The Meaning of Life? Ask the Mole-Rat}
We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception… to become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone.
—Don Delillo, White Noise
The search for knowledge has been Errol Morris’ creative obsession for over two decades now, in journeys through pet cemeteries, police stations, Stephen Hawking’s brain, and elsewhere. Beginning with 1978’s Gates of Heaven—the completion of which made a doubtful Werner Herzog deliver on his promise to eat his own shoe—Morris has circumvented the conventional processes for interrogating humankind’s manners and purpose. He’s also rewritten the way that any answers to his questions are presented onscreen, changing the face of “documentary film,” to the point that the term is superfluous, suspect or both.
Take Gates of Heaven, which explored how humanity’s greatest fear, death, is sublimated through the passing of pets and the elaborate rituals (and money-grubbing hustlers) involved in their removal. Or The Thin Blue Line—a masterpiece of detective work itself—that examines the criminal justice system’s inexplicable penchant for ignoring mountains of evidence in its quest to furnish society with closed cases and sacrificial victims. Its final scene, foregrounding a tape recorder silently recording a disembodied voice, is a sobering reminder of how dependent one can be on technology in Everyday Life.
But technology is nothing without a curious mind behind it, something Morris also illustrated in his film on Stephen Hawking, one of our century’s most brilliant theorists, a man literally imprisoned within his flesh and only able to communicate through a computer. Like most of Morris’ films, A Brief History of Time is just as much about its subject, Hawking, as it is about the daunting objects he interrogates and theorizes: time, space, and everything in between. This subtle and compelling relational maneuver is always Morris’ finest attribute: by presenting the subjects and objects in his films as inextricable from the tangled knot of human society in general, Morris capably charts the trajectory of homo sapiens as it, like Hawking, escapes the prison of its own flesh.
So, consider Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which Columbia Tristar has thankfully and finally rescued from its four-year hibernation for a 2002 DVD release. Morris’ film is, technically, about four men who are, like Morris, obsessive and gifted, each in his own creative domain: animal training, the social networks of mole-rats, topiary gardening, and artificial intelligence. But it is just as much about the egomaniacal pursuit of what some in the military call “command and control.”
That duality Morris finds both in daily and extraordinary struggles is most visibly noted in the director’s method, which refuses the usual domination of the narrative subject one comes to expect by watching documentaries. Rather, Morris embraces a sense of play, deftly disconnecting Fast, Cheap & Out of Control‘s four stories into separate cinematic strands and then sometimes, seemingly randomly, recombining them into one large narrative knot (surprise!). This process allows each separate story to offer its unique perspective on the film’s bigger picture—connectivity.
Which is why you might be confused when the film begins with an unexplained segment from the old (and somewhat embarrassing) serial, In Darkest Africa, its grainy footage featuring a group of white explorers menaced by a tiger before a (white) boy from the wild drops out of the jungle unannounced to save them. While the stand-off with the tiger might contextualize Dave Hoover’s career choice (watching that show started him down the animal trainer/tamer path), the conversation between the “civilized” explorers and the “wild” boy about a legendary hidden city—which we find later to be populated by white guys in extravagant space suits—hints at the colonial aspect of exploration and the unknown that has characterized humanity since before the Greeks created gods. After all, this isn’t Mars we’re talking about. It’s Africa.
In fact, Morris’ contemplation of Hoover and his craft provides Fast, Cheap & Out of Control with some of its cleverer moments: shots of barely clothed circus acrobat babes appear as mole-rat specialist Ray Mendez talks about human interaction and his desire to study animals who roll in their own feces. This juxtaposition is tongue-in-cheek enough to make you crack a smile while acknowledging, without condescension, Mendez’s fascination with his hairless mammals. Mendez notes that they work collectively for the survival of their species, but are nevertheless cutthroat enough to kill each other without a second thought.
One of Morris’ most arresting and recurring images—a circus clown pointlessly racing to get away from a skeleton attached to his back—leaps in and out of the film as a reminder of how humans just can’t seem to get away from their inescapable mortality. Even in the midst of their most benevolent interactions, they cannot help but live out an existence bent on its own destruction. As Hoover says about his lifelong work with lions, “If you aren’t afraid,” then you’re gonna pay. Or, as Mendez puts it, you’re either the hunter or the hunted. Humans, just like mole-rats, are never comfortable enough ignore the desire to tame their natural environments, until (again, like mole-rats) they’re imprisoned and put on display in a zoo.
And while Mendonça and Brooks might approach their particular domains in a more Zen fashion, both are cognizant of how the natural environment functions as both their palette and their enemy. Mendonça, the romantic artist who allows the shape of a particular bush or tree to dictate its artistic form to him (and who, interestingly enough, is the only interviewee who talks about his wife at length), acknowledges that his topiary garden is subject to the whims of nature’s storms, including the one at the film’s finale that saturates his creations.
Similarly, Brooks does not try to a mastery of the environment on his AI robots, but rather a symbiotic relationship with it. Introducing the ability to absorb and adapt to failure is just as important as anything else to him; indeed, what else is a robot but an avoidance of humanity’s greatest failure, death itself?
All four narratives converge in their assertion that life is tainted with that shadowed threat chasing the clowns around Hoover’s circus (another one of Morris’ apt metaphors). Even as they are imprisoned by their own flesh, circumstance, and need for command and control, humans are still just looking for a way to survive. Brooks explains that artificial intelligence is less about getting nanotech dust robots to clean our TVs than it is about birthing a more durable species, that can withstand the inevitable might of the natural world. Because, as much as old serials and movies may wish it to be true, no one conquers space and time. Rather, we conquer mole-rats, lions, and tigers, bushes and trees and the unnerving desire to build something that can at least be around at the end of the universe.