Descent of Man

With his long-delayed film Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, director Errol Morris maintains a controlling interest in our evolutionary decline.

The title of Errol Morris's latest "nonfiction film" is Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and among the manifest ironies of the work is this: Not one of those words describes the intricate collage of images on the screen, nor the ordeal involved in getting them there.

First take Fast: Morris collected the earliest footage--action scenes of "wild-animal trainer" Dave Hoover--back in 1985. A cinematographer named Barry Sonnenfeld shot the circus-veteran crossing the cage, cracking his whip ("No, Caesar!"), and wielding the chair; a decade-plus later, Sonnenfeld is now better known for unleashing this summer's box-office tiger Men in Black.

How about Cheap? The project, in point of fact, exacted a dear price from its famously eccentric creator, coming on the heels of his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line ("The first murder mystery that actually solves a murder!"); the modestly disappointing portrait of Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time; The Dark Wind, a fictional film completed without his participation; and a string of ingenious and ultimately unfinanced--and thus unfinished--films.

"I went through a really disastrous time in my life," Morris says in an interview at the Whitney Hotel (his fifth of the day, and no doubt a trial all its own). His mother and stepfather both died within a year. ABC television and then FOX shelved a series featuring what the filmmaker considers "some of [his] best work"; it remains unseen in the U.S. "I lost faith in this movie at a certain point," Morris continues. "I almost gave it all up entirely. My wife, in fact, encouraged me to finish Fast, Cheap for Sundance and said that we should take a mortgage out on the house, and put the money into finishing the film. And that's what I did."

Which leaves us with Control--or the lack thereof. It's this concept that provides the most intriguing avenue of inquiry. For Morris's fearlessly complicated new film--and maybe all the ones before it--represents a formal meditation (some might say elegy) on the possibilities of control.

Or the lack thereof.

If Fast, Cheap & Out of Control were a college course, it might be titled Humanism and Its Discontents. Taking up the first position are Hoover and George Mendonça: one a lion-tamer lording over a host of mercurial beasts, the other a topiary gardener tending a sanctuary of giraffe-shaped shrubbery. Weighing in for the opposition are mole-rat photographer Ray "the-Other-isn't-something-to-be-feared" Mendez, and artificial-intelligence expert Rodney "breaking-down-the-boundary-between-what-is-alive-and-what-is-machine" Brooks. Their respective charges: cold-blooded mammals that feast on their own shit; and arthropodal, ambulatory robots that don't take orders.

Morris--whose own pastimes include serial killers, giant chickens, the philosophy of science, Nazis, and spontaneous human combustion--proves to be no impartial referee. "These future worlds are worlds that really don't include us," he says of the rodent and bug-machine regimes. "It's very odd. I'm still not altogether sure what it means." What these men share, though, is a will to exert mastery over their arcane fiefdoms, and a recognition, however faint, that all such enterprises are fated to end in futility.

And the act of documenting such a truth--or an ambiguity, rather--is itself a flawed, thankless, and transitory act. Which makes Errol Morris's handicraft--what he jokingly labels "The Fifth Element"--yet another layer in a portrait of our coming obsolescence. Like the topiary gardener, it seems Morris has spent the better part of his adulthood pruning the perfect celluloid shape out of an inherently unstable environment.

This time out, Morris, prodded by frequent Oliver Stone cinematographer Robert Richardson, has interwoven a barrage of film stocks the equal of any hour of MTV. The director identifies "fine grain 35, grainy 35, 16, Super 16, Hi-8, Super 8, video transfer to film, infrared, black & white, color reversal, [and] color negative." And if that montage weren't conspicuous enough, the backbone of the movie is another movie--in Morris's words, "one of the worst movies ever made": King of Jungleland, starring legendary animal trainer (and Dave Hoover idol) Clyde Beatty. Scenes of this pulpy adventure, set in "the hidden city beyond the mountains of despair," punctuate and comment on the interview segments taken from our contemporary Emerald City.

And while all this is gorgeous in an abstract sense, Morris does not shy away from the precipice behind his flickering projection. "It's a sense of using this imagery and [also] calling attention to imagery," he offers. "There's something ironic. Something reflexive. Endless representations and re-representations. Where are we in all this? Where is the world in all this?"

To say that Errol Morris is not the kind of man who blinks at such riddles demands a strangely literal elaboration. Debuting in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a device Morris memorably calls the Interrotron. It's a jerry-rigged circuit of TelePrompTers, lenses, and half-silvered mirrors, and the practical effect is that Morris and his subjects can eyeball each other with a unique immediacy: "The Interrotron inaugurates the birth of true first-person cinema," the director has claimed in interviews. This mechanical innovation also marks a convergence of two of Morris's trademark characteristics: technical precision and highly manipulated, probing interviews.

Yet the Interrotron is only the latest and most involved realization of Morris's droll interpersonal style. Much has been written of the filmmaker's penchant for provoking his interview subjects through excruciating eye contact and studious silence. Morris has gone so far as to confess that he often only pretends to be listening, having discovered better results with feigned intimacy than the real thing.

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