Earlier this year, the documentarian Penny Lane published an open letter to the directors of the Tribeca Film Festival on the website of Filmmaker magazine. “Tribeca Film Festival, I love you but you made a very serious mistake,” the letter began. The subject of Lane’s concern was Andrew Wakefield’s film Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, which was scheduled to premiere at the festival. (Wakefield’s film argues that… well, you can guess from the title.) “As a documentary filmmaker who spent eight years making a film about a quack,” she writes, “I am very interested in both your choice to screen Vaxxed and in the field of documentary film”:
A lot of people, including those who buy tickets to see docs at your festival, believe documentary film has become a new and important form of news. But journalists are expected to tell the truth—or at least not knowingly spread dangerous lies. Your choice to include Vaxxed in your documentary lineup—a lineup including films about abortion, Syrian refugees, solitary confinement, the American electoral system, in-vitro fertilization and drone warfare—suggests that you think documentary filmmakers can’t be held even to the latter standard. This threatens the credibility of not just the other filmmakers in your doc slate, but the field in general.
Lane’s crusade was successful: After some initial hesitation, Tribeca’s organizers did indeed pull Vaxxed from its lineup, earning Lane a storm of online harassment from anti-vaxxers but also the respect of many of her peers in the nonfiction film community.
The film about a quack that Lane refers to above is Nuts!, which is now screening nationally in select theaters. Its protagonist is John Romulus Brinkley, one of the preeminent American quacks of the twentieth century. Brinkley became famous in the late 1910s for transplanting goat testicles into the bodies of men (and sometimes women) as a cure for sexual impotence. Though he operated from the humble small-town locale of Milford, Kansas, his client list was rumored to include the likes of Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, Rudolph Valentino, and Woodrow Wilson. The 1922 Buster Keaton film Cops features a reference to Brinkley, and “goat gland” became film industry slang for the insertion of sound sequences into formerly silent films. (Nuts! itself features a lot of this kind of splicing: As in her previous film Our Nixon, Lane uses a mix of silent footage, vintage audio, and archival documents like photographs and newspaper clippings. Here, there are also a few historians as talking heads and some crude animated re-enactments in a range of styles.)
As he plied his medical trade, Brinkley simultaneously built his following by hosting a popular program called Medical Question Box on KFKB, the USA’s fourth ever radio station. Many of the questions Brinkley addressed were sexual in nature, a daring novelty for the time; one expert interviewed for Nuts! calls him “the Dr. Ruth Westheimer of the twenties and thirties.” After his broadcasting license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission (ancestor of the FCC) on the grounds of obscenity, Brinkley began broadcasting from Mexico’s XERA (“the Sunshine Station between the Nations”) to evade government regulation. This gave him an even wider reach: XERA broadcasted at 1 million watts, and the signal reached 17 countries; people could pick it up in their dental fillings.
Brinkley had political ambitions, too. In 1930 he ran as independent candidate for governor of Kansas on a populist platform of anti-corruption, free health care, and increased access to education. (His slogan, “Clean Out, Clean Up, and Keep Clean,” was borrowed from a laxative commercial.) For a fringe candidate not affiliated with a major party, he did surprisingly well, receiving nearly 30 percent of the vote; people wrote him in not only for governor, but for every office that was listed on the ballot.
After losing his license to practice medicine in Kansas, Brinkley moved to Texas, where he opened two new sanitariums (“Del Rio for the prostate, San Juan for the colon”) and started marketing an elixir called “Formula 1020” as a substitute for the goat gland surgery. At this point Brinkley’s public rhetoric started taking on a messianic tinge, promising not only reproductive health but “True Happiness” to his clients. (Hereafter there are some spoilers; those who haven’t yet seen the film may want to stop reading now.)
The central drama of Nuts! is that of the American Medical Association bringing down the hammer of professionalization on Brinkley’s head. A physician named Morris Fishbein, editor of the AMA’s official journal, made a special project out of attacking Brinkley over the course of several decades. “In John R. Brinkley, quackery reaches its apotheosis,” Fishbein fulminated in a 1938 article titled “Modern Medical Charlatans,” noting, with Menckenesque flair, the doctor’s “astuteness in shaking shekels from the pockets of credulous Americans.”
In 1939, Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel, thus unwisely offering the defendant an opportunity to invite a parade of medical experts to testify to the plaintiff’s fraudulence. These experts discredited virtually all of Brinkley’s medical claims, asserting that glandular transplants between species were never effective (the goat glands, having no regular supply of blood, would simply get broken down and absorbed into the host body as foreign matter), and that the vaunted “Formula 1020” was made up of 1,000 parts water to 1 part blue dye. The jury found in favor of Fishbein, thus opening the door for several other ex-clients to sue Brinkley for malpractice. He was also investigated by the IRS and charged with mail fraud for disseminating Formula 1020 and other dubious products via post. You can more or less guess the rest: a ruined reputation, bankruptcy, declining health, an ignominious death.
Nuts!’s final act is its strangest. The conceit of the film up to this point has been that it is an adaptation of Brinkley’s official biography, The Life of a Man, written by the psychoanalyst Clement Wood. The book is obviously hagiographic fluff (sample sentence: “a man a little taller than the rest, so that the rays of truth strike him first”) and we’ve already learned, by this point in the film, not to fully trust it. But then, in a Nabokovian twist, Wood’s account is revealed to be utterly unreliable, full of gaps: Brinkley, we learn, sold snake oil medicines in Chicago prior to his arrival in Kansas, and was arrested for fraud; he was frequently drunk while performing surgery; his accreditation from “Eclectic Medical University” is in question; and so on. In other words, this nonfiction film has, in fact, been based on a fiction, albeit one purporting to be nonfiction, all along.
All of this happens over an hour into the movie: There is just enough running time left to sketch the actual contours of Brinkley’s life and character before consigning him to the dustbin of Wikipedia. It’s a daring formal gamble on Lane’s part, but it doesn’t completely work. The intention seems to be to pull the rug out from under us, but only the most credulous viewers will have actually believed that Brinkley’s miracle cures were real. Rather than exposing a seemingly impressive figure as pathetic, the way Nabokov does with Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote, the big reveal here simply turns a vaguely ridiculous person into a specifically contemptible one.
Or are we meant to feel contempt for Brinkley? I’m not completely sure, and the ambiguity reflects an ambition on Lane’s part that isn’t quite realized in the finished film. Given Lane’s polemic against documentarians who “knowingly spread dangerous lies,” one might expect Nuts! to condemn Brinkley more harshly than it ultimately does. Instead, she splits the difference between lambasting and humanizing him. It’s useful, here, to compare Nuts! to Our Nixon, which succeeded beautifully in taking a historical figure we’ve learned to reflexively despise and presenting him in a value-neutral context. There, Lane avoided editorializing and, though there was plenty in her film to confirm Nixon-haters’ biases, the decision to treat him as an archival subject rather than a villain in a grand political narrative granted him a measure of sympathy. Nuts! attempts something similar, but Lane has problems repeating the trick. For one thing, John Brinkley is simply not as well-known as Richard Nixon: We need fifty minutes just to get up to speed on his biography (much of which turns out not to be true), leaving little time to develop the nuances and contradictions of his character.
Then there’s the fact that Nixon, whatever you think of him, was a complex personality, Shakespearean in his paranoia and self-delusion, while Brinkley, on the evidence of Nuts, was just a quack, though an uncommonly successful one. To borrow a well-worn distinction from the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, Nixon was a liar—he knew what he said was false—while Brinkley was simply a bullshit artist. The most revealing dramatic moment in the film is Brinkley’s cross-examination by a defense lawyer at the Fishbein libel trial, during which he essentially admits the worthlessness of his methods. “Is goat gland transplantation possible, really?” the lawyer asks, in the wake of considerable testimony answering that question in the negative. “I never said it was a true transplantation,” Brinkley replies, in a quiet, broken voice. “No, I just put a little… It seemed to work.” He deceived the public not out of malevolence or Machiavellian strategy, but because he stood to gain and thought he could get away with it, and hey, it might be true.
Bullshit is a perpetual social phenomenon, and Lane’s elegant and entertaining film raises important questions about the American appetite for it. (“I knew he was bilking me. But I liked him anyway,” a former client says ruefully at the close of the Fishbein trial.) Arguably, in the age of Trump, we need to understand the psychology of the bullshitter more than ever. But a comparison to Lane’s previous film suggests that lies make for more compelling stories than bullshit.