Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)

“If you analyse it too much, life becomes almost meaningless.”

‘Fast, Cheap & Out of Control’, directed by Errol Morris in 1997, is an American documentary that contrasts the occupations of four men: a lion tamer, a creator of topiaries, an expert in the hairless mole-rat and a scientist working in the field of robotics. Despite the incongruous combination of professions, Morris teases out themes and connections between the four and, in doing so, touches on subjects including how we learn, how we evolve and on the fragile nature of existence. The key to the documentary is the way Morris combines the different stories, illustrating them each with footage from old movies or cartoons, and bleeds each interview into the other. His innovative interview technique, using a piece of equipment he invented himself that allowed the person being interviewed to comfortably talk straight into the camera, is a major part of this, without a voice-over we feel that we are a part of their stories and that the narratives are come directly to us, unmediated. But the way Morris edits the film, juxtaposing images, illustrating fragments of the interviews with footage that both expands on the themes but also jars, takes the documentary to a different level. I was reminded of the way Patricio Guzmán approached his subjects in ‘Nostalgia for the Light’, but whilst Guzmán (purposefully) presented his interviewees with sincerity and clarity, Morris presents his with a degree of excoriating irony and seems to intentionally blur the lines between them. The result, a documentary that tells the stories of individuals but also develops far broader and more sophisticated themes, is the same in both films, but I get the sense that Morris has his tongue in his cheek.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an unusual film and, at times, the cruelty of the lion-taming was a distraction, but Morris’s way of presenting lives and telling a wider story is engrossing. Watch with ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ for the similar techniques, but polar objectives of the two directors.


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