Human beings, as C. S. Lewis once put it, are amphibious creatures. We are both creations and creators; we follow instincts and hungers we cannot control, one of which is the impulse to make things in our image just as God made us in his. And so we feel a kinship with nature, as well as a pride of sorts in the things we create, yet they fill us with anxiety too.
Filmmaker Errol Morris, in a small but impressive body of work, has spent the past two decades exploring these issues, and his latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, is perhaps his most intricate and stimulating yet. In the film, Morris considers the worlds of animals and robots and asks how different we are from either of them. Are we, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky has said, simply machines made of meat?
This theme can be traced through Morris’s films back to his earliest works. In his first documentary, Gates of Heaven (1978) — dubbed by Roger Ebert one of the ten best films of all time — an offbeat look at the pet cemetery business becomes a melancholy study of, among other things, the relationship between humans and animals and the loss of one’s dreams. Scottie Harbert, co-owner of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in California, gives the film its title when she declares that an all-compassionate God would never deny dogs and cats access to the heavenly rewards of their masters. Vernon, Florida (1981) ventures into even more explicitly, if increasingly eccentric, theological territory. One elderly man looks forward to the day when Christ will return to end the world — the world of politicians, that is, who ought to be tarred and feathered and run out of town!
The Thin Blue Line (1988), arguably Morris’s masterpiece, is perhaps his least typical work inasmuch as it follows an unusually strong narrative with nary a trace of religious or metaphysical content. Nevertheless, The Thin Blue Line is ultimately of a piece with Morris’s other epistemological inquiries; indeed, in its own way it is the most urgent of them, for it demonstrates that an innocent man (Randall Adams) was sent to prison and almost executed for a murder he did not commit. (After the film’s release, Adams was released and his conviction overturned.) Morris was not simply content to prove Adams’s innocence; he was equally interested in why everyone fingered the wrong man, and so his interviews probed the dreams and aspirations that motivated the witnesses, police officers, lawyers, and judges who were involved in the original case.
In The Thin Blue Line, Morris also introduced a few new elements to his filmmaking palette: dramatic recreations, highly stylized cinematography, footage from cheesy adventure movies, and a mesmerizing soundtrack, in this case courtesy of Philip Glass. Morris developed these techniques further in A Brief History of Time (1992), punching up an otherwise standard adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s book, and in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, they take on a life of their own, thanks in part to the wildly experimental cinematography (by Robert Richardson, a regular on Oliver Stone’s films) and a quizzical musical score (by the Alloy Orchestra’s Caleb Sampson).
Unlike Morris’s other films, which were held together by at least a nominal subject (a cemetery, a town, a murder, a book), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is divided between four interviewees who at first glance would appear to have nothing in common, apart from an interest in animals: Dave Hoover, a lion tamer; George Mendonça, a topiary gardener who shapes fauna out of flora; Ray Mendez, a photographer obsessed with naked mole rats; and Rodney Brooks, a scientist at MIT who programs robots according to principles he observes in insect behavior and then studies how the robots interact with each other socially. The links Morris builds between these men are, at times, somewhat tenuous, but a complicated pattern of sorts does emerge.
As noted, Morris has long been fascinated by the blurring of traditional distinctions between humans on the one hand and animals and robots on the other. In Gates of Heaven, Scottie Harbert moves in that direction and appears to take comfort in it when she grants immortal souls to domestic pets; her son Philip, a former insurance salesman who espouses the teachings of motivational counselors, remarks with equanimity that the mind is just like a computer.
But for Rodney Brooks, the robotics expert, such thoughts become cause for despair. Just as Hawking asked what place there was for God in his model of the universe, Brooks suspects that his model for studying the mind may leave no room for the soul (though he does not use the word). Marveling at how closely his robots, acting on the feedback loops he has programmed into them, resemble the insects that inspired him, Brooks remarks, “Maybe that’s all there is.”
And so Brooks, like the other interviewees, seeks to create meaning through his work. For Brooks, that means creating “silicon-based life,” forms of intelligence that will outlive the human race but never quite experience the “embodied” intelligence of humans and animals. Hoover, who dabbles in animal psychology himself, dreams of becoming a hero like Clyde Beatty, a famed lion tamer who starred in matinee serials and was himself a throwback to the days of romanticized European explorers. Mendonça, the least self-conscious of the talking heads, finds his pearl of great price in the bushes and hedges he clips and shears year after year, though he knows there will be no one to tend to them when he dies. And Mendez, easily the funniest of the bunch, says that his obsession with naked mole rats is both a quest for “self-knowledge” and a search for “the other,” for a form of consciousness both similar to and different from his own. Looking straight into the camera, Mendez defines his relationship with the hairless rodents in almost Buberesque terms: “[It’s] that feeling that you are in the presence of life that exists irrelevant of yourself…. The animal is actually looking at you, and you feel that there is a moment of contact: I know you are. You know I am.”
In an interview with Books & Culture, Morris said he was inclined to agree with Brooks and to regard traditional notions of self-knowledge as a form of “illusion” and “self-deception.” Pointing to instances of this theme in his previous films, Morris also cited a scene in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control in which Hoover explains how his wild animals stay content behind their bars: “They don’t really consider themselves caged. Outside the cage is the cage. Inside is their world.”
“That’s one of my favorite lines in the movie,” Morris said, and he suggested that we humans live in cages of our own as well:
Inside is our world, in Rodney’s musings, of mind and soul and intentionality, where outside the cage is maybe this kind of cruel reality of simple feedback loops. One of the reasons I like some of the shots in the circus is that that world does look robotic in nature, or the insect world looks robotic in nature, or the mole rat world looks robotic in nature. But even if the world were meaningless in that sense, if we were all robots, then there’s something deeply mysterious about each one of us in the process of trying to replicate and create life, as if there’s some kind of progress into the future, as if it’s our destiny to be a kind of Doctor Frankenstein, collectively.
Morris prefers not to speculate as to what the answer to that mystery might be, though he readily acknowledges the parallel between his obsessive interviewees and his own drive to make films that explore these issues. And although he himself may doubt it, the very existence of a film such as Fast, Cheap & Out of Control may offer a partial answer. The questions asked here are religious in nature, and Morris sinks his teeth into them with artistic enthusiasm. And, at the risk of anthropocentric snobbery, it is precisely this passion to understand and to create that distinctively characterizes human intelligence.
Peter T. Chattaway reviews films regularly for several Canadian publications.
— A version of this article first appeared in Books & Culture.