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Lurking Quirky

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
George Scissorshands: Topiary expert George Mendonça
demonstrates his skill with garden shears.

Eccentrics get their day on film in 'Fast, Cheap & Out of Control'

By Broos Campbell

DOCUMENTARIST Errol Morris wowed the critics in 1978 with his first feature, Gates of Heaven, a quirky look at a California pet cemetery. Ten years later, his persuasive but controversial The Thin Blue Line helped overturn Randall Dale Adams' conviction in the murder of a Dallas police officer. In 1992, A Brief History of Time took visionary superbrain Stephen Hawking and made him something more than human.

Morris' delightful new nonfiction film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, has another scientist as one of its four subjects--a mad scientist. Rodney Brooks is a real-life Frankenstein who designs robots at MIT. He's an odd duck, staring out of the screen with wild-eyed glee as he drops little thought-bombs like "If you analyze it too much, life becomes almost meaningless."

The film's title comes from a paper (subtitled "A Robot Invasion of the Solar System") Brooks wrote for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society in which he proposed to use herds of small, cheap robots on space missions instead of solitary, large, expensive ones. He has an uncomfortable knack for putting our place in the universe in proper perspective: "There may not be a place for humans in the future, if we're really successful at building these [robotic] systems. They may, in fact, be our legacy to the future."

The other three subjects are equally kooky in their own way. Wild-animal trainer Dave Hoover lionizes Clyde Beatty, a whip-and-chair man who starred in such long-forgotten Saturday morning serials as King of Jungle Land; George Mendonça tends a topiary menagerie with the serenity of a saint, though he frets that there will be no one to tend his green beasts when he's gone; and Ray Mendez is nuts about naked mole rats, one of the most repulsive animals on the face of the planet.

It's a powerful, funny, multilayered document, the kind that makes the back of the head feel like it's opening up. Part of its power comes from Morris' Interrotron, a modified set of TelePrompTers that allows his subjects to see him as they gaze into the camera lens. As a result, his subjects seem to look the audience in the eye, giving the interviews an unusual intimacy.

The cinematography of Robert Richardson (JFK, Natural Born Killers) provides extra substance. The nonsensical artiness that clutters up Stone's U-Turn makes great sense here, where the presentation is as integral to the story as the story itself. Richardson's choice of stock ranges from 35mm down to Super 8; he reverses color, eliminates color and even goes to video when it suits him.

A gopher's-eye view of a topiary camel, backlighted against a sky of swirling mist and rain, is almost painfully poignant; other shots, such as Old Glory flapping from a telephone pole, are inexplicably nutty. No medium is ever the entire message, but Morris and Richardson deftly show how tightly the two are tied together.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (PG; 82 min.), directed by Errol Morris and photographed by Robert Richardson.

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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