A Sly Documentary About a Medical Outsider
#31: Nuts! (2016)
Director: Penny Lane
Nuts! is being screened as part of the Webster University Film Series
Friday, August 9, at 7:30, Winifred Moore Auditorium
I was completely suckered by Penny Lane’s documentary Nuts! 30 minutes in I was full of righteous indignation over what I took to be shameless propaganda for a discredited quack. But I was right where Penny Lane wanted me, taken in by the misdirects in this film. Nuts! is so much more shrewd than I first realized, a tongue in cheek look at our gullibility, our hunger for populist heroes, for champions who will fight the establishment for our good – even if we have to squint and ignore a lot of evidence to keep their stories in tact.
I’d never heard of John R. Brinkley before watching Nuts!, but he was a colorful figure in the 1920s and 30s, on the fringes of American medicine. Brinkley “pioneered” transplanting goat testicles into humans – initially as a treatment for impotence, but eventually for all manner of ailments from dementia to constipation. That wasn’t the extent of “Dr.” Brinkley’s unusual practices, simply the most famous. But for much of its running time Nuts! bases it narrative on Brinkley’s authorized biography, in which a noble doctor does the impossible for his patients and is persecuted by the medical establishment. The story is told through a combination of animation, archival photos, videos and audio recordings, with a voice over narration that has the bland authoritative tone of a 1960s ad campaign. But then, just when you’re thinking that the documentary is a historical version of a Natural News piece, things start to warp and bend and you realize Penny is doing something else entirely. Is it playful? Comic? Sometimes Nuts! is indisputably funny, as when a medical expert testifies to the efficacy of Brinkley’s “cancer fighting toothpaste.” “It does not fight cancer,” the expert witness says. “And it’s actually a fairly ineffective toothpaste.” But at other times Nuts! is strangely haunting. Was Brinkley the loving husband and father that he appears throughout, or was he incapable of feeling, as one historian suggests? Did he believe any of his own hype? And why were people willing to believe such bizarre claims, submit themselves to such unorthodox treatments, spend fortunes on what was, essentially, snake oil?
Nuts! is so much more shrewd than I first realized, a tongue in cheek look at our gullibility, our hunger for populist heroes, for champions who will fight the establishment for our good – even if we have squint and ignore a lot of evidence to keep their stories in tact.
We’re much smarter now, though, right? I kid, of course. We are still on the prowl for the information that “those in power don’t want you to hear” and for outsiders who will fight the establishment on behalf of the little guys. Isn’t that what most of this year’s presidential candidates have been selling? And isn’t that the reason that anti-vaccine and anti-GMO activists find takers for their narratives no matter how much real research seems to contradict them? Desperate people look for miracle workers and miracle cures (medically, politically, spiritually), and Brinkley knew how to monetize that desperation. If Penny Lane had told Brinkley’s story straight it might have been easy to look down on those poor yokels who were taken in by John Brinkley’s flimflam. But in telling the story slant, Lane humbles viewers and forces them to see themselves in Brinkley’s supporters. We have met the suckers and they are are us.