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The Conversations: Errol Morris

I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.

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The Conversations: Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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?

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.”

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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?

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

Errol Morris

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.

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Review: Bombshell Is a Collection of Quirks in Search of a Trenchant Criticism

The film is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Roger Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

1.5

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Bombshell
Photo: Lionsgate

With Bombshell, director Jay Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph make heroes of the women who brought down Roger Ailes, the late chairman and CEO of Fox News who was accused by several former employees—including star anchors Megyn “Santa Just Is White” Kelly and Gretchen Carlson—of sexual harassment in 2016. The filmmakers keenly depict these women’s courage and fixate on the toxic culture at Fox that fostered so much fear and intimidation, but Bombshell is too irreverent in tone and narrow in scope to place Ailes’s criminality in a larger, more meaningful context.

The film begins in the summer of 2016 with the Republican Party presidential debate in Iowa, where Kelly (Charlize Theron), the moderator, confronts Donald Trump with highlights of his long history of misogyny. This grilling, and her increasingly—if relatively—feminist stance on the Fox News daytime program The Kelly File, is met by backlash from the ascendant Trump cult, as well as Ailes (John Lithgow), whose professional relationship with Kelly at first seems productive in spite of its combativeness. Meanwhile, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is fired from another Fox program, The Real Story, possibly for her own newfound—if, again, relative—feminism, and counters by filing a sexual harassment suit against Ailes.

Waiting for colleagues to make similar accusations in order to bolster her case, Carlson is left twisting in the wind by a collective fearful silence—a silence that even fierce former victim Kelly obeys—while Ailes and his litigation team prepare a defense. A third storyline involves “millennial evangelical” Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a composite character representing the many ambitious young women who suffered Ailes’s demeaning treatment in order to get ahead at Fox and the other organizations for which he worked.

Bombshell operates in a style that has become numbingly de rigueur since Oliver Stone’s W., in which political and corporate corruption are presented in a dramatic yet amiably humorous style that takes the edge off any potentially trenchant critique. Fourth walls are broken, jokes punctuate scenes, and the ambiance remains oddly congenial despite the purportedly suffocating and repressive environment of the Fox News offices.

Thankfully, there are moments when the actors transcend the too-casual tone. Lithgow portrays Ailes not merely as a dirty old man, but as a pitiful control freak whose disgusting actions unwittingly reveal a deep insecurity. The tensely coiled Kelly is a mass of contradictions, and one argument that she has with her husband, Douglas Brunt (Mark Duplass), over an embarrassingly fawning follow-up interview with Trump is memorable for allowing Theron to reveal the strain imposed on Kelly by conflicting personal, professional, and political allegiances. Robbie—frequently playing off a versatile Kate McKinnon’s co-worker/lover—moves from bubbly naïveté to painful humiliation with convincing subtlety.

And yet, Bombshell is predicated on several dubious ideas that ultimately blunt its power. The film relishes the downfall of a public figure, as well as the growing chaos of a divided Fox News. By the end of the film, we’re expected to feel righteous satisfaction when justice comes to Ailes in the form of a disgraceful resignation. But such a response can only feel hollow when the country continues to suffer from widespread problems cultivated by Fox from the same sexist, callous, and exploitative worldview at the root of Ailes’s behavior. The film only briefly and tangentially explores this worldview, and mostly uses it to simply highlight conservative hypocrisy and the general sliminess of the Fox organization.

Bombshell also delights in referencing battles fought among high-profile public figures, emphasizing the kind of inside baseball that the media routinely focuses on instead of more complex and endemic manifestations of national issues. Rather than understand Ailes’s harassment in relation to the sexism so deeply embedded in American corporate media and culture, the filmmakers reduce that sorry tradition to the confines of the Fox News offices and elite legal channels. This approach allows viewers to understand the organizational and legal pressures that made it so hard for Carlson and others to speak out about Ailes, but once Carlson files her charges, the abuse that she and others endured becomes overshadowed by competitive backroom negotiations and maneuverings.

The film reinforces this emphasis with gratuitous appearances by actors playing famous Fox News personalities (Geraldo Rivera, Neil Cavuto, and Sean Hannity) who are tangential to the narrative, as well as cutesy direct-address segments meant to make us feel in the know about the world of Fox. This is the stuff that Roach, who’s mostly directed broad comedies, and Randolph, who co-wrote The Big Short, clearly relish, but rather than connecting with the viewer through these strategies, Bombshell mostly feels insular, remote, and superficial. It would be nice if for once an accessible mainstream film took on the institutional powers that detrimentally shape our world with anger and incisiveness rather than a bemused concern.

Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Mark Duplass, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Malcolm McDowell, Allison Janney, Alice Eve Director: Jay Roach Screenwriter: Charles Randolph Distributor: Lionsgate Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Richard Jewell Leans Into Courting Conservative Persecution Pity

Ironically, Clint Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises.

2.5

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Richard Jewell
Photo: Warner Bros.

Marie Brenner’s 1997 Vanity Fair article “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell” is a detailed cataloging of rushed judgements, lazy assumptions, and unforgiveable abuses of power. Richard Jewell was the security guard who spotted an Alice pack loaded with pipe bombs under a bench at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. The bombs exploded, directly killing one woman and injuring over a hundred others, but Jewell’s preemptive actions undeniably reduced the scope of atrocities. Jewell became a national hero, though a tip from a bitter former boss led the F.B.I. to aggressively investigate him as the prime suspect in the bombing. The news outlets ran with this information, leading to a “trial by media” that ruined Jewell’s life. In Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood uses this story as fodder for what he clearly sees as a fable of the evil of the F.B.I. and the media, who take down a righteous, implicitly conservative hero out of classist spite.

Richard Jewell is a political horror film that serves as a microcosm of the “deep state” conspiracies that the Republican Party trades in today. The media is represented here by essentially one person, a reporter named Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) who learns of Jewell’s investigation by sleeping with an F.B.I. agent, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), who serves as the film’s more or less singular representation of our domestic intelligence and security service. As such, the media and the F.B.I. are literally in bed together, and they see in the overweight, naïve, law-enforcement-worshipping Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) a readymade patsy.

Like most auteurs, Eastwood’s films are animated by his politics, in his case often featuring singular heroes who’re targeted by bureaucrats who know nothing of in-the-field work, but the productions are often complicated by the magnitude of his artistry. Sully takes simplistic swipes at regulations that save lives, glorifying the notion of the individual, but its most muscular scenes serve as startlingly beautiful celebrations of community, suggesting an ideal of a functional state that nearly refutes Eastwood’s own beliefs. By contrast, Richard Jewell finds the filmmaker more comfortably mining MAGA resentments. The film is rife with conservative Easter eggs. When we see Jewell’s attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), in his office, Eastwood highlights a sticker in a mirror that says “I Fear Government More Than I Fear Terrorism.” The film is dotted with guns, Confederate flags, and religious artifacts. And the real perpetrator of the bombing, Eric Randolph, a bigoted domestic terrorist who might interfere with Eastwood’s conservative reverie, is kept almost entirely off screen, reduced to a shadow.

Of course, Richard Jewell is set in the Bible Belt, and many of these details are pertinent. As Brenner’s article states, Bryant is a libertarian, and so that sticker accurately reflects his beliefs. But Eastwood and screenwriter Billy Ray rig the story so severely, in the service of courting conservative persecution pity, that even truthful details feel contextually false. Per Brenner, Jewell was a victim of many colliding interests, from the fading power of The Atlantic-Journal Constitution, which employed Scruggs, to internal clashes within the F.B.I.

In the film, the cops and journalists are desperate elitists just looking to finish a job, and their power is uncomplicatedly massive. The timing of Eastwood’s insinuation is unmistakable, suggesting that Jewell, the conservative Everyman, was railroaded by the government and the media in the same fashion as Trump, for possessing an uncouthness that offends “tastemaker” ideologies. The notion of political convictions as informed by image, particularly of culture and attractiveness, is a potentially brilliant one, and Eastwood’s portrait of liberal condescension isn’t entirely invalid, but he keeps scoring points at the expense of nuance.

In Brenner’s article, the F.B.I. is embarrassed to search the house of Jewell’s mother, Bobi (played here by Kathy Bates), where he lived. In the film, though, the officers storm the house in a smug and self-righteous fashion. Jewell was once actually in law enforcement and had many friendships and even a few girlfriends, while in the film he’s a pathetic wannabe eager to screw himself over for the sake of flattery. Sentiments that are attributed to Jewell in the article are transferred over to Bryant in the film, so to as to make the protagonist a more poignant fool. Ironically, Eastwood is as condescending of Jewell as the bureaucrats he despises. (The filmmaker also, weirdly, elides real-life details that would serve his demonization, such as the F.B.I. lying about there being a “hero bomber” profile.)

Even with Eastwood so explicitly grinding an ax, Richard Jewell has the visceral power of his other recent political fables. Eastwood refines a device from The 15:17 to Paris, surrounding an unknown, unpolished camera subject, in this case Hauser, with attractive famous actors so as to inherently express the profound difference between the ruling class—embodied to the public in the form of celebrities—and the eroding working class. This idea is particularly evocative when Hauser is paired with Hamm. Hauser is painfully vulnerable as Jewell, as there’s no distance between him and the character, no sense that he’s “acting.” And this impression of defenselessness, when matched against Hamm’s polish, is terrifying. Such juxtapositions fervently communicate Eastwood’s furies, however hypocritical they may be.

Eastwood continues to be a poet of American anxiety. The Atlanta bombing is boiled down to a series of chilling and uncanny details, from the public dancing to the “Macarena” before the explosion to the scattering of nails along the ground in the wake of the pipe bomb’s blast. When Scruggs pushes for the Jewell story to be published, her eyes glint with anger between the shadows of window shades—an intellectually absurd effect that emotionally sticks, embodying Eastwood’s conception of a national castigation as a noir conspiracy set in shadowy chambers populated by a mere few. Later, when Jewell is free of his ordeal, he weeps with Bryant in a café booth, a moment that Eastwood offers up as an embodiment of America stabilizing right before reaching a cultural breaking point. As stacked and calculating as Richard Jewell is, it’s a fascinating expression of the divided soul of a gifted and troubling artist. It’s a rattling expression of American bitterness.

Cast: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Kathy Bates, Nina Arianda, Ian Gomez Director: Clint Eastwood Screenwriter: Billy Ray Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 131 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Cunningham Obscures the Voice That It Wants to Celebrate

This colorful but remote-feeling documentary functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late Merce Cunningham.

2.5

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Cunningham
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Alla Kovgan’s colorful but remote-feeling documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham functions almost as though it were taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in various forms that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and as such it feels appropriate that Cunningham leaves it to the dancing to deliver his story. But the problem with that approach is that it’s likely to leave many viewers, especially those who aren’t already dance aficionados, feeling somewhat at a remove from the subject matter.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan balances loosely sketched biography with artistic recreation. The former sections are in some ways more engaging, as their often scratchy-looking archival footage provides at least some context for the sparse, ascetic, cold-water-flat milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors, have a look-at-me showiness that cannot help but feel something like a betrayal of their source’s intentions.

Ascetic in approach but sometimes playful in execution, Cunningham in many ways functioned as the tip of the spear for avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As related by the archival interviews played in the film, he didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. Rejecting the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and that he was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance in the postwar era. Quoting Cage in an old audio clip, Cunningham states with an emphatic flourish that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

As you watch the dances staged in Cunningham, you may find it hard to argue with that perspective. In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says with a barely concealed glee that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers (Cunningham joked that he looked at the tomato on the stage and wished it were an apple: “I was hungry”). Confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion is understandable. Making less sense is the dismissal noted in the documentary of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless” (a charge that’s leveled at boundary-pushing art to this day). The pieces staged here by Kovgan are indeed sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged. But just as often they’re lush and buoyant, like in “Summerspace,” in which the dancers’ fluid pivots spill over with a joy that is heightened by the bright spotted costumes and Rauschenberg backdrop.

In some of those segments, it’s hard not to feel as if Kovgan is aiming for a big splash that could introduce the rarely seen work of an oft-cited avant-garde pioneer to a wide audience, as Wim Wenders aimed to do with Pina. But unlike that 3D extravaganza, with its cunning staging and breathtaking moves, Cunningham is simply working from less accessible source material. Even when Cunningham’s work is less abstracted, such as that bouncy floating maneuver that is something of a signature, it doesn’t exactly catch one’s attention.

Time and again in the film, we hear or see Cunningham reiterate his principle that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything. Interpretation is up to the audience, he said. In this way, he isn’t far from the take-it-or-leave-it sensibility of Warhol, whose silver balloons he incorporated into one piece. But by amplifying Cunningham’s dances with sun-dappled backdrops and 3D gimmickry, Kovgan deviates from their creator’s principle in a way that almost seems to betray their original intent. By taking so much focus away from the dancers, the film’s stagings come close to obscuring the voice it’s trying to celebrate.

Director: Alla Kovgan Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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Review: The Two Popes Carefully and Dubiously Toes a Party Line

There isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Jorge Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona.

1.5

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The Two Popes
Photo: Netflix

Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quick to acknowledge that Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is a humble man of the people. The film opens with a scene that fades in on Bergoglio, recently anointed Pope Francis, as he attempts to order a plane ticket over the phone. Assuming she’s being pranked when the caller gives his name and address, the Italian operator hangs up on the generously bemused head of the Catholic Church. After centuries of pomp, the scene suggests, the world’s Catholics were unprepared for a genuine article like Francis, a corrective to an episcopal hierarchy that had drifted too far away from the people. So goes the thesis of The Two Popes, reiterated in a number of subsequent scenes: Unlike previous generations of pontiffs, Francis engages with the actual state of the world, watches soccer, listens to pop music, and speaks to economic inequality.

This brief prologue’s slight humor and documentary-style presentation give an accurate idea of where the film is headed, both thematically and formally. Throughout, Meirelles embellishes the screenplay’s often dry conversations with pseudo-improvised camerawork—unsteady framing, sudden tilts, and emphatic snap zooms—familiar from his prior films, most notably City of God and The Constant Gardner. But what seemed, in the early aughts, fresh and well-suited to gangster movies and spy thrillers, feels dated and out of place in a film that amounts to two powerful octogenarians having a series of conversations. By abruptly adjusting the lens’s focal length at almost arbitrary moments, Meirelles transparently attempts to add dynamism to a film in which powerful actors are stuck reciting staid, safe dialogue.

The hagiographic Two Popes shuffles through moments in Bergoglio’s life. Some scenes are set in Argentina in the 1970s, a tumultuous time for the country, but the film mainly focuses on the development of Bergoglio’s relationship with Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), Pope Benedict XVI, during the early 21st century. Flashing back to eight years before the prologue, the camera travels through the narrow alleys of Buenos Aires, arriving at an outdoor sermon that Bergoglio is delivering. Unattached to the air of benevolent superiority Catholic priests are expected to exude, Bergoglio tangentially speaks of his support for the San Lorenzo soccer team, at which revelation his congregation feels comfortable booing their diocese’s bishop.

Meanwhile, John Paul II has died, and as a cardinal, Bergoglio must return to Rome to help elect a new pope. There he encounters Ratzinger, at the time a conservative Bavarian cardinal who haughtily insists on speaking to Bergoglio in Latin when they meet in a Vatican bathroom, and who turns up his nose when the Argentinian begins humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to himself while washing his hands. The inclusion of an ABBA song makes for a lighter tone that The Two Popes will unevenly revive at various moments across its running time; the film will transition between scenes using out-of-place lounge jazz and ‘60s pop, then abruptly drop the levity for dialogic lessons on the state of Catholic theology.

The dogmatic Ratzinger’s election as pope later that year would signal an end to years of liberalization within the Catholic Church, a back-to-basics gesture that ultimately failed. His short reign would be dominated by controversy, as members of his inner circle were indicted for financial crimes and a long-brewing scandal over church cover-ups of sexual abuse came to the fore. Meirelles handles this historical context through aural and visual montages of archival news reports, which fill the gap as the story fast-forwards to a moment in 2012 when Pope Benedict calls Bergoglio, his unofficial rival from the church’s liberal wing, back to Rome.

Benedict aims to convince the bishop not to resign, as it would look to the outside world—as Benedict professes it does to him—that the liberal Bergoglio is renouncing his cardinalship in protest. Strolling through the lush gardens of the Vatican, or speaking in low, strained voices in its resplendent halls, the two debate their opposing theological and political philosophies. A mutual respect develops between them, with Benedict gradually opening himself to the outside world from which he has stayed aloof; one scene has Bergoglio teaching him about the Beatles, and in another the Argentine convinces the stiff German to try out the tango.

That’s all very cute, surely, but it’s also evidence that, despite courting a gritty reality effect with its documentary-inspired aesthetic, The Two Popes is carefully toeing a party line rather than exposing any hidden truths. Though it includes (rather hammy) flashbacks to Bergoglio’s morally ambiguous interactions with the Argentinian military dictatorship of the ‘70s, there isn’t anything in the bleeding-heart positions espoused by Bergoglio that complicates Pope Francis’s public persona. For his part, Ratzinger comes off as the best version of the man one could imagine, given the turmoil that marked his tenure: old-fashioned but authentic, perhaps just a bit too aged and attached to the institution to weed out its excesses.

As, in scene after scene, the heads of the world’s most powerful religious institution neatly summarize their philosophies to one another, the viewer may sense a misdirect: What happened to the corruption? Where are the meetings about how to handle the child-abuse scandals? Such issues, which presumably would have been the subject of many a Vatican City discussion, turn out to be little more than background material to the individualized and sentimentalized story of two men with differing views becoming friends. Even when they do come up, our attention is directed elsewhere. The flashbacks to Bergoglio’s spotted past begin soon after the sexual abuse scandals are first mentioned, redirecting our piqued concern with institutional sins toward the drama of an individual man’s fateful misjudgment.

The second time the pair’s conversations drift toward the simmering abuse scandal, Meirelles actually drowns out the dialogue with a high-pitched whine on the soundtrack, and for no discernable story reason. It’s as if Bergoglio’s hearing has been impaired by the explosive truth. The moment feels less like the filmmakers protecting us from a truth too awful to hear, and much more like them shielding us from one too dangerous to be heard.

Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole, Thomas D. Williams, Federico Torre, Pablo Trimarchi Director: Fernando Meirelles Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 125 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Empty Metal Grapples with the Efficacy of Activist Violence

The film is greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness.

3

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Empty Metal
Photo: Factory 25

The idea that violence can be an effective or even necessary form of activism is one of the last remaining taboos in a contemporary discourse that holds civil debate up as the highest virtue. Empty Metal, meanwhile, reaffirms independent, artist-made cinema as a natural arena for wading through these kinds of uncomfortable notions. Greater in its confrontational force than the sum of a dozen festival breakthroughs lauded for their fearlessness, and certainly more potent than Todd Phillips’s Joker, it takes on the ambitious and possibly risky task of exploring what activist violence means in the context of a modern world where ambient forms of hostility—militarized police aggression (specifically toward people of color), mass surveillance and ongoing, never-ending wars—subtly dictate our lives.

Collaborating for the first time on what constitutes for both of them a narrative feature debut, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer have fashioned a topical lightning rod with Empty Metal, though not in a manner that suggests willful provocation. Assembled on a meager budget with friends, family, and members of the filmmakers’ extended artistic circles, the film progresses with an untamed energy and disregard for convention that suggest the manifestation of creative impulses feeding, unchecked, off one another. Juggling multiple intersecting storylines with passages of visual lyricism and diegesis-breaking reminders of contemporary injustices, Empty Metal offers an anarchic collage that careens between narrative storytelling (Sweitzer’s background) and documentary and video-art instincts (Khalil’s backgrounds).

Central to the story of Empty Metal are Rose (indie noise musician Rose Mori, a.k.a. PVSSYHEAVEN), Pam (Sam Richardson), and Devon (Austin Sley Julian), a trio of disaffected electro-punk rockers gigging around Brooklyn under the moniker of Alien. But to call them protagonists undercuts the degree to which Khalil and Sweitzer frame them less as independently motivated agents than as ciphers ushered along a path over which they appear to exert little control. More instrumental to the film’s evolution are the clairvoyant, vaguely ethereal figures—a Rastafarian chef listed in the credits as King Alpha (Oba), an older indigenous woman (Irma LaGuerre), and several of their younger accomplices—who watch over the trio and ultimately size them up as eligible candidates for a criminal plot.

Rose, Pam, and Devon are to assassinate three infamous white cops who’ve gotten away with murder, then go off the grid. Neither the names of the targets nor their specific infractions are clarified, though the connections to real-life analogues are made more or less self-evident in the series of crude 3D renderings of police violence that are periodically inserted into the middle of scenes. On the eve of a domestic Alien tour, Rose is approached at the band van by a member of King Alpha’s clan, who leans into the would-be rebel to impart a telepathic message paraphrased, as with a number of the film’s longer monologues, from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Place of Dead Roads: “I will teach you to dissociate gun, arm, and eye.”

Intuitively reading between the lines, Rose promptly loses interest in the tour and recruits, with little resistance, her bandmates to the cause. This sequence of events, along with anything else having to do with the transition of these hitherto merely frustrated musicians to insurrectionary vigilantes, hardly stands up to dramatic scrutiny, due in equal parts to Mori, Richardson, and Julian’s stilted line deliveries and the insufficient time their characters are afforded in the editing to acquire anything like psychological plausibility.

Nonetheless, there’s something of a poetic logic to the characters’ transformations, an unnerving illustration of the idea that the gap between ambient frustration and radicalism is but a short cognitive leap. There’s also a sense of fatalism that hangs over the proceedings, of an inexorable historical duty that can’t or shouldn’t be resisted. In an ominous sequence of self-actualization, Rose recites the names of historical dissidents from Ulrike Meinhof to Osama bin Laden with a mix of clinical dispassion and reverence as archival footage and animated representations of their violent acts fill the screen.

By contrast, Khalil and Sweitzer stage a lighter scene around the mid-forest meeting of King Alpha, LaGuerre’s character, and a European monk (Pawel Wojtasik) previously seen only in excerpts of a de-contextualized courtroom taping. Here, it’s casually implied that the three characters—who suddenly claim to have last seen each other at either the “L.A. riots” or Wounded Knee—are merely the corporeal containers of activist spirits who weave through the centuries, cyclically reuniting to nudge willing souls toward more proactive forms of rebellion.

Taking its title from a description of drones given by Rose in voiceover, Empty Metal questions if perhaps these transhistorical agitators have met a new and unconquerable challenger in the surveillance state, armed as it is with high-tech weaponry and vast intel on its populace. Certainly, the right-wing militia shown in another chilling subplot offers no compelling resistance to this monolithic force, even as they stash up on firearms and embark on austere training. The figurehead of this self-determined group (Jon Nandor) happens to be the son of Wojtasik’s monk, and it’s a quiet dinner table scene between the two of them that stands out among all the jarring associative edits and flicker-frame embellishments as one of the film’s strongest effects. As the father dismantles his son’s second amendment convictions, he’s left unable to contemplate an adequate alternative, and it’s telling that even a sage, potentially immortal mystic seems perplexed by our current predicament.

Cast: Rose Mori, Austin Sley Julian, Sam Richardson, Oba, Irma LaGuerre, Pawel Wojtasik, Jon Nandor Director: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Screenwriter: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Beniamino Barrese’s The Disappearance of My Mother

It’s fascinating to see Benedetta Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself.

3

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The Disappearance of My Mother
Photo: Kino Lorber

Domestic ethnography typically sees a filmmaking member of a family turning the camera inward to investigate, or rewrite, a family’s history. This means that the filmmaker in question can occupy the inconvenient position of unearthing the ancient dirt on top of which the family is founded. In The Disappearance of My Mother, director Beniamino Barrese is less interested in wrestling with the maternal function in the drama of a household than in the mother’s status as his muse. The film is a love letter to the filmmaker’s mother, Benedetta Barzini, a 76-year-old former supermodel and the first Italian woman to grace the cover of American Vogue, now a feminist fashion studies lecturer in Milan. The constellation of the family is rendered useless here, as what matters to Barrese is the love affair between mother and son, forever mediated by the camera lens.

The tragedy here isn’t to be found in the regrettable actions of yore or the repressed feelings that both constitute and undermine a home, but in the unfairness of time. The film seems to say that a mother must age, a mother must die, and some of them may even want to. And it seemingly recognizes something tragic in an external world that’s obsessed with all of the things Barzini doesn’t value, despite having been a fashion industry commodity in the 1960s: beauty, youth, luxury, and cleanliness (she hardly ever showers or changes her bedsheets).

Barzini’s feminist stance appears as her most consistent motif in old interviews, in the strangely theatrical way she used to pose with garments in fashion shoots, and in her present-day statements captured in the film, both verbal and sartorial (she shows up to receive an award in her stay-at-home clothes). She is, from the beginning of her career, vocally aware that the femininity she’s paid to display is a playful one, removed from her actual self, which is itself, Barzini argues, unphotographable. She knows the existence, and persistence, of beauty stereotypes caging women to be due to the fact that men invent women through a series of prescriptions. And that they thus invent them as Jessica Rabbits, she argues at one point, wondering out loud whether it may not be best if women’s bodies disappeared altogether.

It’s fascinating to see Barzini in academic action, like an ethnographer of the patriarchy herself, bringing back news from its most glamourous yet rotten core. She lectures young college girls about the symbolic relationship between fashion, youth, and man’s fear of death, holding magazine ads in her hands as irrefutable evidence. She asks them questions like “What does ‘old age’ mean?,” “Why do imperfections bother people?,” and “What is the point of continuing to sell our bodies without any quality or talent?” These moments of pedagogical passion occur when Barzini’s presence is allowed to take over the frame precisely because the filmmaking son fades into the background. And they’re in striking contrast to Barrese’s instances of shoving the camera into his mother’s reluctant face.

That stance, though in line with some sort of undying teenage streak, reveals a misguided desire to force his mother into his cinematic paradigm. Although Barrese purposefully allows for a great degree of transparency, showing us his failed attempts to get his mother to change outfits for continuity’s sake, for instance, these sequences feel contrived when compared to those where the mother is allowed to perform in an uncontrolled fashion. When we hear him ask her, “Is there anything you want me to put in the wash?,” or “Mom, what bothers you so much about images?,” it’s impossible not to see the air of spontaneity as calculated artifice.

Many times, Barrese acts like a vulture taking something from his mother that she doesn’t want to give. Or does she? Barzini calls him a petit bourgeois for appreciating her articulations only inasmuch as they fit his filmic narrative. And she yells, “Put the camera down! Put it down!” He obeys her for a couple seconds but leaves the camera running, then grabs it back to continue interrogating her. And she lets him. Mother and son relations are often like this—full of theatrics, ambiguity, and teeming with seduction. Neither could afford losing the other’s love. And they both know it. Which forces Barrese to keep pushing the limits. He even shoots her when she’s asleep. Or, at least, when he thinks she is. It turns out that following mom is a habit from childhood. And ever since then she’s been protesting his advances. “I want to disappear, not to appear,” she says, because “the lens is the enemy.”

In a beautiful sequence toward the end of the film, after Barzini speaks about dying and the shame of belonging to this world, so sullied by white men, Barrese asks her to spin around in her courtyard, holding her dress. She says she will get dizzy. He finally listens to her and lets her stand still, spinning with his camera around her himself. She smiles, enjoying the moment. She’s happy standing still, courted in the courtyard by her child’s contemplation. Mother eventually asks her son: “Are you done playing?” He’s not, and neither is she.

Director: Beniamino Barrese Screenwriter: Beniamino Barrese Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 94 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Interview: Eddie Redmayne on The Aeronauts and Accessing Physicality

Redmayne discusses everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set.

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Eddie Redmayne
Photo: Amazon Studios

“I can’t believe you wrote your dissertation on Les Misérables,” Eddie Redmayne says in a complete non sequitur midway through our conversation. I had a feeling it might come up at some point, so I had to lead with telling him that he featured prominently in the video essay portion of my senior thesis on how Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation collapsed boundaries between stage and screen. As legend has it, Redmayne made a suggestion in post-production that led to the film’s close-up-heavy editing, a choice which sparked intense discussion around the aesthetics of the musical genre.

The episode captures something about Redmayne that sets him apart from other actors who operate in a similarly demonstrative, showy register. He’s genuinely thoughtful about the full cycle of how a performance gets created and transmitted to audiences, in everything from the rehearsal process to the editing bay. After winning an Academy Award for 2014’s The Theory of Everything and another nomination for 2015’s The Danish Girl, Redmayne took a turn toward blockbuster fare with two outings playing Newt Scamander in the Fantastic Beasts series. But now he’s back to the period dramas that made his name with The Aeronauts, an old-fashioned movie adventure that reunites him with his The Theory of Everything co-star, Felicity Jones. As scientist James Glaisher and pilot Amelia Wren, Redmayne and Jones, respectively, spends the majority of the film confined to the tight space of a gas balloon’s basket as they rise to 37,000 feet in the air in an attempt to make meteorological breakthroughs in 1860s Britain.

Redmayne’s role is a fitting lens to discuss not only The Aeronauts, but also his recent career. His craft is just as much a science as it is an art. Our conversation got into the weeds of technical details as he discussed everything from calibrating his physicality in rehearsals to cultivating his imagination on a barren set. But, first, we had to discuss Les Misérables, given the pivotal role his behind-the-scenes behavior played in my academic career.

During post-production on Les Misérables, I read that while in the editing room you encouraged Tom Hooper to hold longer on the close-up of Anne Hathaway during “I Dreamed A Dream,” setting into motion the film relying on them so heavily.

Because of the way that Les Mis was shot with live singing, you couldn’t get between different tracks because of the variation. What Tom did was make sure that you could always have the whole scene cut from one setup: a wide, a mid, [and a close-up]. There were three cameras on at the same time. He was editing the film, and the studio had put out a trailer they edited themselves that was more of the close-up. Tom and I had a discussion, and I think I mentioned that it could hold. What I find so interesting is that everyone has a specific opinion on Les Mis, whether it worked—and, of course, the close-ups are something people bring up a lot. But the live singing process dictated the way it was shot. We couldn’t shoot outside a lot because, when you shoot outside, the voice disappears. So, we had to build the barricades in a studio.

What you did with Les Misérables speaks to just how much a performance gets remade in the editing room. Are you still actively involved in that final step of the process?

What’s weird about making films is you create so much of it in a vacuum. It’s not like theater, where actors get together for months and work things out. Often you meet the person playing your mother or father two hours before [shooting]. Often you don’t know the director, meeting them a day before you start working with them. You have an idea of what the character’s arc is, and, of course, part of the joy of making films is giving over that. You put that down and hope the director observes that. But a director can often observe something different that’s more interesting! What I like to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to do, is make work and, if I’m allowed into the editing process, have a dialogue with that director. Provided you know they see what you intended, whether they use that or not is obviously their choice.

I do find that dynamic really interesting, and I’ve been lucky enough with James Marsh on The Theory of Everything, Tom Hooper, and [director] Tom Harper and [screenwriter] Jack Thorne on this. Felicity and I worked together with Jack and Tom for a couple of months beforehand working through the intricacies of the script, and Tom allowed us that bit because it’s so intimate between the two of us, almost like [working on a play] with the writer and director. He allowed us the intimacy in the process the whole way through. The reason I do it is because, as an actor, you’re never happy with what ends up in the finished product. But while you can still shift and change things, I enjoy being a part of that process.

As someone who came up through theater, where you have so much less mediation between your performance and how an audience receives it, have you found comfort in the editing process?

It was a massive adjustment because I got into acting through theater. For many years, I couldn’t get cast in TV or film because I was playing to the back of the stalls in my audition. When I did start working, it’s all been a massive learning curve.

How do you approach acting out of sequence? In both The Aeronauts and The Theory of Everything, you’re tasked with building a full and continuous character arc, but that seems tough you’re stopping and restarting.

Quite often, directors will try and keep as much in chronology as possible. A lot of the stuff we did in the basket in The Aeronauts was shot chronologically. It’s the other bits that aren’t. What you have to do is see how the director is filming it, what their process is and work out what’s best for you. For example, on The Theory of Everything, all the exteriors we were shooting in the first two days in Cambridge when all the students weren’t there. That meant that any time Stephen was outside in the entire film, we were shooting in the first two days. Which meant we had to do all different physicalities at different moments of his life in the first two days. Which meant [I] had to be able to access those different physicalities very quickly, which in itself dictated the process. I wasn’t going to spend hours getting into the zone, I have to slot into these. For me, I said, I need months to rehearse, and I need to rehearse the movement like a dance so that [I] can access it quite quickly. It’s all about the stuff you do beforehand so you’re ready when you’re working the other actor to be completely free.

You shot some of The Aeronauts outdoors in the gas balloon and then some on a soundstage against a blue screen. How did you all work to keep the authenticity consistent in your performances?

We were lucky that the first thing we shot was the real stuff. We went up in the real balloon—we had this accident, it was really terrifying—and the notion of the stakes were weirdly embedded with us from day one. Ultimately, it always feels horrendously fake when you’re in a giant basket surrounded by blue screens, but they did things like [freezing] the studio for our breath. We were shooting in the summer in the U.K., and then you had cast and crew in jackets because we were in a giant refrigerator. They also gave us freezing buckets with ice to plunge our hands into beforehand. The director really gave us everything he could to make it feel [right]. Because they had gone up in helicopters and shot the skyscapes beforehand, they had very clever technology on an iPad that lets you look at the balloon to see where the sun was and what the weather was. They spent a long time working in pre-production about how to not make it look fake, and one of the things was that it could look real, but if your eyes are totally open, the fact that there’s blinding sunlight…of course, you can look at a big, bright light without it being a stretch. It was to learn to squint a bit [to avoid] the giveaway.

Between The Aeronauts and the Fantastic Beasts series, you’ve been doing quite a bit of acting in synthetic spaces.

[laughs]

That’s not a value judgment! How do you go about using your imagination to bring the surroundings to life in your head while maintaining the same specificity as if you were there?

I try and do a load of research, so even if it’s on Fantastic Beasts, it’s talking to the animators, going and looking at drawings and set designs. Trying to do all of that early so it’s not in your imagination. The other process I tried to learn from Dan Fogler, who’s in Fantastic Beasts and very free. He’ll try lots of different things, and I watched him on the first film and thought he was brilliant. It’s a mixture of doing your research, then throwing it away and trying things.

Has it gotten easier over time? Like a muscle that has to be trained and toned?

Yeah, it definitely does. For example, with Pickett [a small plant creature his character keeps as a pet] on Fantastic Beasts, I was so concerned with talking to something that’s not there and make it feel real. I would over[act]. [Reenacts staring intently at the creature on his hand] You never normally look at people when you talk to them. You can have a conversation with Pinkett on your hand and not really look at him.

You’ve mentioned that the basket became like another character in the film because you and Felicity shared such tight quarters with it. How do you make spaces feel natural for your characters to inhabit?

That is rehearsals. That’s why we did them. What I love about this film, hopefully, is that it’s this thrilling adventure on a big scale. At the same time, it’s also an intimate little drama. That space is the size of a sofa. We had weeks working of thinking how to make things visually interesting for an audience. Each time the camera comes back to it, it needs to have transformed or changed. We rehearsed on it so we could find different ways: whether it was sitting on the floor or one of us up in the hoop, different angles, getting rid of carpets or some of the tools. They add character to this battered, bruised vessel that’s been pummeled.

Does that mean you all were really working out specific shots and angles within the rehearsal process?

When we were rehearsing the scenes over and over again, Tom would have suggestions and ideas from watching with the cinematographer. One of the things he found is that, early on, if the camera was ever outside of the balloon—even centimeters out—it doesn’t feel real. Any moments that are caught inside the balloon, apart from a few moments where drones fly and take close-ups, the cinematographer was always inside the balloon. He was moving with the movement. The camera, similarly, was like another character in the piece. Because just one centimeter outside, since we can’t suspend ourselves in mid-air, felt unreal.

Do you find it liberating to work within such tight confines like the basket? Does it force you to be more precise and conscious of your movement and blocking?

Yeah, it does. Because you’re confined, the freedom is in the minutiae. You can’t be making big, bold gestures. I think the intimacy plays to its favor in some ways.

The Aeronauts has a theme of looking up for inspiration amidst troubling times. The last few films you’ve made generally have some kind of optimistic feeling about them. Is that a conscious running thread running through your filmography?

I never relate my films to each other, but what I think is interesting is that the only way I choose work is by reacting to it. So maybe there’s a sense of that [optimism]. The reason I wanted to do The Aeronauts is because I got to that last passage where Felicity’s character is standing on top of the world, and I just thought I would love to see that. I loved the idea of working with Felicity again. I loved this old-school adventure thrill to it. I felt like you’ve seen space investigated, but I hadn’t seen the sky. Sometimes, on a cold, horrendously miserable day, there’s something ecstatic about a break through the clouds. And whether you can retrain an audience who’s so used to seeing the sky from planes to make it feel like something new, all those things were curious to me. I don’t specifically go looking for optimistic pieces, although there was a period in my career when I was playing incestuous teenagers and schizophrenic psychos, so maybe I need to go talk to a therapist about that!

I know some actors like Meryl Streep or David Oyelowo, just to name two that come to mind, say that they deliberately only put work out into the world that they think can make it a better place.

That’s really interesting. I haven’t read that, but I’m probably not that…selfless. It tends to be something I just react to. There’s a weird moment when you read a script and suddenly feel a bit sick. That’s when you transfer yourself from imagining it to imagine yourself doing it. That’s the reality of the responsibility.

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Review: Midnight Family Is an Intimate Look at Mexico’s Ambulance Crisis

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives the film its empathetic power.

3

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Midnight Family
Photo: 1091 Media

Director Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family opens with a startling statistic: In Mexico City, around 45 public ambulances serve a population of over nine million people. Picking up the pieces are private ambulances, such as the one owned and operated by the Ochoa family, whom Lorentzen follows over several nights as they pick up patients from accident sites, provide immediate medical service, and deposit them at various hospitals. Every element of this process is a negotiation, and Lorentzen captures a multitude of damning and haunting details. Following this family, Lorentzen fashions a documentary that serves as a wrenchingly intimate portrait of a country’s wide-reaching healthcare crisis.

For the Ochoas, particularly their portly paterfamilias, Fernando, and his charismatic 17-year-old son, Juan, the ambulance is firstly a business—a means of barebones survival. The Ochoa ambulance often resembles a kind of medical food truck, as it roams Mexico City looking for customers, who are, of course, individuals in pronounced danger and pain. Lorentzen vividly captures the chaos of the accident sites, including the maddening array of traffic lights and people wandering haphazardly among the twisted ruins of crushed vehicles and property. Into this chaos, Fernando, Juan, and others enter with a kind of cleansing purposefulness, though they also have to watch out for cops who are looking to shake them down for pay-offs. (The legality of private ambulances is somewhat vaguely rendered here; the Ochoas may or may not have the right paperwork, though they definitely need official license plates.)

It’s the mix of the humane and the calculating that gives Midnight Family its empathetic power. While saving lives, the Ochoas must focus on means of payment. They’re not ghouls, as we come to see that their next meal, and their ability to keep the vehicle running, depends on a night-by-night payout, which is threatened by the police as well as rival private ambulances. Since the Ochoas run a private business, patients can apparently refuse to pay them without recrimination from the government, which occurs often given the poverty of their largely uninsured clientele. Lorentzen is bracingly specific about money: One pick-up, of a teenage girl battered by her boyfriend, costs 3,800 pesos, at which her well-off mother balks.

Across Lorentzen’s documentary, viewers also learn of the equipment that the Ochoas need to pass regulations, and of the consequence that expense has on their ability to eat. In one evocative illustration of the effect of their profession on private life, we see the Ochoas at a gas station making tuna salad, which they eat on saltines. This meal occurs after an elaborate debate on whether they can afford to eat more than two tacos apiece.

Yet Lorentzen doesn’t turn the Ochoas into objects of our self-congratulatory pity. The filmmaker captures the despair as well as the adventure of such a livewire way of life, especially as the Ochoas race other ambulances. Fernando places a poignant amount of trust in young Juan, who daringly drives the ambulance, cutting off other vehicles with various improvisations of navigation. These chases are filmed by Lorentzen in a mixture of first-person and mounted-camera compositions that emphasize the limitation of a driver’s sight, establishing a sense of immediacy and danger that is far more thrilling than the standardly detached, alternating coverage of a conventional action film. In this fashion, Midnight Family sometimes brings to mind the brilliant chase sequence in James Gray’s We Own the Night.

Given the privacy of the scenes we witness in Midnight Family—moments of carnage, need, poverty, corruption, and love—the invisibility of Lorentzen’s presence comes as a mild disappointment. This project begs for an examination of how the filmmaking process informs the behavior of its subjects. This quality, or lack thereof, is especially evident when a family member of a patient is seen weeping in the front passenger seat of the Ochoa ambulance. How does she feel at being filmed at this moment of extremity? Midnight Family is a rich and textured film, but it stints on this kind of auto-critical answer.

Director: Luke Lorentzen Screenwriter: Luke Lorentzen Distributor: 1091 Media Running Time: 80 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: The Aeronauts Takes to the Skies, Without Much of a Dramatic Hook

As a suspense film, it’s so sluggishly structured that it borders on the avant-garde.

1.5

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The Aeronauts
Photo: Amazon Studios

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts is such a sluggishly structured suspense film that it borders on the avant-garde. James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), a 19th-century meteorologist, is attempting to prove that man can predict weather patterns, and he plans a hot-air balloon ride high into the Earth’s troposphere to conduct high-altitude measurements. With no available technology for breathing apparatuses or other modern safety equipment, James’s gambit is a bold one, but he hopes that by traveling so high he can use the most accurate measurements to prove his meteorological theses. Accompanying him is Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a daredevil aeronaut with experience flying balloons at extreme altitudes. They’re practically a study in contrasts. James, humorless and bookish, talks rapidly and in fussy detail, mostly holding conversations with himself and putting others in the position of needing to interject to get a word in edgewise. Amelia, meanwhile, is filled with a certain joie de vivre, literally arriving to the balloon launch doing acrobatics to liven up the assembled crowd.

This is the second time that Redmayne and Jones have starred in a film together, but familiarity has done little to deepen their stilted chemistry. James and Amelia don’t converse so much as recite their respective credentials at each other. This might have worked if The Aeronauts gave the characters specializations that the other lacked, yet each has similar strengths: James, the less experienced balloonist, nonetheless knows enough about piloting the craft to not need instruction, while Amelia understands enough about meteorology to not require James to dumb down his scientific jargon. As a result, the pair’s dynamic is devoid of inherent conflict, which might have distracted them from the monotony of their balloon’s ascent into cloud-studded skies, which Harper stages as if in real time.

Of course, sitting in a vehicle that slowly drifts upward as its two occupants engage in, at most, haughty disagreement makes for moribund drama, so Harper fills time with flashbacks to show how James and Amelia got to this point. Anyone who’s ever seen a historical fiction about a scientific pioneer will know what to expect of James’s backstory: repeated scenes of the man explaining his ideas to academic administrators with sideburns large enough to count as mating displays, all of them mirthfully wagging their turkey necks as they respond to James’s hypotheses with sayings like, “Hitting the sherry a bit early this morning, aren’t we, Glaisher?”

Meanwhile, across a series of frenzied, chaotically edited memories of trauma, Amelia relives the death of her husband, Pierre Rennes (Vincent Perez), in a ballooning accident. It’s a hysterically lopsided distribution of character motivation. We get a few shots of Amelia and Pierre tenderly embracing, but otherwise the dead man is a mere device, and all that she can say of him to James is that “his most enduring quality was a deep, true love for the beauty of the world,” which, as far as eulogies go, is about two steps above “He loved to laugh.”

George Steel’s cinematography, namely the way it captures the balloon’s ascent, is the film’s strong suit. Especially noteworthy is when James and Amelia break past the cloud layer and are left in direct sunlight that’s rendered with brilliant white light that washes out the frame even as it communicates the rapidly falling temperatures at that altitude. And that temperature drop becomes the first catalyst for actual drama when James lets slip that he didn’t pack a warm enough coat out of concerns for the balloon’s weight, setting up the last act’s belated decision to include some kind of suspense in order to give the film a dramatic hook.

Indeed, the film’s last hour, in which James and Amelia find themselves increasingly starved for oxygen as their balloon rises higher into atmosphere, is its most engaging. Here, a violently shivering James transforms into the reckless adventure, while Amelia becomes the more anxious and fearful of the two. As she urges caution in the face of falling oxygen levels, the mild-mannered scientist is suddenly overcome with delusions of grandeur and fame and does everything to keep them rising. The camera begins to blur at the edges to reflect the characters’ fading consciousness, while a series of desperate last-ditch efforts on Amelia’s part to save them both is mounted with real tension. Still, the film’s wonky, flashback-heavy structure puts so much emphasis on the by-the-numbers backstory of the characters that the actual drama of the balloon flight itself is muted, making the eventual turn toward chaos less of a narrative culmination than a last-minute recalibration of the film’s inert quality.

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Phoebe Fox, Himesh Patel, Vincent Perez, Anne Reid, Tom Courtenay, Tim McInnerny, Rebecca Front Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin Limply Aspires to the Lynchian

The film gets so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

1.5

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Knives and Skin
Photo: IFC Films

Something terrible has happened to Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley). But unlike Twin Peaks and its plastic-wrapped Laura Palmer, Knives and Skin makes it immediately clear what occurred to her: She was left bleeding and without her glasses in the wilderness by a vengeful jock, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin), because she wouldn’t have sex with him. She never makes it back. This transpires near the start of the film, and what transpires after this point is a dreamy, neon-tinted vision of a town overcome less by grief than ennui.

Throughout Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder draws heavily from the style of David Lynch, cycling through the townsfolk and their weirdest tendencies. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), insists that she can smell her daughter on Andy. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), sells underwear to Principal Markhum (Tony Fitzpatrick), cash only. The girl’s father, Dan (Tim Hopper), who’s cheating on his wife (Audrey Francis), is seen at one point emerging from between a waitress’s (Kate Arrington) legs while wearing clown makeup. And Grandma Kitzmiller (Marilyn Dodds Frank) pesters everyone for weed. Certain objects glow, and the girls’ choir practices a series of haunting pop song arrangements, its members whispering to each other one by one while the rest of the ensemble keeps singing.

Other than Lisa’s persistent, unfounded hopes that her daughter is still alive, Carolyn’s disappearance seems to intentionally leave little impression on anyone. Everyone is wrapped up in their own concerns and pursuits, struggling to hold down jobs or dealing with disinterested partners. They’re united only by their vaguely odd feelings and a sense of being trapped, as one boy (Robert T. Cunningham) does when he stands on the roof of the high school; he doesn’t intend to jump, he just wants to see the highway that leads somewhere else.

But in untethering itself from what happened to Carolyn Harper, Knives and Skin ends up unfocused, shambling from one moment of self-conscious weirdness to another. Its themes, like the constant and varied violations of consent going on throughout the town, get lost in favor of things like the talking tiger T-shirt and the hamburger meat lobbed at a vehicle in protest until the entire purpose of these surreal flourishes seems to melt away.

The film is intermittently striking with its heavily stylized lighting and wistful electronic score, but it creates little sense of place. The town where these people all live, which seems to be affecting them to such a profound degree, is so nondescript beyond a few anonymous landscape shots that it stops evoking a place they would want to leave because it doesn’t really seem like a place at all. Rather than explorations of individual oddness, Knives and Skin becomes a rather tedious mood piece with an ethereal atmosphere so remote, so lost in its affected idiosyncrasies that it stops probing any discernible human feelings.

Cast: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Haley Bolithon, Aurora Real de Asua, Grace Smith, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Tim Hopper, Audrey Francis, James Vincent Meredith, Kate Arrington, Kayla Carter, Robert T. Cunningham, Alex Moss Director: Jennifer Reeder Screenwriter: Jennifer Reeder Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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