[Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a new monthly feature, The Conversations, in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard will 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.