Cut and Wait: Tyler’s Paper

Cut and Wait: The Art of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control 

            I was completely unprepared for Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.  The film caught me off guard and reached me on a level no film has ever touched before.  It reached me like a good poem, where the artistry of presentation and density of meaning combine to make something amazing.  But poetry is an imperfect allegory for Fast Cheap.  It is a film unlike any other, and a work of art unique both in what it achieves and the method of that art.  He combines four interviews, relevant footage, and footage that seems nonsensical and manages to make something beautiful.  This film engages life, death, love, and art and more and more… it is a masterpiece that seems to me to have its closest analogy in Eliot’s The Waste Land.  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin…”  But Morris’ film isn’t a ruin, and the fragments aren’t piled around haphazardly, but are arranged with careful and deliberate intent.  As we’ve discussed in class, the art in this film is in the editing.  Kracauer says,“Of all the technical properties of film the most general and indispensable is editing (144).” It is in the sequence of the interviews that the meaning of the film emerges.  Morris’ editing evolves the meaning out of these disparate and integral bits of speech, music, and sight.  The art is in the motion, and it is in the moments of transition between scenes that the motion becomes most apparent.  Motion makes Morris able to create a conversation out of four monologues, and somehow makes that conversation into his own soliloquy.  I’m going to investigate some of the most compelling transitions Morris creates in his film.  These transitions fall roughly into categories: there are transitions in speaker, and there are transitions in the visuals of the film.  Often they happen at the same time, or are slightly and skillfully offset. 

            First, let’s start small, with some short but high-impact transitions that incorporate a shift in the visual element into a change in the movement of the film.  For example, at one point we are watching Dave Hoover manipulating a lion named John John with a stick.  At the very end of the shot, the camera fixates on the clawed feet of the lion.  The camera cuts from the claws to Mendonca’s clippers, and to Mendonca’s voice saying, “There’s nothing like hand shears.”  There’s a certain seamlessness to the integration of the claws and the clippers that creates continuity between the two scenes.  This transition from the lion to the garden shouldn’t be so easy, but happens without a jolt, or at least, not to me.  Mendonca’s dialog shifts to him explaining about how electric shears can cut off an ear or a horn, vocabulary of dismemberment reminiscent of Hoover the lion tamer’ stories earlier in the film.  It’s the synergy of the visual and the aural elements of the film that make it such a work of art.  Morris proves himself a careful cutter, like Mendonca, only instead of green animals he’s making a poem.  This ties in with Kracauer again, “Lumiere seems to have realized that story telling was none of his business; it involved problems with which he apparently did not care to cope (146).”  Morris wants to cope with the problem of story telling, but not like Melies’ fantasy.  Rather, he uses reality to create the fantastic.

            The clipper-claw example is mostly technical.  Its power lies within the visual component of the film.   The most devastating transitions are rooted first in the aural, at least, it is the spoken words working in counterpoint to the images that creates the meaning.  One chain of scenes is particularly interesting in how it moves in a complete semantic arc, beginning with the thought that all humans are individual and therefore untrustworthy, reaching the thought that all humans are the same and expendable, and ending with the thought that all humans are just to the point of mutual destruction. 
Hoover gives us the first thesis, saying that the trouble with the wild animal act is that lions are “like people, that’s the problem.”  We then launch into a short montage, followed by the claim that the animals are “always scheming.”  So lions are like people in that they are always scheming and that’s the problem with them.  Damn.  We are watching the horrifying fight between the lion and the tiger from an old Beatty movie now, when Mendez begins to speak.  He says, “Stability is a concept of death” and that nature is not benign, that you are either predator prey or ignored.  He uses the example of islands where the wildlife was wiped out by settlers because it had no fear of men.  So humanity is destructive, irresponsible, and doesn’t understand nature.  Great.  But here we get another great transition, this time from ruined islands to Mendonca’s voice saying “In ’54 half the garden was destroyed.” Considering the Edenic nature of the islands and the garden, this is a transition of literary proportions.  Mendonca says that the giraffe lost its head, and the owner claimed she wouldn’t live to see it fixed.  As we know, she lived another thirty years.  So, people are foolish hypochondriacs.  Here we get the magnificent lines, “Just and wait, Cut and Wait.”  We’re watching a strange shot of Mendonca cutting, but he is black and white and horizontal and we can’t see the clippers, only hearing the shearing.  The scene ends with him trying to catch a bug.  Then there is another great transition, to Rupert Brooks telling a story about watching some ants carry cereal.  This got him interested in seeing how robots would interact.  While he’s talking we’re watching the circus that is the ultimate symbol of the film, the spectacle of jugglers and unicycle riders signifying the inescapable conclusions of our own humanity.  We then see Brooks’ robots that can only sense each other enough to know “that is another one of me.”   We cut to Mendez’ voice and away from the robots to the circus again, as Mendez explains that human culture is more willing to let everyone die than to save one unfairly.  There is a chilling shot of the gymnast’s empty shoes- empty shoes always a symbol of mortality.  But there is at least that brash and human hope in Mendez, that humans would rather die together than live in an unjust way.  By cycling through his interviewees, Morris manages to construct several competing views of humanity, emphasizing them by placement and transition.  Stacking these people and their opinions in this way makes the viewer confront some of the most chilling facets of human nature, while providing some consolation as well.  While each interviewee may be the source of these words, it is clearly Morris and his visual and aural editing that manages to create the series of scenes.  He’s the culprit who makes us look at the ugliness in our collective selves, and also the quirky and illogical beauty in humanity.

            Rupert Brooks’ robots are almost as important as
Hoover’s circus.  While the circus is the ultimate symbolic matrix for the film, the robots are right next in line.  Transitions between interviewers and the robots happen often and are often very chilling.  Brooks ends up resembling his creations, in that he also chills us with his proclamations.  Our interest in the robots is explained early when they are edited to precede a discussion of mole rats.  Brooks speaks about his strategy of negating any communal assumptions people make, that his unstable walking robot was far more successful and insect-like than he’d planned.  The robots are becoming more like life.  There’s a cut to Mendez talking about the mole rats, which alternate with circus scenes. He says they are almost a cold blooded mammal.  This contrasts the robots that are like life to the mole rats that are less than mammalian.  It may also cast a slight condemnation on Brooks, who seems like he might be a cold blooded mammal, especially at this point in the film.  We cut back to the robots, Brooks explaining how he’s managed to explain insect behavior, that he makes robots that just do what is in their nature.  A montage of circus pictures, and we’re back with Mendez who explains, while we watch the trapeze artists, that mole rats do things most mammals cannot do.  The shot and language overlap to create a more complex statement.  The incorporation of the human element makes it clear that Morris wants us to understand that humans are extraordinary mammals, and perhaps as alien to normal mammalian behavior as mole rats.  This reflects back on Brooks and Mendez both, as extraordinary mammals doing strange things.  Becoming obsessed is uniquely human. 

            Ben and I have been talking a lot about obsession lately.  Fast Cheap and Vertigo are deftly aligned in the syllabus, two films by obessives about obsession.  Ben’s blog led me to Craig’s blog and the observation that Hitchcock takes ordinary characters, then puts them in extreme situations.  Morris uses a similar method in Fast Cheap, but instead of using ordinary characters and editing meaning out of them, like Gates of Heaven or Vernon Florida, he uses extraordinary characters.  These four men are all fascinating, but only Mendonca could ever be considered ordinary, which would be missing out on his quieter oddity.  Morris never takes these extraordinary characters into extreme situations, at least, not out of their natural habitat (lions are pretty extreme).  Sure, the interviews are in a studio, but we see all of the men at work.  Morris is a catalyst, he allows their idiosyncrasies to come out in stark contrast by stacking up scenes and dialog.  Hitchcock would have approved, I think.  Vertigo begins with a normal man who becomes an obsessive through Madeline.  We do get to hear about the beginning of the obsession in Fast Cheap, when the men give their backstories at the beginning.  The only one without a childhood is Mendonca.  I think that’s interesting, as he has a powerful symbolic role as the old gardener, an eternity about him even as he watches death come closer.

            Nathan discussed Mendonca, saying that the “icon” of the film is watching him cut out the animals while the lost city of
Jobba is falling down.  The movie is full of these iconic moments, images that stick out to me and will always be in my mind.  The end is one, as the film closes on Mendonca clipping at his giraffe, shrouded in the steam rising from the lamps.  The steam is what gets me in that shot: at the end, Morris subtly tips his hand in several places.  The smoke is entirely a product of the film, of the filming process.  Morris was going for a certain look with the animal lit and the cutting in the rain, just as Mendonca trims the giraffe’s reanimated head in a certain way.  But we can go further and look at the steam in for its symbolic value- steam?  Smoke conceals and confuses; perhaps Morris is commenting on the film as a distortion, a fog of meaning.  Steam is the last thing you see in a fire, once the water has been sprayed on it.  Steam traditionally powers trains- a train is one of the first images we see in the film.  The presence of the smoke at the end of the movie completes a circuit, creates a continuity with the opening.  At least, to me.  The steam seems to me to be something that could have been accidental but perfect, like much of this movie.  Morris may have set out to shoot the giraffe in the rain, but ended up noticing and exploiting the steam.  It is his apt assimilation of the world that characterizes this movie to me.

            This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Brad’s blog, and trying to speak to the issues he raises in Fast Cheap.  Brad felt like it was a big trailer for a movie, which never happened.  This movie worked for me, obviously.  It cannot be approached as a normal film.  To watch it, you need to get into a sort of trance where you relish every word the characters say, every image on the screen.  It’s not a novel, it is a long poem.  Brad says Morris is trying too hard to make them interesting, but I don’t know.  Brad’s indictment of the film ends with this:

“Errol Morris tried too hard to make them interesting for the sake of fleshing out some larger themes. Show me something that isn’t trying to impress me & I’m far more likely to be impressed. The style was too big for the movie, the characters too small for the style, & the whole thing way too

I don’t know whether it was “practically self crucifixion” to write about not liking the film, but I’m certainly going to respond not as a member of a mob but as an individual.  I do not watch many movies, and I’ve learned how little I know about them in this course.  Maybe the flashiness of Fast Cheap appeals to me because I’m not silver-screen jaded.  I don’t like most films I see, and I can’t say what makes a good film for me. 
Vernon Florida was fantastic.  Fast Cheap seems more epic.  Morris took a big risk in this film, making it so colorful and editing with such intent.  To me, it is a complete success.  I can see why it wouldn’t be so great for Brad and other people, how the charm of
Vernon could trump the power of Fast Cheap.  But as poetry student trompling around in another medium, it pushed all the buttons I like to have pushed.  I guess it’s like the Faulkner/Hemingway debate.  I’m Faulkner all the way, I like rich language and color and strange angles in novels and in films.  As Brad says, the people in the film “are chosen purposely & precisely for their absurd nature.”  I don’t know about the absurd nature so much, because I think they are great (not good) examples of humanity at its most obsessive.

            I remember there was some controversy over my initial Fast Cheap post, where I wondered about the men as four models of God.  Someone suggested that it was a new religion based on Morris, which wasn’t exactly what I meant.  Then Mary Carolyn pointed out that my four models of God weren’t complete, which I understood.  Morris is asking questions, probing- I think he has an open mind about the whole question of God.  I’ve probably talked about this film with Serena the most.  We watched it together initially, so she caught both my opening frenzy and has been willing to keep talking about it over the weeks.  Serena continued probing the initial idea in an interesting way.  She took the movie as a religious text, trying on the implications as Morris made them, finding her own personal interpretation through a Morro-religious lens.  Serena ended up thinking that she’s a headless giraffe shrubbery.  I guess that may be so.  I’m pretty sure I’m a toothless tiger myself, bluffed into a cage I’m more than capable of escaping, or at least wrecking.  Serena’s issues and my issues are represented in different parts of the film.  Even more than the technical artistry of the film, it is this that makes it a masterpiece.  Fast Cheap and Out of Control smashes into my soul every time I watch it (rather, both times I’ve watched it).  But it doesn’t leave me alone, or empty- just open.

            The reason, I think, is that Morris reveals himself all through the film.  Like the steam behind the giraffe announced the lights, his art announced his presence.  Dr. Campbell told me in office hours once that Morris is a lot like the artist-presence behind Fast Cheap.  Serena says that it’s one big self portrait of Morris.  I think so too.  Maybe we talked about it once, I don’t remember.  But through his film, I got to know Morris a little better than in Thin Blue Line or
Vernon, Florida.  He seems to be “odd and full of love” to quote Roethke’s poem “Words for the Wind.”  That poem ends with the lines “And see and suffer myself/ in another being at last.”  This connection happens in a whole web of ways in Fast Cheap.  I feel connected to Mendez, Mendonca,
Hoover, and even Brooks.  Connected to robots and mole rats and bushes and lions.  Connected to Serena and Dr. Campbell and Ben.  But I’m also tied to Morris now, perhaps through his invisible interrotron baby that’s presumably always present in the eyes of the four men.  Heh, maybe Morris gets more screen time than anyone else, but only reflected in eyes.  But enough of babies, the connection isn’t Donne’s ecstasy.  It’s the feeling that Morris has explained himself.  No, he’s shown his soul.  And it has a lot of questions, a lot of answers that aren’t quite right and only make more questions.  Dr. C said that he tends to have loving conversations after watching this movie- and I have, too.  For me, this is a life improving movie.  It’s a poem.  It’s something I can’t quite say even after all this.  Maybe it is something too subtle to say outside of art, that I could write it in a poem but not in an essay. 

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