Film is deceptive by its very nature, creating something out nothing to transport the viewer to a world that may not be real, filled with characters that probably never existed. Documentary, on the other hand, is seen to be about exposing the truth, or crafting an investigative text on a subject. Penny Lane’s NUTS! is both of these things, reeling us into a tale that lives up to its title, before whipping the rug out from underneath us.
Using a combination of roughly hewn animation and talking heads, Lane explores the singular personality of Dr. John R. Brinkley, purveyor of impotence cures and radio pioneer in the first half of the 20th century. The first half of NUTS! depicts Brinkley as a man who struggled at every turn, to become a doctor, fight the powers that be, and being one of the first to broadcast country music widely across America. He came to notoriety when he allegedly made thousands of successful operations, xenotransplanting goat testicles into humans to increase virility. This alone would be a fascinating narrative, even if it was the whole story.
Opening as it does on the animated vision of two goats humping, Lane trains us from the start to expect the unexpected. Brinkley was well documented as a huckster and a fraud, and his fame and popularity demonstrated a skill in manipulating human desire to believe the impossible. Before we realise the extent of Brinkley’s deception, there’s nothing in the narrative that seems completely unreasonable, even if it’s always a little strange. As conned as his victim’s were, there’s a definite parallel to modern scams, and alternative medicine literally put on trial. Brinkley’s supporters argued for the right to “choose my own doctor,” scarily mirroring everything from detoxers to anti-vaxxers.
The style of NUTS! is always disconcerting, the slow narration and vocal acting sometimes at odds with the animated action on screen. It’s an unassuming film, almost playing like a PBS made-for-TV doco, one that downplays its own insanity. This is kind of the point though, to draw us in with a good story, but perhaps keep us questioning all the while. When the other shoe falls, it’s like a good con: we know we’ve been suckered, but the purveyor has already got us in hook, line and sinker.
NUTS! is playing at the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, 7-19 July 2016. It also screens at the Melbourne International Film Festival 28 July – 14 August 2016.
2016 | US | DIR: Penny Lane | CAST: Gene Tognacci, Andy Boswell, Thom Stylinski | DISTRIBUTOR: RevFest/MIFF (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 79 minutes | RATING: ★★★★