Errol Morris’ Big Bag of Tricks: A Symphony of Speculations

Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap & Out of Control turned out to be one of the most cinematically and philosophically stimulating events at this year’s New York Film Festival, and this stunning achievement has begun an indefinite run at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street. It is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, but this can be said of most of Mr. Morris’ creative enterprises, which fall in the cracks between fact and fiction, documentation and conjecture, the ridiculous and the sublime. I must confess that I have never admired any of his works unreservedly, and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is no exception. Yet I can’t think of any other filmmaker as shrewd and as daring as Mr. Morris in forcing me to think about things I had never thought about before. The devil of it is that I am never sure if Mr. Morris has truly educated me, or merely gulled me with his bag of tricks. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a case in point.

The title is derived from a comment made by Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who suggests unleashing on Mars a horde of robots, “fast, cheap and out of control,” to “map” the Red Planet. I must confess that Mr. Brooks failed to convince me that he wasn’t talking nonsense, and he really alarmed me when he stated casually and almost complacently that future developments in robots may make fragile humanity’s existence in the universe superfluous.

But Mr. Brooks is only one of four eccentrically obsessional savants in Mr. Morris’ phantasmagoria, the others being Dave Hoover, a disciple of the late Clyde Beatty, a famous lion and tiger tamer; George Mendoca, a topiary gardener who fashions animal figures out of the plant life on a well-financed estate; and Ray Mendez, an amateur investigator of a rare species of mole rats. Each of these hyper-articulate visionaries are allowed to present the implications of their unusual pursuits, at first one by one, with the visual accompaniment of their handiworks, but eventually in a jumble of mixed messages in which animal-shaped plants, oddly designed robots, frenzied mole rats, ferocious lions and tigers, footage from schlock Clyde Beatty movies, all merge into hitherto unimagined and unexplored patterns of reality. This is not to say that Mr. Morris’ often asynchronous symphony of speculations is as well orchestrated as a Beethoven symphony. Some passages are clearly more interesting than others.

I tired first of the topiary gardener and his animal creations. His is the most esthetic and abstract of all the images, but, let’s face it, if you’ve seen one leafy giraffe, you’ve seen them all. I tired next of the excessive schlock footage in Mr. Morris’ kinetic montages. The robots and the mole rats had

a somewhat longer run, but sooner or later, the real superstars emerge, and here I couldn’t wait for the lions and tigers to take center stage. What magnificent creatures! A thousand Actors Studios couldn’t teach human actors to project such effortless charisma. And if I learned one lesson from Fast, Cheap & Out of Control , and I don’t know or care if it’s true or not, it is that the reason lion tamers thrust a chair at the charging lion is that the four legs on the chair confuse the single-minded lion in pursuit of his prey with four extra things to ponder. The goofy look on the face of the mind-challenged lion as he grapples with his perplexity says it all with an exquisite economy of expression.

Another Allen Smithee Film (Almost)

Jocelyn Moorhouse’s A Thousand Acres , from a screenplay by Laura Jones, based on the novel by Jane Smiley, was dead in the water critically and commercially even before it opened. The buzz was already out that its director had repudiated the final cut to the point of threatening to take her name off the credits, leaving it in the limbo of having been directed by “Allen Smithee,” a fictional moniker employed in recent decades by directors with the desire not to be credited for the final result. The professionally anonymous Mr. Smithee was recently “honored” at a conference sponsored by the English department at the University of Pennsylvania, a stimulating academic get-together I attended, even though or perhaps because I anticipated that it would be a piece of deconstructionist whimsy at the expense of the presumed excesses of the so-called “auteur theory,” for which I have been credited and blamed over the past 35 years. But as Harry Truman once said, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, and I haven’t stopped cooking on all cylinders even when the menu called for a cooling-out of the many ingredients of the cinema.

In any event, Ms. Moorhouse, the director of the quite marvelous, Australian-made Proof (1991), wanted, for whatever reason, to remove her name from the credits of A Thousand Acres . Rumor has it that Michelle Pfeiffer warned Ms. Moorhouse that she would not allow her name to appear in a film directed by “Allen Smithee,” and that Ms. Moorhouse would never work in this town again. But the damage had been done, and the critics gave the movie some of the undeservedly worst reviews I have encountered in this endless year of spectacular stinkers. I am not trying to tell you merely that the film is not that bad. It is not bad at all, and Jessica Lange and Ms. Pfeiffer give two of the best performances I have seen on the screen this year.

Indeed, A Thousand Acres is this year’s Marvin’s Room (1996), with its two brilliant characterizations by Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. The big difference in the two films is that the men in A Thousand Acres are treated much more harshly than the men in Marvin’s Room. From the monstrous daughter-molester played by Jason Robards with Lear-like madness to the feckless husbands (Keith Carradine, Kevin Anderson) to the fickle lover (Colin Firth), the male of the species is all trial and tribulation. Several critics regarded the subject of child abuse as hackneyed and overfamiliar. That may be true for confessional talk shows on television, and no-holds-barred literary memoirs, but mainstream Hollywood movies have avoided the subject like the plague.

I don’t know exactly what disturbed Ms. Moorhouse about A Thousand Acres , but I was deeply moved by the sheer gutsiness and adventurous spirit of two women on the road to reclaiming their selfhood. A feminist credo and manifesto? Certainly, but much more besides, and not as provincially ridiculous a reworking of Shakespeare’s patriarchal tragedy as too many critics have assumed. One would think that there was something sacrilegious about transplanting a heath into a Midwestern wheat field. It may be too late to catch A Thousand Acres in a theater, but look for it soon in a video store. You won’t be disappointed.

The Marisa Ryan Vehicle

Jude Pauline Eberhard’s Love Always , from a screenplay by Ms. Eberhard and Sharlene Baker, based on the novel Finding Signs , by Ms. Baker, never convinced me that it was anything more than a series of improvisatory contrivances to make plausible an improbable woman’s road movie with a shaggy dog scenario, laced with a dash of magic realism here and self-mocking vaudeville there. My biggest problem with the movie is that I don’t believe that a very attractive young woman in fetching attire would set out from Los Angeles to Spokane, Wash., to meet up with an old flame and choose to hitchhike all the way and seemingly accept any offer of a ride, however threatening it might seem. Even back in the good old days of It Happened One Night (1934), it was difficult to believe that the open road for an unescorted female was as cute and cuddly a prospect as the movies made it seem for Claudette Colbert, with or without Clark Gable at her side. Nowadays, I think of the American “open road” as a moving minefield infested with crazies of every denomination and sinister vans, trucks and assault vehicles with clinically deranged drivers at the wheel. Perhaps I have seen too many violent movies and read too many tabloids, but Love Always starts out with two strikes against it from this perhaps overly nervous umpire.

I must hasten to add that nothing very bad happens to the young woman in this movie, despite some potentially dangerous occurrences, which may be intended to prove that there is nothing to fear but fear itself in the brave new world of feminist filmmaking. Unfortunately, the movie has no consistent tone and no coherent style. It strains for its laughs and stumbles in its attempts at sadness and pathos. If this failed first attempt at a shoestring odyssey deserves any attention at all, it is for the sparkling debut of a beautiful and talented, new apple-cheeked actress named Marisa Ryan. The fact that the character she plays is hopelessly chameleonlike from episode to episode serves to make the mess that is Love Always an unintended showcase for the full range of her abilities. Perhaps the Allen Smithee seminarians in Philadelphia had something when they argued that every movie has something in it worth watching. That is the magic of the medium itself.

Errol Morris’ Big Bag of Tricks:   A Symphony of Speculations