Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
1997, PG, 82 min. Directed by Errol Morris. Starring Ray Mendez, Rodney Brooks, George Mendonça, Dave Hoover.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 14, 1997
To say that Errol Morris is the most original talent working in the field of documentary filmmaking today is merely one inadequate means of describing the brilliance of his new feature film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. For Morris is not so much a documentarian as an essayist, one who employs the methodology of outwardly-focused nonfiction filmmaking to make extremely personal objects of self-expression. Nowhere has this been more true than in his new film, which uses studies of four discrete individuals as the raw material for a broader contemplation of the ontology of human achievement -- in all its glory and folly. At least, that's one of the things that Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is about. There are many, many other themes -- ideas that reveal themselves in the flash of an edit; commonalities, contrasts, and discoveries that rise from the synaptic hurly-burly of Morris' literal three-ring circus. For, as Morris has described it, Fast, Cheap is the ultimate “low-concept film,” one that resists all possibilities of a one-line summary. Ostensibly, Morris has gathered four different “weird animal stories,” both in terms of the obsessed men who grapple with and against nature to create their life's work and also the strange creatures they tame. Morris' eccentric subjects include George Mendonça, a topiary gardener who has painstakingly devoted his life to trimming one garden of hedges and trees into the shapes of animals; Dave Hoover, a lion tamer who idolizes the legendary circus performer Clyde Beatty; Rodney Brooks, an M.I.T. scientist who has designed large insect-like walking devices that can operate free of human instruction; and Ray Mendez, who studies the life cycles and social structures of the tiny, hairless, underground mole-rats. Patterns emerge as Morris cross-cuts between each of these men's tales and then blends in footage from old circus and adventure movies as well as the stupendous camerawork of longtime Oliver Stone cinematographer Robert Richardson, whose combination of film stocks and processing (everything from fine-grained to grainy 35mm, 16mm, Hi-8, infrared, color, and black-and-white) creates a rich palette of tones and images from which to choose. Also helping out in this regard are the contributions of editors Karen Schmeer and Shondra Merrill, and the elliptical music score by Alloy Orchestra member Caleb Sampson. Quixotic ambitions and practical instincts merge with ancient myths and futuristic notions in this highly expressionistic documentary essay. Morris may stir up more concepts than one mere film can comfortably contain, but Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is no ordinary movie. For 82 minutes, we are happy to be awash in Morris' contemplations and are simultaneously sparked into contributing more of our own. For a brief while the universe seems to have found a certain serenity and a glorious respite from the ubiquitous pace of “fast, cheap, and out of control.”