In Nuts!, director Penny Lane tells the little-known story of Dr. John R. Brinkley, a man who built a fortune on goat testicle transplants (as a cure for impotency) and other fake cures. Part documentary, part cartoon re-enactment, the film was a big hit at the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). This Friday, July 15, Nuts! returns to Seattle for an exclusive presentation at the SIFF Film Center.
In Nuts!, an unreliable narrator feeds us the story of Dr. Brinkley’s life through archival sound clips, expert interviews and cartoon dramatizations. Brinkley begins with a burgeoning goat gland transplantation business in a small town of Kansas, and then, with the power of radio, builds his empire across the entire United States with all manner of hokey products, like toothpastes that cure cancer and hair growing tonics made of nothing but water and colored dye. And yet for many, doubtless based on the unbelievable power of belief, his products seemed to work, and for many years, the doctor prospered as a beloved champion of alternative medicine.
Much of the film takes place in the courtroom, as Brinkley attempts to dodge the American Medical Association’s many attacks on “Quackery,” and it’s as riveting a courtroom drama as anything else. You may not even realize that the film is manipulating you to care about this quack until you’re already heavy in your feelings. The joke’s on us, and it’s a fun prank!
By uncovering this forgotten swindler from the past, it feels like Lane has done us a public service: In Dr. John R. Brinkley, we have a charismatic figure who managed to manipulate hearts and minds with subterfuge and lies. Sound familiar? It ought to in an election year. We’re reminded that history repeats itself and invited to wonder: What are we being tricked into believing today?
I’ve been a fan of Lane’s work ever since her debut feature Our Nixon, composed entirely of archival Super 8 footage taken from members of Nixon’s inner circle, who would later go down with the president in the Watergate scandal. I expected to be bored or underwhelmed, but instead, Our Nixon had the effect of both humanizing and pitying its subject in inventive and mesmerizing ways. Nuts! is an entirely different film, brimming with confidence and levity. With the two films side by side, I’m convinced that above anything else, Lane is a master of tone; it makes me eager to see what project she takes on next.
Nuts! premieres at the SIFF Film Center this Friday, July 15-17. On Monday, July 18, the show moves to SIFF Cinema Uptown, July 18-21. Visit the SIFF Box Office for tickets and showtimes.