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One of the few truly independent filmmakers left in this country, Errol Morris has remained stubbornly faithful to his vision. Brainy, idiosyncratic, and uncompromising, he has been able to secure backing for only six features in his 20-year career. His latest, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, can be confidently recommended to anyone receptive to personal, risk-taking movies; in both content and form, it towers above other current screen fare. But compared with Morris’ strongest work, it’s something of a disappointment.

Although his movies are generally classified as documentaries, Morris bristles at that label, insisting that he makes “nonfiction films.” Defying the customary procedures of documentary filmmaking—the use of lightweight handheld cameras and sound equipment to capture unmediated reality—Morris follows the model of Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood by presenting factual material with the formal precision and stylized eloquence of art.

When he passed through Washington in 1988 to promote the release of his best-known film, The Thin Blue Line, he spoke with me about his aesthetic principles. “I have very little interest in documentary per se, if by that you mean the prevalent style of cinéma vérité filmmaking you see occasionally in theatrical releases and very often on television,” he said. “Instead of using the lightest and most unobtrusive equipment, I use the heaviest and most obtrusive equipment available. After all, part of making films is controlling what you are doing. The idea of being at the mercy of reality is a very unappealing notion in life as well as in filmmaking. The idea that you are supposed to sit around waiting for things to happen is, to me, all wrong. The belief that style—or the absence of it—somehow guarantees truth is an especially pernicious assumption of cinéma vérité. Style is style, and truth is truth and, as such, isn’t guaranteed by anything.”

Morris’ first three films are eccentric masterpieces. Gates of Heaven (1978) is a dryly funny, oddly moving study of two rival Southern California pet cemeteries, one thriving and one on the brink of bankruptcy, that probes private dreams, sorrows, and intimations of eternity. Vernon, Florida (1981), which presents a series of unremitting monologues by the eccentric residents of a rural Southern town, is another exploration of the mysteries of existence, one Morris calls “a very pure movie about ideas.” The Thin Blue Line, billed as “the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder,” focuses on death-row inmate Randall Dale Adams’ conviction for the 1977 shooting of Dallas policeman Robert Wood. In this meticulously structured mosaic of interviews and recreations of the crime, Morris proves Adams’ innocence and identifies the real killer, baby-faced sociopath David Harris. As a result of the film, Adams was set free.

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For different reasons, Morris’ most recent projects allowed him less freedom. A Brief History of Time (1992) deals with the life and writings of the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking. Although Morris proves remarkably successful in communicating Hawking’s abstruse ideas about the nature of the universe, the film is essentially dominated by its subject. Morris’ only fiction feature, The Dark Wind, adapted from a Tony Hillerman novel, was wrested from his control by its producers, re-edited, and dumped into cable television release.

In Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Morris returns to and expands upon the daunting questions posed by his previous nonfiction films. What is the purpose of our existence? Do our perceptions correspond to the nature of reality? Is human activity meaningful or insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things? He addresses these queries by interweaving the obsessive concerns of four men: lion tamer Dave Hoover, topiary gardener George Mendonça, hairless mole-rat expert Ray Mendez, and MIT robot designer Rodney Brooks.

As the film unreels, Morris forges thematic connections among the preoccupations of these seemingly unrelated specialists. All four are concerned with real or artificial animals. Hoover and Mendonça are linked to expiring traditions: Lion training, like the circus itself, is a dying form of entertainment, and topiary gardening is on its way to becoming a lost art. Mendez and Brooks look to an unpredictable future: The mole-rat, a link between insects and mammals, appears better equipped for survival than human beings, and Frankensteinlike robots may well make humanity obsolete. Presented in collage, the testimonies of these four men force us to contemplate the resourcefulness and vulnerability of our own species.

In Morris’ early films, he unblinkingly photographed his subjects in rigidly framed environments, allowing them ample time to communicate their ideas and visions. But in his new effort, he ups the stylistic ante by intercutting their commentaries with a host of other material—footage of circuses, mole-rat warrens, topiary creatures, and meandering robots—as well as clips from vintage movies, serials, cartoons, and television shows. To add visual texture to this mix, he has engaged cinematographer Robert Richardson, photographer of Oliver Stone’s media-mad Natural Born Killers, who exploits a panoply of technical options—several varieties of 35, 16, and 8mm film stocks, video transferred to film, infrared, black-and-white, color reversal, color negative. The result is a barrage of visual information that, as hyperedited by Karen Schmeer and Shondra Merrill, grows more exhausting than illuminating. No sooner does one become involved with the concerns of one of the film’s monologists—Hoover’s elegiac memories of his idol and friend, lion tamer-movie star Clyde Beatty, or Brooks’ assertion that “if you analyze it too much, life becomes almost meaningless”—than Morris cuts away to oddly composed shots of circus elephants or unidentified B-movie extracts. The resulting sensory overload impedes comprehension of the film’s speculative themes.

What has led this customarily austere filmmaker to embrace MTV pyrotechnics? For years, Morris has developed a series of unrealized, oddball projects about, among other things, a sheepdog tried for murder in Michigan, the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, a teenager who bred a 28-pound chicken, the fate of Einstein’s brain. Failing to find backing for these endeavors, and surely aware that there are few commercial outlets for short documentaries like the little-seen 60-minute Vernon, Florida, he may well have decided to find a means of merging a quartet of subjects into a feature-length movie. To achieve this, he relies on two obvious models created by innovative directors whose work he has praised. Alain Resnais’ Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980) combines a real-life behaviorist’s illustrated lecture about the evolution of the human nervous system with three fictional stories in which characters test the lecturer’s theories. (Brooks outlines similar evolutionary ideas in Morris’ new movie.) Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982) blends processed images of Japan, West Africa, and Iceland with a poetic narration to address a variety of political and philosophical questions.

In Resnais’ and Marker’s films, style and content inextricably fuse; these works could not exist as effectively in any other form. But the style Morris employs in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control feels less organic than imposed. Having seen the movie twice, I’m left wanting to know more about its compulsive spokesmen and to be spared the distracting cinematic flummery—as well as Caleb Sampson’s relentless musical score, a grating fusion of Philip Glass’ droning synthetics and Nino Rota’s carnival music.

Readers want reviewers to offer an unambiguous judgment about movies, but in the case of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control I’m stumped. All I can say is that I admire it immensely, don’t like it very much, and wouldn’t have missed it for the world.CP