Film Reviews

Fourth Dimension

Documentarian Errol Morris is by far best known for his 1988 feature The Thin Blue Line, which is often described as the only film that ever got an innocent man off death row. But Morris got his start with very different sorts of material: His first two films -- 1978's...
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Documentarian Errol Morris is by far best known for his 1988 feature The Thin Blue Line, which is often described as the only film that ever got an innocent man off death row. But Morris got his start with very different sorts of material: His first two films -- 1978's Gates of Heaven (about a pet cemetery) and 1981's Vernon, Florida (about life in a small town) -- were droll, delicate studies of human eccentricity, marked by a wry world-view and subtle, but never condescending, satirical observations.

In fact, The Thin Blue Line is the least typical of Morris' nonfiction films. Its production was an unexpected detour from his usual work: He had been interviewing inmates for a different film altogether when convicted murderer Randall Adams told him his story. Nearly everyone on death row has a tale about how he was framed, but Adams' piqued Morris' interest. After a little research, he became convinced of Adams' innocence and made the film that proved, at the very least, that Adams had been improperly tried.

Morris' subsequent movies have been few and far between. He never finished the project he'd been working on when he got sidetracked by Adams. A Brief History of Time (1992), a biopic/science-instruction adaptation of Stephen Hawking's bestseller, combined the technical sophistication of The Thin Blue Line with the filmmaker's earlier fascination for extraordinary eccentrics. But Morris' sole fictional effort, a version of Tony Hillerman's detective novel The Dark Wind (1994), was badly reviewed and barely released; the flashy fictionalized storytelling techniques -- so effective in The Thin Blue Line that they stirred some controversy -- didn't work as well in real fiction.

Morris' new film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, marks something of a return to the manner -- or at least the matter -- of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. Morris interviews four grown men who have lived to realize what many would regard as adolescent dreams: Dave Hoover, who as a boy was infatuated with wild-animal trainer Clyde Beatty and followed in his footsteps; George Mendonça, who tends an elaborate topiary garden, carefully shaping and maintaining his own collection of faux wildlife; biologist Ray Mendez, who studies mole rats, relatively recently discovered mammals that live in the sort of community more associated with social insects; and Rodney Brooks, an artificial-intelligence scientist at M.I.T. whose robots exhibit forms of animal behavior.

Fast, Cheap is, in formal terms, the most intriguing of Morris' films to date. He doesn't merely intercut the four stories: He frequently mates the voice of one subject with visual footage more obviously relevant to one of the others. The effect is to emphasize the common aspects of their dreams and lives rather than the differences.

At the same time, he doesn't seem to have an organizing agenda; certainly, whatever drives and unifies the new film is far less clear than in The Thin Blue Line, in which the single-minded goal -- freeing an innocent man -- was more crucial than its tangential aesthetic aspects. Most apparently, the four subjects here are all engaged in different ways of taming the animal world -- by whips, guns, and psychology; by scientific study; by creation of controllable, cybernetic "animals"; or, in Mendonca's case, through symbolic effigies.

In his earlier studies of eccentrics from nearly two decades ago, Morris' style was essentially naturalistic, with no cinematic tricks or flashy devices. But now the filmmaker seems to be searching for ways of expanding the language of documentary without losing the generous, humanistic touch that so distinguished his first two films.

Strangely enough he has achieved this through a devious technique that gives the illusion of eye contact during interviews. He and his subjects talk to each other through a system of monitors, cameras, and half-silvered mirrors, so that by looking directly at each other's image they are actually looking straight into the camera.

It seems ass-backwards and an alienating mechanical intrusion, but in this case it works. At times, particularly those scenes with the somewhat wild-eyed Brooks, the sense of direct contact is almost unnerving.

The interview footage isn't what leaves the strongest impression, however. The strange editing strategy provokes all sorts of questions about the relationships among the four stories. Cinematographer Robert Richardson provides all manner of diverse textures, in the style he developed on Oliver Stone films such as Natural Born Killers and JFK. (He does the same in Stone's recent U-Turn, to far less benevolent or enlightening effect.) Scenes of the men at work are intercut with circus footage, old cartoons, and corny Clyde Beatty serials. By the end the circus has become the movie's dominant metaphor.

Morris seems to be hinting that, no matter what ideological or aesthetic connections we may read into the juxtaposition of these four lives, all he is guaranteeing us is wild amusement... a four-ring circus, if you will, any part of which we are welcome to focus on.

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

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