Why you should care
Because sometimes Horatio Alger turns out to be a con man hawking transplanted goat testicles.
“This is a story about John Romulus Brinkley.” Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts! opens with this seemingly simple statement.
One of the statement’s eight words, however, may not be true. Multiple sources list J.R. Brinkley’s middle name as Richard. “Romulus” has a nice ring to it, though, one fit for a con man. And Lane gets into the spirit by conning her audience, spinning a yarn for three-quarters of the film, sympathizing with J.R. Brinkley — before revealing the truth about his illegal medical activities. (Brinkley claimed to cure impotence by transplanting goat testicles into human patients … best not to try it at home.)
Since Lane is a documentary filmmaker, you might expect her to stick to the facts. But she’s far too interested in con artists to be so black-and-white. “I’m really enamored with intelligence,” she says. Petite, with short brown hair that she frequently brushes back, Lane maintains intense eye contact and peppers her sentences with words like “charlatanism.” Both of her feature films chronicle the lives of liars: Our Nixon, which debuted at SXSW and aired on CNN, tells the story of Richard Nixon’s presidency through the home movies of his aides. Nuts!, which will soon be on Amazon Prime, is an animated look at the life and lies of medical con man Brinkley.
What makes Lane’s message about the lying prowess of smart men palatable is her utterly unapologetic ability to entertain. It’s difficult to imagine you’re about to watch a serious documentary when Nuts! begins — with a scene of two cartoon goats going at it. Trust us, though, there’s something to be learned, as well as laughed at, and the animation is pretty cute.
It’s a difficult balance that Penny Lane manages to maintain. On the one hand, she’s hilarious; and on the other, she’s highly intellectual. It comes through when we talk in January at Sundance: She manages to be excited and pessimistic, neurotic and chill. She frequently checks her texts to see if the movie has been acquired yet, apologizing and explaining that she usually isn’t so chained to her phone. She pulls a sotto voce “this is off the record” when she wants to — invoking the girl code, relating secrets and unspeakable critiques. In many ways, her documentary style is more like Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (which cons the viewer) than Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s straightforward Blackfish, about a homicidal performing killer whale. Jordan Hoffman, film critic for The Guardian, compares Lane to NPR all-star Sarah Vowell, calling her “clever” and “elite.” Others in her category of informative, funny documentarians, like Morgan Spurlock, are intrigued.
You know there’s something different about Lane’s work just from the look of it. Lane is on the “cutting edge in terms of combining archival images, sound recordings, animation by many different animators, using a lot of strategies to fill in when there is no visual documentation,” says Jaimie Baron, an assistant professor of film studies at the University of Alberta. Lane doesn’t handle a camera herself, which sometimes leads to mild criticism. She jokes about it when we meet: “Film is about cinematography, isn’t it?” she asks slyly. Her work answers that question with a decisive no (or, at least, a not always). At Sundance, she won an award for best editing — an honor, but also perhaps a bit of a snub.
The outspoken Lane made headlines in March when she wrote an open letter to the Tribeca Film Festival protesting the inclusion of Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe in its 2016 lineup. The documentary examines a widely debunked connection between vaccinations and autism; the letter from Lane, a former Tribeca fellow, helped persuade festival organizers to pull it from the slate. “I believe you made a very serious (if human) mistake,” Lane wrote. “But it’s not too late to fix it.”
Lane’s stance did not surprise those who know her. Caitlin Mae Burke, Lane’s producer and friend, remembers sitting around a table with Lane and other crew members in February at the Rotterdam film festival, where Nuts! had its international premiere. When the talk turned to branded content, they all agreed — they would never make a movie that affirmed the position of anti-vaxxers. After all, Lane had just spent eight years researching the life of a medical fraudster and didn’t have the stomach to perpetuate what she considers harmful, dangerous ideas.
As someone obsessed with the finely crafted life stories spun by what she calls “bullshit artists,” Lane laughs at how her own narrative might come across as a classic made-it-in-America-from-nothing tale. Lane grew up in a housing project in small-town Lynn, Massachusetts, and her father is in prison. She ended up attending Vassar, where she was told she could be anything, that she could invent a life for herself. So she created her own major, and then did what no one she knew had done — pursued filmmaking.
Of course there will be more obstacles. Accessibility is “an uphill battle” for an artist who’s a bit of an ivory-tower filmmaker. (Lane is an associate professor of art and history at Colgate University.) And her projects are slow burns, so she’s not prolific. But her deliberate way of working means she thoroughly researches her subjects, looking at them from every angle until she feels she can trust what she thinks and wants to say. That makes her all the more questioning of other films and their claims. Those films “can be convincing,” she says, “and that doesn’t mean they’re true.” She starts to tell me about what concerns her now that she has come out against the anti-vaccination documentary and then stops herself: Nope, she realizes, she’s actually not concerned about anything.