2016 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – NUTS!
I’ve seen more than a few documentaries for the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival, and most have been resolutely conventional and serious. So it was a breath of fresh air to watch NUTS! which has a lot of fun with the form as it tells the story of Dr. John R. Brinkley, goat gland doctor, radio pioneer, huckster, quack, politician, iconoclast, and media celebrity, and his rags to riches story with a climax that could be right out of a Hollywood movie. It’s a true life story that’s hard to believe actually happened.
Although NUTS! has its share of archival footage and talking heads, director Penny Lane really makes the film stand out by choosing to use limited animation for much of the film. All the better to show randy goats humping I suppose, but it immediately tells the audience that the goal is first and foremost to entertain. And entertain it does, right up to the moment when Penny Lane pulls the rug out from under the audience and asks us to really consider what this real life cartoon had done. It’s not quite an F FOR FAKE reveal, but it perhaps asks the audience to consider who they’re rooting for, like THE IMPOSTOR, and what they’re enabling. And what they’re taking for truth.
Before that NUTS! is a grand romp through the 20s and 30s. Dr. John Brinkley is largely forgotten now, but in his time he founded a media empire, was famous enough for his goat gland treatments to inspire gags by Buster Keaton, garnered great wealth, and likely had the governorship of Kansas stolen from him via political chicanery. He was one of the first that found that appearing to provide a cure for male impotency could lead to riches, which he was not afraid to sell over the air despite prudish concerns. Apparently we’re not the first generation to complain about the appropriateness of the equivalent of Viagra commercials. And he was able to channel his celebrity into making himself into a formidable politician promising the stars and the moon without any sort of track record or policy details. In fact, the very nature of his reputation was him questioning things like “expertise” and “science”. Read parallels into current events as you will. Sometimes you have to ask what’s the relevance of films about times that are not contemporary, the answer to that question is very plain in NUTS!.
The subject of NUTS! is far enough removed that there are no great stakes, even if there are parallels to today. And, perhaps the animation puts a distance between the audience and the subject. But, the idea of just having fun with a the form is always welcome. Especially in a sea of films that have serious themes and take themselves very seriously.
NUTS! shows once more at the 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival on Monday, October 3 at 4 pm at the Times Cinema. Tickets can be purchased at Milwaukee Film’s website.