Lately, I have been engrossed by the films by documentarian Penny Lane. The subjects she chooses are always very odd, the sort that seem buck wild and grab your attention while browsing Netflix. At the same time, she approaches her films with a humour and wit that elevates the topics. In Hail Satan?, she presents The Satanic Temple as a paradoxically neoliberal institution, an organization founded to offend, choosing to follow the rules of the system they are opposing. In Listening to Kenny G, Lane starts the film by stating “Kenny G is the best selling instrumentalist of all time, he’s probably the most famous living jazz musician, and I made this film to find out why that makes certain people really angry” (Lane 2021, 0:00:42) before playing Kenny G to a series of jazz critics. Both of these films are fantastic and I highly recommend checking them out, but I want to look closely at another of her films, Nuts!, which explores both quackery and authorship.
I recommend viewing the film prior to continuing to read my opinions on it. As strange as it is to say, I will be spoiling this documentary. The film is about a doctor who became successful by implanting goat testicles into men to cure impotence. That is all before the opening credits and only gets more outlandish from there. While it is not on any streaming services that I am aware of, it is available through iTunes, Google Play store, and Vimeo On-Demand.
If you are continuing on, that means you either have watched the film or are not bothered by having it spoiled. Nuts! Tells the story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, a Kansas doctor that made a name for himself with his goat testicle transplants. He performed this surgery thousands of times, claiming it was a highly effective cure for impotence. Despite the apparent success rate, Brinkley was attacked on all sides by the American Medical Association, the Federal Radio Commission, and other government bodies. A story of the righteous genius fighting against the institutions that attempt to hold him down. Or is it?
This is really only half of what the film is about. As much as Nuts! is about Brinkley, it is also a commentary on authorship and the creation of false narratives. It is partially based on Brinley’s authorized biography, reading aloud from it for the narration of the film. But in the documentary’s third act, the book is brought up in the court case that eventually ruins Brinkley, revealing that the biography was fabricated. Brinkley’s opponents who were presented as having met horrible fates are revealed to be perfectly fine. Prior to this, the documentary presented these as fact. Even the first narration of the film, Brinkley’s full name, is incorrect; his middle name was Richard, not Romulus.
Because of this, the film requires the viewer to grapple with the facts of the film directly. It is not enough to passively engage with it, one must actively involved. Lane is aware of the kinds of manipulations that go into creating a documentary, choosing here to lean into those to create a scenario where the viewer is rooting for Brinkley, right up until the end where the rug is pulled out from under both him and us. The film is paced in such a way that emulates a con artist’s sales pitch, moving so fast that there is little to no space for comments (Lane July 20 2016). It presents a fascinating case study for creating narrative.
You might be wondering now, why am I writing about this documentary here on my museum studies blog? Why here and not on Letterboxd or somewhere similar? The reason is because I believe the lessons learned from Nuts! are not solely the domain of documentaries, but museums as well.
Nuts! exists to question the authority of the documentary as a medium. Lane wants to make clear the manipulation that goes into creating a documentary, that creating a narrative is not a neutral act. The constructed nature is frequently obfuscated. The exact same can often be said about museums and museum exhibits. Museums are often seen as a trustworthy site for education, more so than many other areas of education. Lane herself even sees it as going beyond the documentary medium with the film being “an opportunity for viewers to actively wrestle with the ethical and epistemological issues central to the narrative nonfiction form” (Emphasis mine) (Lane February 10 2016).
Museums are no stranger to constructed narratives. Everything on display, every word chosen, the scene set just right; all decisions that were examined in close detail. Every decision is made with a purpose, to convey a certain meaning. Not often do we draw attention to the fully constructed nature of the exhibit; we may encourage the audience to reflect on what they are seeing, but when was the last time an exhibition encouraged the visitor to think about the placement of false walls for the purposes of the narrative? They appear natural, but museums put up these walls to create sections and guide the visitor.
As such, Penny Lane’s documentary Nuts! offers a chance to reflect on the ways that museums and other nonfiction storytellers craft their narratives. It is an outlandish history, told in a medium that is highly trusted, but provokes the audience to think critically on that trust. It serves as a case study for how a pleasing narrative can be twisted by the creators. There are many lessons that can be learned from this film and I really hope to see an exhibition that manages to question its own authority in a similar way to Nuts!
Lane, Penny, director. 2016. Nuts! Cartuna Productions. 1:18:52.
Lane, Penny, director. 2019. Hail Satan? Hard Working Movies. 1:35:00.
Lane, Penny, director. 2021. Listening to Kenny G. Ringer Films. 1:37:00.
Lane, Penny. July 28 2016. “Penny Lane discusses award-winning editing of NUTS!”. Interview by AFISilverTheatre. Youtube. Video, 1:53. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmgx2BgwypU&ab_channel=AFISilverTheatre
Lane, Penny. November 10 2016. “NUTS! director Penny Lane at Amherst Cinema.” Interview by amherstcinema. Youtube. Video, 9:49. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulEj7HFq_6Y&ab_channel=amherstcinema.
Lane, Penny. February 10 2016. “Director’s Statement.” Nuts! The Film. Accessed December 20 2021. http://www.nutsthefilm.com/#directors-statement
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.