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Way out and in control

Errol Morris is a truly odd man. I say this because he wears a disguise of normality. I have never seen him without a sport coat and a tie, his hair neatly cut, a briefcase nearby. He talks soberly and with precision, almost as if students are taking notes. And then he invents a device called the Interrotron and uses it to interview lion tamers and experts on naked mole rats.

His new film is "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control." It opens Friday at the Music Box. It is endlessly fascinating, the kind of film you are compelled to discuss afterward. It is about people who have chosen strange career avenues: a gardener who makes animals out of plants, a designer of robots, an animal trainer, and a man who spends a good deal of time trying to figure out where and how naked mole rats prefer to defecate.

This film is by the same man who made films about a possibly innocent man on Texas' Death Row, and about Stephen Hawking, the man almost trapped inside his own brain, and about a parrot who was the only witness to a murder (could the court believe that it was repeatedly squawking out the killer's name?). The Interrotron is an invention that allows his subjects to stare straight into the camera while simultaneously making direct eye contact with him.

I met Errol Morris long before I was ever in the same room with him. I met him in 1978 when I was watching his first film, "Gates of Heaven" (see my Great Movies review on Page 5). I met him by inference, because of what he put on the screen and what he left off. His selection process gave me a sense of the man.

By choosing to make a film about two pet cemeteries, he staked his claim to the sidelines of the American mainstream. By making the film in such a challenging way, he refused to commit himself: You could see it as cruel or caring, as satirical or poker-faced, as cynical or deeply spiritual. Watching it, I knew that when I finally laid eyes on Morris, he would be wearing a quizzical grin.

He was. I met him in the 1980s at Facets, the video and repertory shrine in Chicago, where they showed "Gates of Heaven" in a tribute to Morris. It so happens that the theater at Facets begins with a flat floor, and then abruptly tilts upward. I sat at the dividing line, and noticed that those in front of me were silent, while those behind were laughing.

Of course they were, Morris explained. It is best to look up at drama, and down at comedy. We need to feel above comedy. Drama needs to feel above us. "Gates of Heaven" was so finely balanced between comedy and drama that the altitude of the seats determined the reaction of the audience members. Was he serious? I couldn't tell. Years later, Buddy Hackett told me he turned down big bucks in Vegas rather than play a room where the stage was higher than the audience. "They won't laugh unless they're looking down at you," he explained.

Having made "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," Morris is now touring the country to flog it. It has no stars and no big ad budget, and cannot be explained in a snappy line of advertising copy. If I had to describe it, I'd say it's about people who are trying to control things - to take upon themselves the mantle of God.

"There is a Frankenstein element," Morris said. "They're all involved in some very odd inquiry about life. It sounds horribly pretentious laid out that way, but there's something mysterious in each of the stories, something melancholy as well as funny. And there's an edge of mortality. For the end of the movie I showed the gardener clipping the top of his camel, clipping in a heavenly light, and then walking away in the rain. You know that this garden is not going to last much longer than the gardener's lifetime."

The gardener's name is George Mendonca. He makes topiaries - gardens like you see at Disney World, where shrubs have been trimmed to look like camels or giraffes. He circulates endlessly in the private garden of a rich woman, trimming and waiting and trimming. A good storm will blow everything away. When he dies, the shrubs will grow out and destroy his work in a season.

Then there is Ray Mendez, the naked mole rat expert. Mole rats live in Africa and were only discovered a few years ago; they are hairless mammals whose society is organized along insect lines.

"Ray tells you," Morris said, "that he's seeking some kind of connection with `the other,' which he defines as that which exists completely independent of ourselves. And then he talks about looking into the eye of a naked mole rat and thinking, I know you are, you know I am. It occurred to me that all of my movies are about language. About how language reveals secrets about people. It's a way into their heads."

That was true right from the start, I said. "Gates of Heaven" is filled with lines that could not possibly have been written. As when that woman says, "Death is for the living and not for the dead."

"I like to transcribe my own interviews," Morris said. "I'm really fascinated by how people speak. And there are so many strange lies that I've heard over the years. There's this idea that documentary filmmaking is a kind of journalism. So `Gates of Heaven' becomes a movie about pet cemeteries. It's about something different altogether. There's this sense of having one foot in the real world and another foot in some dreamscape."

Did you know "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control" was going to be about these four people, or did you find the film shaping itself?

"Well, Dave Hoover, the lion tamer - I filmed his act in 1985 in Texas. There was this money from PBS to make a movie about Dr. James Gregson, the so-called Death Row doctor (who could always be counted on to testify that a killer would kill again). And I thought, I'll bet there's a similarity between theories of how to control wild animals and theories about how to deal with violent criminals. There was. There are all these different schools of wild animal training; there's a touchy-feely school, there's a `I'm OK, You're OK' school, transactional analysis . . ."

But then you show that young woman who takes over as the animal trainer, and she seems to be more the master of her beasts than the older man. Her lions look better; they don't look all ratty and shopworn, and she puts her head in their mouths, and cuffs them around . . ."

"Although as Dave points out, these are tigers, not lions."

Admittedly a good point, I said.

"There's supposedly a big difference. He says anybody can do that with a tiger. I asked him, I said, `Dave, how come the head in the mouth thing, why aren't you doing that?' He said `A, it's a tiger, not a lion, and B, he wouldn't have anything to do with that sort of thing because there's a problem with halitosis. Their breath's real bad. Dave lives in this universe of his own devising. When he talks about what goes on inside a lion's head when it's facing him in the ring - well, is that what's really going on in the lion's brain, or is it Dave Hoover's crazy dreamscape?"

His lions look a little mangy.

"Periodontal difficulties, mange, gout . . ."

Maybe they won't bite him because it would hurt their gums.

"It's his world. It's his crazy universe and he says, `Outside the cage is the cage.' And I have that shot of him at the very end of the movie, exiting the cage and firing his gun into the night, as if outside was the enemy. I like all four of the characters a lot."

I do, too.

"There was a review in Entertainment Weekly where I was taken to task for ridiculing these four. I certainly understood the criticism. A lot of people said `Gates of Heaven' was poking fun of the people. I think it's far more complicated than that. I love those people. They're all such wonderful characters in their own right."

So you shot Dave in 1985. He must have acted as a magnetic attraction that drew the other three.

"The strange attractor."

He was trying to control that which in its nature is not to be controlled. They all are. But they're all very happy people, aren't they? The gardener is a little melancholy that his work will come to an end, but they're all absorbed in what they do.

"They're committed; that's how I would describe them. They're obsessed; they're involved. To me all of the stories are sad. In two of the stories there's a world coming to an end: the topiary garden, and the lion taming. In the other stories there's a glimpse into a future which excludes us. Ray Mendez talks about the mole rat's world as the ultimate kibbutz, depending on the expandability of the individual. It's the insect-mammal future. And with Rodney Brooks, the robot designer, it's a world without us altogether, without carbon-based life. Just thinking machines."

Have you got another film in the works?

"I'm preparing a film," he said, "about an electric chair repairman."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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