My Favorite Documentaries: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control

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Fast, Cheap and Out of ControlOne of my all-time favorite documentaries is Errol Morris's 1997 film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. As a punctuation nerd, I disagree with the lack of a serial comma in its title, but we'll let that slide. Anyway. This film is about humanity, the nature of life on earth, and how humans interact with their world. It covers a lot of ground.

One problem with Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is the naive marketing that surrounds it. The DVD box seems to think the film is a wacky look at some kooks -- it reads "...a fascinating portrait of four obsessed eccentrics. ... [A] kaleidoscopic look at the very thin line which separates madness from genius." Well...no. First, dismissing the interview subjects as "obsessed eccentrics" devalues the insight they have (and it's also a bit offensive). Second, this is a movie about how humans understand other forms of life -- animals, plants, even robots. This movie asks what it means to be human, and what separates humans from animals, plants, and robots. The line between madness and genius doesn't have anything to do with it.

Much more, including video clips, after the jump.

Using interviews with four men -- a "wild animal trainer" (aka lion tamer), a topiary gardener, a robot designer, and a naked mole rat expert -- Morris shows different modes of interaction with nature. While the lion tamer is all about control, respect, and dominance, the topiary gardener lives a dedicated, solitary existence concerned with patient nurturing. The naked mole rat expert is studying how organisms function in societies (in other words, he's looking at the function of the larger society-as-organism), and the robot designer is examining "life" at its most basic level -- in order to create artificial organisms. All of the men are very cognizant of the influence of the external environment on an organism -- how a creature is shaped by its environment. Through interviews and stock footage, Morris makes us ask: is the difference between humans and other organisms (animals, plants, and robots) our ability to control our environment, rather than responding to it? And if we're going to control our environment, how do we go about it -- do we live in symbiosis, do we dominate, do we create our own artificial life and artificial environments? Of course, we do all of these -- it's our nature.

There aren't many decent clips on YouTube of this documentary, unfortunately. You can watch the trailer at Video Detective, or a few (very low-resolution) clips at Sony Pictures Classics (scroll down to the bottom). I did manage to find one YouTube clip of Errol Morris talking about Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which is worth a peek:

And here's an example of the marketing that surrounds the film -- trending towards the wacky, but also mentioning the depth of the subject:

I'd recommend this PG-rated film to anyone -- I don't think you need to have any special interest in a topic area to enjoy it. I suppose the main qualification for enjoying this film is an interest in deep thoughts (and not just those by Jack Handey). You can rent it from Netflix or rent it from Blockbuster. Thanks for reading, and please keep the suggestions coming -- I've got a list of over 50 documentaries to watch based on your feedback!

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August 24, 2007 - 9:01am
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