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 becomes greater than the sum of the parts, what I enjoy about his films is how deferential they feel. In other words, I don’t get the sense that Morris begins his projects with his mind made up about what he’s going to find or what kind of story he wants to tell. In contrast, that’s not the feeling I get watching Herzog, who obeys his own interests until his films reflect his psyche rather than those of his subjects. (It’s not their “ecstatic truth” he’s after; it’s his “ecstatic truth.” Thus, in some instances Herzog shapes his material, or outright fabricates it, until it fits his desired vision.)
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing “wrong” with Herzog’s approach, and in our previous conversation you made strong arguments about the merits of Herzog’s role as guide and storyteller. So what I’m trying to suggest here isn’t that Morris’ style is somehow superior to Herzog’s. Instead, I’m simply celebrating what I think is Morris’ best skill as a documentary filmmaker: he listens.
EH: I don’t want to get into the whole Herzog discussion again, but I think there’s plenty of room for both approaches—and so much overlap that the distinction probably isn’t nearly as clear-cut as you suggest. The weird thing about Morris is that he combines his openness to other perspectives with a Herzogian willingness to manipulate and stylize the presentation of his interviews in various ways. You’re right that he distinguishes himself from Herzog by keeping his persona and interests somewhat remote from his films, but in his own way he shapes and inhabits this material nearly as much as Herzog does. It’s more subtle (Morris stays behind the camera, and seldom lets us hear his voice) but that doesn’t mean that Morris isn’t there, chopping away at the footage and contextualizing people’s words to get at what he wants to say.
I mentioned Mendez and Brooks above as two Morris interview subjects who are very much aware of and sympathetic with the broad themes resonating throughout the film. The other two interviewees here, animal trainer Dave Hoover and topiary gardener George Mendonça, are simply talking about the fields they love. They think of what they do as a craft, even as art, but they certainly don’t think of their work as taming nature or expanding humanity’s boundaries, even though this is the larger context into which Morris places them. So I don’t think of Morris as primarily a listener. It’s obvious to me that Morris has his own ideas that he wants to get across with each film, that he’s not simply spitting back what people say to him. At the very least, this makes him not a passive listener but an active one, always thinking about ways to fit things together, to probe the subtext of what his interviewees are saying. And in some cases—most prominently in “gotcha” films like The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death and The Fog of War—he’s actively working against the text of his subjects’ words, getting at ideas that run contrary to what’s actually being said. Whereas in a case like that Herzog might simply ignore his subject and just say what he wanted to say, Morris is sneakier: he’ll undercut the interviewee with additional footage, or with his editing, or by juxtaposing one interview against another. They use different methods, but I’d argue there are many times where the end results aren’t so distinct.
JB: Those are all good points and I’m glad you made them. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you just said, and it’s absolutely true that the strength of Morris’ authorial hand varies from picture to picture. Again, without wanting to rehash the whole Herzog debate, and without casting any ethical judgment, I do think—at least in this picture—that Morris listens first and then reacts, that the interviews inspire the themes. I use Herzog as a contrast, because as his career has gone on he seems to listen less and obey his own voice more. Of course, this is just the feeling that I get. As far as Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is concerned, the truth might be that Morris set out to make a film about individuals taming nature and then sought subjects to fit into his scheme. I might be totally wrong about which director is more deferential to his subjects. But my instincts say that Morris is more, let’s say, open-minded (which isn’t to damn Herzog as some closed-minded megalomaniac; not at all). That’s my gut reaction. Listening critically is still listening.
EH: Having said that, I wonder what you think of Morris’ “authorial hand” in his next film, Mr. Death. You’ve mentioned that you’re sometimes bothered by Morris’ metaphorical visualizations and stylized sequences in his later films, and I think this film is probably the best example of his sporadic slippage into aesthetic overkill. Maybe the film just suffers from following Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, probably the perfect marriage of form and content in Morris’ entire oeuvre. In Mr. Death, Morris applies his patchwork aesthetics—switching between film stocks, from black-and-white to color, overexposing images so they glow brightly, stitching in unrelated inserts—to material that really doesn’t need to be jazzed up in this manner. Some of Morris’ choices, which gave such drive and energy to his previous films, are arbitrary here, like tics of habit rather than considered responses to the actual material. I don’t dislike the film, and as always I find Morris’ chosen subject (the bizarre death penalty engineer/accidental Holocaust apologist Fred Leuchter) grotesquely fascinating, and his themes worth exploring. But the visual and audio overload is a bit much, at times distracting from the substance of the film.
JB: Actually, I don’t find Mr. Death especially overproduced compared to most of Morris’ works. (Even Fast, Cheap & Out of Control slips, um, out of control over its final 20 minutes.) In each of Morris’ films since The Thin Blue Line, in which he established his now trademark aesthetics, there are stylized interludes that I find agonizingly tedious and/or unnecessary. Sometimes Morris falls overly in love with his archival film snippets. Sometimes the score is excessively dramatic. Sometimes he recreates events that don’t need recreation. (For example, in Mr. Death I have no idea why Morris dramatizes the image of Leuchter pulling debris out of a puddle at Auschwitz, given that earlier we see genuine archival footage of Leuchter pulling debris out of a puddle at Auschwitz.) Also, I always find myself wondering what compels Morris to continue to employ slow- or fast-motion for (questionable) effect. Isn’t he bored with the trick yet? I know I am.
But Mr. Death is never boring; Fred Leuchter makes sure of that. Leuchter’s investigation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz is fascinating for its almost indescribable combination of meticulousness and carelessness. In terms of subject matter, Morris certainly has himself another winner here; it’s utterly amazing that Leuchter could do so much detailed research while completely overlooking the obvious because it contradicts his desired outcome. (Or maybe Leuchter is just fucking stupid. Take your pick.) If someone wanted to build a case that Morris exploits his subjects, this film would support that argument, because while Leuchter gets to defend himself with the help of a few friends, the deck is stacked against him. For example: In addition to bringing in a historian to refute Leuchter’s revisionist claim that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, Morris counters support statements from Leuchter’s Holocaust-denying allies with the testimony of two Jewish advocates who seem to have no real ties to the story beyond being Jewish. (Because they wouldn’t be biased, would they?)
As you’d expect, Morris still appears to be genuinely interested in Leuchter’s story and its inherent twisted logic, and even though Morris frequently undermines Leuchter’s testimony, Leuchter’s theories are allowed to resonate to the point that someone who insists that the Holocaust is nothing but myth and propaganda could probably have that belief strengthened by this film. Maybe that’s why I find Mr. Death a difficult film to get close to. It’s disturbing. There’s something about watching a guy fondling the pieces of an electric chair that makes a feces-covered naked mole rat suddenly appealing.
EH: It could be that my problem with Morris’ aesthetic in this film is simply a function of too much exposure: as you hint, Morris tends to reuse the same basic palette in film after film, and it does get wearying after a while. When he’s at his best, and his material is especially sharp, I’m enthralled, as I was throughout The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. But his aesthetics grated on me at several points in Mr. Death, and I’m not sure if his stylization is really especially distracting here or if I just notice it more because the film itself isn’t as gripping as his prime works. Still, even second-tier Morris isn’t without its merits, and Fred Leuchter is an unforgettable character, if nothing else.
What’s fascinating about Leuchter (and this film) are all his weird contradictions. He can be intelligent and methodical, and yet also either really stupid or simply prone to mental blind spots the size of Mount Rushmore. He thinks of his death penalty work as humanitarian in some way, and yet in trying to improve conditions for death row inmates, he’s making executions easier and more efficient for the state. (There’s also something kind of creepy, even almost sexual, about his fondling of electric chairs and such, though I wonder how much of that is attributable to Leuchter and how much to the stylized, artificial situations Morris thrusts him into.) And while he becomes a steadfast Holocaust denier on the basis of virtually no evidence, one suspects that he kind of stumbles into it by accident, that he’s not really an evil guy but more a victim of his own simplemindedness.
But I mean, the film is just about as fair as it can possibly be to a Holocaust denier. True, Morris totally tears apart Leuchter’s claims, but what else could you expect? Let’s face it, these ideas are not difficult to debunk, and you have to be almost willfully blind to contradictory evidence in order to conclude that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of scientific methodology would be screaming at the screen about control groups and unwarranted assumptions long before Morris begins breaking down Leuchter’s results. The historian who appears in the film demonstrates just how easy it is to refute Leuchter’s conclusions: all he needs to do is pull out a few readily available blueprints and memos from the records. It’s more than obvious that Leuchter’s a buffoon, and the footage of him traipsing around Auschwitz like an amateur spy is just depressing and horrifying. That said, in fairness to Leuchter, the one thing I missed in the film was any real questioning of the idea of making Holocaust denial a crime to begin with. Morris, who always perks up when presented with dueling evidence and legal arguments, gets tangled up in the minutiae and skirts around some of the central issues, one of which is that a guy was going to jail simply for something he wrote. Don’t get me wrong, I have little enough sympathy for the thoroughly unpleasant Ernst Zündel, but I’m also not very comfortable with criminalizing speech, no matter how offensive. Leuchter does insist that he leapt to Zündel’s defense as an advocate of free speech, but it sounds pretty lame coming from him, and Morris doesn’t really press the issue.
Otherwise, Mr. Death is interesting for the way Morris subtly links Leuchter’s new “career” as a white supremacist mascot to his previous job designing death penalty systems. One of the funniest threads running through the film is Leuchter’s open admission that he had little to no qualifications for any of the work he was doing in the prison system—prisons just kept hiring him based on his work in totally unrelated areas. He’d worked on an electric chair, so of course he could design and repair gas chambers, and lethal injection systems, and gallows, and so on. I think Leuchter started to believe his own hype, to think that he could do just about anything with a little research. It’s this overconfidence that got him in trouble in the end: sure, he could become a forensic investigator probing the secrets of a 40-year-old prison. Why not? It couldn’t be too hard, right? He’s an expert on this stuff. What a tool; in many ways the biggest problem with this film is that Leuchter is such an easy target. It’s no fun beating on a guy who’s already so beaten down and pathetic.
JB: You know, I wasn’t quite sure what I found lacking in Mr. Death, but your last line nails it. There’s no thrill of the chase in this picture. At best, there’s the thrill of the absurd, but it’s a sad thrill, given the context. I also agree that Mr. Death passes up some opportunities for deeper examination. You mentioned how Morris skirts the issue of the criminalization of speech, and it’s in that same portion that Morris also is arguably too deferential to Leuchter’s justification for his Auschwitz project. Leuchter claims the only reason he got involved was because he thought Zündel was being unfairly prosecuted. If that’s true, it reveals a whopping amount of bias. On the one hand, Leuchter’s alibi absolves him from being a fervent revisionist, but on the other hand it implicates him as a hack researcher. Put the pieces together and Leuchter’s aim wasn’t to examine Auschwitz; it was to create a reasonable doubt about the presence of the gas chambers. He already knew what he wanted to discover before he ever took a chisel to a piece of brick.
Additionally, I find it a little disturbing that one interviewee has no role in this picture except to show up and call Leuchter an anti-Semite. Leuchter might indeed be anti-Semitic, but there isn’t much evidence for that here. To conclude that anyone who doubts all or part of the Holocaust must hate Jews is pretty closed-minded, actually, because it doesn’t make room for any other explanation (like complete stupidity). Mr. Death, without ever apologizing for Leuchter, builds a compelling case that he was drawn to the modest fame he received as the expert on a controversial subject. Thus Leuchter’s actions are entirely self-serving. He wasn’t interested in hating Jews. He was interested in disproving history. He wanted to be to the Holocaust what Stephen Hawking was to black holes. And that’s what happened. Leuchter became, to a select audience that included himself, The Guy Who Proved Auschwitz Didn’t Have Gas Chambers. Once his identity was established, there was no room to change his position. Being wrong wouldn’t have just invalidated his Auschwitz research, it would have invalidated him.
It’s a rather tragic story, really, and part of me winds up feeling sorry for Leuchter because he’s so utterly pathetic. He’s one of those guys I look at and wonder if his life would have been profoundly different if, figuratively speaking, he had made the third-grade baseball team. His need to prove himself, to be a somebody, led him to—without malice, in my opinion—fan the flames of anti-Semitism around the world. That he’s so oblivious to the flaws in his arguments and to the damage he caused is sad, and it’s also what makes this film so interesting. Leuchter stands in stark contrast to Morris’ next subject, Robert McNamara, who one could argue left a far larger path of destruction in his wake, and who was far more deliberate in his actions, but who endears himself to us with his self-awareness, reluctant though it tends to be.
EH: Yes, if Fred Leuchter is Morris’ most pathetic antihero, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is one of his most complex and self-conscious. McNamara is a fascinating figure, and a historically significant one. He was instrumental in US military policy during World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War—first as a military advisor and architect of the firebombing raids on Japanese cities, then as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. As usual, Morris simply lets his subject speak, an especially wise choice in this case because McNamara had never before commented at such length, and with such candor, about his involvement in controversial military policies and actions. In many ways he reveals himself as an intelligent, thoughtful man, a man who fully understands the consequences of his actions, and who is, for a high-level political figure, unusually engaged with issues of morality, responsibility and the possibility of making mistakes. He admits again and again that he and those around him made mistakes, even grievous ones, like the mistaken “attack” on a US ship that triggered the escalation of the Vietnam War, an attack that seemed doubtful and confused even when it was first reported, and which later turned out to be entirely non-existent. McNamara is strangely candid about things like this, and yet also disturbingly nonchalant—like, oops, we just started a war, we were wrong, oh well.
As a result, this film is a fascinating tug of war in which McNamara vacillates between rationalizing his actions and acknowledging the horrors perpetrated on his watch. Despite his engagement with moral issues, with the tragic consequences of such mistakes, he continually refuses to take responsibility himself. About the firebombing raids over Japan, he says that he does not think that his report about the inefficiency of American high-altitude bombing led to the new policy, even though he was advising his superiors to make these raids more “efficient,” to maximize the amount of Japanese death and destruction for every American life lost. About the Vietnam War, when asked directly about the responsibility for it, he places it on Johnson, qualifying and hedging but basically saying that it was all Johnson’s fault. About the authorization of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, he says he doesn’t remember, that he doesn’t think he personally authorized it, though it happened under his watch, and also, by the way, that he wouldn’t have authorized it if he’d thought it was “a crime.” He does not say, which you would expect any contrite, ethical person to say, that he would not have authorized it if he’d known it would kill and give cancer to US soldiers—instead he just says he wouldn’t have authorized it if he’d thought it was illegal. It’s not that he wants to do the right thing, per se; he just wants to do the legal thing. He wants, more than anything, a clearly delineated rule book for war, a way to reduce gray areas, to reduce his own capacity for choice. Despite his moral rhetoric, it’s not ethics that guides him, but legality. And if he needs laws to stop him from doing something, doesn’t this indicate an absence of innate moral strictures?
McNamara never actually takes responsibility, and Morris doesn’t press him much—perhaps because, as can be seen in the brief epilogue, McNamara clams up when pushed too hard about Vietnam. By mostly just letting him talk, Morris gets a surprising candor and unguardedness from his subject, so that the truth often shows through the justifications and excuses and rationalizations. And when it doesn’t, Morris helps bring it out, either through his occasional interjections of pointed questions and comments, shouted from offscreen in his characteristic brassy voice, or through his potent visualizations.
JB: The thing I like about The Fog of War is that it feels like a boxing match. The interaction between Morris and McNamara isn’t combative, necessarily—there aren’t a lot of punches thrown—but they do dance around one another with their eyes locked in and their fists cocked and ready. The film is broken up into McNamara’s 11 “lessons,” and at the end of each segment, I find myself expecting to hear the ringside bell. Boxing has been called “the sweet science,” and interviews like this one fit that description, too. For example, regardless of whether McNamara sat for several interviews or filmed everything in one shot, Morris’ time with his celebrity subject was obviously limited. (I imagine the naked mole rat guy will talk to you whenever you want.) Thus, even though this isn’t a live event, the clock is always ticking. Morris hears it, and that’s why he prods McNamara from time to time, pushing the issue. McNamara hears it, and that’s why he knows that he can filibuster, so to speak, when the questions get tough.
On that point, my principle frustration with the film has nothing to do with the film itself but with the reactions it inspired. Critics raved about The Fog of War and many of them made the mistake of taking McNamara at his word. Some pointed out his shaky ethics, but the consensus seemed to be that McNamara purged his soul and straightened up his record. That’s naïve. McNamara doesn’t necessarily comment with candor; he comments with “candor.” It’s absurd to think that he’s without an agenda, as if such a calculating man would suddenly let his guard down and speak without thinking. I suspect McNamara isn’t capable of that kind of unfiltered expression. Most people aren’t. (Mike Tyson is the rare exception, which is why James Toback’s Tyson is so psychologically titillating.) So I think it’s a mistake to assume that McNamara’s latest version of the truth is any purer than previous versions, yet that’s the way many critics framed this film.
That said, I don’t think Morris was snowballed by McNamara. As we’ve discussed, his films thrive on contradictory testimonials. I suspect Morris would actually be bored by his material if he thought McNamara gave us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Certainly I find The Fog of War more compelling because of its ambiguities and shadows. I like trying to read McNamara, trying to figure out when he’s in spin mode and when Morris cracks his surface to reveal something more intimate.
EH: Actually, Morris lucked out and got quite a lot of interview time with McNamara: over 20 hours spread out over several days, which speaks to how comfortable Morris can make even his most cagey subjects. It’s hard to imagine the canny McNamara spending that much time talking with anyone else, and I hope some years from now Morris is able to stage a sequel with the equally evasive Donald Rumsfeld. Like you, I don’t think McNamara cleansed his soul here. He is more forthcoming than one would expect, but he’s still dodging, still trying to rationalize his actions, still trying to clear himself. Morris, as usual, lets the words stand whether they’re the whole truth or not, and merely provides the context for the audience to judge McNamara for themselves.
In that respect, the most stunning sequence is a rapidly edited montage that mixes together various reports, charts and tables of figures about Vietnam with concrete photographic evidence of the devastation of the country. Casualty charts are followed by harrowing depictions of corpses lined in rows, reports of “houses destroyed” are followed by images of cities laid to waste, burning homes and rubble. This brutally effective montage cuts through the bullshit that McNamara so often erects around the horrors of war—he’s a man who thinks in facts and figures, who thinks in the abstract of “efficiency.” Morris attempts to expose the horror of such terrible efficiency, which turns the destruction of human life into a bloody, fiery science. At its best, this film refuses to allow McNamara’s abstractions to exist independently of the concrete harm they caused. If McNamara often uses Orwellian doublespeak to gloss over the ugliness and brutality of war, Morris won’t flinch away from answering these euphemisms with hard visual evidence.
JB: Indeed, Morris doesn’t flinch. At one point, as McNamara discusses bombing raids and the inherent difficulty in determining how much destruction is too much, Morris inserts a special-effects shot of blue numbers falling toward a black-and-white aerial photograph, each digit symbolizing the multiple casualties any bomb might inflict. It’s a chilling metaphor, and a creative one. Then again, later on in the picture, Morris’ metaphorical tangents are more pedestrian. His too abundant and too literal shots of falling dominoes (Domino Theory, get it?) grow tiresome, for example. The same way he overproduced A Brief History of Time, perhaps in an effort to compensate for Hawking’s immobility, here Morris does too much to compensate for his lack of interviewee diversity.
Having said that, though, The Fog of War is the Morris film that best underlines the effectiveness of using artistic tangents as emotional palate cleansers. No matter what B-roll footage or dramatic reenactments Morris uses in place of a talking-head shot of McNamara—regardless of whether the metaphorical flourish is interesting or entertaining—when we return to McNamara the film receives a jolt of energy. It’s as if Morris’ subject is suddenly without armor, as if the camera can see into his soul. When McNamara holds his thumb and forefinger close together to illustrate how America was this close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or when he tears up at the thought of selecting Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington Cemetery, McNamara seems naked, vulnerable. In my mind, that’s the trademark of a Morris interview: vulnerability.
EH: Vulnerability’s a good word for it, and nowhere is that quality more apparent than in Morris’ most recent film, Standard Operating Procedure. Robert McNamara was a wily and evasive interviewee for Morris, but the subjects of this film—most of them young men and women who had served in the U.S. military in Iraq—don’t have McNamara’s poise or savvy. When the disgraced soldiers of Abu Ghraib prison appear in front of Morris’ camera, they seem defenseless, broken, their emotions running away from them as they talk about their time in Iraq, the things they saw and did. I think it’s safe to say that, however much she tries to justify herself, Sabrina Harman shows a great deal more of her inner self than McNamara did; she’s much more vulnerable before the camera.
Harman, the girl who appeared smiling and giving the infamous “thumbs up” in the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, is arguably the central figure of Standard Operating Procedure. Morris has a lot of interviewees here, both those who participated in the abuse and those who were on the scene less directly, but he keeps returning to Harman, letting her story provide the narrative backbone of the film. I think he centers the film around her because he sees in her the qualities that again and again draw him towards the unique people who appear in his films: a certain ambiguity in her motivations, a combination of self-awareness and rationalization, the internal contradictions of her personality. It’s difficult to reconcile the Harman who appears in this film—smart, soft-spoken, morally conflicted, aware of the consequences of her actions and contrite for the damage she’s caused—with the girl who could pose grinning and sticking up her thumb next to the corpse of an Iraqi prisoner.
The other soldiers in the film have various unconvincing rationalizations for their actions (Lynndie England lazily shifts the blame squarely onto fellow soldier Charles Graner, apparently a hypnotist who could remove other people’s control over their own actions) or else express no remorse whatsoever (Javal Davis says nothing they did to prisoners at Abu Ghraib was all that bad). But Harman knows that what was going on was wrong, and based on the letters she sent home to her “wife” Kelly, she seems to have known it all along. She maintains that she was merely documenting the abuse, hoping to expose it later, but this is only convincing up to a point. Why did she still participate? Why, in the photos, does she always look like she’s at a really fun party? Why didn’t she just turn in the extensive evidence she’d already amassed by the time the scandal finally went public? Morris doesn’t answer these questions: he simply turns the camera on this seemingly gentle, intelligent young woman and asks his audience to resolve the contradictions for themselves.
This is Morris’ usual method, of course, but I wonder if it serves him quite as well here as it has in the past. He asks some hard questions about what went on at Abu Ghraib, and if nothing else the film is a fascinating set of character studies, but I often found myself wishing he’d push a little harder, delve a little deeper, follow up on some of the threads left dangling. Maybe I would’ve felt the same way about The Fog of War if he’d made it at the height of the Vietnam War. There’s something about the urgency of a contemporary conflict that demands greater directness, meeting the big questions head-on rather than hinting at them beneath the surface. There comes a point where I wonder: is Morris’ circumspection a sign of subtlety, or merely the evasiveness of an artist who wishes to avoid making too definitive a statement?
JB: That’s an important question. My answer is that I’m not quite sure what Morris’ cautiousness indicates. Many things, I imagine. I mean, even if it’s true that Morris intentionally avoided making “too definitive a statement,” there could be various motivations for that. Perhaps Morris wanted his film to be as profitable as possible. But maybe he avoided fire-and-brimstone techniques because he wanted people on both sides of the aisle to listen instead of assuming a defensive posture. As an artist, Morris would have every right to make this a personal film in which he explicitly articulates his opinion, and it takes guts to pull that off. That’s true. But it also takes courage to require an audience to engage with the material in front of them. As much as Morris seems a little like Harman, standing back, being conveniently quiet amidst a period of unrest, I’d argue that what America needed more than a lecture was a film that challenged us to think for ourselves. The George W. Bush era was marked by years of being told what to think by an administration that withheld evidence that might have cast doubt on those directives. In this picture, Morris takes the opposite approach. He gives us the evidence and then challenges the audience to react. That’s a valid approach, and not necessarily the proverbial easy way out.
With the caveat that I didn’t see The Thin Blue Line when it was released and therefore can’t truly appreciate how groundbreaking it was in terms of technique, I think Standard Operating Procedure might be Morris’ greatest accomplishment. It’s a film that political junkies probably could spend hours picking apart, making counter arguments and complaining about Morris’ selection of interviewees, but that’s what makes it ballsy. Morris makes a statement just by attempting this film against the backdrop of controversy. Yes, there are issues Morris could have explored in greater depth. (Taxi to the Dark Side serves as an outstanding companion piece to Standard Operating Procedure because it analyzes the deep psychological trauma that can result from all those supposedly mild (and legal) harassment techniques like forced standing, sleep deprivation and sensory overload.) But if you wanted to give someone an idea of what happened at Abu Ghraib and the complexity of the situation, wouldn’t you hand them a DVD of Standard Operating Procedure? For all its coulda-woulda-shouldas, isn’t it rich and challenging as-is?
Personally, I am horrified that our military was involved in these events, but I also understand why they happened. If college kids make faulty decisions powered by nothing stronger than alcohol and the need for acceptance, can I really blame these soldiers of similar age and maturity for disobeying their better judgment in a time of war, in an environment where conformity is demanded, in a setting where the chain of command is always respected? I cannot. I would like to think that I would have behaved differently than these soldiers, and I don’t think they should be automatically absolved of their transgressions. However, I won’t insult them by pretending I have any idea what it was like to march in their boots. Morris’ film helped me find sympathy for these soldiers while also crystallizing the unacceptability of their behavior. The photos of Harman giving a thumbs-up or England cracking a smile while holding a prisoner on a leash? They provide all the damnation that’s required. For Morris to further castigate his subjects would make this film about his rage instead of their misdeeds, which were indicative of a larger and even more revolting corruption. In moments of chaos and corruption, we look to leaders to emerge to show us the way, yes. Morris could have chosen to be that kind of leader. That said, I don’t think he needs to be that guy holding a bullhorn and thumping his chest. That’s what we have Michael Moore for.
EH: Before we go any further, let me say that I agree with much of what you just said. In many respects, Standard Operating Procedure is a great film, and surely one of the definitive statements to emerge from the Bush era thus far. I’m not looking for Michael Moore chest-thumping or fist-pumping here, and there’s much to admire in Morris’ more balanced, distanced approach, in his ability to see an issue not just from both sides (as though there could only be two for a complicated situation like this) but from all sides. Actually, though, I think you misunderstood what I was looking for when I wished that Morris would’ve pushed a little harder. I’m not looking for Morris to “further castigate” the soldiers who appear in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. You’re right, they’ve been punished enough. His approach to Harman, England, et al is judicious and open-minded, never losing sight of their crimes while also allowing their own voices to be heard.
Where I think Morris could have been more aggressive was in providing additional context for the actions of these soldiers. He hints at this in places: the idea that what these soldiers were doing was not just isolated horseplay, was not their own idle invention, but was in fact part of procedure. Were they “just following orders,” to resort to the cliché? Morris doesn’t delve much into the question of responsibility higher up the chain of command, doesn’t dig to find out if the “breaker” interrogation teams were really ordering the kinds of prisoner abuse made notorious by Harman’s photos. There is a deleted scene on the DVD in which Tim Dugan talks about how he suspected that the interrogators were the ones who ordered all the humiliation and beatings and everything else that went on. He says that the young soldiers were just following orders from higher up. I mean, if you have someone making a direct, specific accusation like that, on tape, don’t you follow up? Don’t you research that? You certainly don’t cut it from the finished film, editing around it to include the end of Dugan’s remarks (when he says that he thinks the young MPs are being set up and “thrown under the bus”) but eliding the earlier, more specific accusations. Morris also leaves for the deleted scenes some accounts of shocking incidents not often associated with the prisoner abuse scandal, like one soldier’s jaw-dropping story of prison guards firing indiscriminately into crowds of prisoners gathered in a courtyard.
It’s possible that Morris’ desire to remain outside of his film, to take a stance of objectivity, prevents him from pursuing this material further. Maybe he wants to stick to just the established facts as much as he can, not pushing beyond what’s already known. I can understand that. Or maybe he simply couldn’t get any more information, which is likely given how tight-lipped everyone involved would be. But whatever the reason, the result is that the crucially important question of how far up the chain of command this mess spreads remains a lingering ghost at the fringes of the film, popping up here and there but never really taking center stage. I could just be wishing for a different film than the one Morris made, which is a fine work in its own right, but it does feel like he let some opportunities pass him by, focusing too much on the individual responsibility of those most immediately involved at the expense of a broader image of institutional responsibility.
JB: OK, that’s a good distinction, and the deleted scenes you mention demonstrate that Morris had footage in the can that would have allowed him to push the envelope a little more had he wanted to—it wasn’t like he couldn’t get his subjects to open up. But I still wonder if Morris was savvy enough to realize that had he included Dugan’s explicit accusation, his film might have generated a media firestorm around that specific allegation, thus rendering the rest of the film almost moot. It’s sad that Morris would have to consider that approach in order to maximize the ultimate effectiveness of his picture, but such is the state of our generally oversimplified and sensationalized media culture these days.
Maybe this is my own bias coming through, maybe I brought this idea to the film with me, but I left Standard Operating Procedure with no doubt whatsoever that these soldiers were at least implicitly ordered to create the environment of fear and debasement that eventually got them in trouble. Unless Morris could have traced these events back to Rumsfeld’s desk through something more than circumstantial evidence, I’m not sure there’s anything to gain by going farther. (Though, wow, if only!) But now I’m curious: Are you more disappointed by what Standard Operating Procedure isn’t than fond of what it is? Where, roughly, do you think it ranks among his filmography? And is Morris becoming a better filmmaker with age, or no?
EH: Despite my reservations about Standard Operating Procedure, I do think it’s a good film as-is. If it doesn’t quite do everything I wish it did, what it does accomplish is worthwhile enough. As you said earlier, if I was going to hand someone who’d been living under a rock a quick primer on Abu Ghraib, this would probably be it. As for whether Morris has become a better filmmaker or not, I honestly can’t say. He’s certainly honed and developed his craft over the years. But his filmography is somewhat scattershot, broken up by TV work that I mostly haven’t seen, and his two best films, in my opinion, are The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which are separated from one another by nine years in which he did very little other film work. His most recent two films are solid, probing political examinations, and they’re great films in their own ways—but I wouldn’t say they represent a marked progression from his earlier work in aesthetic terms.
In fact, one thing that’s increasingly bothered me about Morris’ work is the development of his use of music. From The Thin Blue Line onward, he’s treated his scores like he’s laying down carpet, and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing. He’s fortunate in that he generally gets very good scores, and very similar scores, whether he’s working with frequent collaborators like Philip Glass or Caleb Sampson, or in Standard Operating Procedure with Danny Elfman. Glass’ score for The Thin Blue Line set the template for all Morris’ future scores: pulsing, nearly constant, propelling the narrative, lending a relentless forward motion to the storytelling. It’s a brilliant fusion of score and storytelling, and it’s a combination Morris has sought for all his subsequent films. His scores serve him well, but as a result he leans on them too heavily at times, never letting the music rest, seldom allowing silence to fall, always this insistent pulse in the background. This works beautifully in The Thin Blue Line, and in a different way, Sampson’s gleeful circus pastiche fuses symbiotically with the fast-moving cut-and-paste aesthetic of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. In some of Morris’ other films, the score occasionally becomes overbearing—Sampson’s score for Mr. Death is distracting, jarring against the images rather than enhancing the story, while in Standard Operating Procedure the near-constant Elfman music is deadening after a while. There’s little variation in the pulse of the music, and thus little emotional rise and fall. By increasingly relying so heavily on his music, Morris risks letting the music set the mood and the rhythm of his film rather than shaping that himself through his images.
JB: I think you’re absolutely right. Then again, it’s part of what puts the Morris in a Morris film. When I listen to Bob Dylan I often find myself wishing he’d go a little easier on the harmonica, but it is what it is. Same thing here. The benefit of Morris’ rigid style is that he doesn’t have a single dud amongst his collection of feature length documentaries. Some are better than others, of course, but they’re all worth seeing, and that’s impressive. Still, especially when watching Morris’ entire collection in close succession, as we both have recently, the formulas become somewhat tedious. Rewatching The Fog of War a week ago, I found myself wondering if Herzog should have been brought in to provide voice-over in place of Morris’ typical music cues. “And now, you feel mewved,” he’d say.
Speaking of being moved, on Errol Morris’ website there is a prominently displayed quote from Roger Ebert: “After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more.” That’s quite a compliment. I agree with Ebert that Morris is a master filmmaker, but I can’t say my admiration for Morris goes that far. I enjoy all of his films, I really do, but I don’t crave them. I’m interested in his pictures, but I’m rarely deeply moved by them. I find Morris’ movies fun to think about, but they don’t call me to return to them. Perhaps that’s because several of Morris’ films are arguably bigger than they deserve to be. As Fast, Cheap & Out of Control proves, Morris can make just about anything interesting, and yet repeated viewings can expose the slightness of the material, causing Morris’ treatment of his subject matter to seem almost foolishly overblown. But this is a quibble. Because in the silence between musical eruptions, in the stillness between dramatic recreations, Morris’ films are irresistible. No filmmaker has ever gotten more out of pointing a camera directly into the eyes of his subjects and asking them to talk.
EH: Yes, I often found myself wondering if some of my reservations about Morris’ work are at least partly the result of having watched so much of his oeuvre in such a concentrated period of time, both revisiting films I’d seen before and catching up with a few that were new to me. There are few directors who are so focused and consistent in their approach, and because of that he’s probably not well-suited to binge viewing of his entire filmography. He tends to approach every subject with the same enthusiasm, the same intensity, whether he’s talking to a guy who really loves naked mole rats, or a former Secretary of Defense. In terms of the individual films, this is great, but all that bombast can be wearying in the long run, and watching so many of his films in such a short period of time emphasizes the similarities between them and the limits of his aesthetic. Of course, that’s not really Morris’ fault: I’m sure he didn’t envision anyone sitting down and watching all his films over the course of a couple of weeks.
Still, at his best Morris does move me, and thrill me, and engage my intellect. His films never fail to make me think, which is no small thing. Moreover, when I want what Morris has to offer, there’s really nowhere else to go: there’s no mistaking his films for anyone else’s. That’s no small thing, either. Even if Morris’ idiosyncratic style is sometimes frustrating or overbearing, it’s also what makes his films worth seeing.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: The Trial of the Chicago 7, While Timely, Exudes Movie-of-the-Week Vibes
It pulses with relevancy in a time when debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America.2.5
Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison.
The result feels like a melding of the straight-forward courtroom narrative that Sorkin delivered in A Few Good Men and the fuzzier political complexities he explored in The West Wing. Cutting quickly to the courtroom, The Trial of the Chicago 7 lays out the lengthy 1969 trial as a politically motivated showcase, later inserting recreations of the protests as they come up during cross-examination. While lead federal prosecutor Richard Schulz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is given some room to hem and haw about how far he’s being asked to bend the law, the Justice Department (under new management that year with the election of Richard Nixon) is shown as fully intent on making an example of the hippies. Clearly eager to help them out is Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose shutting down of any dissent becomes so rote that the defendants take to shouting “overruled!” before the judge can whenever defense attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) makes an objection.
The grab-bag of defendants serve as a handy cross-section of the factional, squabbling anti-Vietnam War movement. Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), serve as the starchy and serious counterpoint to the puckish and prankish Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), members of the Youth International Party (Yippies), while middle-aged conscientious objector David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) serves as a kind of father figure to the group. Some dark comic relief is provided by John Froines (Danny Flaherty) and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), the film’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, baffled as to why they’re even there. But the true odd man out is Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who had no connection to the rest of the defendants and no part in any of the protest planning, having only been in Chicago for four hours to give a speech. (A plausible theory that Sorkin puts forth is that Seale was there as a token black radical to scare the jury.)
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is most urgent when showing Seale’s at first infuriated and later desperate attempts to be separated from the seven other defendants or at least be allowed to defend himself. When Judge Hoffman’s glowering authoritarianism causes Seale to be handcuffed to his chair and gagged to stop him from speaking (which actually happened in an American courtroom), a sense of fulsome outrage finally grips the story. But the film, which moves on too quickly from the side plot involving Seale’s connection to Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), feels far more at home in the heady, emotive debates that spark between the white defendants. Abbie Hoffman, whose performative clowning is given thoughtful coloring by Cohen’s vulnerable performance, sees culture as just as important as politics and thinks Hayden is naïve and something of a square. “I don’t have time for cultural revolution,” Hayden hits back. “It gets in the way of actual revolution.”
That back and forth isn’t only an evergreen debate for the left but one that particularly engages Sorkin, whose better episodes of The West Wing limned the clash of idealism and realism. While Abbie Hoffman, who knew just how ludicrous he was being in court but saw the attention-getting as vital to the Chicago Seven’s cause, often gets the better of these exchanges with Hayden, Sorkin’s heart seems to be clearly on the side of practicality. At one point, frustrated by Rubin’s complaints that nobody on the jury “looks like us,” Kunstler slyly replies, “Any of you ever show up for jury duty? No? Then shut the fuck up.”
Unfortunately, the film has relatively little of that kind of punchiness. As a director, Sorkin hasn’t yet grasped how to meld personal drama and historical sweep into a cohesive whole. Although the strong cast helps the film through some of its weaker segments, Sorkin’s attempt to bring a Spielbergian fluidity to the flashbacks to convention riot chaos often fall flat. But while The Trial of the Chicago 7 ends on something of a movie-of-the-week note, given the timing of its release as a current Department of Justice gins up spurious charges against political enemies, it nevertheless carries a certain past-is-prologue immediacy.
Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Noah Robbins, Danny Flaherty, Ben Shenkman, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Caitlin Fitzgerald, Alice Kremelberg, John Doman, J.C. MacKenzie, Damien Young, Wayne Duvall, C.J. Wilson Director: Aaron Sorkin Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 129 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: On the Rocks Is a Screwball Comedy with a Twist of Unresolved Tension
Sofia Coppola captures how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness.3.5
Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks opens with a series of gestures that establish the film’s entire emotional framework. In a voiceover against a backdrop of darkness, a man tells his daughter—playfully but with an unmistakable edge of seriousness—that she will always be his, even after marriage. We then see Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) getting married, and soon descending an elaborate spiral staircase into the cavernous pool of an elegant hotel. Coppola then cuts to Dean already in the water waiting for Laura, who takes the plunge to join him, before then cutting to toys on the floor of a New York City loft—years of marriage compressed into a heartbreaking handful of seconds, as a relationship has evolved from storybook infancy into a romantic partnership that’s enriched by and freighted with obligation, while haunted by an obsessive father’s influence.
Like many Coppola protagonists, Laura and Dean are casually affluent, living in a glass cage of designer parties and restaurants. Yet this is the world that Coppola knows, and her films don’t feign pretense of understanding working-class universality, whatever that may be to begin with. In fact, guilt over this rarefication complicates Laura’s encroaching not-quite-midlife crisis. She feels relentlessly average next to Dean’s chic collaborators, yet she senses that it’s unseemly to feel the pain of the struggling, and such anxieties are embodied by the myopic, comically self-pitying droning of a fellow mom, Vanessa (Jenny Slate). Jones’s body language communicates this anguish vividly, nearly subliminally: Laura is a poignant lump who stands and dresses in order to vanish, coming to see herself only as a supplicant to her children. And she suspects that this behavior might lose Dean’s attention.
In On the Rocks, Coppola utilizes the comic-melancholic tone that she perfected in Somewhere. A shot of Laura lying on her bed, as one of those little robot vacuums buzzes about in hapless circles, instantly evokes Laura’s ennui. And Coppola is particularly adept at expressing the growing confusion between Laura and Dean, who isn’t the cartoon of the inept husband in Lost in Translation but a realistically distracted man too busy to see that he’s ignoring his wife’s needs. One moment is especially strange, even a little dangerous: Dean plops down in the bed in the middle of the night exhausted from work, kissing and touching Laura hungrily until she speaks and ruins the moment, killing the spontaneity of pure sex, the “fucking” that’s referenced in a Chris Rock special that Laura was watching earlier in the night, with the ongoing reality of the work of their relationship. Coppola never over-emphasizes any moments or symbols, particularly a moving motif with wrist watches, cultivating a growing tension that’s intensified by fraught close-ups and passages of pointed silence.
As Laura becomes convinced that Dean is having an affair, her father, Felix (Bill Murray), eases back into her life after returning from a trip to Paris. Rarefied even by Laura’s standards, Felix is an art dealer and womanizing bon vivant who sucks the oxygen out of every room. Felix’s thoughtfulness is somehow selfish, as he showers Laura with the sort of attention that Dean should pay her, except it’s suffocating and vainglorious. He isn’t quite the paralyzed lonely rich man that Murray played in Lost in Translation and Coppola’s 2015 Netflix holiday special A Very Murray Christmas; this character’s loneliness is subtler, hidden under extroversion and revealed fleetingly in startling moments, such as when Felix, feeling a sudden desolation, asks his driver to take him home. There was glamour to Murray’s earlier lost men, who were so quiet that you could project yourself onto them, but Murray renders Felix pathetic even as the character abounds in his distinctively curt and caustic charm.
Laura and Felix work their way through New York, with a side trip to Mexico, in order to find out if Dean is cheating on her—a screwball adventure that Coppola invests with richly unresolved, contradictory undercurrents. Felix has a penchant for absurdist sexism (one of the best bits in the film finds him convinced that he’s growing deaf only to female voices), and he displays undisguised glee at the prospect of proving Dean’s infidelity, which might normalize his cheating on Laura’s mother years ago. Laura might initially be rooting for Dean’s betrayal as well, as it offers a pat answer to her feelings of stagnation.
Their adventure is dotted with lovely curlicues, such as Felix prattling on while recklessly driving a sports car around New York until he’s pulled over by police offers whom he readily charms with his hail-fellow-well-met routine. Coppola, Jones, and Murray capture how such charm is both real and fake, affirming and demoralizing all at once. No wonder Laura feels eclipsed by everyone, including her husband. She was taught early on by Felix to be a spectator, and her latent rage erupts in a moment of reckoning in Mexico.
There are few modern filmmakers who possess Coppola’s gift for capturing how our idealized, movie-fed ideas of “night life” reflect our longing for adventure as well as our loneliness. On the Rocks has the same piercing, hazy, noir-esque beauty as Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and A Very Murray Christmas, as quite a bit of it is set in dimly lit hotels and bars that allow people to be anonymously captivating while getting loose on expensive cocktails.
Sitting across from one another, talking of their own relationship while pretending to speak of Laura’s marriage, Felix and Laura make for an enchantingly odd couple, their energies redolent of a classic movie duo, merged with the despairing yet droll preoccupations of a filmmaker who appears to be cutting to the heart of her own demons. Yet On the Rocks has a bounce—a swing and sense of hopefulness—that’s new to Coppola’s work. As Laura implies, endless passion is exhausting, expected only by the selfish. Somewhere on the sliding scale between combustible heat and resignation is something like grace, where communion is likely.
Cast: Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate, Jessica Henwick, Jules Willcox, Nadia Dajani, Barbara Bain, Musto Pelinkovicci Director: Sofia Coppola Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola Distributor: A24 Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Interview: Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the Malleability of Movies
The multihyphenate artist discusses why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas.
Prior to chatting with Miranda July last week, I was assigned homework—a first in my experience as an interviewer. The multihyphenate artist’s team sent over a copy of her decades-spanning monograph (titled, perhaps naturally, Miranda July), which is both a compilation of her output across mediums and a clear line of sight into her creative and collaborative process. And if you’ve had the chance to read the tome, released by Prestel in April, you will know that July’s continued artistic endeavors have rendered it outdated.
July’s third feature, Kajillionaire, only represents the tip of the iceberg of her recent interdisciplinary efforts. Over the course of November and December 2019, she crafted a “movie” on Instagram with actress Margaret Qualley. In March, she curated the “Covid International Arts Festival,” a celebration of art during quarantine. That was followed by a more self-contained short film, Jopie, edited together from footage she crowdsourced from her Instagram followers during pandemic-related lockdown. And her debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, joined the Criterion Collection this year.
While Kajillionaire might be July’s most expensive feature to date, the extra bells and whistles don’t come at the expense of her singularly off-kilter perspective. The premise alone, about a family of eccentric thieves living in the margins of Los Angeles, makes the film feel of a piece with a recent wave of cinematic scammers both real (Fyre Festival and Theranos) and imagined (Parasite and Shoplifters). Yet, as filtered through July’s unconventional lens, the grift is never the goal of the narrative. The film goes in surprising and poignant directions once the tight-knit team welcomes an affably green newcomer, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), into their fold, exposing long-simmering tensions between the emotionally stunted Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her eccentric parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger).
I spoke to July over the phone as Kajillionaire prepared for a theatrical run prior to hitting VOD in October. Our conversation covered the porous boundaries of what constitutes a movie, why the medium she wants to work in comes before her ideas, as well as why she’s confounded by reactions to her latest feature as a work of “genre.”
You’ve been on my side of this exchange before, interviewing Rihanna for The New York Times. I watched the video in the profile where you talked about worrying you might start acting like her? I have a lot of fears when interviewing, but that’s not one of them. Where does that stem from exactly?
You’re used to watching someone who’s such a star like that without them being able to see you. You’re just unclear on what you look like, or what you might unconsciously do in front of their face. I sing along to her! Obviously, I’m not going to do that in the moment, but I guess it’s just a way of describing the fear being looked back at by someone who really should only go one way.
Cinema as practiced in the traditional model of a narrative feature like Kajillionaire is very much a one-way conversation between you and the audience. But the Instagram project you did with Margaret Qualley is a little more of a two-way conversation because it allows the audience to become a part of it. Especially as so many American cinemas remain closed, do you think this kind of social media cinema could start to kind of supplant or substitute what we traditionally think of as cinema?
Yeah! I feel like we have such insane tools, our phones are really such good cameras. And the means for sharing things. I’m sort of surprised more hasn’t been done. I remember right before the pandemic actually saying to someone, “No one’s using Live stories [on Instagram]. Like, that’s weird! Why is that feature not being used more? Because there’s so much that can be done!” Now, that’s an example, the pandemic has pushed that forward. I mean, it’s a terrible time politically for a pandemic. But in terms of filmmaking and tools [laughs], we are better equipped than we would have been even a few years ago.
As an artist, you seem ahead of the curve in recognizing that social media is a venue for entertainment and storytelling as much as it is for messaging and advertising. As someone who’s created art for both social media platforms and traditional cinema, how do you regard them in relation to each other as audiovisual entertainment?
I guess one thing to keep in mind is I’m working in so many mediums. I mean, I used to call my performances “live movies,” so I’m not a purist. I’m sort of the opposite of that as far as cinema goes. What I loved about doing that project with Margaret was that it was very immediate and spontaneous. It allowed her a little more agency than an actor would usually have on a set. I couldn’t have, like, perfect control over her because she was also living her life. And I would ask, “What are you doing?” She’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna be at Paris Fashion Week,” and we were kind of building things around her real life to some degree. And then, also, it’s porous. Like, Jaden [Smith] became involved because I noticed he was following it. He had commented on posts. So I just DMed him, and I said, “Do you want to be part of it? Imagine that, that’d be like a Purple Rose of Cairo-level of cinema if that happened!” It’s amazing.
The way you have described your process makes it seem almost cyclical—as if you could never follow making a movie with another movie. What’s behind that impulse?
I should say, actually, I do often want to make another movie right away. I think the Margaret thing was a little bit like my muscles are still warm from this. But each of those disciplines is really important to me. And if I don’t write another book, I won’t keep growing as a writer. I’m really interested in figuring out how to write. It sounds so boring but, like, I don’t want to do another movie because that’s too long. It’s too many years in between, and I’m aware of how finite this life is. I’m really just trying to get to do both.
Is the medium you want to work in where the germ of a project starts? Or does the idea itself determine how it’s going to be expressed?
Usually it’s the medium because, in a dumb way, I know I need a movie idea when I’m done with a book. So, I’m just kind of a mercenary or something. But then, also, the mediums themselves have different energies and capacities, and they inspire me. If you think of Instagram as a medium, I’m having fun thinking, “What can you actually do there that I couldn’t do just now in Kajillionaire?” Or, “What can I do in fiction that would be just terrifying to do if there had to be real people involved?”
I was struck by a quote about Kajillionaire in your monograph that was attributed to Richard Jenkins, but apparently you repeated frequently: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be right, it just has to be alive.” What does “alive” mean in the context of this film or your art in general?
I think he partly said that to me because I, as a writer-actor, get pretty hung up on my words [being] said exactly how I pictured them. Because I’ve already acted out all these parts, and I think they know it and can feel it on some level. But that can also go both ways. It makes me really precise, clear, and able to communicate to my crew. I know what I want, but at the same time, there’s something that has to be out of your control, free, and kind of unhinged to take flight. I know that even as just a writer: You gotta let go, even of yourself. That was that was so powerful because it’s not like I changed my process from the day he said that on, but it emboldened to me to do things that were almost counterintuitive. Just to see what would happen if I could be more alive.
Your previous features have been explicitly about lonely or isolated humans interfacing with technology and contemporary society. That element isn’t entirely absent in Kajillionaire, but it seems a little more in the background. Were you consciously trying to approach these themes in a more oblique way?
Well, I’m never thinking that there’s a theme that I have interest [in]. But I had become a mother since my last movie, that was influencing me and making me a little more conscious of what parenting means, the sort of inherent tyranny within family structures. I think I was influenced by writing a novel that, while it wasn’t like a heist story, did have sort of twists, turns, and reveals. I knew I wanted to do that in a feature film.
You’ve talked about the narcissism of the Dyne parents being one of their defining characteristics, and it got me thinking about how the trait seems to be generational. When people say millennials are narcissists, for example, that’s largely a reflection of the fact that they were raised by boomers, who are often categorized as narcissists. Was that something you were looking to explore through the film?
When you’re only a daughter, if you’re not yet—or are never going to be—a mother, then you just have this sense of parenting as almost like God or something. It’s only something you can shake your fist at. And then, once you’re on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, hold on this thing that’s your whole childhood, this was just like a series of decisions I made because I was in a weird place in my life—some of them conscious, some of them accidental.” The whole thing doesn’t hold water so tightly as it does when you’re on the other side of it. That seemed kind of criminal to me. I mean, not to be too literal. And then also it seems like the child’s job is to betray the parents, like that’s inherent and will always happen. Yes, all these things are made more explicit and heightened in the movie, but I think I was feeling them in a gut, new way in the years that I was conceiving of the movie.
I’ve noticed a repeated sticking point of yours: female directors are so often asked about whether their work is autobiographical because people, consciously or not, presume that men create while women just reflect. With Kajillionaire, where you aren’t in front of the camera as a performer, has that experience changed at all?
Yeah, maybe it helps that I’m not in it. But people love saying I’ve made a genre movie, and that seems really male. Which, to me, is so funny because it’s a pretty emo heist movie. It becomes abundantly female by the end. But, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I think I’m getting asked probably a lot more about, like, “Is that my family?” than the Ocean’s 11 people are being asked that. The funny thing is it’s not that I don’t think personal stuff is interesting. You just want men to be asked the same thing.
Review: Beginning Is a Transfixing Study of a Woman’s Faith Being Tested
The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film.3
Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning centers around a Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili), who lives with her husband, David (Rati Oneli), and young son in a remote village in the mountains outside of Tbilisi. The close-knit community they tend to faces extreme prejudice and persecution from the local Orthodox Christian majority, as illustrated in the film’s startling opening. After seeing and hearing nothing for a minute or so, except the sound of a woman whispering, apparently in prayer, we glimpse congregants entering a small chapel. A sermon plays out in a static, unbroken shot from the rear of the room, before being interrupted by petrol bombs thrown through the chapel’s doors, eventually sending the building up in flames. Abruptly transitioning from reflective, communal peace to shock and panic, the scene casts a long shadow over the subsequent events, suffusing even the calmest, most intimate scenes with a sense of uncertainty and tension.
The attack also functions as an indirect representation of the senseless violence at the core of the Old Testament story of Isaac, which is the passage being discussed by the congregation before they’re forced to flee. Foreshadowing another shocking event late in the film, one that shows the imperceptible force of religious scripture weighing on the characters, this blurring of boundaries between spiritual imagination and reality reveals itself to be a key theme of the narrative. As the children of the community learn Bible stories and verses in preparation for their upcoming baptism ceremony, their carefree attitude and weak grasp of the basics of their religion is contrasted with the heavy moral burden that Yana and her husband have placed upon themselves. As seriously as Beginning treats their faith, we’re also given a sense of the apparent futility of their mission, and the sacrifices they have made for it.
The aftermath of the burning of the chapel leads to more personal trauma for Yana, who faces an uphill struggle against various abuses of power, institutional failures, and societal prejudice, while seeking a new purpose in life and trying to stay true to her religious convictions. Holding together many of the film’s long, often dialogue-free scenes is an impressive performance by Sukhitashvili, who balances vulnerability with a kind of opaque self-possession, never allowing us to grasp the full extent of Yana’s motivations. As traumatized as the woman is by what befalls her and her community, she also appears frustrated by her victimization, by her husband’s inaction in the face of injustice, and by her own diminished prospects since she abandoned her former career as an aspiring actress. A visit to her mother also reveals a family history of male neglect, which is a particular type of behavior that she apparently feels obliged to overcome by whatever means necessary.
Though a strictly minimalist approach means that her visual motifs emerge organically from the action, Kulumbegashvili makes a few unexpected, rather Hanekian compositional choices that break with the film’s sense of naturalism to more explicitly wring allegorical significance from certain sequences. Early on, Beginning introduces its main antagonist, an unnamed detective played by Kakha Kintsurashvili, in the extreme foreground, appearing unexpectedly from the right of the frame after a nighttime shot of the still-smoldering church fire gradually goes out of focus. He then walks off toward the fire raging in the distant background as Yana’s son and the other local children curiously follow him. The eerie religious symbolism here is subtle enough to keep the film grounded in the material world, while still hinting at an undercurrent of spirituality and superstition beneath its austere surface.
The low-key, serene natural beauty of Beginning’s setting provides a counterpoint to the often-disturbing events of the film, most obviously in one extended scene of a rape whose sounds are completely drowned out by the gentle burbling of the river shallows where it takes place. The idea of a god whose silence both challenges and affirms religious faith is driven home forcefully here. Indeed, the sensorial environment that Kulumbegashvili builds with a rich, naturalistic sound design, as well as the feeling of stasis created by the film’s glacial pacing, could qualify it as an example of what Paul Schrader has referred to as the “transcendental style.” And though Beginning is a lot less ostentatious than Schrader’s First Reformed, it does share that film’s intense focus, and a central theme of faith being tested. Both even conclude with a surprising tonal shift, accompanying a pivot in their protagonists’ behavior from a tightly controlled precision toward a mystical catharsis.
The introduction of a kind of magic realism at the end of Beginning is simultaneously jarring and strangely logical, following from its ambient mood of quiet spiritual intensity and haunting dread. A harrowing final narrative development is left ambiguous and unresolved by Kulumbegashvili, after which the filmmaker abruptly cuts to an uncanny sequence in which holy retribution seems to be delivered by the landscape itself. Demonstrating the extent of Yana’s resilience in facing the most extreme and personal tests of faith, and her willingness to sacrifice everything for her community, Kulumbegashvili vividly imagines powerlessness and despair being transformed into a supernatural, redemptive force.
Cast: Ia Sukhitashvili, Rati Oneli, Kakha Kintsurashvili, Saba Gogichaishvili Director: Dea Kulumbegashvili Screenwriter: Dea Kulumbegashvili, Rati Oneli Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Tragic Jungle Turns a Woman’s Exploitation into a Potent Allegory
It operates in an ambiguous register, suggesting that a woman is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation.3
Yulene Olaizola’s Tragic Jungle begins with Mexican chicleros scaling and notching huge trees in order to collect their sap. As the men hack away with their machetes, the zigzagging patterns they leave on the trees bring to mind injuries of flesh and blood, an impression underscored by the pinkish living part that’s revealed beneath the surface of the bark. Though this practice of collecting gum sap dates all the way to the Aztec and Mayan empires, the sight of the workers silently and miserably toiling for their boss feels like a demonstration of the unfettered agency of colonial capitalism, and as the milky sap trickles down the paths carved by the machetes, the trees suggest victims crying out for justice.
Set in the 1920s on the border between Mexico and Belize (at this time still part of the larger British territory of Honduras), the film then jumps across the Rio Hondo that divides both nations to track the clandestine movement of Agnes (Indira Andrewin), who’s running away from an arranged marriage to a white settler with the help of her sister, Florence (Shantai Obispo), and a guide, Norm (Cornelius McLaren). Dressed in virginal white, Agnes stands out against the greens of the jungle, and while all three characters are Belizean, they exist at a remove from their immediate surroundings, as they all speak perfect, unaccented English.
The film’s first act concerns itself with Agnes’s attempted escape and the power differentials at play in this world. When the woman’s prospective husband, Cacique (Dale Carley), shows up to her home for the wedding, he does so flanked by guards toting shotguns, as if he already expected some kind of resistance. And though Norm instructed the women to cover their tracks, they’re quickly found, and the juxtaposition between Norm arduously rowing a canoe and Cacique and his men arriving suddenly on the scene via motorboat speaks volumes about the hopeless futility of escaping this man and the imperial might that he represents. Furious at Agnes’s betrayal, Cacique doesn’t even attempt to retrieve his runaway bride, instead having his men open fire on her, killing Norm and Florence and leaving her for dead.
This narrative arc plays out as a vicious critique of colonialism, but Tragic Jungle takes a dramatic turn when the unconscious Agnes is found by the chicleros. The sight of the sleeping beauty flanked by the hard laborers suggests an image out of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the initial scenes between the English-speaking woman and the Spanish-speaking men make for awkward, amusing interactions, albeit ones also charged with sexual tension, as some of the men aren’t devoted to protecting her virtue. Agnes herself, who earlier acknowledged her sexual inexperience and curiosity to her sister, is at once apprehensive and receptive to the callous advances of the more aggressive workers. The convoluted sexual politics that arise from her excitement and fear complicate subsequent scenes where sexual violation becomes indistinguishable from fantasy.
As if sparked by Agnes’s ambiguous responses to her sexual encounters, the film foists itself into a mythic realm in its final act, with the chicleros who get closest to her falling ill or dying under mysterious circumstances. As a result, the men start to regard Agnes as the female demon Xtabay of Yucatec Mayan myth. Sofia Oggioni’s cinematography up to this point stressed the verdant hyperreality of the jungle and the ways that the characters at once mesh with their environment and are in conflict with it; an earlier shot of Agnes asleep under the chicleros’ mosquito netting is lit in such a way that she appears encased in spiderwebs, in a limbo state until she’s devoured. But the visuals become even more hypnotic as the men start to fret over their new ward, with colors growing brighter during the day, and nighttime shots losing a bit of their sharpness as Agnes’s interactions with the men, once marked by obvious menace, become more difficult to parse. In one jarring moment, an imaginative use of CGI distorts the woman’s features to acknowledge the extent to which the film has been turned on its head into a work of horror with no easily identifiable foe or hero.
Andrewin, too, modulates her performance in fascinating ways, lacing Agnes’s indeterminate passivity with hints of smirking malice that challenge all preconceived notions of the character. Tragic Jungle never becomes a full-on horror film, but Olaizola engages with indigenous legends and colonial history across a story where misogyny is turned against the patriarchy in ways that recall recent genre offerings like The Witch. Compared to that film’s turn toward the outright macabre, though, Tragic Jungle operates in a dreamier, more ambiguous register. It suggests that Agnes is working in unison with nature to dole out revenge for their exploitation against men who second-guess their fears and superstitions until they realize too late they should have trusted their instincts from the start.
Cast: Indira Andrewin, Gilberto Barraza, Mariano Tun Xool, Gabino Rodríguez, Eligio Meléndez, Eliseo Mancilla de la Cruz, Dale Carley, Shantai Obispo, Nedal Mclaren Director: Yulene Olaizola Screenwriter: Yulene Olaizola, Rubén Imaz
Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.3
Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.
Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.
This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries to an existential scale, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on. We’re only given glimpses of their internal conflicts, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.
Indeed, the financial precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban eccentricity and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and necessities progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.
Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.
Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, who has nevertheless struggled to break free from her parents after almost 27 years, and whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the family crashes).
Toward the end of the film, there’s some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things”, in a more plainspoken version of the soul-searching aphorisms that usually pepper July’s dialogue. It also reflects the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child honesty is still a matter of personal taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills
Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.1
Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.
Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.
Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System
The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.3.5
If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.
The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.
Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.
At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.
Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.
The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.
Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.
Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins
10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
9. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
8. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
7. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
6. Session 9 (2001)
As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins
5. Before I Wake (2016)
Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen
4. The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez
3. The Guest (2014)
The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen
2. Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen
Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries
In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.2.5
On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.
The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.
In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.
Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.
As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.
In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
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