[box cover]

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

The back-boxcover blurb on Columbia TriStar's DVD release of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control does something of a disservice to Errol Morris's intriguing 1997 documentary — "a fascinating portrait of four obsessed eccentrics" it claims, and "a compelling, kaleidoscopic look at the very thin line which separates madness from genius." Sounds interesting, but unfortunately such comments really don't have much to do with the film enclosed. The four men who constitute Morris's cast of "eccentrics" aren't all that kooky, nor do they waver between brilliance and insanity. But they are thoughtful and introspective, and they're enthusiastic about their unusual jobs. Morris only seems to be asking the viewer to connect the dots — why are these men more similar than we might at first suspect? Or perhaps he wants us to figure out which one of them is distinct from the rest. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control concerns a quartet of professional researchers, in the broadest sense of the term. Dave Hoover is a veteran wild-animal trainer, performing in the cage with the big cats at the Clyde Beatty Circus. George Mendonça is a topiary gardener at a large Florida estate — he's one of the foremost experts at crafting large shrubs into animal shapes, and insists on using only hand-shears for his laborious vocation. Ray Mendez is a scientist whose early interest in entomology led him to become an expert on one of earth's most unusual creatures, the naked mole rat, which is the only known mammal to live within an insect-hive social structure. And Rodney Brooks is a robot inventor who is convinced that the planet's future lies with artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and self-reproducing sentient machines. Morris, best known for his stylish documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line, doesn't break form with Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control — his taste for synthesized scores, interviews, stock footage, and the lack of a narrator won't surprise his fans. But the style is not the substance, and the documentary remains interesting — and challenging — because Morris never explicitly tells us what he is trying to say, or even what thesis he may be investigating. Such makes the film a fascinating conversation piece. Certainly, all four men's professions deal with animals of some sort — two with real animals (lions, mole-rats), one with organically crafted animals (topiary shrubs), and one with artificial creatures (robots) based on long-term evolutionary goals rather than practical-use ones. But such cannot be the whole picture — Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control is also about people, and how we interact with the world around us. In this sense, the film seems to be about captivity or control issues as much as anything else. Of the four subjects, three are specifically in the business of somehow manipulating their chosen subjects (lion-taming, gardening, mole-rat research), while the robot-inventor appears to be on a different track. He may be manipulating technology, but Rodney Brooks fundamentally is an evolution-advocate, preferring to create robots that he can't control, but perhaps will one day learn to control themselves. The film's title is even taken from one of Brooks' research papers, wherein he suggested the exploration of other planets be done with 100 cheap, expendable robots rather than one expensive probe. Scurrying over the planet's surface, those that survived would transmit valuable data back to researchers on earth. Too hard for some to accept? Perhaps — given the choice, humans probably will always prefer to control the things that surround them. What Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control ultimately suggests is that humans can learn more about themselves — and in fact want to learn more about themselves — via interaction with fundamentally alien societies and systems. Columbia TriStar's DVD release features a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. Trailer gallery of other Columbia titles. Keep-case.

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