FEATURING: Dave Hoover, Rodney Brooks, Ray Mendez, George Mendonça

PLOT: A documentary profiling an unlikely quartet of individuals: a lion tamer, a topiary master, a naked mole-rat expert, and a robot designer.

Still from Fast, Cheap and out of Control (1997)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Four mildly eccentric characters don’t qiute add up to one weird movie.

COMMENTS: You have to assume that the genesis of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control was something like the following: Errol Morris had leads on four personalities he could profile for his next documentary, but none of the potential subjects were quite quirky enough to carry an entire feature; he decided to go ahead and interview each separately and edit the footage together to highlight the connections that spontaneously arise between the men’s varied obsessions. Although clearly guided by Morris’ hand, the shape of the documentary seems to arise naturally as the four men discuss their individual passions for animal training, gardening, mole rats and automatons. Sometimes, scenes illustrating one man’s field of expertise will play while another interviewee narrates; while the mole-rat expert talks about nature’s indifference, we see a staged battle between a captive cats. Morris melts the experts’ individual interests into each other to form an intellectual batter. The robot designer reveals that when he set about to create a machine that would scramble over terrain, it turned into a relatively stable robot that quite accidentally looked like an insect. In the meantime, the mole-rat expert is fascinated by the idea that these rare mammals, who live their entire lives underground, have developed a sociobiological structure that resembles the termite. Evolution is an ever-present theme, as is craftsmanship—the animal trainer must create his art by paying careful attention to his deadly raw materials (lions and tigers), the topiary master must work with the shape of the bush to bring out the animal inside it. A large part of the movie therefore becomes about the process of creation, the interplay between the constraints imposed by the raw materials of the natural world and the shapes men impose on them, whether the product is a circus act, a mole-rat display case, a leafy giraffe, or (by implication) a documentary film. That strand is only one of many in the tapestry of Fast, Cheap and Out of Control; this is a non-obvious movie that flows along in a stream-of-consciousness way, and doesn’t tell you what to think about it. It’s a difficult experience to explain, but the melange works. The main thing that sets Morris apart from his lesser documentarian brethren is that he thinks cinematically, rather than focusing on imparting the maximum amount of information. The cinematography here (courtesy of long time Oliver Stone collaborator Robert Richardson) is vivid and varied: inventive angles, crisp colors, slo-mo segments and Super 8 film stocks supply multiple textures. Scenes from old B-movies (a serial-type adventure featuring lion tamer turned action idol Clyde Beatty) illustrate the action, along with many circus tableaux. The futurist carnival music comes courtesy of silent-movie score specialists the Alloy Orchestra.  Altogether it’s a rich concoction, one that’s much more “movielike” than standard “talking head” docs. If there’s one complaint here it’s that the topiarist is less interesting than the other three subjects. His line of work arouses fewer serious inquiries, and what speculations do come about form less of a connection with the other three. Much of his story focuses on his relationship with his deceased patron; this could conceivably have made for an interesting documentary on its own, but alongside the more abstract considerations suggested by the other panelists, it’s off to the side. Still, although it isn’t exactly weird, Morris’ unique, experimental documentary is thought provoking—and although it’s organic and seems unplanned, it’s not nearly as out-of-control as its title implies.

This film was the first feature film where Morris used his simple but ingenious invention called the “Interrotron”: a camera setup (similar to a teleprompter) that displays an image of the interviewer on a two-way lens, so that the interviewee appears to be making eye contact with the viewer when he talks.


“…studiously eccentric… nothing about [the subjects] is all that strange — or fascinating.”–Owen Glieberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Buzzkill” who called it “fascinating stuff.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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