A good story is better than a boring or unpleasant truth: we could reasonably call this the guiding principle of the human species. We prefer to believe that the universe is ruled by a superior intelligence, rather than accept its chaos and randomness. We prefer exciting conspiracy theories to reasonable explanations. And we absolutely love miracles and beleaguered heroes.
Penny Lane’s clever, part-animated documentary “Nuts!” exploits this very human tendency by making us empathise with a con artist throughout most of its run. John R. Brinkley was a man who in the early 20th century claimed to have discovered an unexpected cure for impotence and infertility: transplanting goat testicles into human scrotums. Many desperate patients lined up to take this cure, and Brinkley became very wealthy. He built hospitals, launched several pioneering radio stations and ran for governor of Kansas twice.
The first two thirds of the film tell this story mostly from Brinkley’s point of view, taking his “authorised biography” as a starting point. Brinkley describes himself as an innovator despised by the elite, but beloved by regular citizens, a lone hero fighting the conservative establishments of both the medical profession and broadcast regulators.
Penny Lane uses hilarious cartoon sequences to drive this point home: Brinkley’s enemies conspire against him in the dark, cackling maniacally, or die horrible accidental deaths as karmic retribution, like trespassers on a Pharaoh’s tomb. Brinkley’s most rabid arch-nemesis is Morris Fishbein, a doctor who calls him ‘a quack’ and tries to expose him, portrayed here as an unpleasant little man with a grating voice.
Even to the most cynical amongst us, it’s an appealing tale, for a while. Brinkley is giving ordinary people what they want, while condescending experts belittle their anecdotal experiences of healing, and their tastes in radio programming…or is that not how it really happened? The filmmakers play with facts to keep Brinkley sympathetic, withholding information almost until the very end. When the protagonist is finally held to account, it’s almost a disappointment: yes, he is a charlatan…but isn’t his version of the events the more entertaining one? And what does that say about our vulnerability to pretty lies?
Brinkley’s story may seem like a curiosity from times past, but quacks and miracle cures have never really gone away; homeopathy is a thriving industry, and we’re still surrounded by people who think cancer can be cured with lemon juice and baking soda. Not to mention that our current political environment of ‘alternative facts’, demagogues building their own personal myths, and backlash against experts, makes the story seem even more poignant.
Most of all, though, „Nuts!” is a fun, well-made little movie, with a very good understanding of structure and pacing, and it proves once again that animation can be an adequate medium for non-fiction stories, particularly as it highlights how the relationship between fact and manipulation is constantly negotiated. This is, of course, true of all documentaries, but „Nuts!” turns out to be refreshingly honest about its own deceptions.
„Nuts!” is available on Vimeo on Demand.