into what is good and bad about them in some detail, avoiding the usual stuff that everyone says because it's supposed to sound good and allows them not to have any real opinion or offend anyone. Sometimes these guys, particularly the scientist, sound insane, but wouldn't everyone sound insane on some issue(s) if they let their guard down and started getting into what they really thought rather than thanking god for giving them a chance to contribute to the team? I also like seeing people whose success came from dedication not who they knew and whose ass they kissed. Amazingly, there are still people that are successful because they are dedicated and hard working.

The brilliance of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is that it keeps you guessing. You guess how these people are connected, what it's about, what it means, hell even what is being documented. Guessing leads to imagining, hoping, deducing, and so on until you eventually synthesize your own meaning. The interviews, look, and editing are all interesting on their own and together, but the fun is in its openness. The film is out of control in that sense, but really it's under a great amount of control because Morris has limited the guessing to certain specific topics rather than creating a random hodgepodge that could mean anything because there's not enough evidence to prove or disprove any theory. Within his structuring though, he's left enough room for the viewer to have fun interpreting. If this were a big act of manipulation, people wouldn't be able to find so many meanings much less consider if shot B went with shot A or shot C or both. The film finds the perfect balance between rigidness and randomness, so there's a kind of eliciting and order to what's there, but not a consistency so we can predict it. It's more that we impose it because we have certain viewing habits that Morris understands, and thus he's able to have a continuity in the editing that doesn't really exist because our imagination creates it.

It's often hard to say what the best example of someone's style is. Their best film is sometimes a consensus, but it's more centered on the viewer - what they are rating on and what appeals to them - than the filmmaker. I think what Morris is going for in his two best films, this and Gates of Heaven, is transcending the interviewees into a philosophical exploration of such topics as god, death, normality, reasoning, struggle, eccentricity, madness, genius, and basically the universal ideas of what life is all about. Despite stylistic changes, what remains is no one is sure what Morris thinks, and no one is sure what exactly the film is about or means because it's allowed to have whatever meanings you choose to pursue.





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