No one remembers John Romulus Brinkley (1885-1942), but back in the day even Buster Keaton tipped his hat to him, in his short “Cops’’ (1922). In a clip from that silent comedy in Penny Lane’s lighthearted, perverse documentary “Nuts!,’’ Keaton covertly slips into a clinic offering goat-testicle transplants, a cure for impotence that Brinkley discovered in 1918 and marketed to thousands of satisfied customers.
But that’s just for starters. In 1923 Brinkley established KFKB, a popular radio station. And after the American Medical Association denounced him and the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the Federal Communications Commission) shut down his station, Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas, in 1930. He would have won had his opponents not illegally disqualified thousands of votes.
A forgotten American hero? With John Brinkley, the truth is stranger than fiction. Or is the fiction stranger than truth? From her remote home in Hamilton, N.Y., Lane helps us sort it out.
Q. Does it work, the transplant?
A. Whenever I told people about the subject, that would be the first question. I realized then if I told the story in a certain way people were willing and even wanting to believe in it. And John Brinkley’s life is so tremendous it had this “How come this was never made into a movie before?’’ thing going for it. It was perfect for me to make a documentary for the story alone, but also for the interesting formal opportunities and ethical challenges that went along with it.
Q. You use archival material, but not quite the way Ken Burns does.
A. To look like a typical historical documentary I used archival material in a way that seems exactly the same as Ken Burns might use it. Which is to say, here’s the factual record of historical events. It’s very important that I convince you that you are watching a documentary film, but at the same time make them question it.
Q. Except for some interviews, you don’t actually do any. . .
A. Filming? True, it is mostly editing. At the world premiere of “Our Nixon’’ [Lane’s 2013 documentary consisting of home movies made by members of the Nixon administration] there was a guy in the audience who was completely puzzled how I could call myself a film director because I didn’t shoot anything. “Why do you take that credit?’’ he said. “Aren’t you just an editor?’’
But it’s not that different a process for me. Documentary filmmakers shooting film is similar to what I’m doing searching out archival material. You come up with images and you go home and edit them.
Q. When you started this project, in 2009, did you have any inkling that the subject would be compared in the press to a current presidential candidate?
A. I would never have predicted that. It was not on my radar. That such a candidate could possibly exist in the 2016 presidential election. Definitely serendipitous and very strange.
“Nuts!’’ screens at the Museum of Fine Arts July 28-Aug. 6. www.mfa.org/ programs/series/nuts
Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@ gmail.com.