Monday, November 30, 1998

Soap Scum and Naked Mole Rats

If there is one thing regular readers of the newsletter should know about me by now it is that there is nothing I enjoy more than endorsing newly marketed bathroom products.

For those of you who haven't discovered it yet, there is a great new cleaner on the market thanks to the fine folks at our favorite chemical company, Clorox. The name of the product is "Tilex" which you use, as it so conveniently states on the label for "The easy way to step into a clean fresh shower every day." With Tilex you spray the product on your shower's surface after you shower. No more need to rinse, wipe or scrub. Dirt, soap scum and mildew stains don't get the chance to build up! I'm a stickler for a clean tub but even I must admit that I've never seen my shower look cleaner.

I can at times approach Howard Hughes in my need to live in a clean environment. Yet much as I demand a clean bathroom, I'm not quite obsessive enough about it to have made the cut as a subject in Errol Morris' wonderful 1997 documentary, Fast Cheap and Out of Control. The documentary features the stories of four rather eccentric men whose work is their lives passion. On the surface none of the four appears to have much in common with each other (or with most of us for that matter), but by the end of the movie we begin to see there is a definite story Morris is trying to tell.

The stories are interspersed and edited together along with scenes from the men's work (and old Clyde Beattie movies) in such a skillful manner that the movie visually is a treat to watch. The first man we meet is Dave Hoover, a wild animal (mostly lions and tigers) trainer. Hoover is a humble and soft spoken man but compared to the other three he is almost charisma defined (he clearly has the most "exciting" job of the four). The next man we meet is George Mendonca, who sculpts animals out of shrubs, hedges, and bushes in a large garden. The third man is Ray Mendez who has spent his life's work studying the hairless mole rat, an animal that lives an insect like existence in underground colonies. The last man is Rodney Brooks who builds elaborate robots at MIT.

The documentary is put together so that each of the four men's stories weave their way in and out of the other's words (and images from their work). Their individual stories aren't what keeps our attention, rather it is the themes that begin to emerge from the images and their words. It's the type of a movie that not only gets you wondering what it's ultimately about, but also wondering what the bigger picture is about. We see the animal trainer and the gardener's work is about the past. Both men have spent their lives trying to control the uncontrollable- nature. The mole rat guy and the robot man tell stories about our future. We see that human life can be like mole rat life in that we often do meaningless tasks to give our lives meaning. It may not even be that far a stretch to believe it when the robot guy says the next step in our evolution will be silicone not carbon based.

All four men are passionate about their work to the point of obsession. Just listening to how much they know about their work and their love for their work makes one wonder where passion becomes madness. Each is ultimately trying to obtain some type of immortality: the animal trainer by trying to tame the wild; the gardener by trying to shape nature into that which is not natural; the mole rat observer by building artificial mole rat communities to study; the robot builder by trying to build human's ultimate replacement. (It is he that appears to be almost crazy at times- especially as he is describing the practical uses we will have for robots in the future. His example is a bunch of tiny robots that will live off the electrons on our television screens that will be programmed to keep the dust off the screen in a cost effective manner.)

The documentary concludes sadly with the animal trainer realizing his industry (the circus world) is dying and even as he tries to pass his knowledge on to his replacement- it somehow has been a life's work that will be lost when he is gone. More so for the gardener who knows that once he dies his life's work- his sculptures- will not be maintained. The closing shot of the movie is of him in his garden in a heavy rain storm, faithfully carrying his most trusted tool, his hand shears, as the light swirls in the rain around him. As the other two men try to describe our future- of trying to learn lessons from the mole rat, and trying to design robots with human knowledge and without human frailties, it dawns on us that life is indeed a fast, cheap, and out of control proposition.

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