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July 8, 2016

There are certain figures in history that seem quintessentially American, like they couldn’t have existed in any other cultural context but this one. John Romulus Brinkley is certainly one of them. A successful businessman and media mogul, and even a populist political candidate. And while more recently this sort of career has been built on financial or real estate wheeling and dealing, Brinkley’s story was built on, well, Nuts!

Brinkley, you see, was an eclectic medical practitioner — literally, right down to the degree from Kansas City’s Eclectic Medical University — who set up shop in Milford, Kansas. One day a man came in complaining that he’d been unable to father a child in sixteen years of marriage, due to “sexual weakness”. Brinkley joked that he’d have no problem if he had a pair of buck goat, um, “glands” instead of his own. The patient begged him to try the transplant surgery, and Brinkley agreed — for a small fee, of course — to a reportedly resounding success.

Brinkley went on to repeat the procedure on other patients, with all manner of complaints ranging beyond the obvious impotence, from emphysema to flatulence. A direct mail blitz and a few Hollywood patients to get his name in the press, and Brinkley’s business was booming. But there was more room for his business to grow. He set up KFKB, one of the first radio stations, and stocked it with all manner of popular programs that more genteel stations wouldn’t air — the Fox network of its day — all wrapped around his homilies and ads for goat gland surgery.

Of course, this all sounds a bit absurd today. Rest assured, it sounded absurd to the regulators at the time as well. The Federal Radio Commission, forerunner to today’s FCC, and the increasingly powerful American Medical Association managed to pull his radio and medical licenses, respectively. Brinkley pushed back with a populist campaign for governor, which he lost amid accusations that the system was rigged against him. Undeterred, he moved to Texas and worked with Mexican authorities to set up the first “border blaster” station XER-AM, whose transmitter was reportedly powerful enough to knock close-flying birds out of the sky.

Rest assured, also, that director Penny Lane recognizes the absurdity of Brinkley’s legend. While she adopts the usual documentarian’s pose of objective neutrality, and Gene Tognacci’s narration affects the same voice of homespun authority we might expect from a Ken Burns series, there’s a healthy, smirking skepticism underneath. It’s the smile of a woman sitting across from a man telling a big-fish story, knowing he’s not getting away with it as well as he thinks he is, but interested to see just how deep he’s going to dig himself in.

Besides, American legends like this always live in a weird place somewhere between fact and fiction, which makes them really interesting grounds for documentaries. Even the fly-on-the-wall approach that styles itself “veritĂ©” is necessarily anything but, what with the camera’s frame and the editor’s cuts. Even if it’s just the nips and tucks that give shape to the underlying story, something is bound to fall through the cracks, and a story like Brinkley’s has plenty of cracks.

In a very interesting move, Lane has assembled a list of footnotes to be released along with September’s streaming release of the film on Amazon. It’s an approach I certainly haven’t seen before, but one I’d hope more documentarians adopt in the future. She uses them partly as a confessional to absolve herself of her tricks as director and editor, but also to cite the sources showing the truth behind even the more outlandish parts of the story. After all, you can’t just make this stuff up.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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