By Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard
[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they'll call it Errol Morris' film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn't the subject of the documentarian's investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That's where unambiguous truth ends.
I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it's fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a "documentary," Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the "based on a true story" assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It's like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you'd think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn't go so far as to argue that Morris' documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else's, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can't think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what's on screen.
Ed Howard: The thing is, truth is always at the center of Morris' films, as you'd expect of a documentary filmmaker, but he also acknowledges that truth is a complicated thing; he's always toying with questions of truth and fiction. Morris' films aren't about The Truth; they're about our personal, private truths, as well as the lies and rationalizations we create for our actions. So fiction and lies and manipulation are also at the center of Morris' films. Fiction is as much the spine of his work as truth. In fact, Morris has gotten a lot of flak as a documentarian for his extensive use of reenactments and reconstructions, starting with his third film, 1988's The Thin Blue Line. I can think of few documentary filmmakers—other than the much cruder Michael Moore—who so obsessively tinker with their images, who are so engaged in presenting only exactly what they want the audience to see. As you said, Morris focuses our attention very tightly; he has a very precise, rigid control over his images, which is not inconsistent with truthfulness but certainly complicates the matter. All documentaries must deal with this issue, but they usually do so behind the scenes. Incompleteness is implicit in every film, whether it's fiction or documentary. If we're seeing only what Morris wants us to see, we're not seeing everything, we're not seeing the whole story. And he's usually dealing with such complex issues and stories that it would be impossible to show everything anyway. I'd imagine that most documentarians grapple with (or at least acknowledge) this stuff privately, but Morris makes it the subtext, if not the subject, of his work.
The solution to this problem, for Morris, is to narrativize his documentaries, to shape and mold his raw material into a forward-moving story that will grip an audience like it's a Hollywood thriller. I want to be clear that this is not a criticism of Morris—I don't agree with those purists who reject his work because of its manipulation, the use of fictional constructs and stylized imagery. I want only to get to the essence of his often powerful work. And that essence must include roughly equal measures of truth and fiction, much like in the work of his idol and mentor Werner Herzog, who pushed a procrastinating Morris into making his first film, 1978's Gates of Heaven. Morris' approach to truth is not singular, it is multifaceted. He recognizes that we each have our own truths. So he simply lets his interviewees speak, whether what they're saying is truth, lies, or something in between, and even if they are immediately contradicted by another interviewee with his or her own conception of the truth.
Morris seldom enters these films as a commentator. His voice is heard very sporadically throughout his oeuvre, only occasionally asking for clarification or nudging a reluctant interviewee into answering a tough question. Mostly, he allows the words of his subjects to stand alone, and he makes no attempt to untangle the contradictions and lies and rationalizations in their words. It's up to the audience to decide what's true, although Morris usually guides his viewers towards his own preferred avenues of interpretation—his narratives are tightly constructed to tell a certain story, to reach the conclusions that Morris wants us to reach from this material. He gives the appearance of objectivity by staying out of the film, by remaining behind the camera, unseen and mostly unheard. But the paradox of his films is that, though Morris himself remains outside the image, seemingly letting objective reality stand on its own, really he's active in every frame of his films, always putting form to how we see and hear things. Over the course of his career, he's become a master storyteller, which is not a trait often ascribed to documentary filmmakers. Maybe it should be used more often. It certainly applies to Morris, at least.
JB: Yes, Morris is a masterful storyteller, and a masterfully deceptive one. Deceptive because, unlike Herzog, he doesn't construct his films in a way that suggests that he has a story to tell. Quite the opposite, Morris plays the part of a priest hearing confessions. This is an accurate description of his involvement on one hand, because Morris' films empower his subjects to tell their own stories. But it's misleading on the other hand, because in the silence of the editing room it's Morris who has ultimate control over these confessions. How Morris packages these testimonials, how they are scored and how he accompanies them with reenactments or metaphorical B-roll, shapes the raw footage. The straightforward nature of Morris' confessional style camouflages the complexity of his filmmaking.
That said, Morris is a far more complex storyteller today than he was in the early stages of his career. Gates of Heaven, about a pet cemetery in California and the people who run it and bury their dead pets there, strikes me as something of an accidental masterpiece. I don't want to undercut Morris' contributions, but in this case it's the oddball subjects who bring complexity to the table, and they don't need much help. In most instances Morris doesn't do much more than point his camera at his characters, pull their strings and let them go. I'd wildly applaud him for coaxing such colorful conversation from his interviewees if they seemed to need require any coaxing. (The attentive camera is a powerful aphrodisiac, I think.) Morris' biggest achievement was just finding this story and these people.
One of the most memorable encounters in the film is with Florence Rasmussen, an old woman who begins several minutes of mad rambling by talking about how she doesn't get around very well and ends it by bragging about how well she gets around. Rasmussen's necessity in this film is flimsy at best; supposedly she lives in the area of the cemetery. But her wacky rambling, like something out of Grey Gardens, is too delicious for Morris to ignore, and so there she is. Rasmussen is just the tip of the oddball iceberg. Compared to The Thin Blue Line or Standard Operating Procedure, where Morris needs to be meticulous with factual specifics, here he can afford to be careless, abstract. Gates of Heaven is a discovery of riches more than it's an invention.
EH: I think that Morris emerged as a storyteller with The Thin Blue Line. His first two films, whatever their other merits, are looser, more anecdotal, and the stories they have to tell are incidental to their appeal. This is especially apparent in the first half of Gates of Heaven, when Morris spends quite some time dealing with the failure of Floyd McClure's idea for a pet cemetery. Structurally, this section points the way forward to Morris' later semi-narrative films, as he cuts back and forth between McClure and the investors he had working with him on his plan. As in later Morris films, they each tell their side of the story, and Morris lets them all talk, lets them contradict one another without correction. But it is, frankly, mostly boring. Before rewatching the film for this conversation, I'd vividly remembered the quirky interviews with the Harberts family and various pet owners in the latter half of the film, and had all but forgotten everything else. I'd wager that no one remembers the film because of its account of Floyd McClure's inept business dealings. In comparison to later Morris works, the storytelling here is rough and unsatisfying, with too many gaps and no sense of context or temporal sequence. It's obvious that Morris has the instinct to tell stories, even at this early point in his career, but he doesn't yet have the proper subject or the aesthetic tools.
The film really finds its stride when it abandons this kind of narrative, giving in to the temptation to simply spend time with these goofy, off-kilter people. Even so, one of the things that bothers me slightly about this film is an unshakeable sense that Morris is making fun of his interview subjects, that he's subtly mocking them and condescending to them. A lot of these people are there primarily for Morris to show off how weird they are, how funny they are. And they are funny, as well as often heart-warming and interesting, but there's something exploitative about some of the bits included here. This is especially true of the sequence in which two old women bicker back and forth about who loved their dead pets more. I mean, why are they in this film if not for us to laugh at their bitchiness?
Morris also turns his (not entirely unjustified) mocking attitude on Phil Harberts, the older son of the family that runs the Bubbling Well cemetery. His motivational lingo, his insistence on viewing every aspect of life through the lens of business and "success," is ripe for parody, and to some extent all Morris needs to do to make fun of him is let the guy talk. But it's also true that the satirical undercurrents of this portrayal come to the fore in the scene where Phil sits surrounded by the trophies and prizes he won as an insurance salesman, and talks about arranging even a Valentine's Day party for his wife and the wives of his friends as a motivational seminar with games to play and prizes to win.
The scenes of Phil with his trophies are another example of Morris' tendency towards arranging reality to tell a story. The staging of all these interviews is very artificial: Morris is creating carefully prepared tableaux from the ephemera and props of people's lives. He seems to sit them down and then arrange objects around them in order to convey various things about them. He's basically controlling the context of how each person is seen. This is something that he would thankfully move away from in his later films, in which the presentation of the interviews is more straightforward and the emphasis is almost entirely on people's words. Here, there's a tone of kitsch that can be distracting and off-putting.
JB: Well, I agree with you about the tone. Even in the best case scenario, if Morris isn't actively trying to make fun of these people, it's obvious that he lets them embarrass themselves for his benefit. Then again, we do have to consider the film's 1978 release. That's six years before the Christopher Guest mockumentary genre made its first deep footprint with This Is Spinal Tap. (Indeed, these characters seem straight out of Best In Show, particularly the guy who works at the rendering plant who can't possibly understand why people don't want to talk about animal rendering during dinner.) It's also several years before the butterfly collar—and many of the other stereotypical 1970s styles featured in this film—became a universal punchline. So I think there are some elements of this film that seem mocking now that weren't at the time. For example, what makes Phil Harberts so hard to take seriously isn't so much that he is excessively prideful about his trophies; it's that he's excessively prideful about these gaudy, shield-shaped 1970s trophies, which look so cheap and tacky now and yet were standard issue at the time. Likewise, I doubt that audiences in 1978 laughed at the sight of that huge red Batphone that's within Phil's reach as he sits by the pool, but it sure is a funny prop now. After the Guest films, we're conditioned to look for these juicy comedy accoutrements that at the time were just modern accessories. To a large degree, when we laugh at Gates of Heaven today, we're laughing at the 70s, and Morris can't be held responsible for that. (On this note, one of my favorite parts of the film is Danny Harberts' earnest delight for his "powerful" 100-watt speakers. Funny now. Then, not so much.)
So I wonder if the setting of these interviews is as "artificial" as I think you're suggesting. Certainly, Morris would want to interview his subjects in places that would evoke their spirit or character, and thus I don't think interviewing Phil Harberts in his wood-paneled office, with his picture of W. Clement Stone prominently displayed, is any more artificial than interviewing the president in the Oval Office. While I appreciate the simple staging and specific focus of interviews in Morris' later films—performed using the "Interrotron," which I'm sure we will discuss later—I also find that I miss the colorful tableaux of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. I agree with you that the opening chapter of Gates is tedious, but it's worth experiencing for the poignant moment when Floyd McClure says of losing his pet cemetery, "I was not only broke but brokenhearted," and Morris cuts to a shot of a lonely looking McClure sitting in his wheelchair beneath a large tree. Likewise, I love the shots of Danny Harberts in his "House on the Hill," playing his guitar, showing off his stereo equipment or reclining in his hammock. Images like these bring a richness and sense of place to Gates of Heaven that some of Morris' later pictures are without.
EH: I don't want to imply that I dislike Gates of Heaven, because I really don't. It's a film with much to admire, and in some ways Morris' mocking tone is softened by his compassion and sympathy for his interviewees. Not so much Phil Harberts or the oblivious rendering plant guy, both of whom get the worst of it here, but it's obvious that Morris has warm feelings for the "brokenhearted" McClure and for Danny Harberts. The latter comes across as so sad and isolated in his little house on the top of the hill, having returned from college with his own broken heart after the end of a long relationship. He's in a listless mood, letting his dreams and musical ambitions slowly slip away into the past. He's a compelling young man, soft-spoken and gentle, a man whose once great ambitions and optimism have given way to a reserved, modest quietude, settling for something other than the life he'd really wanted. The shot of him standing on the hill above the cemetery, playing a scorching guitar solo through an amp that sends his riffs reverberating through the valley, is surreal and absurd and yet also surprisingly poignant. The moments spent with him are some of my favorites in the film, and with him at least I don't really get the sense that Morris is mocking him.
The same thing applies to many of the film's pet owners, who can come across as silly, easy targets for mockery, and yet at the same time their devotion to their pets shines through. The same guy who has that funny little moment where he completes his wife's sentence with the one croaked word "neutered," later delivers one of the film's most moving explanations for why pets should not be viewed as material possessions, why they should be treated with "reverence" rather than discarded like a food wrapper.
This is the kind of stuff I find most interesting in the film: not the mockery of simple people but the way the subject of pet cemeteries brings up all these issues about life and death. The film's second half, about the Bubbling Well cemetery, really delves into the love and affection of pet owners toward their animals, their desire to know that their pet has not just been callously disposed of, and the thoughts about mortality and the afterlife that are raised by continually dealing with death and loss in this way. The Harberts patriarch Cal even proposes a new religion of his own, incorporated at a chapel on the cemetery's premises, a religion founded on the belief that any compassionate God or supreme being would care equally for humans and all other animals. I think Morris is at his best when he engages with these issues in a sympathetic way rather than simply poking fun at his hapless interviewees.
JB: Hapless might also describe the subjects of Vernon, Florida. Of course, had Morris been able to follow his original vision, the word we'd use to describe the characters of this second feature effort would be limbless. Vernon, Florida was originally planned to be called Nub City, so named because the town's inhabitants were known to lop off their own limbs in order to collect insurance money. Death threats made against Morris caused the director to abandon the back-bayou amputation storyline and settle for a modest nonlinear tale of backwoods buffoonery. In my mind the characters of Vernon, Florida are as colorful as those of Gates of Heaven, but somehow they're also more believable, and thus Morris' film seems less mocking, even in its most extreme scene when a senile man shows off a turtle and insists it's a gopher.
If the unspoken message from Morris in Gates is often, "Get a load of this...," here I imagine the director saying over and over again, "Fascinating!" Vernon, Florida includes a priest who sermonizes about his "therefore experience," a worm farmer who hasn't read any books on worm farming but knows the books are all wrong, a woman with a jarful of sand that she swears gets fuller each year and a camouflage-wearing turkey hunter, Henry Shipes. The latter subject is my favorite character, sitting outside his trailer home, where turkey claws and beards are mounted on the wall, breathlessly reliving his favorite turkey hunts.
One could read Morris as condescending in this case, and with good reason—most Hollywood features have a patronizing attitude when it comes to the South—but I detect genuine admiration. Shipes is absolutely content with his life, as underlined in the film's final scene, which features Shipes out on the water in a small motor boat, counting dozens of buzzards in a tree and listening to the flapping sounds of their wings. "It gives me that turkey feeling," Shipes says of the flapping. "Mmmmm-mmmmmm! I wish there were as many turkeys as there are buzzards." That's it. That's the man's one wish. Watching the scene I couldn't help but think of the numerous international polls that suggest that those with the least material wealth often live the happiest lives. In that respect, at least, the subjects of Vernon, Florida are almost idealized.
EH: The way that Morris presents his subjects in this film is certainly complicated. There's a good dose of the same kind of subtle mockery that ran through Gates, but also more of the humanist perspective. To me, it's a film about the essential narrowness of our individual existences, the way we each tend to lock into a very circumscribed area and then revisit the same experiences over and over again throughout our lives. Henry the turkey hunter is happy, yes, but it's hard to miss the basic similarity of his turkey hunting stories, which all end with him pointing to one of a handful of identical "eleven inch beards" hung on his wall. Unspoken underneath all this is the question of why we do what we do, why the things that interest us interest us so much. These people talk and talk—about turkeys, about law enforcement, about trapping possums and turtles, about the sand at a vacation spot—but they're seldom able to really communicate why they find these things so interesting, why they're so eager to share their experiences. They probably wouldn't be able to articulate it, not in a way that could come across to a non-believer.
What's complicated about Morris' presentation of these quirky people is that he is sympathetic to them while simultaneously having a little fun at their expense, mocking their tendency to repeat themselves, to retell the same stories. It's hard not to laugh when Shipes begins telling one of his hunting stories for the nth time ("So then he did a double gobble...") and yet at the same time it's also hard not to recognize qualities in these people that exist in everyone—their obsessions are peculiar but their engagement with their lives and the things that interest them are no different from anyone else, anyone with more "normal" obsessions like movies or music or whatever else. It's a good question: why do we laugh, if only a little, at Henry Shipes and not at someone who obsessively watches and talks about movies all the time? What's refreshing to me about this film is that Morris could've easily just been patronizing and condescending (not that he isn't, at times) but instead he digs for something deeper, something universal.
Then again, there's a scene like the one you mention with the preacher, which is hilarious, but unquestionably only there so Morris can make fun of this yokel who thinks he's being profound by verbally footnoting Webster's Dictionary. I mean, this guy just rambles on and on about the meaning of an utterly innocuous word, talking about how he went to look up the word "conjunction" and so on. Finally he makes some lame attempt to wring a spiritual message from all his wordplay. Morris is obviously mocking him, taking a superior perspective, letting the condescension that occasionally shows up in his other interviews really take over. Don't get me wrong, I laughed, but I didn't feel good about it. Morris' position with respect to the other interviewees was much less mocking, more like he was simply getting a kick out of their eccentricity and enjoying their personalities. Here, it very much felt like the educated elite enjoying the bumbling pretensions of a backwoods preacher. At times like this, I feel like Morris is very conscious of his audience, very knowing about their prejudices and the way they're likely to react to something like this. But rather than challenge the prejudices of his audience, he caters to them.
JB: It's interesting that you phrase it that way, because I wasn't sure what my reaction is supposed to be with Vernon, Florida. Watching Gates of Heaven, laughter is unavoidable. I've only seen the movie twice from start to finish, but I've watched that guy interrupt his wife to say "neutered" at least a dozen times. I can't get enough of it. Condescending or not, Gates is frequently hilarious. That said, I didn't find a lot to laugh at in Vernon, and it wasn't because I was turned off, as if sensing that Morris was taking unfair advantage of his subjects. The scene with the preacher, for example, merely caused me to furrow my brow, trying to figure out what on earth he was talking about. I think you're correct that Morris assumes the audience for his film will be more enlightened than the bunch featured on screen, but Vernon, Florida doesn't set up these people for ridicule the way Sacha Baron Cohen makes laugh targets out of Southerners in Borat. I think it's entirely possible that the subjects of Vernon, Florida could see the finished film and take pride in what's there—up until they hear an audience's laughter, that is. So I'm wondering: If we were to suggest that Vernon, Florida is exploitative or condescending, might that say more about us than the movie? After all, as you suggested, we all have our quirks and obsessions. Might this be as faithful a reflection of truth as, say, the reverential Man on Wire? Should these people be out of bounds because of their peculiarity? Doesn't that only further the pretentiousness that makes us laugh in the first place?
EH: It's definitely a tricky subject, as I tried to hint at above. I mean, what really makes these people targets of ridicule in these two movies? Is it anything Morris does, or is it just that we're bringing our own stereotypical beliefs and prejudices to the film? Is Morris banking on our prejudices to make his movies work? I really can't say for sure. I just know that, although I see the humor that Morris is going for in these films—and I'd be lying if I denied laughing—I'm uncomfortable with the suspicion that Morris is exploiting our tendency to laugh at people we see as less sophisticated than us, whether rightly or wrongly.
This all reminds me of a discussion about Jennifer Baichwal's documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, a film that deals with a lot of the same issues that are present in Morris' work. That film is about the work of the photographer Shelby Lee Adams, who photographs the poorest, most outrageous people he can find in rural Appalachia and then displays the photos in high-profile art galleries. Needless to say, the debate about whether he's "documenting" or "exploiting" his subjects is more or less endless, even though the rural folks themselves, with very few exceptions, love the photos. My own feeling is that a photo (or a film) is dependent on its context for a large part of its meaning. In my own review of Baichwal's film, I posed the question of "what matters more: what the artist thinks he's doing, or what the audience viewing the art think it's doing. And if it's the latter, which audience?" I think this conundrum applies equally well to Morris. Should we blame him just because people in certain audiences find humor in his portrayals of these people? Or do we have to get into the inevitably knotty question of whether or not he intended to make fun of his subjects?
JB: This is a conundrum that applies to various forms of reportage, actually. In print, for example, there tends to be disagreement among writers about how to quote someone who butchers the English language. The hard journalistic rule is unmistakable: what the source says is what the source says; so that's the quote, verbatim. But there are those who feel that there's nothing wrong with cleaning up something like, "He don't like you," so that it's "He doesn't like you." The argument goes that if you don't make that change, the quote becomes about the subject's poor grammar rather than what the subject is discussing. Then again, if the subject of the story is the person with poor grammar, then that's part of the story, just like the Vernon character's insistence that his pet turtle is a gopher is part of his story.
All of which leads me here: In my mind, Morris' only journalistic responsibility, presuming he has one (Herzog might disagree), is to capture his subjects accurately according to his encounters with them, because intent is an even trickier thing than either of us has suggested thus far. When Morris began Vernon, Florida, for example, his intent was to expose Nub City. By the time filming ended, his intent was something else, and it might have included wanting to exalt the subjects of his film, or he might have meant to humiliate them, or something else in between—we could argue about that for days. But before any of that, his intent, almost certainly, was to have his film be a success.
Morris wouldn't have expected to make waves at the box office, but I think it's safe to assume that he hoped his film would be well-regarded and allow him to receive financing to make another film. Only filmmakers with deep pockets can avoid thinking this way. And so even though Pauline Kael wasn't thinking about a small documentary like Vernon, Florida when she made the following argument, I can't help but quote this passage from her famous 1969 article on cinema trash: "If you could see the 'artist's intentions' you'd probably wish you couldn't anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist." Applied to this discussion: even if Morris' first intent might be to glorify his oddball subjects, if he also takes advantage of their eccentricities in a way that exploits their weaknesses, that's not necessarily a crime, nor is it necessarily dishonest.
EH: It's funny you should bring up that Kael quote at this point, because a "relentless march ... to fulfill its obvious purpose" could serve as a fairly accurate description of Morris' next film, The Thin Blue Line. If Morris' intentions are sometimes fuzzy and uncertain in his first two films, there's absolutely no doubt about what he's after in his third film. It's with this film that Morris abandons the anecdotal structure of his earlier documentaries and commits himself to narrative. Of course, this is only natural considering his subject. As with the aborted origin of Vernon, Florida in a story about amputation and insurance fraud, The Thin Blue Line was originally supposed to be a documentary about the psychologist James Grigson, nicknamed "Dr. Death" because he often testified to get the death penalty for convicted murderers. Instead, Morris wound up seizing on one of the men Grigson helped send to death row: Randall Adams, a laidback drifter who was serving a life sentence (commuted from death) for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Morris instinctively grasped that something was off about this case, and he pursued the evidence with the doggedness of a defense attorney trying to clear his client. And like a good lawyer, Morris structures his film to present his evidence in the most dramatic, effective manner possible.
The Thin Blue Line is a huge leap forward for Morris in terms of his craft. As good as his first two films are in many ways, I'd never call them tight or particularly well-constructed. They're rough and loose and rambling (which is of course part of their charm), while The Thin Blue Line is a perfectly calibrated machine. The film moves with a confident forward momentum, driven by the pulsating, unforgettable score of Philip Glass, which from its first notes lends a sinister, melancholy undercurrent to the film. The film's opening minutes economically establish the mood with a series of shots of the Dallas skyline at night, dark and foreboding, with Morris selecting buildings as though highlighting details in a painting, before finally showing the full shot. This very cinematic mood-setting establishes immediately that this is a new Morris. Then he leaps directly into Adams' story, told through the Rashomon-like multiple perspectives and shifting timelines that would become Morris' most distinctive stamp as a filmmaker. He interviews Adams along with the police officers, witnesses, judges and lawyers involved with the case, and most notably the creepy David Harris, the star witness against Adams and also the most obvious suspect in the killing.
From this collage of stories and voices, the full picture slowly begins to emerge. Morris proves himself a born storyteller here; he probably would've been a great trial lawyer, too. He methodically arranges the evidence, allows the story to take shape over time so that soon the conclusion is inescapable: David Harris, not Randall Adams, murdered that policeman, and the conviction of Adams was a combination of police incompetence, opportunistic "witnesses" and a willful refusal to see the truth. Along the way, he dismantles the case against Adams from top to bottom, discrediting witnesses, casting doubt on various testimonies, and especially turning the spotlight on Harris, who first pointed the police onto Adams' trail. Kael's quote would indicate that the film's single-minded dedication to its purpose should be a problem, a sign of a "hack" at work, and yet this commitment to its message is actually the film's greatest strength. It's a gripping, powerful story, enhanced by Morris' feel for drama and his visualization of the key moments through the use of reenactments, the controversial technique that would become one of his signature visual strategies from this point on. This is the film that, for better or worse, solidified the Errol Morris aesthetic that runs through all his subsequent work.
JB: Indeed, this is the film in which Morris' signature style began to take shape. And while I agree with you that Morris demonstrates a single-minded commitment to his intent in The Thin Blue Line, I doubt that Kael would disparage him for it. The hack quote, I think, was made in reference to makers of fiction films, which almost by rule cannot be more than what their creators bring to the table. Documentary filmmaking works differently. Rather than creating a story from nothing, the challenge is to carve a story from a much larger whole; it's like excavating a fossil. The end result needn't be as refined as The Thin Blue Line, of course; Morris' earlier works prove that. Still, to be able to chip away at such a large and complex subject until a striking, free-standing story remains suggests a creative, imaginative and visionary mind, not a lazy one. Not to mention that Morris does almost everything in his power to prevent The Thin Blue Line from being a "relentless march" toward an "obvious purpose," which is where those reenactments come in.
For years now I have read suggestions like yours, that Morris' now familiar dramatic technique stirred controversy when The Thin Blue Line was released. For the life of me, I can't figure out why. Is it simply because Morris blended fiction and nonfiction? Was that technique really that radical in 1988? If that's all it was, I don't get it, because unlike Herzog films like Land of Silence and Darkness or Bells From the Deep, which blend truth and fiction in ways that even the most attentive viewer would struggle to differentiate, there's no mistaking which elements of Morris' film are fabricated for dramatic effect. They'd be the ones usually unfolding in slow-motion, the ones usually scored by ominous music, the ones usually featuring faceless characters and usually being repeated about five times over. In short, the dramatic recreations would be almost any moment in which the camera is pointed at something other than the person being interviewed.
Ethically, I see no reason, none, to take issue with Morris' reenactments. Dramatically speaking, however, his techniques are hit-and-miss, both in this case and in subsequent films. Sticking with The Thin Blue Line for the moment, Morris' use of dramatic reenactments allows the audience to form an essential geographical understanding of the crime scene while also infusing an otherwise inert film with some much-needed motion. But all too often Morris overdoes it. For each dramatic flourish that instantly and effortlessly evokes the intended mood, like the shot of an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts that portrays Adams' angst in the interrogation room, there's another flourish that seems like unnecessary filler. A prime example of the latter would be the multi-shot sequence charting the flight of a milkshake as it's tossed from the window of a police car and eventually explodes on the pavement below. In instances such as that one, Morris' minimalist streak, exemplified by his talking-head interviews, loses out to what I've always assumed is ego; a need to call attention to the filmmaking itself.
EH: Believe it or not, Morris' film really did stir up some heat upon its release that it certainly wouldn't now. It was even excluded from contention in the Academy Awards' documentary category, partly because of its use of reenactments. It's easy to overlook just how unique and stylized this film must have seemed at the time, before crime-scene reenactments became de rigeur on countless TV shows—a trend that Morris himself probably helped kickstart. I'm with you, though, that I see no reason for the fuss; the "fictional" elements of Morris' films are pretty much no-nonsense visualizations, meant to illustrate a point (either literally or symbolically) rather than to obscure or twist facts. As evidenced by our last conversation, I've never had the problems you do with Herzog's quest for "ecstatic truth," but in terms of documentary ethics, what Morris does is far less problematic.
As for the aesthetic merits of Morris' non-documentary inserts, I have my own reservations about many such intrusions, but none worth mentioning in this film, which I still consider one of Morris' masterpieces. His visual flourishes here serve to either intensify the atmosphere or elucidate important points. Sometimes they do both, like the low-angle shot of the police car with the officer's dead body lying next to it in the fog: a gorgeous and haunting image that recurs several times. Morris uses repetition brilliantly, not just in the pulsations of Glass' score, but also in the rhythmic editing patterns that return to the same images, the same moments, over and over again, each time layering in new information or looking at familiar events from a different perspective. The actual murder and its aftermath is replayed multiple times, each time with details subtly changed, the "facts" rearranged to coincide with each witness's testimony. This underscores Morris' essential point that the facts in this case are murky and contradictory at best, and that the case against Adams was a hodge-podge of mutually exclusive variations on the same event. I even appreciated the slightly ironic grandeur of the milkshake shot, which, coupled with the inclusion of a diagram of the crime scene, helps establish that the murdered policeman's partner was not standing outside the car, as she was supposed to be (and as she testified she was), but was still inside the car drinking a milkshake.
Even Morris' penchant towards mockery is used in the service of a good cause here, as he reserves his harshest bile for some of the key witnesses against Adams, and especially Emily Miller, who by all appearances fabricated her testimony entirely, partly out of a desire to help her daughter with a pending criminal trial, and partly because she fancied herself an amateur detective. Morris intercuts her interview with excerpts from an old mystery movie, where a dashing detective is aided by a curious and quick-witted female assistant—it's obvious that this is how Miller views herself, and Morris' inclusion of this footage instantly deflates her, makes her seem ridiculous and morally bankrupt.
More to the point, this film just holds together so well. I'd seen it several times before revisiting it for this conversation, and even knowing it as well as I do, I found myself caught up once again in its rhythms, driven along by its masterful use of suspense and narrative ellipses: it's a "wrong man" thriller that would've made Hitchcock proud. Seven years elapsed between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line, and though the continuities are obvious, it's equally obvious that, visually and in terms of filmmaking craft, Morris matured a great deal in the interim.
JB: I agree. I think he matured, and I suspect he left this experience a much more confident filmmaker. Morris' control of the story in The Thin Blue Line is unfailingly impressive. As you noted, he dangles numerous scenarios in front of us, making each one at least momentarily plausible. He withholds certain nuggets of information just long enough for us to see how the case against Adams was built—strung together by biased or otherwise closed-minded people with selective vision.
Additionally, this is the film that exposes the true excellence of Morris' interviewing talents. In terms of practice, he wouldn't use the Interrotron until Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, but already you can see how relaxed and forthcoming people are when talking to Morris. Whether it's Adams outlining his innocence, or Harris talking around the truth, or a crooked cop discrediting Adams, or Miller bragging about her sleuthing skills, each and every person interviewed in this film speaks as if he/she is the one in control and the one in the right. None of them, save Harris occasionally, is ever on the defensive. All of them speak confidently, as if Morris is their most trusted ally. Obviously, it took a lot of effort on the part of Morris to gain this level of comfort and trust with his interviewees, particularly Harris, who doesn't provide his kinda-sorta confession until late in the game, and only off-camera. These people didn't open up to Morris as quickly and easily as a celebrity opens up to Barbara Walters, but the result here is much more real, more poignant.
Speaking of poignancy: I'd be remiss if I didn't pause here to point out Morris' talent for closing out his films with an emotionally powerful image. Gates of Heaven concludes with surprisingly moving shots of plastic animals; reminders of beloved pets now gone. Vernon, Florida ends with the aforementioned scene of Henry Shipes, drifting on the open water in the twilight, thinking about his favorite subject: turkey hunting. In the case of The Thin Blue Line, the actual closing shot isn't the one that stirs the emotions; instead, it's the shot that comes a few minutes earlier, when the mystery ceases to be a mystery. David Harris is reflecting on his childhood, discussing the brother who died too young and the father he felt ignored him, and right before our eyes he has an epiphany. Harris says that perhaps his criminal exploits were an attempt to get back at his father. However, he concludes, "I wasn't doin' nuthin but hurting myself." It's then that Harris, a triumphant gleam in his eyes, proud to have experienced this awakening, reaches up and scratches his head, thereby revealing for the first time his shackled wrists. Given that Harris does his interviews in an orange jumpsuit, we never doubt that he's in jail, but by concealing Harris' wrists, Morris manages to leave his guilt in doubt. After we've heard the story, after we've seen all the evidence, only then does Morris provide us with the catharsis of confirming Harris' imprisonment. Remarkably, even though Harris is actually in prison for a different crime, that moment provides a more satisfactory confession than the more specific one that Morris tacks on to the end, almost as an addendum. That's a compliment.
EH: It's true that Morris is a wonderful interviewer, able to get his subjects to open up to him with disarming ease. It's rare that one of his subjects seems reticent, even when they have good reason to clam up. (Robert McNamara in The Fog of War is a notable exception, but even he says so much more than one would expect.) I'm sure we'll get into the Interrotron more in regard to Morris' later films, but at this point I think it's worth pointing out that his development of that device—which uses projection technology to get interview subjects to look directly into the camera when being interviewed—was an attempt to improve upon methods he was already using. In all his films, starting with his first, he would place his face as close as possible to the camera so that when those in front of the camera looked at him, they would appear to be looking directly at the camera. The Interrotron allowed Morris to get this effect more easily and more convincingly, but it wasn't necessarily a drastic change in his approach. What Morris wants, in all his films, is to foster a direct connection between the audience and the people onscreen, to create the illusion of the eye contact that one would have in a true face-to-face conversation. Perhaps it's also true that Morris' methods destabilize his subjects a bit, throwing off their expectations about conventional interviews and encouraging them to let out more than they otherwise would have.
In any event, Morris' next film, A Brief History of Time, didn't require the investigatory digging of The Thin Blue Line, but it does pose its own unique set of problems in terms of massaging its interviews into a coherent and satisfying whole. Based on the book of the same name by famed physicist Stephen Hawking, this film has the daunting task of condensing and explicating Hawking's complex philosophical and scientific ideas for a popular audience. There's also the challenge of working in a visual medium and being confronted with a subject that is essentially abstract, not only non-visual but very nearly impossible to visualize. The concepts being dealt with here are convoluted "what if" scenarios about the underpinnings of the universe, its creation and eventual destruction. It's a specialized field, ordinarily inaccessible to all but the most advanced physicists, and it's difficult to wrap one's head around the abstract concepts being bandied back and forth at this level.
Of course, if anyone could find a way to visualize Hawking's developing theories about the flow of time and the end of the universe, it's Morris. He simply and elegantly finds the proper images to accompany some of Hawking's more out-there theories—like the falling teacup that shatters, reassembles itself, and then shatters again, reflecting Hawking's changing ideas about the flow of time during the eventual collapse of the universe. Morris treats the end of the universe kind of like the crime scene in The Thin Blue Line, returning several times to this image, re-imagining and modifying the scenario as Hawking rethinks his theory. Hawking's ideas are still a challenge—the guy barely seems to be thinking on a human level most of the time—but Morris' film makes abstract physics at least accessible, and often even entertaining. He accentuates the fun in these mind-bending theoretical gymnastics, the spirit of playing a game, solving a grand puzzle. There's a refreshing lightheartedness in this film, and in Hawking; in response to Einstein's famous quote about God and chance, Hawking quips, "not only does God play dice, he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen."
JB: It's funny that you mention the dice quote, because it marks one of the times Morris drifts into overproduction, in my opinion. The image of God throwing dice is one that's best imagined and doesn't require any kind of visual accompaniment to understand. But that doesn't stop Morris from showing a pair of dice spinning against a backdrop of stars. It's a rather absurd image in the first place, and Morris, as he often does, holds the image longer than necessary. This doesn't taint the film in any significant way, but it is a representative gaffe in a film in which Morris seems a little uncomfortable with his material, as if intimidated by the inherent challenges. I agree with you that A Brief History of Time does a remarkable job of making tangible some mostly intangible concepts: black holes, the creation of the universe, quantum physics, etc. However, Morris' camera never finds anything that's more captivating than the sight of Hawking in his wheelchair, and as a result he overcompensates for Hawking's inertness with his directorial flourishes. I didn't need to see the dice, for example, nor did I need to see a teacup fall and shatter on the floor. Arguably, those metaphors are better when conjured against the projector screens of our imaginations anyway. Regardless, here they're unnecessary filler—padding.
This is a rare instance in Morris' career in which I find the concepts being discussed more interesting in principle than in realization. It's an entertaining enough film, and it allows me to feel like I understand black holes at least somewhat, which is an impressive achievement. But when the film ends with an image of Hawking's wheelchair, framed from behind in front of a sea of stars, looking as if he's ready to blast off into the solar system to meet up with the Winnebago from Spaceballs, I don't think I'm supposed to snicker. One way or another, despite the complexity of the subject matter and the fascination of Hawking, A Brief History of Time doesn't reverberate like Morris' best films. Or am I alone on this one?
EH: I wouldn't call it one of his better films, no. It's entertaining and I enjoy the way that Morris weaves together Hawking's biography (mostly narrated by various relatives and acquaintances) with the discussion of his theories. It was also illuminating in the sense that it drew some surprising but intuitive connections between deep science, metaphysics and theology: at times, Hawking comes across as much like a philosopher as a scientist. There's also the typical Morris theme of people who are really super-excited about some very esoteric stuff. I loved the montage where a bunch of scientists each try to explain what it would be like to fall into a black hole, and you can see them getting all geekily giddy like they're talking about a really cool episode of Star Trek or something. Morris would really delve deeper into this with his next film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which is all about that kind of intellectual excitement.
That said, while I admire A Brief History of Time, its aesthetic ambitions do seem fairly modest in comparison to some of Morris' other work. This could be an especially good PBS documentary, but as a Morris film it doesn't have the thematic depth and sense of purpose that characterizes his best work, like The Thin Blue Line or Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Maybe because of that, I find that I liked the film while I was watching it but don't actually have that much to say about it. It's a fun film, though, and some of Morris' goofier choices—like the too-literal use of those red dice or the bizarre image of a chicken floating in space that opens the film—make sense in that context.
JB: Certainly A Brief History of Time feels like Morris Lite when compared against Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. That film, released in 1997, feels like the love child of Morris' eccentric and abstract early works (Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida) and his intricate and data-rich masterwork, The Thin Blue Line. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a film that uses as subjects a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a naked mole rat enthusiast and a robot maker. On paper, it would seem like it must be a disjointed film, or at least an episodic one, but far from it. Instead, it's a symphony, marrying these disparate characters by their passion, craftsmanship, simple eloquence and, yeah, esotericism. Morris, waving his maestro baton, switches between his subjects so gracefully that sometimes they appear to be finishing one another's sentences. It's an incredible achievement, perhaps even the most impressive of Morris' storied career.
But, more than any artful technique, what stands out is Morris' reverence for his subjects. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is anything but a freak show, even though that's precisely what I thought I was going to see the first time I watched it. Yes, the four men featured here have unusual passions, and as a result they're a little unusual themselves. (I mean, you have to be wired a little differently to want to get into a cage with lions or to spend five decades of your life shaping topiaries, right?) Two of the subjects are a little peculiar at first glance: Ray Mendez, the naked mole rat specialist with the butterfly bowtie, and Rodney Brooks, the robot guy with the unbreakable smile and the super-charged twinkle in his eyes. But as I suggested in relation to The Thin Blue Line, here's a case in which each of the subjects being interviewed seems to feel empowered, proud, respected and respectable. Yes, each of them has a sense of humor about their work—they aren't oblivious to the abnormality of their vocations—but at no point are they desperate to justify their zeal. Each man speaks about his cherished line of work like Martin Scorsese talks about films, and so even if we wrinkle our noses at their interests, we're unavoidably drawn to their passion.
A key distinction to make is that Fast, Cheap & Out of Control isn't about lion taming, topiary gardening, naked mole rat behavior and robot construction, though each subject gets discussed at length; it's about the people who dedicate their lives to these things. If you ever wanted to make the case that Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are more compassionate for their subjects than demeaning, this would be Exhibit A. Morris is genuinely fascinated here, and I get the feeling he thinks we should be fascinated, too.
EH: Yes, if there's anything Morris has done that inclines me to give him the benefit of the doubt about the "freak show" elements in his first two films, this film is it. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has roughly the same idea as his first films—an assortment of interviews with quirky individuals—but the execution couldn't be more different. Your comparison to a symphony is appropriate, since music provides the driving rhythm for the film; everything moves and breathes in time with the Philip Glass-inspired circus music of Caleb Sampson. It's also notable that Morris all but discards the objective pose he takes in his earlier work. The film is a visceral, frenetic act of pastiche, a blending of disparate stories into a wild pop art collage in which the excitement of his protagonists (who often literally pop their eyes wide, like cartoon characters, when talking about their unusual pursuits) is translated into Morris' own enthusiasm, expressed in the propulsive speed of the editing and the sped-up photography. Morris blends the stories of his four subjects together with clips from an old Clyde Beatty pulp adventure film, cartoons, stock footage, and comic panel enlargements with the Ben-Day Dots clearly visible.
The impression is not of Morris mocking his subjects or standing aloof from them, but of actively engaging with them, sharing in their excitement and their intellectual engagement with the things that interest them. Part of it is the milieu: one senses that Morris is much more comfortable as an anthropologist of fringe science and unique achievements than he is when chronicling rural living or the ways in which "ordinary" folks spend their time. He's never condescending here, never engaging in mockery. What he's doing is tracing the connections between these people's disparate interests, weaving them together into a coherent story, teasing out the themes and concepts running through all four stories: humanity's relationship to the natural world, the attempts to tame or control or reshape nature, to imitate it, to replace it, to evolve and change. It's a film about humanity's experiments with its own physical and mental limits, our attempts to better understand ourselves, our environment, our fellow species on this earth, and the ways in which everything in the world or the universe might fit together. In this respect it's a natural extension of the themes introduced by Hawking in A Brief History of Time.
At least two of Morris' subjects (naked mole rat expert Ray Mendez and robot engineer Rodney Brooks) seem very conscious of this theme: they spend a lot of time thinking about the intellectual implications of their work, and to some extent this is what interests them as well as Morris. Mendez is fascinated by the idea that naked mole rats are a mammal species whose social structures and ways of life mimic those of supposedly much lower forms like insects, a phenomenon that was once thought to be impossible. For Mendez, the discovery of the mole rat confirms what he had always suspected: that humans are more like insects, more like lower creatures, than we like to admit or think about. The fact that a mammal species, in the right conditions, will form a society and adaptive biology that makes them live more or less like insects confirms that the hierarchies of animal life are more mutable and tangled than is otherwise thought.
By the same token, one suspects that Brooks is eccentric even among other robot designers, in that he is not thinking in terms of replicating humanity in a mechanical form. He has no interest in traditional AI or humanoid robots but rather designs robots that are more like mechanical ants, blindly following sets of basic procedures which have no "meaning" to the robot beyond instinct, and yet by the combination of simple commands these robots can complete complex tasks. He imagines a future in which robots simply exist in the world much like animals do, performing tasks that are useful to humans in various ways not because they've been commanded to but simply because that's what they've evolved to do. This is a unique conception of robots, since even most of our sci-fi tends to imagine advanced robots as humanoid and "thinking" through the application of sophisticated AI. In our conversation about Solaris, we spoke about how the human imagination finds it hard to get beyond human experience, beyond ourselves, to think in abstract terms about a non-human understanding of the world. Brooks is about as close as it's possible for humans to get to this kind of out-of-consciousness experience, with his ability to imagine an entirely non-human future, one in which insectoid robots have "evolved" to be the next step. This is fascinating, complex stuff, and Morris is able to explore these ideas because he is really interested in what these four men have to say, is really engaged by their wild ideas and their fertile imaginations.
JB: Right. Here in particular Morris lets his subjects' "wild ideas and fertile imaginations" serve as the winds that direct the course and tenor of his film. Morris captains the ship, too, obviously; this film is far less organic than something like Vernon, Florida. But despite Morris' tendency to rearrange his footage until the finished whole bec