Living Proof

The quirky documentarian Errol Morris finds human drama in strange places. His most renowned film, 1988's The Thin Blue Line, made such a compelling case for the innocence of a convicted Dallas cop-killer that the prisoner eventually walked off death row. Morris has also examined the genius physicist Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time and grieving pet owners in Gates of Heaven.

We should not be surprised, then, that this highly original nonfictionist has, in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, gone searching for the meaning of life in the careers of a lion trainer, a robot scientist at MIT, a garden sculptor and--perhaps furthest out on the edge--a fellow wearing a plaid flannel shirt and a butterfly-pattern bow tie who's obsessed with the hairless mole-rat, an obscure little mammal that behaves like an insect.

The startling Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not elements of such an enterprise are appealing in themselves, but our Mr. Morris is more than a collector of oddities. Among filmmakers, he may be unequaled as a social anthropologist and a dreamer, and in the space of 82 minutes he builds a web of unexpected connections linking a wary daredevil in a circus cage, an artist who fashions bears and giraffes from privets and two fellows absorbed by the behavior of insects--living and electronic. The messages, artfully combined and edited, are more interesting than any of the four protagonists and more elusive: They have to do with the ambitions of humankind, the societies of animals and (if you like) the nature of the jungle that is the late twentieth century.

This amounts to an extraordinary harvest from rather ordinary lives. Dave Hoover, the lion trainer, may have modeled his career on the great Clyde Beatty's, and he may face mortal danger two shows a day, but he talks about his trade as though it were bricklaying: "You distract the lion from his original thought, which is 'Eat the man in the white pants.'" George Mendonca, the topiary gardener, tells us how he spent fifteen years waiting for a single bush to grow so he could properly reshape a giraffe head. Rodney Brooks, the robot guy, has the air of a lab geek, and as he drones on about his work ("To an observer, it appears as though the robot has intentions and has goals and is following people and chasing prey, but it's just the interaction of lots and lots of much simpler processes"), you may find yourself wondering how you wound up on a field trip quite this dull. Meanwhile, the mole-rat man, Ray Mendez, assumes we want to know everything about his beloved creatures, even that they eat their own droppings.

It's a minor miracle that out of this morass Errol Morris has created a meditation on existence--on our fear of the Other, on the search for ourselves in a society of rodents, on the blessings of patience and the erosions of time. This demands a keen mind and a certain way of seeing, gifts that Morris has honed to a fine edge and uses when we least expect him to.

Speaking of his cats, Dave Hoover warns: "They can nail you before you can say 'Oops!'" Well, sure. In the same way, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control nails the intelligent viewer before he or she can say "I don't think I wanna watch this."


Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
Documentary produced and directed by Errol Morris. With Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez and Rodney Brooks.


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