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Gambit Weekly Sui Generis

By Rick Barton

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, A Short History of Time, The Thin Blue Line), has described his new film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control as "the ultimate low-concept movie -- a film that utterly resists the possibility of a one-line summary." He's right. But I can say something brief in judgment of his picture: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is the most unusual movie I've ever seen and one of the most fascinating. It's a picture that makes you squirm with pleasure while you're watching and will fuel conversation for days.

I'm not even comfortable terming Fast, Cheap & Out of Control a documentary. The film doesn't try to chronicle an event or explore an issue. There is nothing, save the variety and splendor of the human spirit, that this film "documents." It would be better, perhaps, to call it a meditation. The picture works this way: interviews with four men who don't know each other are intercut with old B-movie footage, cartoons and scenes of the men engaged in their work.

Dave Hoover is a wild animal trainer and circus performer who idolizes the late action-movie and serial star Clyde Beatty (some of whose work is also included). Dave works mostly with lions and tigers but has sweeping theories about animal psychology, all formed from his extensive interaction with wild beasts. George Mendonca is a topiary gardener who uses old-fashioned pruning shears to shape hedges and trees into bears, giraffes, elephants and other creatures. Ray Mendez is an expert on the recently discovered hairless mole-rats, tiny beaver-faced mammals who organize themselves in nests that resemble insect hives. And Rodney Brooks is an M.I.T. engineer who has designed some of the world's most complicated autonomous robots.

As the picture rapidly introduces us to each of these men, we sit wrinkle-browed trying to figure out what in the world they have in common. Gradually we understand. Each of their lives is somehow connected to animals. Mendonca makes animal shapes out of plants. Hoover trains and performs with animals. Mendez studies a specific species of animal, a mammal that acts like an insect. And Brooks achieved his breakthrough in robotics by studying insect motion. Based on his understanding of insects, he designs machines to do for man what man once might have employed draft animals to do.

In addition, these four men share a reverence for the animal kingdom. Mendonca's art is always expressed in the shape of animals. Mendez could clearly spend all his waking hours watching the activities and charting the social relations of his beloved mole-rats. Brooks has discovered that the key to complicated human development lies in understanding the simplest of Earth's creatures. And Hoover passionately believes in demonstrable animal intelligence, individual personality, memory and will.

The four have other things in common as well. Each possesses an unbridled enthusiasm for his work. Nowhere are we told how much money any of these men make, and it doesn't matter. The M.I.T. engineer may make quite a lot, and the topiary gardener may make very little. But neither man would begin to measure the product of his life's endeavor by the size of his paycheck. In fact, it's obvious that measurement is of absolutely no concern to any of these men. They do what they do because they are enraptured by doing it.

The value of their efforts to the human race as a whole arguably varies. Brooks' work may produce countless advantages for us all. But Hoover is just an entertainer and one who admits wild animal acts like his probably will not last another generation. The works of a sculptor or painter can be preserved in museums for millennia, but Mendonca suspects that his topiary garden will die along with him. And Mendez's study of mole-rats might be dismissed as a mere scientific curiosity. But Brooks' work ethic stems from his boundless fascination, not from his sense of altruistic mission. And none of the others is troubled for an instant by the seeming impracticality of what he does. Too, Brooks might be the first to find unsuspected value in what the others do. Look what he learned from insects.

In the final analysis, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a rumination on evolution, from insects to mammals that act like insects to great beasts to man who can create objects that act like animals. And here it is Brooks who proposes that robots may represent the next step in the evolutionary process. Robotics scientists are very close to designing machines with levels of intelligence equal to and greater than human beings. It will not prove hard at all to produce machines that can reproduce themselves. Brooks admits that once machines with high levels of intelligence have been made operational, they may well prove alien to us in the way that we may seem alien to the "lower" creatures with whom we share the planet. And intelligent machines may well prove hardier than human beings. A variety of disasters could wipe out, as Brooks puts it, "flesh-based life." In that case, the machines we call robots may survive us and endure when we expire, may be our legacy for a future very different from our own time.

Morris' title refers to Brooks' robots, but it's also a humble joke about his own work. But he is overly modest. However fast and cheap this movie may be, its control is astonishing. I have only scratched the surface of its treasures. The picture can be described little easier in a thousand words than in a single sentence. This is a film you just have to see. Take your children and say a prayer that each finds a calling in life as passionate as that of Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez, Rodney Brooks -- or, I might add, Errol Morris. Only someone who loves his craft would make a picture like this and make it so compelling.



FILM: One Night Stand
STARRING: Wesley Snipes, Nastassja Kinski
DIRECTOR: Mike Figgis

Mike Figgis' One Night Stand does so many things well and generates so much artistic momentum that it's all the sadder that the last quarter of the picture turns into such an overheated mess.

One Night Stand is the story of a successful Los Angeles commercial director named Max (Wesley Snipes) who journeys to New York to visit an old friend, Charlie (Robert Downey Jr.), a gay dancer who has just learned he is HIV positive. Max is happily married to a vivacious and beautiful wife, Mimi (Ming-Na Wen), and is the father of two healthy children.

Life has been so good to Max that he's unprepared for what happens to him in Manhattan. Already distressed by Charlie's illness, Max is mugged at knifepoint and ends up at the apartment of a beautiful, married (her husband is out of town) woman named Karen (Nastassja Kinski) who was mugged and molested at his side. Deeply shaken, these two strangers try to reassure each other and end up making love in a kind of trance. Their coupling seems as much about comfort and secure human contact as sex. The next morning, they agree that "nothing" happened, that they both fully intend to return to the lives they led before their uncharacteristic union. But it is not nearly so easy as that.

It says something very hopeful about the contemporary world that race plays no part whatsoever in this film's proceedings, despite the fact that Max is black, Mimi is Asian and Karen is white. Moreover, Rich character development is a terrific strength of Figgis' screenplay. Max is not a cheater. It takes unusual circumstances to make him stray. He is handsome, talented and fundamentally decent, but he also can be difficult and superior.

Mimi is a sexual pepper pot; in terms of her sexual energy, enthusiasm and imagination, she's every man's dream-wife. She's faithful and a good mother but she's not as serious a person as her husband; she's more interested in good times and good living than, for instance, Max's artistic integrity. Our heart goes out to Charlie, of course, because he's dying. But he's no stereotypical victim; he can be cold and vengeful. Charlie's brother Vernon (Kyle MacLachlan) is guardedly homophobic. At the same time, his obvious and intense love for his brother transcends his feelings of contempt for Charlie's lifestyle.

Things begin to go awry when it turns out that Vernon is Karen's husband and that Max and Karen will be reunited when Charlie goes to the hospital under a death watch. From that point forward, Figgis seems to lose his way almost altogether. He abandons a keener examination of how even an arguably justifiable and understandable instance of infidelity can haunt the unfaithful even when there's no chance of being found out. In its place, he substitutes a thoroughly dishonest romantic fantasy. That everything works out here as it does is preposterous and thematically objectionable.

Too bad. I feel like I went to a fancy dinner party with sparkling crystal and antique china only to have the host serve up Big Macs, tater tots and with Kool-Aid.


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