In 1934, Clement Wood published a biography titled “The Life of a Man” and chronicled the rise to success of doctor John Romulus Brinkley. Once he was a poor 17-year- old boy, “in a shirt, a pair of trousers and nothing else,” rejected cruelly by the Dean of St. Hopkins University, only to become one of the most influential doctors and celebrity of the early 20th century. He believed that the cure to impotence in men was transplanting goats’ glands onto human testicles; he ran for and almost won Kansas’ governor election; he built the world’s most powerful radio station at the time and was partially responsible for the birth of Rock ‘n Roll. It was a book about a real American Hero, having achieved that elusive American dream. Proud of himself and of his legacy, Brinkley would give away copies of “The Life of a Man” to his patients and friends.
Father to a young and bright son and husband to a beautiful and loyal wife, it seemed that nothing could go wrong for John Brinkley. However, one thing could: the truth. The book was nothing but hot air. It was a real published biography, but also a work-for-hire. John Brinkley reportedly paid Clement Wood $5,000 to write the biography and it appears that he himself manipulated the contents of the book.
Penny Lane’s new documentary “Nuts!” based its premise partially on “The Life of a Man,” as it sets out telling a stranger-than-fiction tale of a man creating an empire from the idea of curing male impotence with goats’ testicles. Narrated by the always wonderful Gene Tognacci with a tongue-in-cheek and quirky tone, the film’s first act tells the story that we have always wanted to hear, the story of a poor, small man rising to the top despite the rigid system he was born into with nothing but his talent and his drive to succeed.
Audience members who come into this film uninformed about the history surrounding our notorious doctor, like I did, would totally believe that Brinkley was the real deal, that he was really an innovator and an American hero. That is until Lane decides to pull the rug from under your feet with a bleak but satisfying climax. In a tense courtroom scene, John Brinkley was exposed to be the quack he always was: one who would sell colored water as “magic” medicine to unaware costumers and put goats’ gland onto human testicles without any knowledge of whether it is safe or not, making more than a million dollars a year and creating an empire based on nothing but lies. To add insult to injury, his name was not even John Romulus Brinkley, as his real name was John Richard Brinkley.
Penny Lane won best editing award at Sundance Film Festival and deservedly so. She does not lie or present false information. Granted that she does present facts in a biased way in the film’s first act in order to trick her audience into thinking that Brinkley was a legitimate doctor, it was the film’s unrelenting and breakneck pace that ensures that the audience would not have enough time to process all the ridiculousness that is going on. Lane relies on an impressively large amount of stock and archive footage, something she has proved to be really good at in her last feature “Our Nixon,” and stylish hand-drawn animation (which, according to her, took eight years to finish) to revisit Brinkley’s rise and fall. The film also includes interviews with historians and biographers to construct a better picture of what it was like back then.
Visually, “Nuts!” does not disappoint. The idea of using hand-drawn animation by Lane was brilliant, as it makes it hard for the audience to separate between what is real and what is not in Brinkley’s world. As his career becomes more successful and his lies and trickery become more elaborate, the animation goes from being simplistic and sluggish, to being detailed and at one-point shifts gear to bright and pristine color. The animation hits its peak and is the most detailed and colorful in the previously mentioned courtroom scene.
From then, “Nuts!” still keeps its quirky tones but becomes much bleaker as it portrays the tragedy of John Brinkley’s ruination. After being exposed, he quickly went bankrupt as patients and even the government sued him for his web of scams and lies. He died of a heart failure thinking everything he built was taken from him. His wife still lived in their crumbling old home and in the illusion that her husband’s work was legitimate. His only son would later commit suicide. Despite numerous comparisons on the internet due to some thematically similarities, “Nuts!” is not Orson Wells’ “F for Fake,” nor does it try to be. Over the years, documentary films have become drier and drier, as filmmakers try to convey their themes and ideas only through plain old interviews or voice-overs, with no intention of making their films interesting and accessible to viewers.
Yes, Penny Lane’s feature is deliberately manipulative, as it tries to shock the audience. Yes, the documentary is also a little bit biased and could have been 10 minutes shorter, but “Nuts!” is a film that at least tries to be innovative and play with the audience. “Nuts!” reminds us that documentary is also a part of cinema and that you can have fun with it. It can be informative, it can be quirky, it can be interesting, and it can be a great film at the same time, so thank you Penny Lane!