Media Review: Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

400 and 517, I’d like you all to watch Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control by Errol Morris. Take note of the range of footage and how it is used to illustrate the greater narrative. What is is the role of sound? Does this film meet your expectations of a documentary? How is it like graphic design? All should write an in-depth review of the film here and discuss each other’s comments.

posted by Tony Brock on March 14, 2005 | comments: 12 | post a comment

We saw this movie last year. I was entranced. Loved the music, the weird characters and I was very impressed with their passion for what they did. Both visually and aurally this movie had many elements of the circus - playful and young with a sense of daring and the unknown. The soundtrack definitely served (very well) to set the tempo of the film and add that fairy tale aspect to it.
It seemed like a documentary in that I expected to see (and did) the stories of each of the men, mostly in chronological order. Facts were presented and matched with images that illustrated them. But the pace seemed MUCH faster than the average documentary and the cinematography was not from a normal perspective. Things seemed distorted and larger than life, even though some of the movie was in B/W.
I guess it's like graphic design in that it had a narrative and a meta-narrative. Ideally design should be like that - different meanings on different levels. It told a story in a captivating way and held my attention for several hours. A poster or website needs to do that as well, to be effective and to get the message across. And it left me wondering what was going to come next and hoping it would be soon, which, I think, graphic design should always strive to do.

Posted by Caroline O on March 14, 2005 09:08 PM

animals are cool.
we should bow in respect of their intelligence and power.
as we should bow in respect of men who went with their passion. and stuck with it.

we understand this as the documentary takes us through series of extreme close-ups and testimonials from the three protagonists. their lives run parallel and without knowledge of one another, yet the audience cannot help but thread connections. our eye moves with the scenery, the music accompanies our impressions perfectly and underlines connotations to be made.
the longer we get to follow the characters, the more we understand life as it is, we observe via an uncommon lens that evokes emotional responses.
poetic, soft footage is juxtaposed with fast forward moving images, cu shots, straight footage of interviews, observational documentation. the umbrella theme of a lifelong obsession and the need to continue to learn correlates with the overload of imagery. fast paced, i found myself out of energy towards the end of the film, needing some time to fully absorb my impressions.
sound plays an essential role in the film, it creates another level of understanding that is beyond strict reasoning. it enables the viewer to interpret the footage in their own way yet hints at certain relationships. it paints another picture on top of what we see on screen, expanding the world in question.

as the viewer is confronted with various levels of information, all consisting of bits and pieces of a meta narrative, i can see a correlation to graphic design. it makes use of sound, image, voice over, representation, and analogies. just like graphic design. colors vary within the different characters, and help the overall understanding. just like in graphic design.

a documentary deluxe this was. eye candy and mind candy.

Posted by carolin on March 14, 2005 09:14 PM

When we are walking around, looking as we walk, there are seemingly random events and scenes in our frame of vision. We've discussed this before - of how we piece our environment together based on the string of frames and moments that appear in our given parepheral. We piece them together with our memory which then starts to become a narrative. If we do not piece them together, if our mind does not make sense of the randomness and chaos, then the frames become lost in the confusion.

When we are able to piece them together, they become like a 3-ring circus.

When we were all watching this film last night, I asked what everyone thought the circus going on in the background was referencing. Most answered, in which I agree partly, that it symbolized man's ability to control his environment. The guy at MIT controlling the lump of metal and make it walk and perform acts; the old man controlling the plants in order to create huge giraffe and elephant forms; the man at the circus controlling the lions' actions; and the man that was able to understand the environment and adaptation of the moles and therefore able to control how they act in their environment. This all makes sense, and we could go further and say that it symbolized our ability, us being graphic designers, to control the users' actions and thoughts and read paths and even buying and learning patterns.

But I want to go down the path that the circus symbolized how all of these different stories/documentaries, being different in style, tone, and imagery, came together in one piece like the events going on in the 3-different rings in a circus. At first it may seem confusing and chunked wildly together, much in the same way that the film first comes across, but then we begin to notice how they are not seperate but one, whole piece. They play off each other quite nicely, the way our eyes dance back and forth and bring frames from one event into the frame of another, from the clown balancing on the ball to the lion jumping through the ring of fire.

We've discussed this in studio as well, how we as graphic designers must learn to unify different elements in order to communicate. When we create different elements, yes it is possible to communicate a message with them staying seperated. But I believe we miss the bigger picture if we never bring them together.

What would this film be if only one of the stories was presented?

The music brought the piece together, as that was the one stable element. We would go from one story to the next and the playful, almost mystical notes would still be dancing in the same way. The style of the imagery also seemed to unify, the way the scenes would cut from the moles within the holes (proudly brought to you by the sewer-cam from Roter Rooter) to within the trees that the old man was shaping. There were some points where I didn't even realize the film had jumped to the next story. Voices would overlap the imagery, and the black and white film would play in between the stories while someone would be talking.

Different elements and narratives, 3 different rings, used to create one narrative, one circus.

Posted by Alex Ford on March 16, 2005 11:41 AM

This movie is clearly a documentary containing three narratives. However, I believe there are several other techniques utilized in our field, which might describe the piece more clearly: collage and visual essay. Often the narrator/character is speaking, but imagery from another story line or not at all is filling the screen. As a result, the whole piece becomes a montage of ideas, thoughts, pictures, and sounds. If only one, or even two, of the stories had been presented, I believe that collage of imagery would have broken down. Juxtapositions and contrasts would not have been as striking, or even intriguing.

In relation to graphic design, it is clear that the creators of this piece were focused on how to create relationships/analogies, hierarchy, and narrative, all while entertaining and informing their audience. With such complexity resulting from the amount of content, the creators were forced to be clear and precise in how they executed image and sound. Otherwise, that collage would have become mushy.

Posted by mia on March 16, 2005 12:31 PM

The four different stories of the movie we so different and yet they all had a common thread of similarity. Alex already mentioned the control over something. But I think it's a little different than that. In ways, I think the the reason that each was chosen, was on a broader level. The mole rat specialist researched and watched a system. He watched the animal's nature and their instinctive habits unfold. The lion tamer and the gardener are more similar to each other. They are both controlling an act of nature. However the lion tamer has a harder part because he had to study the lions to see their intent, where the gardener already knows which way the plant is going to grow, he just has to change it to make it do what he wants. Again, control over nature's natural instinct. The final man, Mr. MIT, not only watched and studied nature, but also tried to emulate it. In particular he studied insects, and noticed that they failed, so he asked himself, why can't machines do the same? So interpretations goes: man watching nature, man controlling nature, man watching and controlling nature, and man watching and imitating nature.
Of course this is a documentary, no question. But instead of being overly professional, the movie comes off as a casual conversation with people who have a passion for what they do. That in itself is interesting.

(Note to Alex F's comment about the circus: Of course the director is trying to get scenes from these men's work life, however you are right in that the circus is shown more than others. I think that this is for purely aesthetic reasons. I think the idea is that a bright, active circus is better for the eye than ugly naked moles, metal robots, and lifeless garden topiaries. I could disagree in places, but I think this could be one of the reasons)

Posted by Jessica on March 16, 2005 01:33 PM

The one word that comes to my mind in while watching this film seems to be montage. Specifically, it reminds me of temporal montage, where eclectic footage of film is pieced together at different points in the timeline of the movie to convey some common idea. This way the viewer is forced to make relationships with the consecutive footage they see and draw an overall conclusion based on it. That along with sound, pacing, tempo and other temporal elements allow for a unique experience of confusion and excitement throughout the movie. I say confusion and excitement because I was very much so engaged with what each of the individuals that were interviewed were saying, but sometimes I became a little confused when Morris would interject certain dialogues with what seemed to be random footage from a scene of a movie of the 1950's, like with Clyde Beatty, a motion picture pesonality/circus performer in the middle 20th century. As I'm listening to Ray Mendez talk about the social behaviors of naked mole rats I'm watching Clyde Beatty battle some Arabian Arch Nemesis while he escapes the clutches of his henchmen.

Morris's interviews make it seem as if I was engaged in a personal conversation with each interviewee, rather than just listening to what they were lecturing about. Instead of focusing their attention slightly off the camera, like many interviews, Morris has the interviewees are looking directly at the viewer, almost like there was some sort of direct interaction between the viewer and the interviewee. I felt like each person in the film was talking directly to me.

Throughout the entirety of the film I felt like there was this nervous tension that took form in the film's music that tied together the different types of footage. It seems the melody and tempo of the music went well with some sort of circus motif at certain points. The circus motif can be seen in the interviewees working in their field of expertise, which all relate to animals in some way: naked mole rats, topiary garden animals, lions and robots that mimic insects. The circus motif can also be compared more directly to the random circus acts and scenes from Clyde Beatty's action movies and lion taming performances. In other parts of the movie, the music seemed more somber, as describing the fragile and delicate creations made by topiary gardener George Mendonca, especially when he was explaining how his camel lost support of its neck due to torrential rains one season.

This film functions as a piece of graphic design in the way in which the framing of certain scenes are set up. For example there was consideration taken in how to shoot the giant topiary animal forms created by George Mendonca. One scene involving Mendonca's life size giraffe creation was set up to be shot at night with a dramatic backlight that carved out of the giraffe's figure with a thin lining of light. This shot portrays a dramatic scene of this life-size artwork in all its beauty. There was consideration taken into how the story of the film unfolded over time, a very essential part of how particular themes would be conveyed to the viewer. Two of the major themes include the existence of life and how we find social relationships between human beings and other animals. The ability of Morris to take these seemingly different pieces of footage (i.e. interviews with various individuals, footage from circus acts and old movies) and montage them together to exploit these themes is indeed an ability not held by many film makers today.

Posted by Liollio on March 17, 2005 01:32 AM

Liollio said:
I say confusion and excitement because I was very much so engaged with what each of the individuals that were interviewed were saying, but sometimes I became a little confused when Morris would interject certain dialogues with what seemed to be random footage from a scene of a movie of the 1950's, like with Clyde Beatty, a motion picture pesonality/circus performer in the middle 20th century. As I'm listening to Ray Mendez talk about the social behaviors of naked mole rats I'm watching Clyde Beatty battle some Arabian Arch Nemesis while he escapes the clutches of his henchmen.

I forgot to address this in my statement above, so I like how Liollio brings this up. I think this is where the director really makes a show of authorship. Sometimes it seems like documentaries need to stay so true to the subject matter. In this case that happens. Yes we hear about the studies on mole rats, the struggles with being a lion tamer, the life of a gardener, and the research of robotics. But doing such editing by simply playing audio at seemingly the wrong time, we see the intent of the director. The stories all relate to each other. We may be watching the gardener trim a giraffe while hearing about the unruly nature of lions. Is the director saying there is a relation between wild lions and the rapid growth of plants? I think so.

Posted by Jessica on March 17, 2005 03:26 PM

What do an elderly topiary gardener, retired lion tamer, mole-rat expert, and cutting-edge robotics specialist have in common? Much more than one could initially realize according to Erroll Morris's unexpectedly engaging documentary. Morris interrelates these four separate and specialized subjects in order to grasp the truth of humanity, raising questions about the future of the world and everyone in it.

These four professionals work hard in controlling the entities that don't exactly take kindly to their efforts. George the gardener spends his time taming tendrils of plant life into animal shapes. His job is no cake walk as a slip of the clipper can cause a green and leafy body part to go bye-bye for years. Dave the lion tamer takes on big cats under the big top. An admirer of the famous lion tamer, Clyde Beatty, Dave comes out of the lion ring covered with the sweat of fear time and time again. Ray, the mole-rat expert waxes eloquently about the social structure of these sightless, hairless natural wonders who wear their teeth on the outside of their lips. But the weirdo of the week award would have to be given to Rodney, the robotics expert who is convinced our extinction will be the first step in a takeover of I mean robots.

A handful of analogies surface during the course of this documentary. Rodney the robot guy wants to create societies of robots much more like the mole rats' than like human societies. George the gardener is another creator of sorts, producing and shaping wildly inventive sculptures of bears and giraffes from living plants. Dave the lion tamer shapes the behavior of the lions that he deals with on a regular basis. He, like Ray the mole-rat expert, devotes most of his time trying to understand the animal brain.

Morris utilizes various film formats and resolutions-including black and white, color, 35mm, 16mm, Super 8 and video, old movies, and cartoons-to create a singularly impressionistic collage of images that ties the passions of these four men together. Using various methods of visual information that never exceed their singular structure is very much the same as a navigating through a great website for example.

The music and sound also unified the overlapping subject matter. As one scene changed to another the tone of music and sound would stay the same. If there had been no music then the unified structure would have probably been much more fragmented.

This documentary was defintely an original perspective on passions we can learn to understand and discuss. And maybe passion more than the animals that these men talk about becomes the main subject at hand here, presented to us four times over.

Posted by Miles on March 20, 2005 04:59 PM

This documentary film reminds me of myself and how I get about things I too am excited about. Each of the participants are extremely excited about the different jobs that they have. I too share this passion with both Design and Jeeps. (I should probably work for Jp, which is a magazine strictly about Jeeps)

Well anyway back to the film.

My favorite enthusiast is Rodney who builds the robots for a living. I also find exciting to build something that works and is interactive. This excitement is why I love making websites and interactive pieces because I feel like I have made something that the world can enjoy. The biggest satisfaction for me when it is all said N done, and on the table for the user to enjoy.

I think that this sort of passion is very important for what ever you plan to do for the rest of your life because if it isn't there then you may be spending time doing something that you do not fully enjoy.

For me just the notion of enthusiasm about the different jobs that the people have is the main point of the documentary. If you don't have this kind of exhilaration or excitement about your job then it may be time to look for a new career.

I think the relationships of enthusiasm are more important than trying to pull relationships from the different jobs the participants have.

Posted by Quentin on March 21, 2005 11:39 AM

Before watching Fast Cheap and Out of Control, I tried to guess what story would be told with such a interesting title. I figured that the video would portray something "fast, cheap, and out of control". However, the video surpassed my expectations and aroused my interest. The beginning of the video, or the introduction, consisted of flashing images that hinted at the content of the story. The images provoked my curiosity and reminded of someone recalling past memories. It was in fact a documentary of individuals with a sincere passion for their research, but the style proved to be something different. I felt like I was inside of an one-on-one interview or maybe I was the one conducting the actual interview, either way it felt personal. And the sequence of the interviews was very interesting. The designer didnt allow the audience to see each interview from beginning to end, they mixed segments of the interviews. This sort of treatment reminded me of ESPN sports casting. Instead of allowing the viewer to see all of the basketball clips and then all of the baseball clips, they interwined them. At first that puzzled me......... But after a minute or two I realized that they were using this tactic to keep me interested and to force me to watch all the clips until I get to my desired sports clip. Great technique. And that particular technique was used in Fast Cheap and Out of Control and as a result the video kept me interested. Note to self: incorporate catchy techniques in each interactive piece, that will provoke the audience's curiosity and keep them engaged throughout the entire story.

Posted by Candace on March 21, 2005 08:34 PM

The range of footage here establishes a history — a process leading up to the current point in time that these 4 enthusiasts currently find themselves.

This was an amazing documentary—fresh, quirky, and with an admiration for the passion that these men have for their work. Initially, my response was that it is very 'un'documentary-like, and yet, upon closer analysis, I realized that it still utilizes the documentary tropes that I've grown up with: historical footage, 'talking heads,' reenactments, and the like.

The sound creates a mood for the film; I think it achieves a level of success in setting a tone for how this film should be viewed. Its circus-like theme creates a sense of wonder and curiousity; a 'prepare to be amazed' set of expectations. And, it was oddly appropriate for each of these narratives were they to be done as mutually exclusive documentaries.

Odd moments that I loved:
•Mendez's comments regarding the Zen of Bowel Movements in Mole Rats
•Rodney's observations regarding gender issues in robotics: that perhaps since men can't have babies that they embrace the opportunity to create robots, although in his lab he acknowledged that the women outnumber the men.
•George's extreme patience, exhibited by the casual mention of the fact that if the topiary giraffe lost its head that it would take about 3 years for it to reemerge.

Beautiful moments in the film that intertwine the stories:
•The way the robot starts to move in a manner that resembles the mole rat—and then the next sequence was of the mole rats—Errol Morris exhibits a mastery of subtlety in the way he very mildly nudges us to start thinking of these stories as an interrelated whole.
•The juxtaposition of Mendez's observations of the mole rat (an "incredible mammal that breaks the rules") dubbed over the sequence of the circus performers.
•The opening sequence features a closeup of a caged lion's eye; several minutes later, we're introduced to Dave Hoover, with a closeup of *his* eye; the earlier moment is recalled.

How does this relate to graphic design? I have a hard time distinguishing what is illustration v. graphic design v. film—perhaps a whole other conversation, but in short, I think that graphic design is visual communication and so however we are able to communicate our thoughts, ideas, perspectives… well, I'll argue the validity of that as graphic design. But, in terms of this particular documentary, I've seen how effective subtle suggestions can be in shaping how I view a piece: the juxtapositions of audio/visual; the juxtapositions of similarities in movement b/t mole rats, wild animals, circus performers, and robots; and the exuberance and passion that emanate from these individuals that serves as a strong link between these seemingly unrelated fields of study/expertise/practice—and how that can drive me as a designer to search for links between seemingly far-fetched connections to shape compelling messages.

Posted by Tracy on March 29, 2005 10:44 AM

Sideways compositions, inviting dynamic vantage points, overt slapping together of weird content, a voyeuristic, educational bent and wow - I love those Gregory Crewdson smokey, rain scenes in the topiary garden...holy richness.

What a cool narrative!

First of all, the film was saturated with color and peculiar antics. It got the viewer to recognize a lot about a lot. Through editing, reordering and suggestion, I walked away wodering at the oddness and freakness of humanity. Our obsessive grossness and our wondrous cuteness.

I loved the cylical rounding between the stories and how they began to layer and infuse each other with a wide dragnet of cateogory and substance.

Yay for interesting work. I hope to see more Errol Morris flims soon.

Jess G.

Posted by Jess G. on March 30, 2005 12:14 PM