Penny Lane’s Sundance standout 'NUTS!' is a formally inventive documentary that pieces together the outrageous story of huckster surgeon John Romulus Brinkley.
Just over halfway through this year's crop of Sundance documentaries, some of the memorable films include a remarkably intimate, vérité portrait of sex scandal-ridden politicos (Weiner); a searching, interview-laden inquiry into whether "the internet dreams of itself" by Werner Herzog (Lo and Behold); and a doc/fiction hybrid on suicidal TV journalist Christine Chubbuck ( Kate Plays Christine). On the scale of formal inventiveness and outrageous, headline-grabbing subject matter, however, no one has quite matched Penny Lane. The director's much-buzzed-about NUTS! follows the story of radio pioneer, huckster surgeon, and failed Kansas gubernatorial candidate John Romulus Brinkley, who grafted goat testicles on impotent men, claiming it would cure them.
Did it? Of course not. But for decades, from the tail end of World War I until just before D-Day, Brinkley's increasingly popular quackery could not be contained. The surgeries, performed at a hospital he opened in the town of Milford, Kansas, and later in Texas, left scores of men maimed and dying and the nascent American Medical Association repeatedly sought to stop him. The AMA succeeded in getting both his medical and broadcast licenses taken away in Kansas, but not before he had made millions with the surgeries and other medical products of dubious merit.
Blending stark yet simple animation, talking heads, and tons of archival footage to create a humorous and haunting portrait of Brinkley, NUTS! leaves you wanting to believe the charismatic "doctor," however. Brinkley, who claimed to be a medical professional although he was never formally trained, was nothing if not persuasive.
"You'd rather live in a world where the story he's telling you is true," Lane told me in her hotel room hours before NUTS!'s premiere on Friday night. The 37-year-old Colgate University professor and director of Our Nixon, a virtuoso avant-garde found-footage documentary about the former president that aired on CNN in 2013, was anxious to present the film. "A lot of times I would tell people about it and they'd be like, 'Did it work?'" she said.
In NUTS!, one catches glimpses of Brinkley in very odd home movies and found audio pieces; he'll talk about the strange beauty of flowers or tarpons one second, and pivot to the talking about the potential for ancient "Incan" skin creams to help your eyesight. But much of the storytelling is done in an animated retelling of his epic life in six chapters that reveal him to be a man who inspired perverse loyalties—his wife went to her grave in the 1980s, over 40 years after his death, claiming the goat graft surgery worked and was still practiced—and tragic legacies (his son, to whom Brinkley delivered long, hypocritical lectures, committed suicide in the 1970s). The would-be governor was a demagogue every bit as salient as Donald Trump, whose savvy use of new media Brinkley's story forewarns, and Louisiana governor Huey Long.
After stumbling upon a biography of Brinkley's at the library, Lane wanted to make a film about him right away. "It'll be easy," Lane recalled thinking, surprised that such an outlandish and bizarre American story hadn't already been brought to the cinema and thinking she could tell his story in a straightforward fashion. Eight years in the making, the film mixes stark animated passages with more traditional talking heads and archival stills and motion-picture recordings. Lane decided to tell the story using mostly animation almost two years into the process, after discovering there wasn't enough existing archival footage of Brinkley to tell his story with the breadth she had hoped. "There was no way to bring you close to this guy just using the archival," Lane said.
A closer look at Brinkley reveals a man whose deeds might be described as the work of a sociopath, a con man who didn't care which stories he spun. Originally from North Carolina, he reinvented himself in place after place. A self-conscious self-promoter, he was a firebrand populist who threatened the establishment in an era of rising income inequality. Brinkley's personal brand was one of the first to be broadly expanded by broadcast media, as an unusually powerful radio station he built and owned in Geary County, KFKB, reached radio listeners nationwide (it later became the station where famed rock 'n' roll DJ Wolfman Jack rose to fame).
After he lost his medical license, Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas and may very well have won; the election of 1930 is widely considered stolen as the establishment Democratic political machine of the era threw out over 50,000 write-in ballots for Brinkley in a tight election.
If Brinkley's story teaches us anything, it's that men will do anything to fix their broken penises. More philosophically, NUTS! is about how hard times make people want to believe in simple explanations for complex phenomena, miracle cures, leaders who promise us that they can solve the world's problems by magic. Like the politicians who cater to our basest fears today, Brinkley was a master manipulator, an expert wearer of masks. He was good at "using the ideas of populism without actually having anything behind it," as Lane said. Maybe the most horrifying thing about Brinkley is how well he would fit into the present day.
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