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: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art
Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.3
Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.
A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.
Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.
Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.
Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.
Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973
Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman
In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.2.5
Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.
Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.
Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”
Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.
The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.
Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.
Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story
Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.3
At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.
As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.
As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.
Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.
Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.
The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.
Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.3
Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.
Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.
The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.
The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.
Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.
These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.
Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.
Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.
The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.
There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.
These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.
Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019
Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair
Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.1
Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.
Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.
Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.
The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.
Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best
Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.
Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown
21. Cars 2 (2011)
The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez
20. Cars (2006)
Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen
18. Monsters University (2013)
It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson
Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels
The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.3
It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.
Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.
Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).
Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.
Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).
Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.
Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.
So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019
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