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 Post subject: Penny Lane: Nuts! (2016)
PostPosted: Fri Jun 24, 2016 5:22 pm 
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The "goat-gland" quack story reanimated

Penny Lane, whose previous film was Our Nixon, this time tells the story of the notorious early twentieth-century medical charlatan John R. Brinkley, a mostly animated documentary using actors to recreate moments from Brinkley's life, along with stills, archival footage, and some talking heads. It's an entertaining film about a jaw-droppingly crooked, absurd, but dangerous quack, focusing on the most colorful aspects of his story. As with Our Nixon, which presented known information about the Nixon administration and the downfall of his aides adding new, but unrevealing, found footage shot by those aides, Nuts! represents truly attractive repackaging of information already available. Those who are interested in Brinkley would do well to consult Pope Brock's 2008 book Charlatan, subtitled "America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam." The book, which Janet Maslin in her NYTimes review called "heavenly," is frequently referred to in this film, and Brock is one of the film's few live talking heads. Or they may simply read the detailed short biography of Brinkley on Wikipedia, which is well written, draws on numerous other sources, including other Brinkley biographies beside Brock's, and provides much information about this man omitted in Lane's, and her writer, Yale Broadcast Center producer Thom Stylinski's, pared-down version of events.

The grabber is that Brinkley, who did a lot of other things, hit his stride when he started keeping a herd of goats and supposedly injecting their testicles (or glands) into the testicles of men with fertility problems. Hence he is known as "the goat gland doctor." He was not a doctor; he was a poseur. But the gullible flocked to Brinkley, who used his concoctions to cure many other ills, and he made a lot of money, traveling in regal style, living in a mansion in Del Rio, Texas after being driven from Kansas, owning a flock of cars, and so forth. He was a funny looking little man with round spectacles, whiskers, and a small goatee, and the film shows him constantly in archival film, still photograph, and drawn animation forms. He was a dangerous menace, and nobody knows how many men and women died as a result of his dangerous and incompetent surgeries.

The Brinkley story has interest not only because he was one of the most notorious and successful medical frauds in American history but because he used the new medium of radio, both to promote his own products and treatments and for country music, and other things. And when his powerful station was outlawed, he moved it to across the border, in Mexico, to a station that later was taken over by Wolfman Jack to promote rock 'n roll music. And, best of all, Brinkley had a nemesis, legitimate doctor and Journal of the American Medical Association editor Morris Fishbein. The latter specialized in exposing medical frauds and pursued Brinkley for decades but could do nothing till Brinkley sued him for libel, and the trial led to Brinkley's exposure and downfall. A dramatization of the trial using animations and actors reading from the transcript is the highlight of Lane's film. But again, those really interested in the facts would do best to get hold of the libel trial, transcripts published by Fishbein's JAMA in May 1939 and are still available as "The Case of Brinkley vs. Fishbein, Proceedings of a Libel Suit Based on an Article Published in Hygeia."

Lane and Thom Stylinski have focused on the more colorful and easy to dramatize moments. They begin with the apocryphal moment in 1900 when the 15-year-old Brinkley, barefoot and in rags, supposedly presented himself to authorities at the Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore saying he wanted to study medicine, and was laughed at. (It turns out in the libel trial that he was under arrest elsewhere at this seminal moment). Then we skip to 1917 when Brinkley, an all-[purpose quack healer (who early on reportedly actually did help some victims of an epidemic) met up with a 46-year-old Kansas farmer named Bill Stittsworth. “I’m all in,” Stittsworth said. “No pep. I’m a flat tire.” And, supposedly, they both looked out the window, saw goats making lively love, and got the idea of transplanting goat testicles into Stittsworth's privates. Of course anyone ever "cured" by Brinkley's treatments, which, the trial reveals, included injections of colored water, did so by chance or due to a placebo effect.

The satisfaction of the trial is that it demolishes Brinkley completely. His medical and his radio empire both rapidly fell, and the government came after him for unpaid taxes. His health declined dramatically and he died in his mid-fifties. The film adds a an odd little coda about his son, John Richard Brinkley III (frequently shown in photos and animations as a boy) growing up and, disturbed by his life of dangerous fraud and criminality while preaching the importance of honesty, committing suicide.

Dennis Harvey begins his review of this film for Variety with the statement, "The potentiality of a President Trump has many pondering Americans’ susceptibility to snake-oil salesmen, making it a particularly opportune moment for Nuts." Maybe so. But what troubles me is that there is something a little bit fraudulent about Penny Lane's evident habit evidenced here and in Our Nixon of presenting mostly recycled and simplified information as if it were something new. This kind of infotainment documentary (or more properly "documentary") is a far cry from the truly searching ones of all kinds, from profound explorations of truth in films like To Be and To Have or My Architect to the Harvard Ethnography Lab's exhaustive detail as in Leviathan to muckraking films like Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight (about Iraq) and Inside Job (about the 2008 Wall Street crash). Alex Gibney seems to be operating a doc factory at times, but Taxi to the Dark Side is powerful and committed; his recent Scientology and Steve Jobs films were well-researched. Even in-your-face advocacy like Michael Moore's is original and has enough passion to affect pubic discourse. Especially fine are documentaries that turn out to be voyages of discovery, like Jesse Moss's The Overnighters. Next to all of these, Penny Moss just seems like an entertainer and a recycler.

Nuts!, 79 mins., debuted Jan. 2016 at Sundance, winning an editing prze; a dozen other festivals, including San Francisco and Seattle. US theatrical release 22 June 2016 at Film Forum, NYC.

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