But here she is, the filmmaker behind not one but two feature documentaries on infamous American prevaricators: “Our Nixon,” her 2013 film employing old Super 8 footage of the disgraced 37th president; and “Nuts!,” her 2016 study of John Brinkley, the Kansas doctor who amassed mountains of wealth by transplanting goat testicles into men with, ahem, “flat tires.”
“They were both these kind of quintessential 20th-century American tragedy stories,” said Lane, an assistant professor of art and art history at Colgate University. “They were both these men that were born around the same time, around the turn of the century, in poverty — and through their own grit and hard work, made their way up. And then they both fall.”
Lane was on the phone last week from Toronto, where “Nuts!” was screening at the Hot Docs film festival. In January, the movie scored a special jury prize for documentary editing at Sundance — the same Sundance where the Albany-shot “As You Are” won a special jury prize for drama — and has been on the festival circuit ever since. In what amounts to Lane’s triumphant return (“if you say so”), she’ll screen “Nuts!” in its Capital Region premiere at 8 p.m. this Saturday at the Sanctuary.
Trailer for “Nuts!”: https://vimeo.com/152525073
If you go:
- Screening of “Nuts!” with director Penny Lane
- Where: The Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Ave., Troy
- When: 8 p.m. Saturday
- Admission: Suggested donation $10 general, $5 student and low-income
- Info: 272-2390; www.mediasanctuary.org
A mix of archival footage, live interviews with scholars and disarmingly effective animated segments that re-enact chapters from Brinkley’s career, “Nuts!” illustrates the life and lies of a man whose claims to fame included hospitals, a vast radio empire and a write-in run for governor. His life also included a level of media branding and personal self-aggrandizement that foreshadowed a certain 2016 presidential candidate’s. And all of it stemmed from a sketchy impotence cure derived from ruminant gonads.
All in all, “Nuts!” is a slyly told and engaging study of ego run amok. Its origins date to 2008, when, one fateful day, Lane was nosing around the stacks at the Troy Public Library
near the end of her off-and-on six-year stint in the Collar City.
“I went in that library all the time, and they had, like, a librarian-picks shelf. And there was this book, and it was called ‘Charlatan,’ and it had a big picture of a goat on it,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I’ll read that.'”
The book was Pope Brock’s 2009 biography of Brinkley. Lane blitzed through it in a day or two, reacting as documentarians tend to do when they collide with a potential subject: “‘The story is amazing! It’s so great!’ And you have this feeling that no one has ever made a movie like this — about this — before.”
No one had. And so she made it, intrigued by Brinkley’s story and by the nature of lying itself. “Making a documentary film about a liar — it was just interesting to me.” She was also intrigued by the parallels with her own craft. Does a filmmaker need to be a con-woman, too? “You sort of do,” she allowed.
“You have to be sort of able to understand how to tell people a story. … Part of that is like a psychological game, almost,'” she said. What gets included in a film, what gets left out: “You’re shaping and anticipating and manipulating. You’remanipulating! That’s the right word.”
Still, she added, most documentary filmmakers “honor the kind of contract that they’re making with their subjects and their audience — that if they call their film a documentary, they are saying that they’re telling the truth.”
That contract, and her acquired expertise on flimflammery, led Lane to write an open letter to the Tribeca Film Festival when it announced plans to screen “Vaxxed” — the anti-vaccination film directed by Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist whose fraudulent 1998 research was published and retracted by the medical journal The Lancet. Frauds already on the brain, Lane went public with a Facebook posting that quickly went viral. Tribeca yanked the film.
“I had thought about these things a lot more in terms of not just the subject of quackery, but quackery in relation to the form of documentary,” she said. “So I had feelings about it. I had strong feelings about it. But I typically am not someone who comes across an issue and instantly has an opinion on it.”
She’s also typically not someone to throw a spotlight on a living person. She doesn’t enjoy filming or even photographing people — “like, I can’t take a photo of friends at a party” — and prefers instead to burrow deep into history and dig up footage. “I mean, I’m just a scavenger,” she said. “I’m not really interested in adding a lot of images to the world, actually. I’m more interested in finding them. … It’s a little like treasure-hunting.”
But she knew going in that archival footage alone wouldn’t cut it for “Nuts!,” which demanded a leading character with charisma. “And the archival record is very interesting and it’s cool, but it doesn’t seduce you with charisma.”
So she needed re-enactments. But not live-action reenactments — nothing requiring her to film actors on sets. Instead she opted for animation, illustrating assorted stages of Brinkley’s life with the work of six different animators. Animation, she said, was just “more comfortable. It would just be for voice actors. And I could imagine the animation, in part, because there’s so much cool illustration in the old advertisements I was looking at it.”
Lane isn’t sure what’s up next. But in case you’re curious, and she knows you are: her name. As she explains in a FAQ on her web page (www.pennylaneismyrealname.com), it’s her legal name, her given name, the name on her driver’s license and proof that her parents liked the Beatles.
And yes, she said. When she was younger she was tempted to change it. “But I like my name fine, I like my name fine,” she declared. “It’s memorable.”
[email protected] • 518-454-5439 • @AmyBiancolli