FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL, 20th Anniversary Screening
2 p.m. Sunday, October 8, 2017
53 Wall Street Auditorium
Introduction and Film Notes by Mihcael Kerbel

Written and directed by Errol Morris (1997) 82 mins
Cinematography by Robert Richardson
Music by Caleb Sampson
Featuring George Mendon
ça, Ray Mendez, Dave Hoover, and Rodney Brooks

“This is all done from memory. You know what an animal looks like, and so you just start making the animal.” —George Mendonça, topiary gardener

“People just come and look. They’re looking to see if there’s a common ground. They’re constantly trying to find themselves in another social animal.” —Ray Mendez, mole-rat specialist

“If you’re not scared of them, you’re in big trouble.” —Dave Hoover, wild animal trainer

“If you analyze it too much, life becomes meaningless.” —Rodney Brooks, robot scientist

“I like the idea of making films about ostensibly absolutely nothing. I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory. That’s what all my movies are about.” —Errol Morris, filmmaker

When Morris made that statement in 1989, he was referring to GATES OF HEAVEN; VERNON, FLORIDA; and THE THIN BLUE LINE. Contrary to his pronouncement, he would go on to make films about decidedly major subjects (Stephen Hawking, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME; Robert McNamara, THE FOG OF WAR; Donald Rumsfeld, THE UNKNOWN KNOWN; Abu Ghraib prison, STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE). However, FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL could be viewed as an example of “the tangential, a sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory.”

The excursion takes us into the unusual occupations/obsessions of four men, who are interviewed separately and do not meet, but who magically interact through Morris’s clever editing of images, words, and music. There is no omniscient narration: each man tells his own story. They look directly into the camera lens, and yet are able to have virtual eye contact with Morris, thanks to the director’s patented invention, the “interrotron” (a portmanteau combining “interview” and “terror”), consisting of a teleprompter-like apparatus of cameras and mirrors. The interrotron, which debuted here and is now widely utilized in the film industry, makes the relationships between Morris and his subjects seem very intimate, even though the director never appears on screen and is heard only once (speaking five words).

As one would expect, each man’s comments are juxtaposed with shots of that man at work. More frequently, though, Morris combines one person’s narration with another’s occupation, or with scenes inspired by thematic or visual free association, including cartoons, circus acts, and clips from B-movies such as KING OF JUNGLELAND, THE DEADLY MANTIS, and ZOMBIES OF THE STRATOSPHERE. He orchestrates a dazzling variety of techniques (including canted camera angles, slow motion, and fast motion) and formats (from elegant 35mm to home-movie 8mm, from rich color to grainy black-and-white). The result is a surrealistic collage (or four-ring circus), which reveals surprising commonalities among the disparate pursuits, and which is by turns—and often simultaneously—quirky, funny, disturbing, enlightening, thrilling, and poignant.

FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL premiered in the U.S. at the New York Film Festival, almost exactly 20 years ago, on September 30, 1997. In that day’s New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Morris remains a one-of-a-kind filmmaker capable of melding science, philosophy, poetry and sheer whimsy into an elaborate meditation on mankind’s mysteries… he imaginatively weaves together his speakers’ ideas to achieve a much larger overview than any of them achieves individually, and to make haunting connections among man, beast and machine. He starts simply and builds to unexpected metaphysical heights.

DID YOU KNOW: The film's title comes from a 1989 paper by Rodney Brooks, hypothesizing that it would be more effective to send 100 tiny robots to Mars instead of one large robot, on the assumption that if some robots malfunctioned, many would remain to continue the exploration. The paper was titled "Fast Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System."

Presented in the Treasures from the Yale Film Archive series with support from Paul L. Joskow '70 M.Phil., '72 Ph.D. Printed Film Notes are distributed to the audience before each Treasures screening.

Last modified: 
Monday, April 10, 2023 - 1:59pm