Despite its exploitative title and zippy visual style, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris’ 1997 essay on the human condition was his most subtle effort up to that point. Its focus is on four people immersed in seemingly unrelated fields of interest – a topiary gardener, a robotics expert, a specialist on the behavior of mole-rats and a lion tamer – and overlaps their obsessions in a manner at first playful, then increasingly profound.
Two of the quartet emerge as members of a disappearing species, craftsmen who dedicate years of Herculean concentration toward a quixotic end. George the gardener fashions huge figures, patiently clipping hedges into the shape of a bear, a giraffe, even an enormous armchair. Dave, the lion tamer, is determined to make unpredictable beasts possessed of enormous strength perform cute tricks at his command.
The other two are more conventionally obsessed in the scientific manner. Ray is content to observe, having become fascinated with the singularly repulsive mole-rat, a mammal which lives an insectlike existence in a burrowed, underground colony. Meanwhile, Rodney, the robotics man, is actually creating insects of a sort, small "thinking" machines that can interact independently of human command.
The link between these four portraits may at times seem dubious – the gardener, in particular, fits in rather awkwardly – but the clever use of old film footage and the way the segmented interviews smoothly segue into each other carry us along to the movie’s surprisingly elegiac last section.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].