Monday, September 12, 2016

Movie Review: Nuts!

Directed by: Penny Lane.

Nuts! is a wonderfully strange documentary about a man who, in the 1920s, thought it was a good idea to insert goat testicles into impotent men to cure them of the affliction? The man’s name was John R. Brinkley, who opened up a shop/surgeon’s office (there were less regulations then) in in the small town of Milford, Kansas, and to hear him tell it, a man came in one day complaining of impotence. When Brinkley said that he couldn’t do anything for him, the man glanced out the window to see a goat who had, uh, no problem performing sexually (for an audience no less!) and wondered if Brinkley could give him the goats nuts to help him. Brinkley sees no reason why not – and miracle of miracles, the man is cured – able to perform sexually, and even impregnate his wife (who apparently, does not have a hideous half man/half goat baby). Thus starts a very successful business for Brinkley – who helped put Milford on the map, turning it into a boom town. The goat’s nuts thing isn’t the only innovation that Brinkley comes up with – he becomes a pioneer in so many other ways – most notably in advertising, using the radio in ways others would not have thought of.

The film was directed by Penny Lane, whose previous documentary, Our Nixon, took the home movies about some of Nixon’s aides to give a different view of the man. I didn’t much care for that one – the footage itself, apparently the films big get, wasn’t particularly interesting – and Lane had to string together a narrative out of it anyway. With this one, there is nowhere near as much existing footage – although considering the time period, the amount of material Lane gets is still remarkable. She fills in the gap in an ingenious way – with animation. The film is largely based on Brinkley’s firsthand account of himself, which Lane and her team of animators bring to life. The animation gets more complex as the film moves along – stick figures, giving way to more detailed drawings (and color) as we moved from the 1920s to the 1930s.

The movie runs only 79 minutes – but it makes the most of them. We know that Brinkley is a quack from the beginning – not because the movie tells us, but because, come on – who the hell would implant goat’s nuts into people. It’s still fun to watch as the story unfolds – as various doctors associations start to form, who rally against people like Brinkley – who simply stops doing operations (he has a potion instead, that he assures his patients works just as well). He’s clearly a con man – but people love him – he most likely would have won the Governorship of Kansas in 1930s, except for some fancy maneuvering by the state’s Attorney General, who threw out every vote that didn’t spell Brinkley’s name correctly (that was 56,000 votes – he lost by 30,000). They keep shutting him down, and he keeps finding a new way to continue on going – becoming a radio sex therapist, who operated outside the jurisdiction of those who wanted to stop him (but beaming inside). Of course, it all has to come crashing down eventually – and final act of the movie is a courtroom sequence that is surprisingly moving as everything Brinkley has done comes out in sad little moments.

The film is inventive in many ways for a documentary. The story structure works well, as we discover it as it goes along, first in his words, and then through everyone else’s. The animation works, evoking an earlier time, and evolving. The archival material that Lane does get is wonderful and strange. The talking heads that normally makeup most docs are kept to a minimum – but are clearly well informed when they are there. All of this makes Nuts a fun doc from beginning to end – and one well worth seeing.

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