Friday, April 15, 2011

Compare and Contrast

Film: Fast Cheap & Out of Control
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s an old saying in business that you can have things done fast, right, and cheaply. You can only have two of those three things, though, so pick the two you want. If you want it fast and cheap, it isn’t going to be right. Engineers have a similar saying, substituting “safe” for “right.” This is the source of the name of Errol Morris’s documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. More specifically, it’s also from the name of a paper written by one of the subjects of this odd documentary.

This film explores a variety of concepts over its short running time. On its surface, the film is a look at four very different men (in increasing order of weirdness): a topiary designer (George Mendonca), a lion tamer (Dave Hoover), an expert in robotics (Rodney Brooks), and an expert on naked mole rats (Ray Mendez). On the surface, these four men would appear to have only the fact that their jobs and interests are incredibly specialized in common. After all, how many lion tamers can there be world-wide? Or mole rat experts?

Once Morris turns the camera on these men and lets them talk, though, it becomes evident that not only do they have a great deal in common, so too do their various interests and areas of expertise. Mendez, for instance, first became interested in mole rats because of the similarity of their behavior to that of communal insect colonies. Brooks first began creating robots by tweaking the notion of stability, and created small robots that tended to stumble, and behaved quite a bit like ants. Both Mendonca and Hoover consider what they do to be a form of taming nature into the desired behavior.

All four of the men view the world through their own particular eccentric lens, which lends a particular view to the world depicted by the film. Each of them deals with his particular specialty as a way of determining his own purpose in life, and each of these fields gives these men a particular outlook and philosophy.

Morris ups the connection between the men by playing fast and loose with his editing. Frequently, one of the men will be discussing his specific field of interest while we watch footage of another of the men. Brooks speaks in his odd, unplaceable accent about his idea for sending hundreds of tiny robots into space rather than one large probe while we watch footage of hairless mole rats chug through their tunnels. Mendonca talks about how he keeps his topiary animals in check while Hoover’s lions perform tricks.

It’s surprising how often the men speak about similar concepts and ideas. The name of the film, for instance, comes from a paper written by Brooks. His idea is that sending up hundreds of small probes into space essentially makes each one expendable. We could have these probes attempt riskier things, because losing one wouldn’t scrap the mission, and there would be a much higher chance of getting more valid and useful data from hundreds of possible sources. Similarly, Mendez discusses how mole rats will often sacrifice one of their number for the good of the entire colony, not rushing to save each other, but acting instead to preserve the colony’s integrity. The two concepts, while not quite parallel, are similar enough that they run side-by-side in the film. Similarly, Brooks discusses the creation of artificial life while Mendonca and Hoover talk about the differences between human and animal life, and Mendez discusses the possible connection between human and animal.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is made of heady stuff, the very stuff of big ideas and concepts that could change the world. Or at least they could change the world if everyone took the time to think like these four unusual men. There are a number of times when the editing becomes a distraction, though, and several parts of the film are difficult to concentrate on because of this.

I enjoyed this movie, and it’s given me a lot to think about. However, like many films that attempt to do a lot with their running time, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is so filled with ideas that it comes off like a film with ADHD. While I found it interesting and worth watching, I can easily see how many people would be frankly turned off by it and not want to bother getting through it.

I tell my composition students that pretty much any two things can be compared, and the more diverse those things are, the more interesting the comparison is. This film is ample proof of that statement.

Why to watch Fast, Cheap & Out of Control: Fascinating lives on display.
Why not to watch: In an effort to unite four unique stories, things get muddled.


  1. This is one of Errol Morris' films I have yet to see, and on the whole it looks like it's worth checking out. It's interesting how you say it's a film with ADHD...Morris' GATES OF HEAVEN, his documentary on pet cemeteries in California, gets off-track a few times, throwing in moments that don't directly relate to the main topic (there's an interview with an elderly lady that's just bizarre), though in the case of that film, I thought the asides were brilliant.

  2. Morris does, I think, too much here. He doesn't go off on tangents...kind of. He does visually. He'll show clips from old movies or cartoons that seem to be only tangentially related to what his subjects are talking about.