“We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception … To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone.”
– Don Delillo, White Noise
The search for knowledge has been Errol Morris’ creative obsession for over two decades now, although that itself is a highly narrow assessment of what the documentarian has dug up in his journeys through pet cemeteries, police stations, Stephen Hawking’s brain, and elsewhere. Beginning with 1978’s Gates of Heaven – the completion of which made a doubtful Werner Herzog live up to the promise to eat his own shoe – Morris has circumvented the conventional processes and methods for interrogating humankind’s manners and purpose; he’s also rewritten the way his answers are presented onscreen, changing the face of documentary film to the point that the integrity of the (sometimes unnecessary) term is superfluous, suspect, or both.
Take Gates of Heaven, which explored how humanity’s greatest fear, death, is sublimated through the passing of its pets and the elaborate rituals – and money-grubbing hustlers – involved in their removal from the living world. Or Thin Blue Line – a masterpiece of detective work itself – that examines the criminal justice system’s inexplicable penchant for ignoring mountains of evidence in its quest to furnish society with an endless line of sacrificial victims. Its final scene, foregrounding a tape recorder silently recording a stream of disembodied voices, is a sobering reminder of how dependent one person’s life can be on technology and its placement in Everyday Life.
But technology is nothing without a curious mind behind it, something Morris also illustrated in his film on Stephen Hawking, one of our century’s most brilliant theorists, a man literally imprisoned within his flesh and only able to communicate through a computer. Like most of Morris’ films, Brief History of Time was just as much about its subject, Hawking himself, as it was about the daunting objects the scientist considers, interrogates, and theorizes: time, space, and everything in between. And this subtle but compelling relational maneuver is always Morris’ finest attribute: by presenting the subjects and objects found within his films as inextricable from the tangled knot of human society in general, Morris capably charts the trajectory of our species as it, like Hawking, makes its way out of the prison of its own flesh.
So consider Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control – which Columbia Tristar thankfully and finally rescued from its four-year hibernation for a 2002 DVD release – Morris’ social history of that tangled knot’s collective ascension to an elusive immortality. And although the film may technically be about four men who are, like Morris, both obsessive and brilliant within their own creative domains (animal training, the social networks of mole-rats, topiary gardening, and artificial intelligence), it is just as much about what some in the military might call command and control. And the madness that Morris finds in human society’s struggle for that power is most visibly noted in the director’s method, which refuses the usual domination of the narrative subject that one comes to expect watching documentaries. Rather, Morris embraces a sense of play, deftly disconnecting Fast, Cheap & Out of Control‘s four stories into separate cinematic strands and then sometimes almost randomly recombining them into one large narrative knot (surprise!). This process allows each separate story to offer its unique perspective on the bigger picture – sociopolitical connectivity.
Which is why you might be confused when the film begins with an unexplained segment from the old (and somewhat embarrassing) serial In Darkest Africa, its grainy footage featuring a group of white explorers menaced by a tiger before a (white) boy from the wild drops out of the jungle unannounced to save them. While the stand-off with the tiger might contextualize Dave Hoover’s career choice (watching that show started him down the animal trainer/tamer path), the conversation between the “civilized” explorers and the “wild” boy about a legendary hidden city hints at the colonial aspect of reaching Olympus that has characterized our species since before the Greeks created gods. In fact, Morris’ contemplation of Hoover and his craft provides Fast, Cheap & Out of Control with some of its more clever moments: splicing in sequences featuring the circus’ barely clothed acrobat babes as mole-rat specialist Ray Mendez talks about human interaction (while describing his desire to study animals who roll in their own feces) plays tongue-in-cheek enough to make you crack a smile while acknowledging without condescension Mendez’s fascination with his hairless mammals. The same mammals who, as Mendez notes, work collectively for the survival of their species, but are nevertheless cutthroat enough to kill each other without a second thought.
Indeed, one of Morris’ most arresting and recurring images – a circus clown pointlessly racing to get away from a skeleton attached to his back – leaps in and out of the entire film as a reminder of how humans just can’t seem to get away from the inescapable fatality that courses through their every move. Even in the midst of their most benevolent interactions, they cannot help but live out an existence bent on its own destruction. As Hoover says about his lifelong work with lions, “If you aren’t afraid”, then you’re gonna pay.” Or, as Mendez puts it, you’re either the hunter or the hunted. Humans, just like mole-rats, are never comfortable enough to ignore the desire to tame their natural environments, until (again, like mole-rats) they’re imprisoned and put on display in a zoo.
And while Mendonça and Brooks might approach their particular domains in a more Zen fashion, both are still cognizant of how the natural environment functions as both their palette and their enemy. Mendonça, the romantic artist who allows the shape of a particular bush or tree dictate its artistic form to him (and who, interestingly enough, is the only interviewee who talks about his wife at length), acknowledges that his topiary garden is subject to the whims of Nature’s storms, including the one at the film’s finale that saturates his creations. Similarly, Brooks does not try to impose a mastery of the environment on his AI robots, but rather a symbiotic relationship with it. Introducing the ability to absorb and adapt to failure is just as important as anything else to him; indeed, what else is a robot but an avoidance of humanity’s greatest failure, death itself?
But where all four narratives converge in their assertion that life is impossibly tainted with that shadowed threat chasing the clowns around Hoover’s circus (another one of Morris’ apt metaphors), each provides with its own enthusiasm for knowledge and understanding what is so essentially wonderful about humankind. Even as it is imprisoned by its own flesh, circumstances, and natural desire for command and control, humans are still just looking for a way to survive. Brooks’ explanation that artificial intelligence is less about getting nanotech dust robots to clean our TVs than it is about birthing a more durable species that can withstand the inevitable might of the natural world. Because as much as those old serials and movies may wish it to be true, no one truly conquers space and time.
Rather, we conquer mole-rats, lions and tigers, bushes and trees, and the unnerving desire to build something that can at least be around to witness the end of the universe.