Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

(Errol Morris, USA, 1997)


Around the mid '80s, the film culture scene in Australia (and elsewhere) became intoxicated with a new kind of movie that seemed to play on what was called "the line between documentary and fiction".

In films by Chris Marker (Sunless, 1982), Jean-Pierre Gorin (Routine Pleasures, 1986) or Jean Rouch (Petit a petit, 1969), these normally separate categories of filmmaking became thrillingly confused. And a trendy label was promptly invented for such transgression: the essay-film.

Perhaps the only director of our time who has ever made a box-office killing from the essay-film genre is Errol Morris. His The Thin Blue Line (1988) and A Brief History of Time (1992) boldly used the techniques of fictional cinema – docu-drama re-enactments, throbbing Philip Glass scores, crazy camera angles and colour schemes – to bring his documentary subjects to life.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Morris' most energetic and innovative film, dives far deeper into the experiment with its own form. It is an essay in perpetual search of a topic. Morris' inspired ploy is to present four men – a topiary gardener (George Mendonca), a mole-rat specialisit (Ray Mendez), a lion tamer (Dave Hoover) and a robot scientist (Rodney Brooks) – and to seek, through vigorous juxtaposition, contrast and comparison, whatever theme might finally bind them together into the one portrait.

What links these larger-than-life characters? They are all men. They are all obsessives. They are all involved in creative acts involving the handling (in different ways) of various non-human life forms. But, beyond those simple reference points, any conclusions we or Morris may draw are going to be far more speculative, imaginative or downright poetic. And here begins the true adventure of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

With an editing speed and skill that recalls the merry era of Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Morris increasingly uses images of each man's profession to illustrate the ideas spoken by the other men. Into that already dizzy mix, Morris then throws other footage that has an often free-associative relation to any of this nominally documentary material: clips from fiction films, cartoons, TV shows.

A facile way to encapsulate and limit Morris' artistry here would be label it a monumental exercise in weirdness. Certainly, from his earliest works of the '70s, Morris has betrayed an eager penchant for finding nutty people and presenting them in nutty ways – singlehandedly giving birth to that mini-genre (very popular in Australia) of oddball docos about cane toads, shopping baskets, toilet seats, junk collectors, post boxes, and so on.

But Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has much more on its mind. Ultimately, it becomes a quietly but powerfully philosophical treatise. As we watch robots scamper, rats chew, lions slumber and garden figures stand tall in eerie light, we have to ask: what, really, constitutes a functioning, feeling, intelligent being? Or, from another angle: are we humans anything more than instinctual bundles on automatic pilot?

Morris' playful montage – and the captivating testimonies he elicits from his subjects – allows us to consider these philosophical issues in a dozen different ways. Just when his essay seems to have become a Behaviourist nightmare, he introduces a beautifully poignant section devoted to the notions of ageing, entropy and death affecting all these diverse creatures.

And, for all the chaos theory on display, there is equal evidence of survivalist cunning, community feeling, moral sense and artistic endeavour to lift existence out of its primeval soup.

As brave and captivating as it is, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is not a perfect film. Its fast-paced montage structure becomes a little wearing and repetitious by the end. And the thread devoted to George the gardener is simply not as interesting as its neighbouring threads; Morris fails to reveal many varied facets to the man or his work.

These are small complaints, however, in the face of a movie bursting with such novelty, surprise and inventiveness. From a period that brought us some fascinating promenades on that line between documentary and fiction – from Gummo (1997) to Kurt and Courtney (1997) – Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a magisterial, wise and often hilarious essay on what it means to be a living, eating, moving creature.

MORE Morris: Mr Death

© Adrian Martin September 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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