NUTS! is a feature length documentary [directed by Penny Lane] about Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an eccentric genius who built an empire in Depression-era America with a goat testicle impotence cure and a million watt radio station.
Using animated reenactments, interviews, archival footage, and a hilariously unreliable narrator, NUTS! traces Brinkley’s rise from poverty and obscurity to the heights of celebrity, wealth and influence in Depression-era America.
Along the way, he transplants tens of thousands of goat testicles; amasses an enormous fortune; is (sort of) elected Governor of Kansas; builds the world’s most powerful radio station; invents junk mail, the infomercial, the sound-truck and Border Radio; hosts some epic parties; and annoys the heck out of the establishment, until finally his audacious actions force the federal government to create regulations to stop him.
How he does it, and what happens when it all comes crashing down, is the story of NUTS!
I started dreaming up a film about John Brinkley in 2009, after coming across the book Charlatan in my local public library. In conversations with friends I would mention this guy who transplanted goat testicles into men to cure impotence. And a lot of people would ask me, “Well, did it work?”
Well… no, of course it didn’t. But I began to think about how much people want to believe in miracle cures. The weirder the better, really. How “one weird trick to melt belly fat” is way better click-bait than “eat less to lose weight.” Who doesn’t sometimes wish the world was more interesting, more magical, more colorful than it really is? This is why the highest-rated Animal Planet program of all time was a fake documentary about mermaids. This is why Water Kirn falls for Clark Rockefeller. Why conspiracy theories are so compelling. And why we fall for quack doctors, time and time again: they sell us a story we want to believe.
I believe that more than any other single human quality, it is our love of great stories that makes us so endlessly susceptible to being conned. We believe the stories we want or need to believe, and we believe anyone who tells them to us. Con men know this. So do politicians, propagandists, pitchmen, cult leaders, televangelists, pick up artists and manipulators of all kinds – including documentary filmmakers.
And so, NUTS! is not a film that allows us to sit back and laugh at the dummies who fell for Brinkley’s bullshit. Instead, it’s a film that shows we are all those dummies. Unlike Brinkley, however, I seduce you, and then I show you how I did it. Brinkley’s story is not presented as the object of a neutral nonfiction gaze, but as an opportunity for viewers to actively wrestle with the ethical and epistemological issues central to the narrative nonfiction form.
And since I am on a mission to prove that watching documentary films isn’t just about eating your vegetables, the viewer is supposed to have fun while they wrestle with this stuff. Ultimately, NUTS! is still just a good old story about a big fat liar, some goat balls and a million-watt radio station. Because who says smart films have to be boring?