erik lundegaard

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Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)

It would be difficult to find four occupations that interest me less than topiary gardener, mole rat specialist, wild animal trainer, and M.I.T. robot scientist; and yet Errol Morris' 1997 documentary on four experts in these fields is fascinating. What these men say about their own field often reflects on each other's fields, and ultimately on our own place in the universe.

Produced by:
Errol Morris

Directed by:
Errol Morris

Featuring:
Dave Hoover (Wild Animal Trainer)
Ray Mendez (Mole Rat Specialist)
George Mednoca (Topiary Gardener)
Rodney Brooks (Robot Scientist)

Academy Award Nominations:
None

Best Documentary Awards:
Boston Society of Film Critics
Florida Film Critics Circle
Golden Satellite
National Board of Review
National Society of Film Critics, USA

Quote:
"I switch it on and it does what's in its nature."

At one point, Ray Mendez, the expert on naked mole rats, says of visitors to the Philadelphia Zoo, "They are constantly trying to find themselves in another social animal," and that's exactly what we are doing here. Where do we fit in? How are we like mole rats? And how are mole rats like lions, or robots, or plants? There's a vague evolutionary scale, which is circular as well as linear. The plants are shaped as animals (in the topiary gardener's universe), the animals live like insects (a mole rat society is similar to a termite society, something previously thought impossible for mammals), the animals perform like humans (thanks to the wild animal trainer), and the robots move like insects. In one of those Listen kids, this is profound advice moments, Rodney Brooks, the M.I.T. professor, says, "I like to look at what everyone is doing, find some common thing that they all assuming — implicitly, that they don't even realize they're assuming — and then negate that thing." What he winds up negating in the field of robots is stability. Instead his robots scramble, like insects. A German professor once asked him how he programs his creations, and he says he doesn't. They walk by feedback loops. He says, "I switch it on and it does what's in its nature." Which, again, can be said about plants, and mole rats, and lions and us.

Humans are the controlling element in all of these fields. The gardener controls the plant so it maintains its shape, the trainer controls the wild animal so it doesn't kill him, the mole rat expert controls the mole rat in a zoo environment, while the scientist controls the robot by creating it.

Of course one wonders how much the scientist does in fact control his robots, since, as he says, "It does what's in its nature." The metaphor that immediately springs to mind is that of God and Man. God created us and we did what was in our nature. The title of the documentary comes from a paper Professor Brooks wrote for "The Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, " in which he suggested using hundreds of smaller robots, rather than one big expensive one, to explore interplanetary systems. "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," he called it, "A Robot Invasion of the Solar System." Again one can't help but think of ourselves.

Director/Producer Errol Morris encourages this kind of connectivity by placing the narration about one occupation over images of another. "That's an incredible thing for a mammal to do," Ray Mendez says of mole rats, while Morris shows us trapeze artists at a circus. Morris also includes footage of old-time circuses, and a Tarzan-like movie serial starring lion-tamer Clyde Beatty, along with a haunting, dream-like score. The effect is mesmerizing. The connections are vague, and thus more profound, since we are left to do half the work. My favorite image: At both the beginning and end of the documentary, Morris shows us a brief glimpse of a circus clown running in terror from a skeleton attached to his back. I kept thinking, "What a great description of the human condition." You switch us on and we do what's in our nature.

—January 12, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard