The Art of the Con
Penny Lane talks the show business at the heart of her documentary Nuts! and being “too believable”Movies Features
If the rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive presidential nominee of one of America’s two major political parties troubles you, chew on this: Trump isn’t the first man of his kind, and he won’t be the last. Just about a century ago, in fact, a man named John Romulus Brinkley—a self-styled medical doctor and entrepreneur—swindled people out of huge sums of money with a xenotransplantation scheme. Brinkley got it in his head to cure men of their impotence by grafting goat testicles onto men struggling with sterility. Sounds ridiculous on paper, but if you hopped back in time to around 1918, you’d be shocked to hear positive testimony from patients swearing blind that somehow, some way, against all logic, their operations were successful.
What can you get away with if you can convince people that stitching them up with goat glands can make them virile again? Lots, it seems, like running for public office in Kansas despite a lack of political expertise, or building radio stations to hawk more nonsense cure-alls while dancing around the laws and dictates of the FRC. But why read about Brinkley when you can watch Nuts!, documentary filmmaker Penny Lane’s latest film. Lane speaks to the soul of what made Brinkley so fascinating and magnetic as a person through amusement: The film is chiefly comprised of animated segments, telling stories from formative moments in Brinkley’s life and career as a huckster.
It’s rousing entertainment, which may sound like an odd way to describe any documentary. But entertainment is a big part of the point, as Paste found out when we spoke with Lane about the film and its curious subject. As Brinkley once did, Nuts! uses showmanship to keep its audience on the hook, a tactic that works like gangbusters until the surprising emotional tonal shift that occurs in the film’s final minutes. Nuts! may dazzle you, it may enrage you. Most likely it’ll do both. Maybe, as Lane suggests, documentarians aren’t all that different from con men after all.
Paste Magazine: I guess, to open things up… what the heck did I just watch? I mean that in a very complimentary way, but what did I just watch?
Penny Lane: Well, I take it in a complimentary way. I don’t know, it’s getting hard to explain, right? Like, if you try to explain to other people, it kind of can be a little hard, I think.
Paste: Yeah, absolutely.
Lane: So imagine me trying to explain it before it even exists! [laughs] Then you’ll have a sense of why it took so long to make it, which is primarily because it was impossible to raise money for.
Paste: I can’t imagine why! Brinkley has such a fascinating story. How did he end up on your radar to begin with?
Lane: So, I came across the book Charlatan, which is the biography of Brinkley by Pope Brock, who is one of my main interview subjects. The book was on the “librarian recommends” shelf at my local public library in 2008, and I grabbed it—I often grab books off that shelf—and it was interesting. I just loved the story. When you’re a documentary filmmaker, or maybe just an artist, you’re always scanning for stories, or scanning for ideas, you know?
Lane: I definitely was like, “This story is unbelievable!” So the first layer of appeal was kind of a gut feeling. “How could I have never heard of this guy? This is such an amazing story, so insane, this happened and I never heard of it, and that’s amazing.” But the thing that really got me hooked was when I started chatting with people about it, friends and stuff. I’d say, “Oh, I just read this book about this guy who did goat testicle transplantation,” and then a lot of them would say, after a little pause, “Well, did it work?” I was like, “Wait, what? No! Of course it didn’t work!”
But the fact that people were willing to believe it really hit me as interesting. So my project got more and more into making the movie that you saw, which is kind of hard to explain, but once you’ve experienced it, you know, you could understand what I’m saying, which is that the movie to some extent convinces you to go along with, or even if you know he’s a fraud, to root for the guy perpetuating it for a long time until you don’t.
In so doing, you can question the entire documentary film form, and make people more critical viewers of documentaries, which also sometimes lie—you know, stretch the truth to make a point, or use show business stuff. My writer and I used to yell, “Show business!” at each other when we were writing something that we knew wasn’t strictly true. We were trying to do the best we could to be as good at this as Brinkley. It’s really hard. You have to have a pretty mischievous and deceptive personality to come up with this shit.
Paste: That’s so telling. I think he would love this movie, by the way, he’d be a big fan. Maybe not the ending, because for him the ending’s a bummer…
Lane: Well that’s how his life really ended! I’m sure he was pretty bummed.
Paste: I know! [laughs]
Lane: He lost everything!
Paste: I think the “show business” aspect is really important. It does feel like such an appropriate way to tell this guy’s story. That’s almost the most appropriate way, through something that’s more like entertainment as opposed to a traditional doc.
Lane: Yeah, the movie has to be entertaining, right? Because you’re not going to come along with me if you’re not entertained. So it moves very quickly—I’m sure you noticed, as a person who watches films for a living…
Lane: It’s noticeable. It’s very, very fast. It’s relentlessly paced. You never have time to think. You’re just supposed to be entertained, right? And then when you finally do have time to think, you sort of feel like, “Wait, why would I have believed that? Now that I think back, how could I have believed X or Y?”
And again, it’s really important to be clear about this, some people just completely hook, line and sinker believe everything the movie says until the third act, and they’re blown away, borderline angry, when they realize they’ve been fooled. Some people actually already know something about it, or just have really strong skeptic impulses, or watch films very closely, and they have a very different experience, which is, like, “There’s something kinda fishy about this, but I’m laughing and having fun.” Even if you don’t realize it, you’re rooting for him because he’s the protagonist, he’s the hero. At some point you realize just how much you were doing that.
So it’s not like everyone’s fooled the same way. That was the challenge of writing it. It had to work for everybody. That’s a big range of different ways that people could experience it.
Paste: Totally. But I think that gets to the heart of Brinkley as a human. He’s such a grossly compelling person.
Lane: He really is.
Paste: And he’s so good at fleecing people. Even his spirit, through this movie, continues to fool people. I think that’s weirdly poetic.
Lane: It kind of is, yeah. I think so too. But you know, I’m sure that there are some people who would just think it’s really annoying. [laughs] Like, “How dare you! How dare you fool me!” I mean, the same people got really mad about the mermaid documentary on the Discovery Channel. I just wish I’d made that. That’s my response. I think that’s a public service. People think that they’re so savvy about watching documentaries, and they’re not. I mean, I’m not! I know they’re not because I’m not, and I make them. But you watch them, and you kind of don’t have a choice. You have to get on board. You can’t just sit there and question every single thing, or you can’t watch the movie.
And they are just movies. [laughs] So there’s something about documentaries. We just think we’re so savvy. I would say if anything, we worked so hard to be convincing because we were so convinced that nobody would believe anything we were saying. If anything, we kind of went overboard, and we were too believable. You know what I mean?
Paste: Oh yeah.
Lane: We did not need to work as hard as we did!
Paste: But I think it’s good that you did, and I really hope—again, this is meant purely as complimentary—I really hope that people, when they see this, do have that reaction of feeling betrayed, or feeling angry. I think that speaks to how vulnerable we are to the promise of wish fulfillment, or miracles, what he was selling.
Lane: Yeah. Miracles, fun, entertainment—all kinds of stuff. The world would be cooler, right, if mermaids were real. That’s why people believed the fake mermaid documentary. It’s because you want mermaids to be real. That would be better than mermaids not being real. So yeah, it’s all about how the con man operates the same way as a documentary filmmaker does, on a scale—obviously on a scale. But yeah, you’re taking little pieces of the truth and you’re wrapping them up in a story, and there’s an inherently fictionalized aspect of any story. When you tell a story, you’re kind of creating a fiction anyways. But the purpose of the fiction in a con man’s case is to take your money, and in the filmmaker’s case, maybe they’ll take your money? It depends on the filmmaker and the film.
Lane: But I didn’t find it completely outside my realm of understanding, what he was doing. It seems like I had some experience in it myself. [laughs]
Paste: Of course, because when you’re making a documentary, you’re trying to persuade people of a point of view, and he was a persuasive man.
Lane: Yeah. And again, it’s a scale. I would never want to paint us all with one brush, but definitely there’s a resemblance between art-making and swindling.
Paste: Correct me if I’m wrong—the narration is from the biography that gets referenced at the end, right?
Lane: The narration is pretty much from the biography, yeah. There’s some rewriting, but yeah, it’s inspired in tone in all cases, if not directly from it.
Paste: It’s interesting, because documentaries are in part about truth. It feels like, by using the biography as the backbone of the film, you’re trying to tell his truth—not to validate, but just so we understand his side.
Lane: Absolutely. And it’s not even understanding his side, because I don’t even know if he believed the things he said, but more exploring the fiction that he created. And we all make our own fictions, but I definitely wanted to honor—honor is maybe a weird word, I wanted to show the fiction that he created.
Paste: Do you, on some level… maybe “admire” is a strong word, there’s gotta be a better word than “admire”…
Lane: Yeah, I know. Honor, respect, admire… yeah, I guess so. He was really brilliant. He wasn’t all bad. I mean, I do think that there’s a big part of medicine, and healing, and doctoring that is placebo, and is kindness, and is convincing, and things that aren’t just science and scientifically validated. So I don’t think he was the worst con man ever, you know? I think a lot of people probably thought he was a pretty good doctor, and had a good experience with him.
I don’t want to invalidate all the people that he hurt, but I do think that there’s more to it than that.
Paste: That line during the animated funeral sequence kind of gets to that. The man says, “I knew he was bilking me, but I liked him anyway.” I think that’s key to understanding the film, and also understanding how people like Brinkley work, and why they succeed.
Lane: Definitely. Yeah, I totally agree. And that’s a real line, supposedly, that someone said at the funeral. I read that in some newspaper somewhere.
Paste: I believe it too. You mentioned kindness. That leads me to the question of empathy. Do you think we should feel some empathy even for somebody like Brinkley? I feel as though you craft the movie to invite our empathy for the guy.
Lane: I think so. And I think, as far as that, again, I made a movie about Richard Nixon’s aides [Our Nixon] that asked to have empathy for them, not because they were good guys who did good stuff but because they’re people! They are human beings. I think Brinkley had a lot of bad aspects of humanity, like greed, self-interest and selfishness, and all these things, but I also do believe that he was trying to build a better life for his son. He’s a person. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s controversial to ask people to feel empathy for even really bad people, you know?
Paste: Sure. Even if we were to connect this story of old, weird America with today, the obvious analogue would be Donald Trump…
Lane: Yeah, because of course I predicted it eight years ago. [laughs]
Paste: How did you do that? That’s amazing.
Lane: It is amazing. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll try and sell a book about it.
Paste: But even someone like that is still human. And this certainly isn’t the first movie I’ve seen, and you’re not the first person I’ve talked to in 2016, where the conversation, and the movies, connected to Trump. Even he’s a human being. At some point, do you need to feel that empathy toward him?
Lane: Yeah, I guess so. I think it’s tough, because Brinkley was similar to Trump in a few ways. I think the main way was that they’re both basically reality TV stars, you know, who create a lot of fictions. They’re bullshit artists. That’s what you call ’em. [laughs] So you know, when someone’s a bullshit artist, and their bullshit is safely in the past, a hundred years ago, it’s not that hard to be like, “Oh, he’s not so bad,” or whatever, but clearly that’s not the case with the other guy.
Paste: Yes, yeah—that’s a little bit fresher.
Lane: I couldn’t have made this movie about a contemporary quack. It would be too hard. The emotions are too strong, and I’d be too upset about it. It would be too upsetting. I can do this because it’s old, and there’s distance, and with distance comes subjectivity, but also the ability to laugh.
Paste: Definitely. This movie did make me laugh. I was surprised how much it made me laugh.
Lane: Oh, good! I’m so happy.
Paste: Hey, me too. I could always use a good laugh.
Lane: Yeah, well, especially if you watch a lot of documentaries. [laughs]
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.