“Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”: Reviewed

(from a series of movie reviews from my 2004-2005 film classification days)


Stars: Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, Rodney Brooks
Directed by Errol Morris

“I wanted to be a Clyde Beatty.”

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a bizarre, complex, fascinating, and mind-expanding documentary based on a series of interviews with four men with very unique professions: a wild animal trainer, a topiary gardener, a mole-rat specialist, and a robot-scientist. Their talk is overlapped and juxtaposed with images from their work along with old B-movies and circus footage. Ideas and metaphors bounce around throughout the picture, and the filmmaker has edited his material in such a way that the viewer is shown unusual, unexpected parallels between the four superficially different subjects.

One motif is obviously animals, whether these be the topiary animals created by gardener George Mendonca, the circus-act lions trained by Dave Hoover, the mole-rats studied by Ray Mendez, or the pet-like robots of Rodney Brooks. Morris suggests that human beings have an inexplicable passion to understand and manipulate nature, and, in particular, have a strong desire to shape and modify nature and its behaviors.

Each man is experimenting with structures and routines associated with his passion. The lion tamer talks of the variable factors, such as power outages, which affect his lions’ attitudes toward him. The mole-rat expert experiments with display-house structures to learn more about mole-rats’ “purpose.” The gardener obsessively prunes his garden animals. while the scientist sets new, more complicated tasks for his robots to accomplish.

A related motif is that of the circus performer–a pattern made obvious by inclusion of the lion tamer. But all of the other men are performers in their own right. The mole-rat expert sets up displays to entertain the public in museums. The topiary gardener originally created his green animals for his eccentric female boss’s pleasure and these remain available for public viewing today. The robot-scientist entertains, as do the other three men, the movie’s viewers with demonstrations of what his robots can do.

Each man has a specialized knowledge that, ironically, seems to suggest that they will become ‘extinct’ and irreplaceable. The aging lion tamer has a young apprentice, but he worries if she will learn enough to prevent a fatal error. The gardener’s work has taken fifteen years of slavishly dedicated work, requiring a patience not found in the new generation. The mole-rat expert also appears to have no one to pass his knowledge on to. And the scientist may himself become extinct as the silicon-based life (his robots) threatens to supplant carbon-based life (him). They are all like Clyde Beatty, the animal-trainer and B-movie star who is referred to throughout the film. Like him, they are so specialized that they are on their ways to becoming unique legends of the past.

As interesting as the juxtapositions and parallels created by Morris’s editing are the questions he raises:
•To what extent are people like nature, animals or robots? Do nature, animals, and robots have consciousness?
•What do ruling passions and obsessions have in common?
•Are individuals really needed for any group’s survival?
•What is the role of the specialist in our culture?
•Given the facts of change, nature, evolution, death, and other limits, will
all human beings eventually be ‘phased out’?

Like the robot invasion of the solar system fancifully imagined at one point, chaos ‘the enemy’ threatens the stability of these men’s lives and our own lives. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is certainly a movie that inspires awe and wonder about the human race, its fate, and our various compulsive enthusiasms.

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