Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)

Errol Morris is a documentary filmmaker with a reputation for celebrating the fringes. His debut, Gates of Heaven (1978), was about two pet cemeteries and the people who owned them. Vernon Florida (1981) was about “strange and wonderful people in and around a small southern town.” A Brief History of Time (1992) was his study of disabled physicist Stephen Hawking. His latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) is ostensibly a documentary about four subjects: a wild animal trainer, a topiary gardener, a mole–rat specialist, and a robot scientist. However, like an optical illusion, it shows us one thing and we end up seeing much more.

Conventional documentary techniques hold little interest for Errol Morris. A Brief History of Time featured interviews which seemed to be conducted in actual homes and offices, but which were actually staged on studio sets that were decorated just like homes and offices. The Thin Blue Line (1988) used re-creations, slow-motion and a pastiche style to elaborate Morris’s thesis, which was that the wrong man had been sentenced to die in the case of a police officer’s horrific murder. It created drama from fact and was instrumental in the innocent man’s release from death row. His visual style in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a dizzying combination of color, black and white, video, Super–8 and even fiber–optic cameras from Roto–Rooter. It’s reminiscent of some of Oliver Stone’s work, which is no coincidence: the cinematographer here is Robert Richardson, who also lensed JFK and Natural Born Killers for Stone.

It’s worth noting that while Oliver Stone has been criticized for making movies that blend fictional elements with fact in order to better support his ideas, there hasn’t been a similar outcry against Morris. Possibly the reason is that Stone’s subjects are always central to his thesis, whereas Morris is often using his subjects as a way to say something else entirely. The whole of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is curiously greater than the sum of its parts. Although we learn plenty of cocktail–party tidbits about these four professions, the film is designed to comment on all work, and on the lives we all lead. Seen alongside the recurring motifs of circus acts and B–movie film clips, these “freak” professionals appear every bit as normal, sane and common as bankers, store clerks and construction workers. We identify with their goals and struggles even if their work is strange to us.

Extraordinary care has been taken with all design aspects of the film. The sound is on a level rarely attempted in documentaries, and once again Morris stages scenes in a most un-documentary fashion: he wants to illustrate something with these characters, and he’s perfectly willing to light them and shoot them in ways that support his vision. Don’t mistake it for real life, but be ready to have your own observations of both the mundane and the extraordinary altered forever.

December 23, 1998