Penny Lane on ‘Nuts!’, her playful doc about a charlatan

Penny Lane
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Penny Lane was worried. She’d made “Nuts!”, a documentary about John R. Brinkley, a possibly obscure historical figure who, in the early 20th century, built an empire based on his cure for impotence: injecting goat testicles into humans. He was a fraud, but the movie she’d made spends most of its running time pretending to be on his side. Only at the end do you realize you’d been swindled, much as he’d swindled a sizable chunk of the American public. It’s an unusual way to structure a documentary, and though the filmmaker (also of the similarly savvy “Our Nixon”) fretted that viewers might get the wrong idea — at least for awhile — she tells us it has much to say about our capacity to believe in charlatans, even today (nudge nudge).

The structure of this is pretty interesting.
I thought it would be boring to make a straight biopic about this guy. The first thing you’d say is, “He was a conman and everyone was fooled! Ha ha!” When I was talking to people about it before I made the film, I could tell people really wanted to believe him. I would say, “There was this guy who did this thing,” and they’d say, “Wow! Did it work?” People really wanted to believe. I realized I could take advantage of that. It would be more interesting to make a film that I’d never seen before, where you perpetuate the lie a little bit, to some extent, before you admit you had done that. People have the experience of having been conned as opposed to sitting back in their comfy chairs with hindsight and laughing at those people. I thought it would be more interesting to create the feeling of having been fooled.

I actually knew little about him or about the film going in, so part of me was thinking, “Well, maybe he was one of the good ones!”
Exactly! It’s hard to not believe in someone whose enemies are bureaucracies and the government. It’s hard not to be on the side of the little man fighting against the establishment. Because the establishment is lame. Who wants to root for them?

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One of the red flags watching it was that he had a pull-up-from-the-bootstraps narrative, which is often a lie we tell ourselves to think we’ll be the ones who succeed, when so few of us do.
That’s something that’s maybe particular to America. It’s intrinsic to the American dream. We’re very attached to those kinds of stories. We know it’s bulls—, yet we yearn to believe them. And Brinkley knew that. He knew people liked that story, so he used it.

He was also using anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism, turning people against the know-it-alls who were keeping him down. That’s something people love to.
That’s true. He walked that line between saying he was a common man of the people and saying, “I’m way smarter than everybody. Look how successful I am!” That’s an odd thing when you’re able to say you’re a man of the people when you’re buying your fourth yacht during the Great Depression. We’ve always had people like that in our culture.

Here’s the part where I bring up Donald Trump.
It’s hard not to!

He’s another charlatan like Brinkley. Learning about stories like this, we tend to think we’re smarter than the rubes who were fleeced by quacks deep in the past.
I don’t think we’re any smarter. [Laughs] We have no evidence to suggest we’re smarter now than we were 100 years ago.

We might even be dumber. We like to think having access to more information than ever before makes us smarter, but it allows us to believe worse ideas because there’s allegedly more evidence to support it.
The problem with the idea that having more information available to us makes us smarter is that’s not how we reason at all. We make choices based on intuition, prior experiences and desire. Then we use information after the fact to support the decision we’ve already made. That we have more access to information doesn’t change how our cognitive methods work. It just means you can justify your choices faster.

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Let’s talk about the structure of the film. Non-fiction films tend to be seen as mere journalism, but there are plenty of docs that are as openly manipulative as this one is.
It’s so manipulative and I have a hard time watching the first third of it. It’s like a movie I don’t even like. [Laughs] It’s really heavy-handed. When Morris Fishbein [the physician who wound up taking him down] shows up the music is [makes a dramatic music cue], and you’re like, ‘Oh, bad guy, got it.’ We had a lot of fun pulling out all the stops and being as manipulative as it could be — which is not how I approach a film, and especially not a documentary.

I was really worried about the choices we made in the film. I knew we why we were doing it, and I knew I wasn’t a bad person — I wasn’t an unethical jerk. But it was still difficult to do the film, because the structure I had committed to involved lying a good chunk of the time. That kept me up at night. That’s a hard thing to do when you call yourself a documentary filmmaker.

What about all the animation? Obviously you had to put something onscreen when you didn’t have archival footage or images or audio. Were there other motivations for that?
It’s kind of a nod or a wink to the audience that, since 70 percent of it is a cartoon, you may need to exercise a little critical ability when you’re evaluating how true it is. You’re literally watching a cartoon. [Laughs] Because it’s so far outside the documentary approach, I hope it does function — even if it’s subconscious — to plant some seeds of doubt in the audience along the way. Or not! Maybe it’s just fun. It has to be a fun movie to work, because you can’t seduce people by boring them. To some extent the movie doesn’t work if you don’t accept him as the protagonist and root for him, even if you don’t believe what he’s saying. The movie has to be seductive. The animation is a fun spoonful of sugar.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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