Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they’ll call it Errol Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn’t the subject of the documentarian’s investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That’s where unambiguous truth ends.
I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it’s fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a “documentary,” Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the “based on a true story” assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It’s like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you’d think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Morris’ documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else’s, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.
Ed Howard: The thing is, truth is always at the center of Morris’ films, as you’d expect of a documentary filmmaker, but he also acknowledges that truth is a complicated thing; he’s always toying with questions of truth and fiction. Morris’ films aren’t about The Truth; they’re about our personal, private truths, as well as the lies and rationalizations we create for our actions. So fiction and lies and manipulation are also at the center of Morris’ films. Fiction is as much the spine of his work as truth. In fact, Morris has gotten a lot of flak as a documentarian for his extensive use of reenactments and reconstructions, starting with his third film, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line. I can think of few documentary filmmakers—other than the much cruder Michael Moore—who so obsessively tinker with their images, who are so engaged in presenting only exactly what they want the audience to see. As you said, Morris focuses our attention very tightly; he has a very precise, rigid control over his images, which is not inconsistent with truthfulness but certainly complicates the matter. All documentaries must deal with this issue, but they usually do so behind the scenes. Incompleteness is implicit in every film, whether it’s fiction or documentary. If we’re seeing only what Morris wants us to see, we’re not seeing everything, we’re not seeing the whole story. And he’s usually dealing with such complex issues and stories that it would be impossible to show everything anyway. I’d imagine that most documentarians grapple with (or at least acknowledge) this stuff privately, but Morris makes it the subtext, if not the subject, of his work.
The solution to this problem, for Morris, is to narrativize his documentaries, to shape and mold his raw material into a forward-moving story that will grip an audience like it’s a Hollywood thriller. I want to be clear that this is not a criticism of Morris—I don’t agree with those purists who reject his work because of its manipulation, the use of fictional constructs and stylized imagery. I want only to get to the essence of his often powerful work. And that essence must include roughly equal measures of truth and fiction, much like in the work of his idol and mentor Werner Herzog, who pushed a procrastinating Morris into making his first film, 1978’s Gates of Heaven. Morris’ approach to truth is not singular, it is multifaceted. He recognizes that we each have our own truths. So he simply lets his interviewees speak, whether what they’re saying is truth, lies, or something in between, and even if they are immediately contradicted by another interviewee with his or her own conception of the truth.
Morris seldom enters these films as a commentator. His voice is heard very sporadically throughout his oeuvre, only occasionally asking for clarification or nudging a reluctant interviewee into answering a tough question. Mostly, he allows the words of his subjects to stand alone, and he makes no attempt to untangle the contradictions and lies and rationalizations in their words. It’s up to the audience to decide what’s true, although Morris usually guides his viewers towards his own preferred avenues of interpretation—his narratives are tightly constructed to tell a certain story, to reach the conclusions that Morris wants us to reach from this material. He gives the appearance of objectivity by staying out of the film, by remaining behind the camera, unseen and mostly unheard. But the paradox of his films is that, though Morris himself remains outside the image, seemingly letting objective reality stand on its own, really he’s active in every frame of his films, always putting form to how we see and hear things. Over the course of his career, he’s become a master storyteller, which is not a trait often ascribed to documentary filmmakers. Maybe it should be used more often. It certainly applies to Morris, at least.
JB: Yes, Morris is a masterful storyteller, and a masterfully deceptive one. Deceptive because, unlike Herzog, he doesn’t construct his films in a way that suggests that he has a story to tell. Quite the opposite, Morris plays the part of a priest hearing confessions. This is an accurate description of his involvement on one hand, because Morris’ films empower his subjects to tell their own stories. But it’s misleading on the other hand, because in the silence of the editing room it’s Morris who has ultimate control over these confessions. How Morris packages these testimonials, how they are scored and how he accompanies them with reenactments or metaphorical B-roll, shapes the raw footage. The straightforward nature of Morris’ confessional style camouflages the complexity of his filmmaking.
That said, Morris is a far more complex storyteller today than he was in the early stages of his career. Gates of Heaven, about a pet cemetery in California and the people who run it and bury their dead pets there, strikes me as something of an accidental masterpiece. I don’t want to undercut Morris’ contributions, but in this case it’s the oddball subjects who bring complexity to the table, and they don’t need much help. In most instances Morris doesn’t do much more than point his camera at his characters, pull their strings and let them go. I’d wildly applaud him for coaxing such colorful conversation from his interviewees if they seemed to need require any coaxing. (The attentive camera is a powerful aphrodisiac, I think.) Morris’ biggest achievement was just finding this story and these people.
One of the most memorable encounters in the film is with Florence Rasmussen, an old woman who begins several minutes of mad rambling by talking about how she doesn’t get around very well and ends it by bragging about how well she gets around. Rasmussen’s necessity in this film is flimsy at best; supposedly she lives in the area of the cemetery. But her wacky rambling, like something out of Grey Gardens, is too delicious for Morris to ignore, and so there she is. Rasmussen is just the tip of the oddball iceberg. Compared to The Thin Blue Line or Standard Operating Procedure, where Morris needs to be meticulous with factual specifics, here he can afford to be careless, abstract. Gates of Heaven is a discovery of riches more than it’s an invention.
EH: I think that Morris emerged as a storyteller with The Thin Blue Line. His first two films, whatever their other merits, are looser, more anecdotal, and the stories they have to tell are incidental to their appeal. This is especially apparent in the first half of Gates of Heaven, when Morris spends quite some time dealing with the failure of Floyd McClure’s idea for a pet cemetery. Structurally, this section points the way forward to Morris’ later semi-narrative films, as he cuts back and forth between McClure and the investors he had working with him on his plan. As in later Morris films, they each tell their side of the story, and Morris lets them all talk, lets them contradict one another without correction. But it is, frankly, mostly boring. Before rewatching the film for this conversation, I’d vividly remembered the quirky interviews with the Harberts family and various pet owners in the latter half of the film, and had all but forgotten everything else. I’d wager that no one remembers the film because of its account of Floyd McClure’s inept business dealings. In comparison to later Morris works, the storytelling here is rough and unsatisfying, with too many gaps and no sense of context or temporal sequence. It’s obvious that Morris has the instinct to tell stories, even at this early point in his career, but he doesn’t yet have the proper subject or the aesthetic tools.
The film really finds its stride when it abandons this kind of narrative, giving in to the temptation to simply spend time with these goofy, off-kilter people. Even so, one of the things that bothers me slightly about this film is an unshakeable sense that Morris is making fun of his interview subjects, that he’s subtly mocking them and condescending to them. A lot of these people are there primarily for Morris to show off how weird they are, how funny they are. And they are funny, as well as often heart-warming and interesting, but there’s something exploitative about some of the bits included here. This is especially true of the sequence in which two old women bicker back and forth about who loved their dead pets more. I mean, why are they in this film if not for us to laugh at their bitchiness?
Morris also turns his (not entirely unjustified) mocking attitude on Phil Harberts, the older son of the family that runs the Bubbling Well cemetery. His motivational lingo, his insistence on viewing every aspect of life through the lens of business and “success,” is ripe for parody, and to some extent all Morris needs to do to make fun of him is let the guy talk. But it’s also true that the satirical undercurrents of this portrayal come to the fore in the scene where Phil sits surrounded by the trophies and prizes he won as an insurance salesman, and talks about arranging even a Valentine’s Day party for his wife and the wives of his friends as a motivational seminar with games to play and prizes to win.
The scenes of Phil with his trophies are another example of Morris’ tendency towards arranging reality to tell a story. The staging of all these interviews is very artificial: Morris is creating carefully prepared tableaux from the ephemera and props of people’s lives. He seems to sit them down and then arrange objects around them in order to convey various things about them. He’s basically controlling the context of how each person is seen. This is something that he would thankfully move away from in his later films, in which the presentation of the interviews is more straightforward and the emphasis is almost entirely on people’s words. Here, there’s a tone of kitsch that can be distracting and off-putting.
JB: Well, I agree with you about the tone. Even in the best case scenario, if Morris isn’t actively trying to make fun of these people, it’s obvious that he lets them embarrass themselves for his benefit. Then again, we do have to consider the film’s 1978 release. That’s six years before the Christopher Guest mockumentary genre made its first deep footprint with This Is Spinal Tap. (Indeed, these characters seem straight out of Best In Show, particularly the guy who works at the rendering plant who can’t possibly understand why people don’t want to talk about animal rendering during dinner.) It’s also several years before the butterfly collar—and many of the other stereotypical 1970s styles featured in this film—became a universal punchline. So I think there are some elements of this film that seem mocking now that weren’t at the time. For example, what makes Phil Harberts so hard to take seriously isn’t so much that he is excessively prideful about his trophies; it’s that he’s excessively prideful about these gaudy, shield-shaped 1970s trophies, which look so cheap and tacky now and yet were standard issue at the time. Likewise, I doubt that audiences in 1978 laughed at the sight of that huge red Batphone that’s within Phil’s reach as he sits by the pool, but it sure is a funny prop now. After the Guest films, we’re conditioned to look for these juicy comedy accoutrements that at the time were just modern accessories. To a large degree, when we laugh at Gates of Heaven today, we’re laughing at the 70s, and Morris can’t be held responsible for that. (On this note, one of my favorite parts of the film is Danny Harberts’ earnest delight for his “powerful” 100-watt speakers. Funny now. Then, not so much.)
So I wonder if the setting of these interviews is as “artificial” as I think you’re suggesting. Certainly, Morris would want to interview his subjects in places that would evoke their spirit or character, and thus I don’t think interviewing Phil Harberts in his wood-paneled office, with his picture of W. Clement Stone prominently displayed, is any more artificial than interviewing the president in the Oval Office. While I appreciate the simple staging and specific focus of interviews in Morris’ later films—performed using the “Interrotron,” which I’m sure we will discuss later—I also find that I miss the colorful tableaux of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. I agree with you that the opening chapter of Gates is tedious, but it’s worth experiencing for the poignant moment when Floyd McClure says of losing his pet cemetery, “I was not only broke but brokenhearted,” and Morris cuts to a shot of a lonely looking McClure sitting in his wheelchair beneath a large tree. Likewise, I love the shots of Danny Harberts in his “House on the Hill,” playing his guitar, showing off his stereo equipment or reclining in his hammock. Images like these bring a richness and sense of place to Gates of Heaven that some of Morris’ later pictures are without.
EH: I don’t want to imply that I dislike Gates of Heaven, because I really don’t. It’s a film with much to admire, and in some ways Morris’ mocking tone is softened by his compassion and sympathy for his interviewees. Not so much Phil Harberts or the oblivious rendering plant guy, both of whom get the worst of it here, but it’s obvious that Morris has warm feelings for the “brokenhearted” McClure and for Danny Harberts. The latter comes across as so sad and isolated in his little house on the top of the hill, having returned from college with his own broken heart after the end of a long relationship. He’s in a listless mood, letting his dreams and musical ambitions slowly slip away into the past. He’s a compelling young man, soft-spoken and gentle, a man whose once great ambitions and optimism have given way to a reserved, modest quietude, settling for something other than the life he’d really wanted. The shot of him standing on the hill above the cemetery, playing a scorching guitar solo through an amp that sends his riffs reverberating through the valley, is surreal and absurd and yet also surprisingly poignant. The moments spent with him are some of my favorites in the film, and with him at least I don’t really get the sense that Morris is mocking him.
The same thing applies to many of the film’s pet owners, who can come across as silly, easy targets for mockery, and yet at the same time their devotion to their pets shines through. The same guy who has that funny little moment where he completes his wife’s sentence with the one croaked word “neutered,” later delivers one of the film’s most moving explanations for why pets should not be viewed as material possessions, why they should be treated with “reverence” rather than discarded like a food wrapper.
This is the kind of stuff I find most interesting in the film: not the mockery of simple people but the way the subject of pet cemeteries brings up all these issues about life and death. The film’s second half, about the Bubbling Well cemetery, really delves into the love and affection of pet owners toward their animals, their desire to know that their pet has not just been callously disposed of, and the thoughts about mortality and the afterlife that are raised by continually dealing with death and loss in this way. The Harberts patriarch Cal even proposes a new religion of his own, incorporated at a chapel on the cemetery’s premises, a religion founded on the belief that any compassionate God or supreme being would care equally for humans and all other animals. I think Morris is at his best when he engages with these issues in a sympathetic way rather than simply poking fun at his hapless interviewees.
JB: Hapless might also describe the subjects of Vernon, Florida. Of course, had Morris been able to follow his original vision, the word we’d use to describe the characters of this second feature effort would be limbless. Vernon, Florida was originally planned to be called Nub City, so named because the town’s inhabitants were known to lop off their own limbs in order to collect insurance money. Death threats made against Morris caused the director to abandon the back-bayou amputation storyline and settle for a modest nonlinear tale of backwoods buffoonery. In my mind the characters of Vernon, Florida are as colorful as those of Gates of Heaven, but somehow they’re also more believable, and thus Morris’ film seems less mocking, even in its most extreme scene when a senile man shows off a turtle and insists it’s a gopher.
If the unspoken message from Morris in Gates is often, “Get a load of this…,” here I imagine the director saying over and over again, “Fascinating!” Vernon, Florida includes a priest who sermonizes about his “therefore experience,” a worm farmer who hasn’t read any books on worm farming but knows the books are all wrong, a woman with a jarful of sand that she swears gets fuller each year and a camouflage-wearing turkey hunter, Henry Shipes. The latter subject is my favorite character, sitting outside his trailer home, where turkey claws and beards are mounted on the wall, breathlessly reliving his favorite turkey hunts.
One could read Morris as condescending in this case, and with good reason—most Hollywood features have a patronizing attitude when it comes to the South—but I detect genuine admiration. Shipes is absolutely content with his life, as underlined in the film’s final scene, which features Shipes out on the water in a small motor boat, counting dozens of buzzards in a tree and listening to the flapping sounds of their wings. “It gives me that turkey feeling,” Shipes says of the flapping. “Mmmmm-mmmmmm! I wish there were as many turkeys as there are buzzards.” That’s it. That’s the man’s one wish. Watching the scene I couldn’t help but think of the numerous international polls that suggest that those with the least material wealth often live the happiest lives. In that respect, at least, the subjects of Vernon, Florida are almost idealized.
EH: The way that Morris presents his subjects in this film is certainly complicated. There’s a good dose of the same kind of subtle mockery that ran through Gates, but also more of the humanist perspective. To me, it’s a film about the essential narrowness of our individual existences, the way we each tend to lock into a very circumscribed area and then revisit the same experiences over and over again throughout our lives. Henry the turkey hunter is happy, yes, but it’s hard to miss the basic similarity of his turkey hunting stories, which all end with him pointing to one of a handful of identical “eleven inch beards” hung on his wall. Unspoken underneath all this is the question of why we do what we do, why the things that interest us interest us so much. These people talk and talk—about turkeys, about law enforcement, about trapping possums and turtles, about the sand at a vacation spot—but they’re seldom able to really communicate why they find these things so interesting, why they’re so eager to share their experiences. They probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it, not in a way that could come across to a non-believer.
What’s complicated about Morris’ presentation of these quirky people is that he is sympathetic to them while simultaneously having a little fun at their expense, mocking their tendency to repeat themselves, to retell the same stories. It’s hard not to laugh when Shipes begins telling one of his hunting stories for the nth time (“So then he did a double gobble…”) and yet at the same time it’s also hard not to recognize qualities in these people that exist in everyone—their obsessions are peculiar but their engagement with their lives and the things that interest them are no different from anyone else, anyone with more “normal” obsessions like movies or music or whatever else. It’s a good question: why do we laugh, if only a little, at Henry Shipes and not at someone who obsessively watches and talks about movies all the time? What’s refreshing to me about this film is that Morris could’ve easily just been patronizing and condescending (not that he isn’t, at times) but instead he digs for something deeper, something universal.
Then again, there’s a scene like the one you mention with the preacher, which is hilarious, but unquestionably only there so Morris can make fun of this yokel who thinks he’s being profound by verbally footnoting Webster’s Dictionary. I mean, this guy just rambles on and on about the meaning of an utterly innocuous word, talking about how he went to look up the word “conjunction” and so on. Finally he makes some lame attempt to wring a spiritual message from all his wordplay. Morris is obviously mocking him, taking a superior perspective, letting the condescension that occasionally shows up in his other interviews really take over. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed, but I didn’t feel good about it. Morris’ position with respect to the other interviewees was much less mocking, more like he was simply getting a kick out of their eccentricity and enjoying their personalities. Here, it very much felt like the educated elite enjoying the bumbling pretensions of a backwoods preacher. At times like this, I feel like Morris is very conscious of his audience, very knowing about their prejudices and the way they’re likely to react to something like this. But rather than challenge the prejudices of his audience, he caters to them.
JB: It’s interesting that you phrase it that way, because I wasn’t sure what my reaction is supposed to be with Vernon, Florida. Watching Gates of Heaven, laughter is unavoidable. I’ve only seen the movie twice from start to finish, but I’ve watched that guy interrupt his wife to say “neutered” at least a dozen times. I can’t get enough of it. Condescending or not, Gates is frequently hilarious. That said, I didn’t find a lot to laugh at in Vernon, and it wasn’t because I was turned off, as if sensing that Morris was taking unfair advantage of his subjects. The scene with the preacher, for example, merely caused me to furrow my brow, trying to figure out what on earth he was talking about. I think you’re correct that Morris assumes the audience for his film will be more enlightened than the bunch featured on screen, but Vernon, Florida doesn’t set up these people for ridicule the way Sacha Baron Cohen makes laugh targets out of Southerners in Borat. I think it’s entirely possible that the subjects of Vernon, Florida could see the finished film and take pride in what’s there—up until they hear an audience’s laughter, that is. So I’m wondering: If we were to suggest that Vernon, Florida is exploitative or condescending, might that say more about us than the movie? After all, as you suggested, we all have our quirks and obsessions. Might this be as faithful a reflection of truth as, say, the reverential Man on Wire? Should these people be out of bounds because of their peculiarity? Doesn’t that only further the pretentiousness that makes us laugh in the first place?
EH: It’s definitely a tricky subject, as I tried to hint at above. I mean, what really makes these people targets of ridicule in these two movies? Is it anything Morris does, or is it just that we’re bringing our own stereotypical beliefs and prejudices to the film? Is Morris banking on our prejudices to make his movies work? I really can’t say for sure. I just know that, although I see the humor that Morris is going for in these films—and I’d be lying if I denied laughing—I’m uncomfortable with the suspicion that Morris is exploiting our tendency to laugh at people we see as less sophisticated than us, whether rightly or wrongly.
This all reminds me of a discussion about Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, a film that deals with a lot of the same issues that are present in Morris’ work. That film is about the work of the photographer Shelby Lee Adams, who photographs the poorest, most outrageous people he can find in rural Appalachia and then displays the photos in high-profile art galleries. Needless to say, the debate about whether he’s “documenting” or “exploiting” his subjects is more or less endless, even though the rural folks themselves, with very few exceptions, love the photos. My own feeling is that a photo (or a film) is dependent on its context for a large part of its meaning. In my own review of Baichwal’s film, I posed the question of “what matters more: what the artist thinks he’s doing, or what the audience viewing the art think it’s doing. And if it’s the latter, which audience?” I think this conundrum applies equally well to Morris. Should we blame him just because people in certain audiences find humor in his portrayals of these people? Or do we have to get into the inevitably knotty question of whether or not he intended to make fun of his subjects?
JB: This is a conundrum that applies to various forms of reportage, actually. In print, for example, there tends to be disagreement among writers about how to quote someone who butchers the English language. The hard journalistic rule is unmistakable: what the source says is what the source says; so that’s the quote, verbatim. But there are those who feel that there’s nothing wrong with cleaning up something like, “He don’t like you,” so that it’s “He doesn’t like you.” The argument goes that if you don’t make that change, the quote becomes about the subject’s poor grammar rather than what the subject is discussing. Then again, if the subject of the story is the person with poor grammar, then that’s part of the story, just like the Vernon character’s insistence that his pet turtle is a gopher is part of his story.
All of which leads me here: In my mind, Morris’ only journalistic responsibility, presuming he has one (Herzog might disagree), is to capture his subjects accurately according to his encounters with them, because intent is an even trickier thing than either of us has suggested thus far. When Morris began Vernon, Florida, for example, his intent was to expose Nub City. By the time filming ended, his intent was something else, and it might have included wanting to exalt the subjects of his film, or he might have meant to humiliate them, or something else in between—we could argue about that for days. But before any of that, his intent, almost certainly, was to have his film be a success.
Morris wouldn’t have expected to make waves at the box office, but I think it’s safe to assume that he hoped his film would be well-regarded and allow him to receive financing to make another film. Only filmmakers with deep pockets can avoid thinking this way. And so even though Pauline Kael wasn’t thinking about a small documentary like Vernon, Florida when she made the following argument, I can’t help but quote this passage from her famous 1969 article on cinema trash: “If you could see the ’artist’s intentions’ you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose. This is, indeed, almost a defining characteristic of the hack director, as distinguished from an artist.” Applied to this discussion: even if Morris’ first intent might be to glorify his oddball subjects, if he also takes advantage of their eccentricities in a way that exploits their weaknesses, that’s not necessarily a crime, nor is it necessarily dishonest.
EH: It’s funny you should bring up that Kael quote at this point, because a “relentless march … to fulfill its obvious purpose” could serve as a fairly accurate description of Morris’ next film, The Thin Blue Line. If Morris’ intentions are sometimes fuzzy and uncertain in his first two films, there’s absolutely no doubt about what he’s after in his third film. It’s with this film that Morris abandons the anecdotal structure of his earlier documentaries and commits himself to narrative. Of course, this is only natural considering his subject. As with the aborted origin of Vernon, Florida in a story about amputation and insurance fraud, The Thin Blue Line was originally supposed to be a documentary about the psychologist James Grigson, nicknamed “Dr. Death” because he often testified to get the death penalty for convicted murderers. Instead, Morris wound up seizing on one of the men Grigson helped send to death row: Randall Adams, a laidback drifter who was serving a life sentence (commuted from death) for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert Wood. Morris instinctively grasped that something was off about this case, and he pursued the evidence with the doggedness of a defense attorney trying to clear his client. And like a good lawyer, Morris structures his film to present his evidence in the most dramatic, effective manner possible.
The Thin Blue Line is a huge leap forward for Morris in terms of his craft. As good as his first two films are in many ways, I’d never call them tight or particularly well-constructed. They’re rough and loose and rambling (which is of course part of their charm), while The Thin Blue Line is a perfectly calibrated machine. The film moves with a confident forward momentum, driven by the pulsating, unforgettable score of Philip Glass, which from its first notes lends a sinister, melancholy undercurrent to the film. The film’s opening minutes economically establish the mood with a series of shots of the Dallas skyline at night, dark and foreboding, with Morris selecting buildings as though highlighting details in a painting, before finally showing the full shot. This very cinematic mood-setting establishes immediately that this is a new Morris. Then he leaps directly into Adams’ story, told through the Rashomon-like multiple perspectives and shifting timelines that would become Morris’ most distinctive stamp as a filmmaker. He interviews Adams along with the police officers, witnesses, judges and lawyers involved with the case, and most notably the creepy David Harris, the star witness against Adams and also the most obvious suspect in the killing.
From this collage of stories and voices, the full picture slowly begins to emerge. Morris proves himself a born storyteller here; he probably would’ve been a great trial lawyer, too. He methodically arranges the evidence, allows the story to take shape over time so that soon the conclusion is inescapable: David Harris, not Randall Adams, murdered that policeman, and the conviction of Adams was a combination of police incompetence, opportunistic “witnesses” and a willful refusal to see the truth. Along the way, he dismantles the case against Adams from top to bottom, discrediting witnesses, casting doubt on various testimonies, and especially turning the spotlight on Harris, who first pointed the police onto Adams’ trail. Kael’s quote would indicate that the film’s single-minded dedication to its purpose should be a problem, a sign of a “hack” at work, and yet this commitment to its message is actually the film’s greatest strength. It’s a gripping, powerful story, enhanced by Morris’ feel for drama and his visualization of the key moments through the use of reenactments, the controversial technique that would become one of his signature visual strategies from this point on. This is the film that, for better or worse, solidified the Errol Morris aesthetic that runs through all his subsequent work.
JB: Indeed, this is the film in which Morris’ signature style began to take shape. And while I agree with you that Morris demonstrates a single-minded commitment to his intent in The Thin Blue Line, I doubt that Kael would disparage him for it. The hack quote, I think, was made in reference to makers of fiction films, which almost by rule cannot be more than what their creators bring to the table. Documentary filmmaking works differently. Rather than creating a story from nothing, the challenge is to carve a story from a much larger whole; it’s like excavating a fossil. The end result needn’t be as refined as The Thin Blue Line, of course; Morris’ earlier works prove that. Still, to be able to chip away at such a large and complex subject until a striking, free-standing story remains suggests a creative, imaginative and visionary mind, not a lazy one. Not to mention that Morris does almost everything in his power to prevent The Thin Blue Line from being a “relentless march” toward an “obvious purpose,” which is where those reenactments come in.
For years now I have read suggestions like yours, that Morris’ now familiar dramatic technique stirred controversy when The Thin Blue Line was released. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Is it simply because Morris blended fiction and nonfiction? Was that technique really that radical in 1988? If that’s all it was, I don’t get it, because unlike Herzog films like Land of Silence and Darkness or Bells From the Deep, which blend truth and fiction in ways that even the most attentive viewer would struggle to differentiate, there’s no mistaking which elements of Morris’ film are fabricated for dramatic effect. They’d be the ones usually unfolding in slow-motion, the ones usually scored by ominous music, the ones usually featuring faceless characters and usually being repeated about five times over. In short, the dramatic recreations would be almost any moment in which the camera is pointed at something other than the person being interviewed.
Ethically, I see no reason, none, to take issue with Morris’ reenactments. Dramatically speaking, however, his techniques are hit-and-miss, both in this case and in subsequent films. Sticking with The Thin Blue Line for the moment, Morris’ use of dramatic reenactments allows the audience to form an essential geographical understanding of the crime scene while also infusing an otherwise inert film with some much-needed motion. But all too often Morris overdoes it. For each dramatic flourish that instantly and effortlessly evokes the intended mood, like the shot of an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts that portrays Adams’ angst in the interrogation room, there’s another flourish that seems like unnecessary filler. A prime example of the latter would be the multi-shot sequence charting the flight of a milkshake as it’s tossed from the window of a police car and eventually explodes on the pavement below. In instances such as that one, Morris’ minimalist streak, exemplified by his talking-head interviews, loses out to what I’ve always assumed is ego; a need to call attention to the filmmaking itself.
EH: Believe it or not, Morris’ film really did stir up some heat upon its release that it certainly wouldn’t now. It was even excluded from contention in the Academy Awards’ documentary category, partly because of its use of reenactments. It’s easy to overlook just how unique and stylized this film must have seemed at the time, before crime-scene reenactments became de rigeur on countless TV shows—a trend that Morris himself probably helped kickstart. I’m with you, though, that I see no reason for the fuss; the “fictional” elements of Morris’ films are pretty much no-nonsense visualizations, meant to illustrate a point (either literally or symbolically) rather than to obscure or twist facts. As evidenced by our last conversation, I’ve never had the problems you do with Herzog’s quest for “ecstatic truth,” but in terms of documentary ethics, what Morris does is far less problematic.
As for the aesthetic merits of Morris’ non-documentary inserts, I have my own reservations about many such intrusions, but none worth mentioning in this film, which I still consider one of Morris’ masterpieces. His visual flourishes here serve to either intensify the atmosphere or elucidate important points. Sometimes they do both, like the low-angle shot of the police car with the officer’s dead body lying next to it in the fog: a gorgeous and haunting image that recurs several times. Morris uses repetition brilliantly, not just in the pulsations of Glass’ score, but also in the rhythmic editing patterns that return to the same images, the same moments, over and over again, each time layering in new information or looking at familiar events from a different perspective. The actual murder and its aftermath is replayed multiple times, each time with details subtly changed, the “facts” rearranged to coincide with each witness’s testimony. This underscores Morris’ essential point that the facts in this case are murky and contradictory at best, and that the case against Adams was a hodge-podge of mutually exclusive variations on the same event. I even appreciated the slightly ironic grandeur of the milkshake shot, which, coupled with the inclusion of a diagram of the crime scene, helps establish that the murdered policeman’s partner was not standing outside the car, as she was supposed to be (and as she testified she was), but was still inside the car drinking a milkshake.
Even Morris’ penchant towards mockery is used in the service of a good cause here, as he reserves his harshest bile for some of the key witnesses against Adams, and especially Emily Miller, who by all appearances fabricated her testimony entirely, partly out of a desire to help her daughter with a pending criminal trial, and partly because she fancied herself an amateur detective. Morris intercuts her interview with excerpts from an old mystery movie, where a dashing detective is aided by a curious and quick-witted female assistant—it’s obvious that this is how Miller views herself, and Morris’ inclusion of this footage instantly deflates her, makes her seem ridiculous and morally bankrupt.
More to the point, this film just holds together so well. I’d seen it several times before revisiting it for this conversation, and even knowing it as well as I do, I found myself caught up once again in its rhythms, driven along by its masterful use of suspense and narrative ellipses: it’s a “wrong man” thriller that would’ve made Hitchcock proud. Seven years elapsed between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line, and though the continuities are obvious, it’s equally obvious that, visually and in terms of filmmaking craft, Morris matured a great deal in the interim.
JB: I agree. I think he matured, and I suspect he left this experience a much more confident filmmaker. Morris’ control of the story in The Thin Blue Line is unfailingly impressive. As you noted, he dangles numerous scenarios in front of us, making each one at least momentarily plausible. He withholds certain nuggets of information just long enough for us to see how the case against Adams was built—strung together by biased or otherwise closed-minded people with selective vision.
Additionally, this is the film that exposes the true excellence of Morris’ interviewing talents. In terms of practice, he wouldn’t use the Interrotron until Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, but already you can see how relaxed and forthcoming people are when talking to Morris. Whether it’s Adams outlining his innocence, or Harris talking around the truth, or a crooked cop discrediting Adams, or Miller bragging about her sleuthing skills, each and every person interviewed in this film speaks as if he/she is the one in control and the one in the right. None of them, save Harris occasionally, is ever on the defensive. All of them speak confidently, as if Morris is their most trusted ally. Obviously, it took a lot of effort on the part of Morris to gain this level of comfort and trust with his interviewees, particularly Harris, who doesn’t provide his kinda-sorta confession until late in the game, and only off-camera. These people didn’t open up to Morris as quickly and easily as a celebrity opens up to Barbara Walters, but the result here is much more real, more poignant.
Speaking of poignancy: I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause here to point out Morris’ talent for closing out his films with an emotionally powerful image. Gates of Heaven concludes with surprisingly moving shots of plastic animals; reminders of beloved pets now gone. Vernon, Florida ends with the aforementioned scene of Henry Shipes, drifting on the open water in the twilight, thinking about his favorite subject: turkey hunting. In the case of The Thin Blue Line, the actual closing shot isn’t the one that stirs the emotions; instead, it’s the shot that comes a few minutes earlier, when the mystery ceases to be a mystery. David Harris is reflecting on his childhood, discussing the brother who died too young and the father he felt ignored him, and right before our eyes he has an epiphany. Harris says that perhaps his criminal exploits were an attempt to get back at his father. However, he concludes, “I wasn’t doin’ nuthin but hurting myself.” It’s then that Harris, a triumphant gleam in his eyes, proud to have experienced this awakening, reaches up and scratches his head, thereby revealing for the first time his shackled wrists. Given that Harris does his interviews in an orange jumpsuit, we never doubt that he’s in jail, but by concealing Harris’ wrists, Morris manages to leave his guilt in doubt. After we’ve heard the story, after we’ve seen all the evidence, only then does Morris provide us with the catharsis of confirming Harris’ imprisonment. Remarkably, even though Harris is actually in prison for a different crime, that moment provides a more satisfactory confession than the more specific one that Morris tacks on to the end, almost as an addendum. That’s a compliment.
EH: It’s true that Morris is a wonderful interviewer, able to get his subjects to open up to him with disarming ease. It’s rare that one of his subjects seems reticent, even when they have good reason to clam up. (Robert McNamara in The Fog of War is a notable exception, but even he says so much more than one would expect.) I’m sure we’ll get into the Interrotron more in regard to Morris’ later films, but at this point I think it’s worth pointing out that his development of that device—which uses projection technology to get interview subjects to look directly into the camera when being interviewed—was an attempt to improve upon methods he was already using. In all his films, starting with his first, he would place his face as close as possible to the camera so that when those in front of the camera looked at him, they would appear to be looking directly at the camera. The Interrotron allowed Morris to get this effect more easily and more convincingly, but it wasn’t necessarily a drastic change in his approach. What Morris wants, in all his films, is to foster a direct connection between the audience and the people onscreen, to create the illusion of the eye contact that one would have in a true face-to-face conversation. Perhaps it’s also true that Morris’ methods destabilize his subjects a bit, throwing off their expectations about conventional interviews and encouraging them to let out more than they otherwise would have.
In any event, Morris’ next film, A Brief History of Time, didn’t require the investigatory digging of The Thin Blue Line, but it does pose its own unique set of problems in terms of massaging its interviews into a coherent and satisfying whole. Based on the book of the same name by famed physicist Stephen Hawking, this film has the daunting task of condensing and explicating Hawking’s complex philosophical and scientific ideas for a popular audience. There’s also the challenge of working in a visual medium and being confronted with a subject that is essentially abstract, not only non-visual but very nearly impossible to visualize. The concepts being dealt with here are convoluted “what if” scenarios about the underpinnings of the universe, its creation and eventual destruction. It’s a specialized field, ordinarily inaccessible to all but the most advanced physicists, and it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around the abstract concepts being bandied back and forth at this level.
Of course, if anyone could find a way to visualize Hawking’s developing theories about the flow of time and the end of the universe, it’s Morris. He simply and elegantly finds the proper images to accompany some of Hawking’s more out-there theories—like the falling teacup that shatters, reassembles itself, and then shatters again, reflecting Hawking’s changing ideas about the flow of time during the eventual collapse of the universe. Morris treats the end of the universe kind of like the crime scene in The Thin Blue Line, returning several times to this image, re-imagining and modifying the scenario as Hawking rethinks his theory. Hawking’s ideas are still a challenge—the guy barely seems to be thinking on a human level most of the time—but Morris’ film makes abstract physics at least accessible, and often even entertaining. He accentuates the fun in these mind-bending theoretical gymnastics, the spirit of playing a game, solving a grand puzzle. There’s a refreshing lightheartedness in this film, and in Hawking; in response to Einstein’s famous quote about God and chance, Hawking quips, “not only does God play dice, he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”
JB: It’s funny that you mention the dice quote, because it marks one of the times Morris drifts into overproduction, in my opinion. The image of God throwing dice is one that’s best imagined and doesn’t require any kind of visual accompaniment to understand. But that doesn’t stop Morris from showing a pair of dice spinning against a backdrop of stars. It’s a rather absurd image in the first place, and Morris, as he often does, holds the image longer than necessary. This doesn’t taint the film in any significant way, but it is a representative gaffe in a film in which Morris seems a little uncomfortable with his material, as if intimidated by the inherent challenges. I agree with you that A Brief History of Time does a remarkable job of making tangible some mostly intangible concepts: black holes, the creation of the universe, quantum physics, etc. However, Morris’ camera never finds anything that’s more captivating than the sight of Hawking in his wheelchair, and as a result he overcompensates for Hawking’s inertness with his directorial flourishes. I didn’t need to see the dice, for example, nor did I need to see a teacup fall and shatter on the floor. Arguably, those metaphors are better when conjured against the projector screens of our imaginations anyway. Regardless, here they’re unnecessary filler—padding.
This is a rare instance in Morris’ career in which I find the concepts being discussed more interesting in principle than in realization. It’s an entertaining enough film, and it allows me to feel like I understand black holes at least somewhat, which is an impressive achievement. But when the film ends with an image of Hawking’s wheelchair, framed from behind in front of a sea of stars, looking as if he’s ready to blast off into the solar system to meet up with the Winnebago from Spaceballs, I don’t think I’m supposed to snicker. One way or another, despite the complexity of the subject matter and the fascination of Hawking, A Brief History of Time doesn’t reverberate like Morris’ best films. Or am I alone on this one?
EH: I wouldn’t call it one of his better films, no. It’s entertaining and I enjoy the way that Morris weaves together Hawking’s biography (mostly narrated by various relatives and acquaintances) with the discussion of his theories. It was also illuminating in the sense that it drew some surprising but intuitive connections between deep science, metaphysics and theology: at times, Hawking comes across as much like a philosopher as a scientist. There’s also the typical Morris theme of people who are really super-excited about some very esoteric stuff. I loved the montage where a bunch of scientists each try to explain what it would be like to fall into a black hole, and you can see them getting all geekily giddy like they’re talking about a really cool episode of Star Trek or something. Morris would really delve deeper into this with his next film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which is all about that kind of intellectual excitement.
That said, while I admire A Brief History of Time, its aesthetic ambitions do seem fairly modest in comparison to some of Morris’ other work. This could be an especially good PBS documentary, but as a Morris film it doesn’t have the thematic depth and sense of purpose that characterizes his best work, like The Thin Blue Line or Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. Maybe because of that, I find that I liked the film while I was watching it but don’t actually have that much to say about it. It’s a fun film, though, and some of Morris’ goofier choices—like the too-literal use of those red dice or the bizarre image of a chicken floating in space that opens the film—make sense in that context.
JB: Certainly A Brief History of Time feels like Morris Lite when compared against Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. That film, released in 1997, feels like the love child of Morris’ eccentric and abstract early works (Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida) and his intricate and data-rich masterwork, The Thin Blue Line. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a film that uses as subjects a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a naked mole rat enthusiast and a robot maker. On paper, it would seem like it must be a disjointed film, or at least an episodic one, but far from it. Instead, it’s a symphony, marrying these disparate characters by their passion, craftsmanship, simple eloquence and, yeah, esotericism. Morris, waving his maestro baton, switches between his subjects so gracefully that sometimes they appear to be finishing one another’s sentences. It’s an incredible achievement, perhaps even the most impressive of Morris’ storied career.
But, more than any artful technique, what stands out is Morris’ reverence for his subjects. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is anything but a freak show, even though that’s precisely what I thought I was going to see the first time I watched it. Yes, the four men featured here have unusual passions, and as a result they’re a little unusual themselves. (I mean, you have to be wired a little differently to want to get into a cage with lions or to spend five decades of your life shaping topiaries, right?) Two of the subjects are a little peculiar at first glance: Ray Mendez, the naked mole rat specialist with the butterfly bowtie, and Rodney Brooks, the robot guy with the unbreakable smile and the super-charged twinkle in his eyes. But as I suggested in relation to The Thin Blue Line, here’s a case in which each of the subjects being interviewed seems to feel empowered, proud, respected and respectable. Yes, each of them has a sense of humor about their work—they aren’t oblivious to the abnormality of their vocations—but at no point are they desperate to justify their zeal. Each man speaks about his cherished line of work like Martin Scorsese talks about films, and so even if we wrinkle our noses at their interests, we’re unavoidably drawn to their passion.
A key distinction to make is that Fast, Cheap & Out of Control isn’t about lion taming, topiary gardening, naked mole rat behavior and robot construction, though each subject gets discussed at length; it’s about the people who dedicate their lives to these things. If you ever wanted to make the case that Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are more compassionate for their subjects than demeaning, this would be Exhibit A. Morris is genuinely fascinated here, and I get the feeling he thinks we should be fascinated, too.
EH: Yes, if there’s anything Morris has done that inclines me to give him the benefit of the doubt about the “freak show” elements in his first two films, this film is it. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has roughly the same idea as his first films—an assortment of interviews with quirky individuals—but the execution couldn’t be more different. Your comparison to a symphony is appropriate, since music provides the driving rhythm for the film; everything moves and breathes in time with the Philip Glass-inspired circus music of Caleb Sampson. It’s also notable that Morris all but discards the objective pose he takes in his earlier work. The film is a visceral, frenetic act of pastiche, a blending of disparate stories into a wild pop art collage in which the excitement of his protagonists (who often literally pop their eyes wide, like cartoon characters, when talking about their unusual pursuits) is translated into Morris’ own enthusiasm, expressed in the propulsive speed of the editing and the sped-up photography. Morris blends the stories of his four subjects together with clips from an old Clyde Beatty pulp adventure film, cartoons, stock footage, and comic panel enlargements with the Ben-Day Dots clearly visible.
The impression is not of Morris mocking his subjects or standing aloof from them, but of actively engaging with them, sharing in their excitement and their intellectual engagement with the things that interest them. Part of it is the milieu: one senses that Morris is much more comfortable as an anthropologist of fringe science and unique achievements than he is when chronicling rural living or the ways in which “ordinary” folks spend their time. He’s never condescending here, never engaging in mockery. What he’s doing is tracing the connections between these people’s disparate interests, weaving them together into a coherent story, teasing out the themes and concepts running through all four stories: humanity’s relationship to the natural world, the attempts to tame or control or reshape nature, to imitate it, to replace it, to evolve and change. It’s a film about humanity’s experiments with its own physical and mental limits, our attempts to better understand ourselves, our environment, our fellow species on this earth, and the ways in which everything in the world or the universe might fit together. In this respect it’s a natural extension of the themes introduced by Hawking in A Brief History of Time.
At least two of Morris’ subjects (naked mole rat expert Ray Mendez and robot engineer Rodney Brooks) seem very conscious of this theme: they spend a lot of time thinking about the intellectual implications of their work, and to some extent this is what interests them as well as Morris. Mendez is fascinated by the idea that naked mole rats are a mammal species whose social structures and ways of life mimic those of supposedly much lower forms like insects, a phenomenon that was once thought to be impossible. For Mendez, the discovery of the mole rat confirms what he had always suspected: that humans are more like insects, more like lower creatures, than we like to admit or think about. The fact that a mammal species, in the right conditions, will form a society and adaptive biology that makes them live more or less like insects confirms that the hierarchies of animal life are more mutable and tangled than is otherwise thought.
By the same token, one suspects that Brooks is eccentric even among other robot designers, in that he is not thinking in terms of replicating humanity in a mechanical form. He has no interest in traditional AI or humanoid robots but rather designs robots that are more like mechanical ants, blindly following sets of basic procedures which have no “meaning” to the robot beyond instinct, and yet by the combination of simple commands these robots can complete complex tasks. He imagines a future in which robots simply exist in the world much like animals do, performing tasks that are useful to humans in various ways not because they’ve been commanded to but simply because that’s what they’ve evolved to do. This is a unique conception of robots, since even most of our sci-fi tends to imagine advanced robots as humanoid and “thinking” through the application of sophisticated AI. In our conversation about Solaris, we spoke about how the human imagination finds it hard to get beyond human experience, beyond ourselves, to think in abstract terms about a non-human understanding of the world. Brooks is about as close as it’s possible for humans to get to this kind of out-of-consciousness experience, with his ability to imagine an entirely non-human future, one in which insectoid robots have “evolved” to be the next step. This is fascinating, complex stuff, and Morris is able to explore these ideas because he is really interested in what these four men have to say, is really engaged by their wild ideas and their fertile imaginations.
JB: Right. Here in particular Morris lets his subjects’ “wild ideas and fertile imaginations” serve as the winds that direct the course and tenor of his film. Morris captains the ship, too, obviously; this film is far less organic than something like Vernon, Florida. But despite Morris’ tendency to rearrange his footage until the finished whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts, what I enjoy about his films is how deferential they feel. In other words, I don’t get the sense that Morris begins his projects with his mind made up about what he’s going to find or what kind of story he wants to tell. In contrast, that’s not the feeling I get watching Herzog, who obeys his own interests until his films reflect his psyche rather than those of his subjects. (It’s not their “ecstatic truth” he’s after; it’s his “ecstatic truth.” Thus, in some instances Herzog shapes his material, or outright fabricates it, until it fits his desired vision.)
Now, to be clear, there’s nothing “wrong” with Herzog’s approach, and in our previous conversation you made strong arguments about the merits of Herzog’s role as guide and storyteller. So what I’m trying to suggest here isn’t that Morris’ style is somehow superior to Herzog’s. Instead, I’m simply celebrating what I think is Morris’ best skill as a documentary filmmaker: he listens.
EH: I don’t want to get into the whole Herzog discussion again, but I think there’s plenty of room for both approaches—and so much overlap that the distinction probably isn’t nearly as clear-cut as you suggest. The weird thing about Morris is that he combines his openness to other perspectives with a Herzogian willingness to manipulate and stylize the presentation of his interviews in various ways. You’re right that he distinguishes himself from Herzog by keeping his persona and interests somewhat remote from his films, but in his own way he shapes and inhabits this material nearly as much as Herzog does. It’s more subtle (Morris stays behind the camera, and seldom lets us hear his voice) but that doesn’t mean that Morris isn’t there, chopping away at the footage and contextualizing people’s words to get at what he wants to say.
I mentioned Mendez and Brooks above as two Morris interview subjects who are very much aware of and sympathetic with the broad themes resonating throughout the film. The other two interviewees here, animal trainer Dave Hoover and topiary gardener George Mendonça, are simply talking about the fields they love. They think of what they do as a craft, even as art, but they certainly don’t think of their work as taming nature or expanding humanity’s boundaries, even though this is the larger context into which Morris places them. So I don’t think of Morris as primarily a listener. It’s obvious to me that Morris has his own ideas that he wants to get across with each film, that he’s not simply spitting back what people say to him. At the very least, this makes him not a passive listener but an active one, always thinking about ways to fit things together, to probe the subtext of what his interviewees are saying. And in some cases—most prominently in “gotcha” films like The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death and The Fog of War—he’s actively working against the text of his subjects’ words, getting at ideas that run contrary to what’s actually being said. Whereas in a case like that Herzog might simply ignore his subject and just say what he wanted to say, Morris is sneakier: he’ll undercut the interviewee with additional footage, or with his editing, or by juxtaposing one interview against another. They use different methods, but I’d argue there are many times where the end results aren’t so distinct.
JB: Those are all good points and I’m glad you made them. I don’t necessarily disagree with anything you just said, and it’s absolutely true that the strength of Morris’ authorial hand varies from picture to picture. Again, without wanting to rehash the whole Herzog debate, and without casting any ethical judgment, I do think—at least in this picture—that Morris listens first and then reacts, that the interviews inspire the themes. I use Herzog as a contrast, because as his career has gone on he seems to listen less and obey his own voice more. Of course, this is just the feeling that I get. As far as Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is concerned, the truth might be that Morris set out to make a film about individuals taming nature and then sought subjects to fit into his scheme. I might be totally wrong about which director is more deferential to his subjects. But my instincts say that Morris is more, let’s say, open-minded (which isn’t to damn Herzog as some closed-minded megalomaniac; not at all). That’s my gut reaction. Listening critically is still listening.
EH: Having said that, I wonder what you think of Morris’ “authorial hand” in his next film, Mr. Death. You’ve mentioned that you’re sometimes bothered by Morris’ metaphorical visualizations and stylized sequences in his later films, and I think this film is probably the best example of his sporadic slippage into aesthetic overkill. Maybe the film just suffers from following Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, probably the perfect marriage of form and content in Morris’ entire oeuvre. In Mr. Death, Morris applies his patchwork aesthetics—switching between film stocks, from black-and-white to color, overexposing images so they glow brightly, stitching in unrelated inserts—to material that really doesn’t need to be jazzed up in this manner. Some of Morris’ choices, which gave such drive and energy to his previous films, are arbitrary here, like tics of habit rather than considered responses to the actual material. I don’t dislike the film, and as always I find Morris’ chosen subject (the bizarre death penalty engineer/accidental Holocaust apologist Fred Leuchter) grotesquely fascinating, and his themes worth exploring. But the visual and audio overload is a bit much, at times distracting from the substance of the film.
JB: Actually, I don’t find Mr. Death especially overproduced compared to most of Morris’ works. (Even Fast, Cheap & Out of Control slips, um, out of control over its final 20 minutes.) In each of Morris’ films since The Thin Blue Line, in which he established his now trademark aesthetics, there are stylized interludes that I find agonizingly tedious and/or unnecessary. Sometimes Morris falls overly in love with his archival film snippets. Sometimes the score is excessively dramatic. Sometimes he recreates events that don’t need recreation. (For example, in Mr. Death I have no idea why Morris dramatizes the image of Leuchter pulling debris out of a puddle at Auschwitz, given that earlier we see genuine archival footage of Leuchter pulling debris out of a puddle at Auschwitz.) Also, I always find myself wondering what compels Morris to continue to employ slow- or fast-motion for (questionable) effect. Isn’t he bored with the trick yet? I know I am.
But Mr. Death is never boring; Fred Leuchter makes sure of that. Leuchter’s investigation of the gas chambers at Auschwitz is fascinating for its almost indescribable combination of meticulousness and carelessness. In terms of subject matter, Morris certainly has himself another winner here; it’s utterly amazing that Leuchter could do so much detailed research while completely overlooking the obvious because it contradicts his desired outcome. (Or maybe Leuchter is just fucking stupid. Take your pick.) If someone wanted to build a case that Morris exploits his subjects, this film would support that argument, because while Leuchter gets to defend himself with the help of a few friends, the deck is stacked against him. For example: In addition to bringing in a historian to refute Leuchter’s revisionist claim that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz, Morris counters support statements from Leuchter’s Holocaust-denying allies with the testimony of two Jewish advocates who seem to have no real ties to the story beyond being Jewish. (Because they wouldn’t be biased, would they?)
As you’d expect, Morris still appears to be genuinely interested in Leuchter’s story and its inherent twisted logic, and even though Morris frequently undermines Leuchter’s testimony, Leuchter’s theories are allowed to resonate to the point that someone who insists that the Holocaust is nothing but myth and propaganda could probably have that belief strengthened by this film. Maybe that’s why I find Mr. Death a difficult film to get close to. It’s disturbing. There’s something about watching a guy fondling the pieces of an electric chair that makes a feces-covered naked mole rat suddenly appealing.
EH: It could be that my problem with Morris’ aesthetic in this film is simply a function of too much exposure: as you hint, Morris tends to reuse the same basic palette in film after film, and it does get wearying after a while. When he’s at his best, and his material is especially sharp, I’m enthralled, as I was throughout The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. But his aesthetics grated on me at several points in Mr. Death, and I’m not sure if his stylization is really especially distracting here or if I just notice it more because the film itself isn’t as gripping as his prime works. Still, even second-tier Morris isn’t without its merits, and Fred Leuchter is an unforgettable character, if nothing else.
What’s fascinating about Leuchter (and this film) are all his weird contradictions. He can be intelligent and methodical, and yet also either really stupid or simply prone to mental blind spots the size of Mount Rushmore. He thinks of his death penalty work as humanitarian in some way, and yet in trying to improve conditions for death row inmates, he’s making executions easier and more efficient for the state. (There’s also something kind of creepy, even almost sexual, about his fondling of electric chairs and such, though I wonder how much of that is attributable to Leuchter and how much to the stylized, artificial situations Morris thrusts him into.) And while he becomes a steadfast Holocaust denier on the basis of virtually no evidence, one suspects that he kind of stumbles into it by accident, that he’s not really an evil guy but more a victim of his own simplemindedness.
But I mean, the film is just about as fair as it can possibly be to a Holocaust denier. True, Morris totally tears apart Leuchter’s claims, but what else could you expect? Let’s face it, these ideas are not difficult to debunk, and you have to be almost willfully blind to contradictory evidence in order to conclude that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of scientific methodology would be screaming at the screen about control groups and unwarranted assumptions long before Morris begins breaking down Leuchter’s results. The historian who appears in the film demonstrates just how easy it is to refute Leuchter’s conclusions: all he needs to do is pull out a few readily available blueprints and memos from the records. It’s more than obvious that Leuchter’s a buffoon, and the footage of him traipsing around Auschwitz like an amateur spy is just depressing and horrifying. That said, in fairness to Leuchter, the one thing I missed in the film was any real questioning of the idea of making Holocaust denial a crime to begin with. Morris, who always perks up when presented with dueling evidence and legal arguments, gets tangled up in the minutiae and skirts around some of the central issues, one of which is that a guy was going to jail simply for something he wrote. Don’t get me wrong, I have little enough sympathy for the thoroughly unpleasant Ernst Zündel, but I’m also not very comfortable with criminalizing speech, no matter how offensive. Leuchter does insist that he leapt to Zündel’s defense as an advocate of free speech, but it sounds pretty lame coming from him, and Morris doesn’t really press the issue.
Otherwise, Mr. Death is interesting for the way Morris subtly links Leuchter’s new “career” as a white supremacist mascot to his previous job designing death penalty systems. One of the funniest threads running through the film is Leuchter’s open admission that he had little to no qualifications for any of the work he was doing in the prison system—prisons just kept hiring him based on his work in totally unrelated areas. He’d worked on an electric chair, so of course he could design and repair gas chambers, and lethal injection systems, and gallows, and so on. I think Leuchter started to believe his own hype, to think that he could do just about anything with a little research. It’s this overconfidence that got him in trouble in the end: sure, he could become a forensic investigator probing the secrets of a 40-year-old prison. Why not? It couldn’t be too hard, right? He’s an expert on this stuff. What a tool; in many ways the biggest problem with this film is that Leuchter is such an easy target. It’s no fun beating on a guy who’s already so beaten down and pathetic.
JB: You know, I wasn’t quite sure what I found lacking in Mr. Death, but your last line nails it. There’s no thrill of the chase in this picture. At best, there’s the thrill of the absurd, but it’s a sad thrill, given the context. I also agree that Mr. Death passes up some opportunities for deeper examination. You mentioned how Morris skirts the issue of the criminalization of speech, and it’s in that same portion that Morris also is arguably too deferential to Leuchter’s justification for his Auschwitz project. Leuchter claims the only reason he got involved was because he thought Zündel was being unfairly prosecuted. If that’s true, it reveals a whopping amount of bias. On the one hand, Leuchter’s alibi absolves him from being a fervent revisionist, but on the other hand it implicates him as a hack researcher. Put the pieces together and Leuchter’s aim wasn’t to examine Auschwitz; it was to create a reasonable doubt about the presence of the gas chambers. He already knew what he wanted to discover before he ever took a chisel to a piece of brick.
Additionally, I find it a little disturbing that one interviewee has no role in this picture except to show up and call Leuchter an anti-Semite. Leuchter might indeed be anti-Semitic, but there isn’t much evidence for that here. To conclude that anyone who doubts all or part of the Holocaust must hate Jews is pretty closed-minded, actually, because it doesn’t make room for any other explanation (like complete stupidity). Mr. Death, without ever apologizing for Leuchter, builds a compelling case that he was drawn to the modest fame he received as the expert on a controversial subject. Thus Leuchter’s actions are entirely self-serving. He wasn’t interested in hating Jews. He was interested in disproving history. He wanted to be to the Holocaust what Stephen Hawking was to black holes. And that’s what happened. Leuchter became, to a select audience that included himself, The Guy Who Proved Auschwitz Didn’t Have Gas Chambers. Once his identity was established, there was no room to change his position. Being wrong wouldn’t have just invalidated his Auschwitz research, it would have invalidated him.
It’s a rather tragic story, really, and part of me winds up feeling sorry for Leuchter because he’s so utterly pathetic. He’s one of those guys I look at and wonder if his life would have been profoundly different if, figuratively speaking, he had made the third-grade baseball team. His need to prove himself, to be a somebody, led him to—without malice, in my opinion—fan the flames of anti-Semitism around the world. That he’s so oblivious to the flaws in his arguments and to the damage he caused is sad, and it’s also what makes this film so interesting. Leuchter stands in stark contrast to Morris’ next subject, Robert McNamara, who one could argue left a far larger path of destruction in his wake, and who was far more deliberate in his actions, but who endears himself to us with his self-awareness, reluctant though it tends to be.
EH: Yes, if Fred Leuchter is Morris’ most pathetic antihero, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is one of his most complex and self-conscious. McNamara is a fascinating figure, and a historically significant one. He was instrumental in US military policy during World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War—first as a military advisor and architect of the firebombing raids on Japanese cities, then as Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. As usual, Morris simply lets his subject speak, an especially wise choice in this case because McNamara had never before commented at such length, and with such candor, about his involvement in controversial military policies and actions. In many ways he reveals himself as an intelligent, thoughtful man, a man who fully understands the consequences of his actions, and who is, for a high-level political figure, unusually engaged with issues of morality, responsibility and the possibility of making mistakes. He admits again and again that he and those around him made mistakes, even grievous ones, like the mistaken “attack” on a US ship that triggered the escalation of the Vietnam War, an attack that seemed doubtful and confused even when it was first reported, and which later turned out to be entirely non-existent. McNamara is strangely candid about things like this, and yet also disturbingly nonchalant—like, oops, we just started a war, we were wrong, oh well.
As a result, this film is a fascinating tug of war in which McNamara vacillates between rationalizing his actions and acknowledging the horrors perpetrated on his watch. Despite his engagement with moral issues, with the tragic consequences of such mistakes, he continually refuses to take responsibility himself. About the firebombing raids over Japan, he says that he does not think that his report about the inefficiency of American high-altitude bombing led to the new policy, even though he was advising his superiors to make these raids more “efficient,” to maximize the amount of Japanese death and destruction for every American life lost. About the Vietnam War, when asked directly about the responsibility for it, he places it on Johnson, qualifying and hedging but basically saying that it was all Johnson’s fault. About the authorization of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, he says he doesn’t remember, that he doesn’t think he personally authorized it, though it happened under his watch, and also, by the way, that he wouldn’t have authorized it if he’d thought it was “a crime.” He does not say, which you would expect any contrite, ethical person to say, that he would not have authorized it if he’d known it would kill and give cancer to US soldiers—instead he just says he wouldn’t have authorized it if he’d thought it was illegal. It’s not that he wants to do the right thing, per se; he just wants to do the legal thing. He wants, more than anything, a clearly delineated rule book for war, a way to reduce gray areas, to reduce his own capacity for choice. Despite his moral rhetoric, it’s not ethics that guides him, but legality. And if he needs laws to stop him from doing something, doesn’t this indicate an absence of innate moral strictures?
McNamara never actually takes responsibility, and Morris doesn’t press him much—perhaps because, as can be seen in the brief epilogue, McNamara clams up when pushed too hard about Vietnam. By mostly just letting him talk, Morris gets a surprising candor and unguardedness from his subject, so that the truth often shows through the justifications and excuses and rationalizations. And when it doesn’t, Morris helps bring it out, either through his occasional interjections of pointed questions and comments, shouted from offscreen in his characteristic brassy voice, or through his potent visualizations.
JB: The thing I like about The Fog of War is that it feels like a boxing match. The interaction between Morris and McNamara isn’t combative, necessarily—there aren’t a lot of punches thrown—but they do dance around one another with their eyes locked in and their fists cocked and ready. The film is broken up into McNamara’s 11 “lessons,” and at the end of each segment, I find myself expecting to hear the ringside bell. Boxing has been called “the sweet science,” and interviews like this one fit that description, too. For example, regardless of whether McNamara sat for several interviews or filmed everything in one shot, Morris’ time with his celebrity subject was obviously limited. (I imagine the naked mole rat guy will talk to you whenever you want.) Thus, even though this isn’t a live event, the clock is always ticking. Morris hears it, and that’s why he prods McNamara from time to time, pushing the issue. McNamara hears it, and that’s why he knows that he can filibuster, so to speak, when the questions get tough.
On that point, my principle frustration with the film has nothing to do with the film itself but with the reactions it inspired. Critics raved about The Fog of War and many of them made the mistake of taking McNamara at his word. Some pointed out his shaky ethics, but the consensus seemed to be that McNamara purged his soul and straightened up his record. That’s naïve. McNamara doesn’t necessarily comment with candor; he comments with “candor.” It’s absurd to think that he’s without an agenda, as if such a calculating man would suddenly let his guard down and speak without thinking. I suspect McNamara isn’t capable of that kind of unfiltered expression. Most people aren’t. (Mike Tyson is the rare exception, which is why James Toback’s Tyson is so psychologically titillating.) So I think it’s a mistake to assume that McNamara’s latest version of the truth is any purer than previous versions, yet that’s the way many critics framed this film.
That said, I don’t think Morris was snowballed by McNamara. As we’ve discussed, his films thrive on contradictory testimonials. I suspect Morris would actually be bored by his material if he thought McNamara gave us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Certainly I find The Fog of War more compelling because of its ambiguities and shadows. I like trying to read McNamara, trying to figure out when he’s in spin mode and when Morris cracks his surface to reveal something more intimate.
EH: Actually, Morris lucked out and got quite a lot of interview time with McNamara: over 20 hours spread out over several days, which speaks to how comfortable Morris can make even his most cagey subjects. It’s hard to imagine the canny McNamara spending that much time talking with anyone else, and I hope some years from now Morris is able to stage a sequel with the equally evasive Donald Rumsfeld. Like you, I don’t think McNamara cleansed his soul here. He is more forthcoming than one would expect, but he’s still dodging, still trying to rationalize his actions, still trying to clear himself. Morris, as usual, lets the words stand whether they’re the whole truth or not, and merely provides the context for the audience to judge McNamara for themselves.
In that respect, the most stunning sequence is a rapidly edited montage that mixes together various reports, charts and tables of figures about Vietnam with concrete photographic evidence of the devastation of the country. Casualty charts are followed by harrowing depictions of corpses lined in rows, reports of “houses destroyed” are followed by images of cities laid to waste, burning homes and rubble. This brutally effective montage cuts through the bullshit that McNamara so often erects around the horrors of war—he’s a man who thinks in facts and figures, who thinks in the abstract of “efficiency.” Morris attempts to expose the horror of such terrible efficiency, which turns the destruction of human life into a bloody, fiery science. At its best, this film refuses to allow McNamara’s abstractions to exist independently of the concrete harm they caused. If McNamara often uses Orwellian doublespeak to gloss over the ugliness and brutality of war, Morris won’t flinch away from answering these euphemisms with hard visual evidence.
JB: Indeed, Morris doesn’t flinch. At one point, as McNamara discusses bombing raids and the inherent difficulty in determining how much destruction is too much, Morris inserts a special-effects shot of blue numbers falling toward a black-and-white aerial photograph, each digit symbolizing the multiple casualties any bomb might inflict. It’s a chilling metaphor, and a creative one. Then again, later on in the picture, Morris’ metaphorical tangents are more pedestrian. His too abundant and too literal shots of falling dominoes (Domino Theory, get it?) grow tiresome, for example. The same way he overproduced A Brief History of Time, perhaps in an effort to compensate for Hawking’s immobility, here Morris does too much to compensate for his lack of interviewee diversity.
Having said that, though, The Fog of War is the Morris film that best underlines the effectiveness of using artistic tangents as emotional palate cleansers. No matter what B-roll footage or dramatic reenactments Morris uses in place of a talking-head shot of McNamara—regardless of whether the metaphorical flourish is interesting or entertaining—when we return to McNamara the film receives a jolt of energy. It’s as if Morris’ subject is suddenly without armor, as if the camera can see into his soul. When McNamara holds his thumb and forefinger close together to illustrate how America was this close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or when he tears up at the thought of selecting Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington Cemetery, McNamara seems naked, vulnerable. In my mind, that’s the trademark of a Morris interview: vulnerability.
EH: Vulnerability’s a good word for it, and nowhere is that quality more apparent than in Morris’ most recent film, Standard Operating Procedure. Robert McNamara was a wily and evasive interviewee for Morris, but the subjects of this film—most of them young men and women who had served in the U.S. military in Iraq—don’t have McNamara’s poise or savvy. When the disgraced soldiers of Abu Ghraib prison appear in front of Morris’ camera, they seem defenseless, broken, their emotions running away from them as they talk about their time in Iraq, the things they saw and did. I think it’s safe to say that, however much she tries to justify herself, Sabrina Harman shows a great deal more of her inner self than McNamara did; she’s much more vulnerable before the camera.
Harman, the girl who appeared smiling and giving the infamous “thumbs up” in the photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, is arguably the central figure of Standard Operating Procedure. Morris has a lot of interviewees here, both those who participated in the abuse and those who were on the scene less directly, but he keeps returning to Harman, letting her story provide the narrative backbone of the film. I think he centers the film around her because he sees in her the qualities that again and again draw him towards the unique people who appear in his films: a certain ambiguity in her motivations, a combination of self-awareness and rationalization, the internal contradictions of her personality. It’s difficult to reconcile the Harman who appears in this film—smart, soft-spoken, morally conflicted, aware of the consequences of her actions and contrite for the damage she’s caused—with the girl who could pose grinning and sticking up her thumb next to the corpse of an Iraqi prisoner.
The other soldiers in the film have various unconvincing rationalizations for their actions (Lynndie England lazily shifts the blame squarely onto fellow soldier Charles Graner, apparently a hypnotist who could remove other people’s control over their own actions) or else express no remorse whatsoever (Javal Davis says nothing they did to prisoners at Abu Ghraib was all that bad). But Harman knows that what was going on was wrong, and based on the letters she sent home to her “wife” Kelly, she seems to have known it all along. She maintains that she was merely documenting the abuse, hoping to expose it later, but this is only convincing up to a point. Why did she still participate? Why, in the photos, does she always look like she’s at a really fun party? Why didn’t she just turn in the extensive evidence she’d already amassed by the time the scandal finally went public? Morris doesn’t answer these questions: he simply turns the camera on this seemingly gentle, intelligent young woman and asks his audience to resolve the contradictions for themselves.
This is Morris’ usual method, of course, but I wonder if it serves him quite as well here as it has in the past. He asks some hard questions about what went on at Abu Ghraib, and if nothing else the film is a fascinating set of character studies, but I often found myself wishing he’d push a little harder, delve a little deeper, follow up on some of the threads left dangling. Maybe I would’ve felt the same way about The Fog of War if he’d made it at the height of the Vietnam War. There’s something about the urgency of a contemporary conflict that demands greater directness, meeting the big questions head-on rather than hinting at them beneath the surface. There comes a point where I wonder: is Morris’ circumspection a sign of subtlety, or merely the evasiveness of an artist who wishes to avoid making too definitive a statement?
JB: That’s an important question. My answer is that I’m not quite sure what Morris’ cautiousness indicates. Many things, I imagine. I mean, even if it’s true that Morris intentionally avoided making “too definitive a statement,” there could be various motivations for that. Perhaps Morris wanted his film to be as profitable as possible. But maybe he avoided fire-and-brimstone techniques because he wanted people on both sides of the aisle to listen instead of assuming a defensive posture. As an artist, Morris would have every right to make this a personal film in which he explicitly articulates his opinion, and it takes guts to pull that off. That’s true. But it also takes courage to require an audience to engage with the material in front of them. As much as Morris seems a little like Harman, standing back, being conveniently quiet amidst a period of unrest, I’d argue that what America needed more than a lecture was a film that challenged us to think for ourselves. The George W. Bush era was marked by years of being told what to think by an administration that withheld evidence that might have cast doubt on those directives. In this picture, Morris takes the opposite approach. He gives us the evidence and then challenges the audience to react. That’s a valid approach, and not necessarily the proverbial easy way out.
With the caveat that I didn’t see The Thin Blue Line when it was released and therefore can’t truly appreciate how groundbreaking it was in terms of technique, I think Standard Operating Procedure might be Morris’ greatest accomplishment. It’s a film that political junkies probably could spend hours picking apart, making counter arguments and complaining about Morris’ selection of interviewees, but that’s what makes it ballsy. Morris makes a statement just by attempting this film against the backdrop of controversy. Yes, there are issues Morris could have explored in greater depth. (Taxi to the Dark Side serves as an outstanding companion piece to Standard Operating Procedure because it analyzes the deep psychological trauma that can result from all those supposedly mild (and legal) harassment techniques like forced standing, sleep deprivation and sensory overload.) But if you wanted to give someone an idea of what happened at Abu Ghraib and the complexity of the situation, wouldn’t you hand them a DVD of Standard Operating Procedure? For all its coulda-woulda-shouldas, isn’t it rich and challenging as-is?
Personally, I am horrified that our military was involved in these events, but I also understand why they happened. If college kids make faulty decisions powered by nothing stronger than alcohol and the need for acceptance, can I really blame these soldiers of similar age and maturity for disobeying their better judgment in a time of war, in an environment where conformity is demanded, in a setting where the chain of command is always respected? I cannot. I would like to think that I would have behaved differently than these soldiers, and I don’t think they should be automatically absolved of their transgressions. However, I won’t insult them by pretending I have any idea what it was like to march in their boots. Morris’ film helped me find sympathy for these soldiers while also crystallizing the unacceptability of their behavior. The photos of Harman giving a thumbs-up or England cracking a smile while holding a prisoner on a leash? They provide all the damnation that’s required. For Morris to further castigate his subjects would make this film about his rage instead of their misdeeds, which were indicative of a larger and even more revolting corruption. In moments of chaos and corruption, we look to leaders to emerge to show us the way, yes. Morris could have chosen to be that kind of leader. That said, I don’t think he needs to be that guy holding a bullhorn and thumping his chest. That’s what we have Michael Moore for.
EH: Before we go any further, let me say that I agree with much of what you just said. In many respects, Standard Operating Procedure is a great film, and surely one of the definitive statements to emerge from the Bush era thus far. I’m not looking for Michael Moore chest-thumping or fist-pumping here, and there’s much to admire in Morris’ more balanced, distanced approach, in his ability to see an issue not just from both sides (as though there could only be two for a complicated situation like this) but from all sides. Actually, though, I think you misunderstood what I was looking for when I wished that Morris would’ve pushed a little harder. I’m not looking for Morris to “further castigate” the soldiers who appear in the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. You’re right, they’ve been punished enough. His approach to Harman, England, et al is judicious and open-minded, never losing sight of their crimes while also allowing their own voices to be heard.
Where I think Morris could have been more aggressive was in providing additional context for the actions of these soldiers. He hints at this in places: the idea that what these soldiers were doing was not just isolated horseplay, was not their own idle invention, but was in fact part of procedure. Were they “just following orders,” to resort to the cliché? Morris doesn’t delve much into the question of responsibility higher up the chain of command, doesn’t dig to find out if the “breaker” interrogation teams were really ordering the kinds of prisoner abuse made notorious by Harman’s photos. There is a deleted scene on the DVD in which Tim Dugan talks about how he suspected that the interrogators were the ones who ordered all the humiliation and beatings and everything else that went on. He says that the young soldiers were just following orders from higher up. I mean, if you have someone making a direct, specific accusation like that, on tape, don’t you follow up? Don’t you research that? You certainly don’t cut it from the finished film, editing around it to include the end of Dugan’s remarks (when he says that he thinks the young MPs are being set up and “thrown under the bus”) but eliding the earlier, more specific accusations. Morris also leaves for the deleted scenes some accounts of shocking incidents not often associated with the prisoner abuse scandal, like one soldier’s jaw-dropping story of prison guards firing indiscriminately into crowds of prisoners gathered in a courtyard.
It’s possible that Morris’ desire to remain outside of his film, to take a stance of objectivity, prevents him from pursuing this material further. Maybe he wants to stick to just the established facts as much as he can, not pushing beyond what’s already known. I can understand that. Or maybe he simply couldn’t get any more information, which is likely given how tight-lipped everyone involved would be. But whatever the reason, the result is that the crucially important question of how far up the chain of command this mess spreads remains a lingering ghost at the fringes of the film, popping up here and there but never really taking center stage. I could just be wishing for a different film than the one Morris made, which is a fine work in its own right, but it does feel like he let some opportunities pass him by, focusing too much on the individual responsibility of those most immediately involved at the expense of a broader image of institutional responsibility.
JB: OK, that’s a good distinction, and the deleted scenes you mention demonstrate that Morris had footage in the can that would have allowed him to push the envelope a little more had he wanted to—it wasn’t like he couldn’t get his subjects to open up. But I still wonder if Morris was savvy enough to realize that had he included Dugan’s explicit accusation, his film might have generated a media firestorm around that specific allegation, thus rendering the rest of the film almost moot. It’s sad that Morris would have to consider that approach in order to maximize the ultimate effectiveness of his picture, but such is the state of our generally oversimplified and sensationalized media culture these days.
Maybe this is my own bias coming through, maybe I brought this idea to the film with me, but I left Standard Operating Procedure with no doubt whatsoever that these soldiers were at least implicitly ordered to create the environment of fear and debasement that eventually got them in trouble. Unless Morris could have traced these events back to Rumsfeld’s desk through something more than circumstantial evidence, I’m not sure there’s anything to gain by going farther. (Though, wow, if only!) But now I’m curious: Are you more disappointed by what Standard Operating Procedure isn’t than fond of what it is? Where, roughly, do you think it ranks among his filmography? And is Morris becoming a better filmmaker with age, or no?
EH: Despite my reservations about Standard Operating Procedure, I do think it’s a good film as-is. If it doesn’t quite do everything I wish it did, what it does accomplish is worthwhile enough. As you said earlier, if I was going to hand someone who’d been living under a rock a quick primer on Abu Ghraib, this would probably be it. As for whether Morris has become a better filmmaker or not, I honestly can’t say. He’s certainly honed and developed his craft over the years. But his filmography is somewhat scattershot, broken up by TV work that I mostly haven’t seen, and his two best films, in my opinion, are The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which are separated from one another by nine years in which he did very little other film work. His most recent two films are solid, probing political examinations, and they’re great films in their own ways—but I wouldn’t say they represent a marked progression from his earlier work in aesthetic terms.
In fact, one thing that’s increasingly bothered me about Morris’ work is the development of his use of music. From The Thin Blue Line onward, he’s treated his scores like he’s laying down carpet, and this can be both a good thing and a bad thing. He’s fortunate in that he generally gets very good scores, and very similar scores, whether he’s working with frequent collaborators like Philip Glass or Caleb Sampson, or in Standard Operating Procedure with Danny Elfman. Glass’ score for The Thin Blue Line set the template for all Morris’ future scores: pulsing, nearly constant, propelling the narrative, lending a relentless forward motion to the storytelling. It’s a brilliant fusion of score and storytelling, and it’s a combination Morris has sought for all his subsequent films. His scores serve him well, but as a result he leans on them too heavily at times, never letting the music rest, seldom allowing silence to fall, always this insistent pulse in the background. This works beautifully in The Thin Blue Line, and in a different way, Sampson’s gleeful circus pastiche fuses symbiotically with the fast-moving cut-and-paste aesthetic of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. In some of Morris’ other films, the score occasionally becomes overbearing—Sampson’s score for Mr. Death is distracting, jarring against the images rather than enhancing the story, while in Standard Operating Procedure the near-constant Elfman music is deadening after a while. There’s little variation in the pulse of the music, and thus little emotional rise and fall. By increasingly relying so heavily on his music, Morris risks letting the music set the mood and the rhythm of his film rather than shaping that himself through his images.
JB: I think you’re absolutely right. Then again, it’s part of what puts the Morris in a Morris film. When I listen to Bob Dylan I often find myself wishing he’d go a little easier on the harmonica, but it is what it is. Same thing here. The benefit of Morris’ rigid style is that he doesn’t have a single dud amongst his collection of feature length documentaries. Some are better than others, of course, but they’re all worth seeing, and that’s impressive. Still, especially when watching Morris’ entire collection in close succession, as we both have recently, the formulas become somewhat tedious. Rewatching The Fog of War a week ago, I found myself wondering if Herzog should have been brought in to provide voice-over in place of Morris’ typical music cues. “And now, you feel mewved,” he’d say.
Speaking of being moved, on Errol Morris’ website there is a prominently displayed quote from Roger Ebert: “After twenty years of reviewing films, I haven’t found another filmmaker who intrigues me more.” That’s quite a compliment. I agree with Ebert that Morris is a master filmmaker, but I can’t say my admiration for Morris goes that far. I enjoy all of his films, I really do, but I don’t crave them. I’m interested in his pictures, but I’m rarely deeply moved by them. I find Morris’ movies fun to think about, but they don’t call me to return to them. Perhaps that’s because several of Morris’ films are arguably bigger than they deserve to be. As Fast, Cheap & Out of Control proves, Morris can make just about anything interesting, and yet repeated viewings can expose the slightness of the material, causing Morris’ treatment of his subject matter to seem almost foolishly overblown. But this is a quibble. Because in the silence between musical eruptions, in the stillness between dramatic recreations, Morris’ films are irresistible. No filmmaker has ever gotten more out of pointing a camera directly into the eyes of his subjects and asking them to talk.
EH: Yes, I often found myself wondering if some of my reservations about Morris’ work are at least partly the result of having watched so much of his oeuvre in such a concentrated period of time, both revisiting films I’d seen before and catching up with a few that were new to me. There are few directors who are so focused and consistent in their approach, and because of that he’s probably not well-suited to binge viewing of his entire filmography. He tends to approach every subject with the same enthusiasm, the same intensity, whether he’s talking to a guy who really loves naked mole rats, or a former Secretary of Defense. In terms of the individual films, this is great, but all that bombast can be wearying in the long run, and watching so many of his films in such a short period of time emphasizes the similarities between them and the limits of his aesthetic. Of course, that’s not really Morris’ fault: I’m sure he didn’t envision anyone sitting down and watching all his films over the course of a couple of weeks.
Still, at his best Morris does move me, and thrill me, and engage my intellect. His films never fail to make me think, which is no small thing. Moreover, when I want what Morris has to offer, there’s really nowhere else to go: there’s no mistaking his films for anyone else’s. That’s no small thing, either. Even if Morris’ idiosyncratic style is sometimes frustrating or overbearing, it’s also what makes his films worth seeing.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Cassandro, the Exotico! Shoulders the Strange Burden of Empathy
Marie Losier’s empathy, if not love, for Cassandro hinders her from examining his wounds with much depth.2.5
Queerness isn’t just about the relationship between bodies: the ones we desire, the ones that will never desire us back, the ones we wished we possessed. It’s also very much a matter of cloth, color, and adornment. Many a pop-cultural figure has manifested this queer sartorial drama, from Liberace to David Bowie, from Leigh Bowery to early Lady Gaga, from Pepper LaBeija to Shangela Laquifa Wadley. And with her new documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico!, Marie Losier introduces us to a lesser-known, yet just as subversive, purveyor of that drama: Mexican luchador Cassandro, a Universal Wrestling Association winner and former junkie with a penchant for gaudy garments.
Ridiculous stage wear is, of course, fundamentally associated with professional wrestling, but Cassandro’s textile-informed camp isn’t compensated by violent machismo or a heterosexist mise-en-scène. Instead, this exótico is unapologetic about the seamless kinship between his queerness and that of the clothes he wears. And the continuum between queer sexuality and fashion places him simultaneously as the exceptional gay figure in a supposedly macho sport, the Mexican lucha libre, and as the element that outs wrestling writ large as an already queer affair. Cassandro, né Saúl Armendáriz, is, then, a ready-made cinematic character, bearing the contradictions of his world from the inside—a world where, much like ours, heterosexual male violence is performed through patently homoerotic means.
Although skin, bones, and fabric are all—to various degrees of visible and invisible discomfort—stitched into the gendered body, the film is precisely concerned with the moment when these connections come apart at the seams. After decades of fighting for a living, Cassandro’s body is giving out. This is a moment of desperation for someone who turned to wrestling as something between religion and therapy. We see him literally hanging his flamboyant costumes to dry on a clotheslines as he speaks about retirement, about how quitting would appease his body but demolish his ego. As the film progresses, his dislocated chin, limited hand movements, and multiple head concussions will seem like the belated embodiment, if not the psychosomatic scream, of a childhood marked by molestation and sexual abuse. A history of spectacular violence catching up to years of a much less visible brutality.
Cassandro, the Exotico! is largely observational, with occasional interventions from Losier. It wouldn’t be fair to call the film hagiographic, but the director’s empathy, if not love, for her subject hinders her from examining Cassandro’s wounds with much depth. When faced with Cassandro’s misery, Losier’s response is to console him as if wanting to change the subject. She cuts one moment of candidness short, when Cassandro is addressing his fears via Skype, by telling him, “I wish I could give you a kiss.” It would have served the documentary better had Losier granted her subject the possibility to work through his pain in front of the camera.
Visually, the documentary, which is shot on 16mm film stock, recalls canonical diaristic works that expose people’s troublesome feelings in raw and unbridled fashion (think Jonas Mekas, Sadie Benning, and Su Friedrich). Which makes the juxtaposition of Losier’s visual language and her reluctance to examine Cassandro’s frailties feel particularly displeasing. Perhaps afraid that scrutiny would shatter Cassandro, Losier fails to realize that it’s precisely through such shattering that redemption can emerge, maybe even reparation.
Director: Marie Losier Screenwriter: Marie Losier, Antoine Barraud Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Marc Maron on Sword of Truth, WTF, and the Possibility of Change
Maron discusses modern media discourse, the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, and how he likes to be directed.
Marc Maron is presently enjoying one of the most unlikely and inspiring success stories in Hollywood. Once known as a bitter “comic’s comic” who was eclipsed in success by contemporaries such as Louis C.K. and Jon Stewart, Maron has been reborn into a poster boy for empathy, starting with his blockbuster podcast, “WTF,” and continuing with roles in the hit television series Maron, Easy, and GLOW. With each role, Maron has rapidly evolved from a “comic who acts” into a first-rate character actor capable of subtly altering his charisma to fit a variety of oddballs who, like himself, struggle with self-doubt while attempting to walk a straight and sober path.
Now, with Sword of Truth, Maron makes his debut as a cinematic lead, playing Mel, a pawnshop owner who ends up on a road trip that stirs long-festering feelings of estrangement, which parallels the forms of isolation gripping a variety of other characters, and which the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, links to the reactionary myths and politics currently gripping this country. The role marks another career high point for Maron, who talked to me last week about the communicative bridge linking his acting with his podcast, how he likes to be directed, and the “mind-fuckery” currently gripping modern media discourse.
Given that you’ve previously worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron and GLOW, did you two have a kind of collaborative shorthand going into Sword of Trust?
Well, I’m generally filled with anxiety and resistance. I don’t know if there’s a shorthand, but Lynn knows how to get the best out of me and works with me pretty well. I like directors who’re hands on with me and guide me.
Do you like to receive a lot of explicit direction, or is your process more intuitive?
Well, I do what I do. I definitely welcome suggestions, because I’m certainly not going to think of all the possibilities of a scene. Most of my choices are not necessarily correct. I usually come in pretty intense and hot, and there’s subtleties that can be coaxed out with minor tweaks. And I like working like that. I wouldn’t have the confidence to assume that my take is the “right” one necessarily.
There’s a stillness to you in Sword of Trust that I’m not sure we’ve seen before.
Your weight as a performer is really felt here, especially in that scene when Mel first see Lynn’s character in his shop. I love how you enter the room from the closet, and how one can feel the emotion bubbling up in Mel.
Thanks, man. I think this is a heavy-hearted guy who’s sort of surrendered to his lot in life. He also has a certain amount invested in his own. I don’t know if it’s heartache, but he’s definitely a broken dude who’s making the best of whatever time he has left. I don’t know if the other characters are really like that. They are always in forward motion.
You also inform Mel’s appraising of objects with all these lovely emotional textures. He’s not only talking about a sword.
The guitar too. As I act more, I try to take some of the space that you’re talking about. With acting I feel that I’ve been learning on the job in a way, and over time I’ve started to explore different possibilities with owning whatever my space is, whether it’s a movie or on stage. Certainly, over decades of doing stand-up, I’ve figured out my space on a stage, but being on a set and pacing yourself and taking the time to engage with what’s around you I think makes a lot of difference in how a performance comes off. It’s about being present in an environment.
Has your ascending acting career changed how you relate to actors on your podcast?
Over the last few years, since I’ve started acting more, I’ve had more actors on. I tend to try to pull a nice acting class out of that. I think a lot of what my guests say makes sense. Once again, a lot of acting is about listening and being present. In another time in my life, I saw certain actors as mythic. Now that I’ve talked to so many of them, I’ve started to realize, not in a disappointing way, that…what’s the word I want? That these are people doing a job, all in their own way. Once you get upset with people, you realize, “Well, that’s how they’re approaching this job,” and when you get into the ring or the scene, you’re in it.
That inside knowledge gives “WTF” an edge too. For many interviewers, like myself, art-making is basically theory. But you have your feet on the ground so to speak.
I think that happens over time. I don’t think I ever set out to interview. I’ve framed what happens on my podcast as conversations, and they either go somewhere or they don’t. There’s a few points I may get hung up on, and there are places I go to fairly regularly in interviews, but I generally don’t see these conversations as question-and-answer situations. I don’t have any expectations really other than to feel a connection or to sort of be enlightened. I think those of you who have a job to interview, for an outlet, for the content and the word count and everything else, might have more restrictions. I don’t have to answer to anybody and I don’t know what I’m looking for half the time.
Yeah, and a challenge I’ve found with interviews is that one doesn’t always entirely know what is and isn’t in bounds, which can lead to an impersonal vibe. By contrast, your podcast has such an intimate layer throughout.
You have to feel that stuff out, you know I’m not necessarily intuitive about that. I’m not really in the business of sandbagging anybody.
Usually you get somebody comfortable and things come out. If people are comfortable and engaged it doesn’t really matter what they’re talking about. Audiences will say, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that.” These conversations don’t require information, but an emotional connection. I’m so happy about that, especially considering the never-ending torrent of garbage that we have to move through every day.
I think about politics. Politics online are rarely civil, but when you get someone in person, and start slowly, and are willing to have a conversation, you can normally get farther than you might expect.
Online culture isn’t civil and there’s a momentum to everything that’s based on mind-fuckery. I know for myself—as somebody who was relatively disinterested and uninformed about the functions of government and why politics and leadership make a difference—that people are perfectly willing to volunteer their brains to these strange flashpoint reactors that trigger them emotionally. People live by these black-and-white decisions. It’s not good. We need to consider what we really know and how we know it and what we’re telling other people.
People are so empowered by garbage information that’s being related in a relatively shallow way, which doesn’t take into consideration the influence and context of the rest of our lives. It’s sort of a disaster. I try to stay away from that stuff in terms of the conversations that I’m having. I’m trying to deal with something more human and experiential. Most people are regurgitating talking points on both sides without thinking of how someone feels and how to affect change. I got an interview with Geena Davis [who stars in the new season of GLOW] coming up, about her work with her foundation and her work in this documentary about women in show business. It’s called This Changes Everything. I tell you man, when someone’s that personally invested in something they believe in, and it’s righteous, and they lay it out for you and it makes sense, that’s what heartens my belief in this possibility for change.
To change gears a bit, is it cathartic for you, as someone who’s long been in recovery, to play characters who’re either reformed or have drug issues?
Yeah, sure. Most obviously there’s the last season of Maron, where my character has a relapse, which frankly didn’t happen in real life. When you really understand the nature of addiction, and you’ve seen it from the inside, and know the powerlessness and the struggle to live a life that’s not in the throes of it—I mean, it’s such a common struggle. And what’s amazing to me is how many people don’t find a way out of that or don’t seek help. Or are ashamed of it or don’t know how to get the help. I never set out to do this, but I’m thrilled and humbled by the effect my work has on people who’re isolated by this sickness. It’s really one of the more satisfying results of the podcast: how much mail I get from people who’re struggling and who want advice, or who feel less alone from what I’ve said. The great thing about recovery, and about playing these parts, is that it gives you a context that’s very specific—a way to legitimately help people that can change their entire lives.
American Demons: Martin Bell’s Streetwise and Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell
Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature.
Decades after its original release, Martin Bell’s Streetwise remains a boldly empathetic work of vérité portraiture. Throughout the 1984 documentary, Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and journalist Cheryl McCall follow a motley group of kids on the streets of Seattle as they panhandle, dig food out of dumpsters, and prostitute themselves to much older men. These scenes are accompanied by voiceovers from the young subjects, who describe their actions with a heartbreaking casualness that communicates two almost contradictory meanings: that they’re seasoned hustlers, having bypassed childhood for an everyday form of hell, and that they’re desperate to be seen precisely as said hustlers. To show emotion is to be vulnerable, and these subjects can’t afford to be seen as weak, yet the filmmakers capture more here than the street children may have suspected. Streetwise is charged by a deep, subterranean yearning to be loved, or even merely felt.
A plot hasn’t been imposed on Streetwise, as the audience is allowed to feel the numbing monotony of life on the fringes. People swing in and out of prison, crash in and out of secret hovels, most notably an abandoned hotel, and practice their grifts, while struggling with overlapping tides of addiction and depression. We also learn, startlingly, that not all these children are homeless. Streetwise’s most famous subject, Erin Blackwell, a.k.a. “Tiny,” lives with her mother, a waitress and alcoholic who rationalizes her daughter’s prostitution as a phase and who seems to be impressed with Erin’s ability to make a few hundred dollars on a good day. It’s little wonder that Erin captured and continued to command the filmmakers’ attention for decades after filming Streetwise ended. She has a squinty yet expressive glare that suggests both a deep reservoir of pain as well as intense fierceness.
Bell, Mark, and McCall take Erin and her cohorts, most vividly a skinny boy with potential tonsillitis named DeWayne Pomeroy, at face value. Streetwise is pointedly devoid of the sermonizing that might allow audiences to comfortably distance themselves from these people, regarding them simply as elements of a civics lesson. The film forces us to confront the obviousness of these children’s circumstances, as people walk by them just as we all walk by the homeless on a daily basis. This sense of culpability informs Streetwise with an uncomfortable texture that’s familiar to documentaries concerned with poor or mentally and emotionally challenged people, so you may wonder how the filmmakers shot what we’re seeing without stepping in and helping these people. Particularly disturbing is when Erin, 13 years old at the start of filming, is seen getting into a car with an old man who’s obviously a john.
If Streetwise was just a portrait of damnation and delusion, it would be an important document. But the film is also haunting for Bell, Mark, and McCall’s attention to the transcendence than can be felt even in such extreme circumstances. After Erin has gotten into trouble, DeWayne tells her of how he will rescue her, and his attempt at gallantry is poignant as well as devastating. When DeWayne visits his father in prison, the old man lectures the boy about keeping his smoking down and laying off the hard drugs, commanding DeWayne to roll up his shirt sleeves for a track-mark inspection. As brutally sad as this confrontation is, one feels this father’s love and wonders if DeWayne, clearly a sensitive and lonely boy, can feel it too. Retrospectively, it hardly matters: DeWayne hung himself not long after this visit.
Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, a 2016 sequel to Streetwise that’s been in the works for thirtysomething years, offers a variety of unmooring contrasts from its predecessor. Erin is no longer the slim spitfire of Streetwise, but an overweight fortysomething mother of 10 who understandably appears to always be on the verge of exhaustion, and who takes methadone in an attempt to keep her drug addictions at bay while wrangling with her children’s own skirmishes with the law. Looking at Erin now, one sees the scars and weariness left by a hard life, part of which was documented by Streetwise, and one can implicitly feel Erin’s need for atonement. Though Erin’s gotten off the streets, living in a large home with her partner, Will, and several of her children, the streets have never left her.
Formally, Tiny is much different from Streetwise. The 1984 film abounds in seamy noises and textures, with roving camerawork that seems to be uncovering a new lurid discovery every few seconds; it feels palpably dangerous, and probably inspired films such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho and Larry’s Clark’s Kids. Set predominantly in Erin’s home, Tiny is slower and more polished, reflecting the (comparative) stability that Erin has achieved since appearing in Streetwise. Tiny also has a fancier structure than Streetwise, with a framing device in which Erin watches footage of herself over the years, including unused outtakes from the first film, with Mary Ellen Mark. An autumnal tone seeps into the new film, which offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of the unending legacies of crime and addiction.
As in Streetwise, Bell proves uncannily adept at capturing moments that seem to encapsulate a subject’s entire emotional temperature. There are frequent shots in Tiny of Erin sleeping with a little dog close to her face, which suggest rare moments of repose for a woman who’s used to running her chaotic family like a hostage negotiator. Erin frequently calls the cops on her own children, especially the headstrong teenager Rayshon, which Bell unforgettably rhymes with footage form Streetwise of a younger Erin visiting two of her children in foster care. One of the foster care children, Keanna, is now a mother herself, and resents Erin for abandoning her and for continuing to struggle with drug use.
Which is to say that Tiny is as charged with turmoil as Streetwise, and Bell proves equally capable here of rendering full relationships with only a few images or seconds of running time. As in Streetwise, our sympathies are rarely overtly directed, as Tiny is somehow on every character’s contradictory wavelength at once, illustrating how difficult understanding can be to achieve, most notably in the face of disaster. Though it runs a trim 87 minutes, Tiny offers an epic and piercing portrait of a large biracial family that’s plagued by essentially every demon known to American society. Erin escaped the streets only to fashion a home that’s rife with the very issues that drove her away from her own mother. Like most people, regardless of social stature, Erin is stuck in the temporal loop of her own inherent nature.
Review: Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians
Jude’s film is a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia.3.5
Prime minister of Romania during most of World War II, Ion Antonescu is one of the era’s supreme villains: a virulent anti-Semite, Nazi collaborator, and authoritarian dictator whose troops murdered Jews with such velocity and enthusiasm that even Hitler was shocked by their actions. Upon ordering the forced expulsion—and, if necessary, genocide—of the Jews of Bessarabia and Bukovina, Antonescu proclaimed, “I do not care if we go down in history as Barbarians.” Radu Jude borrows that declaration, so haunting in its cruelty and disarming in its blitheness, for the title of his latest film, a bitterly comic essay on nationalist mythologies and historical amnesia that locates the seeds of Romania’s currently resurgent ethno-nationalism in the nation’s collective failure to truly confront its own past.
For while Antonescu was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by firing squad shortly after the war, there have been repeated attempts to rehabilitate his image in Romania since the fall of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Take Sergiu Nicolaescu’s 1994 film The Mirror, a hagiographic treatment of Antonescu’s rule that portrays the leader as a defiant protector of his people. Jude inserts a substantial clip of that film into I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, having it play on a small TV set positioned in the exact center of the frame as we hear the off-screen voice of Jude’s protagonist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), providing sardonic, outraged commentary on the film’s distorted presentation of Antonescu as a misunderstood hero. There’s an element of desperation in the scene: While Mariana offers an incontestable rebuttal, no one but her boyfriend (Alex Bogdan) is there to hear it. Meanwhile, The Mirror’s comforting nationalist lies are being beamed into homes all across Romania.
A headstrong theater director attempting to stage a public reenactment of the Odessa Massacre of 1941, in which Romanian troops slaughtered thousands of Ukrainian Jews, Mariana is obsessed with bringing the full weight of historical reality to her fellow countrymen. She obsessively reads histories of the period and drops quotations from philosophers and historical figures into everyday conversation. The film is consumed by lengthy, probing conversations—mostly shot by a statically mounted 16mm camera that pans back and forth to cover the actors’ movements—in which Mariana discusses art, philosophy, history, and politics with her various collaborators and friends.
Her most persistent interlocutor is Movilă (Alexandru Dabija), a local official tasked with overseeing the publicly funded production, who constantly pleads with Mariana to tone down her work’s unvarnished depiction of anti-Semitic violence. Movilă is a relativist, content in the knowledge that all memory is willfully selective, while Mariana truly believes in the power of stark historical truth. Though at times didactic and overloaded with quotations from the likes of Wittgenstein and Arendt, Jude’s dialogue nevertheless manages to feel remarkably naturalistic. That’s thanks in no small part to the powerfully unaffected performances of a cast that finds the subtle humor and neurotic character details embedded in Jude’s dense screenplay. Iacob captures Mariana’s unrelenting passion while also finding moments of vulnerability and self-doubt in the role, including moments of hesitation and anxiety borne of the fact that she’s a petite, cosmopolitan woman attempting to exert control over a large cast of rugged men, many of whom are diametrically opposed to the vision of her project.
Jude’s heavy themes are leavened by a self-effacing sense of modesty. Jude isn’t attempting to make grand pronouncements about the nature of memory and truth. Rather, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians finds the director constantly interrogating his own perspective, questioning Mariana’s relationship to the wider public. That theme comes to a head in the film’s climactic presentation of the artist’s reenactment. Here, Jude switches from the warm dreaminess of 16mm to the harsh hyper-realism of digital video. The scene has the feel of a simple documentation of a live public event, but it isn’t clear that it’s actually any more “real” than the rest of the film. In particular, whether and to what extent the crowd of onlookers’ reactions are coached remains one of the film’s most intriguing enigmas.
Ultimately, Mariana finds herself perplexed and deflated by the public’s response to her work. One senses this reaction may be autobiographical for Jude, whose film Aferim! attempted to challenge Romanian audiences about the nation’s historical treatment of Roma people. As one of the few directors of the so-called Romanian New Wave whose work explores the country’s unsavory pre-Soviet past, Jude is swimming against the popular tide of revisionism and historical moral blindness. The anti-Semitic violence and hatred laid out in his latest is truly chilling, as is the contemporary tendency to diminish and obscure that dark past. But perhaps most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
Cast: Ioana Iacob, Alexandru Dabija, Alex Bogdan, Ilinca Manolache, Serban Pavlu, Ion Rizea, Claudia Ieremia Director: Radu Jude Screenwriter: Radu Jude Distributor: Big World Pictures Running Time: 140 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Interview: Lynn Shelton on Honing Her Process for Sword of Trust
The filmmaker discusses how she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Lynn Shelton has amassed a formidable body of work between her eight features and countless television episodes. Her latest outing, the comic adventure Sword of Trust, represents her most topical work to date. After pawn shop owner Mel (played by Marc Maron) purchases an old sword, he gets plunged into world of conspiracy culture as the relic attracts legions of online prowlers convinced that the weapon represents proof that the Confederacy won the Civil War. The logline might be Shelton’s wildest yet, but the elements that have made her work indelible for over a decade remain intact: realistic conversations, emotional authenticity, and a commitment to multi-dimensional characters.
I chatted with Shelton on Sword of Trust’s opening day, which saw the director, writer, producer, editor, and occasional actress in great spirits. Our conversation covered her pursuit of Maron for this specific project, how she developed her unique script-development process, and why she wants viewers to feel like they’re paratrooping into her characters’ lives.
Last year on Marc Maron’s podcast, you mentioned that you liked exploring relationships between people who wouldn’t normally interact. Sword of Trust continues in that tradition for you. What keeps bringing you back to these dynamics?
Have you heard of this theory of multiple intelligences, like different types of intelligences we have? I can’t remember the names that [Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner] came up with, I think there’s eight. I know I’m not the brightest bulb on all of these scales, but one way that I think I’m pretty high is in emotional intelligence. I like to think I am, anyway. I’ve always been that close observer of human behavior. I also really love humans. I feel like the thing that makes humans human are their flaws. So, on screen, I don’t like to see people who are too smoothed out, all good or all bad. I’m interested in characters who are essentially good people, but they may be total fuck-ups and well-meaning who may sabotage themselves. Individual fucking up often happens in relation to other people. We may have a pre-determined need to connect to other people, but we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves.
Sometimes, like I said on the podcast, I’m much more interested in unlikely combinations of people because it’s not a prewritten script we’re handed. It’s not like, “This is who would be appropriate for you as a friend. This is the way you should act. This is the box we’ve already determined for you.” Any kind of out-of-the-box way of living one’s life or being surprised by a connection you feel to a human being, all those little happy accidents in life are the things I like to explore. To inspire people, not to just go through life in this sort of “this is what someone else had in mind for me, and I should follow that plan”—that feels very depressing to me. It’s more interesting to open your heart and your life up to other experiences.
To explore relationships in that way makes the everyday more interesting and exciting.
Yeah, exactly. It gives you a reason to stick around.
Having been a guest of Marc’s on his podcast twice, do you see any of his interviewer “persona” having an impact on the person you film on screen? Does training himself to listen and be present have any effect on making him a better screen partner?
Absolutely! The first time I directed Marc was on his TV show Maron, and I was so fascinated by his process. He’s raw and a really natural actor. He steps in front of the camera, and he’s looking at his scene partner and really knows how to listen and engage. A lot of that comes from sitting across from people and staring into their eyes. That’s why he’s such a good interviewer and has the top interview podcast, because he has a genuine conversation with people. And that’s all acting really is too. He also has this weird ability to let the camera and crew and other extraneous details just fade away for him, and a lot of people find all that really distracting and difficult to shut out. He doesn’t know where the camera is half the time. He said to me, “The next thing I want to do as an actor is figure out when the camera is on me.” I said, “What?! That camera’s right there!” He’s like, “I don’t see it. I’m not aware of it. I’m just in this scene with the person.” I’m like, “That is a gift, my friend. That is incredible that you’re able to not see the lights and craziness, just be in the scene.” He’s really able to do it. I think that definitely comes from that same skill set he’s drawing on.
Where does the genesis of your films occur? They usually have some kind of strong conceptual selling point or hook, but they’re often like a Trojan horse to get to deep conversations between the characters about something else.
It is, and the genesis of the vast majority of my films is an actor as a muse that I want to work with. Humpday was Mark Duplass, Outside In was his brother, Jay Duplass, this movie was Marc Maron, who I’ve been really wanting to make a movie with for three and a half years. Then there’s other things, like a territory I want to explore or an element I want to return to, like improvisation, which I haven’t done since Your Sister’s Sister. I’ve done several movies in between that have been scripted, but I wanted to allow myself a new genre. I knew I wanted to laugh because the last movie was a drama, and I was ready to laugh—and let myself really laugh by going into the outlandish and ridiculous, plot-wise. Go into some comedy-caper territory, which I’ve never let myself do before. I’ve been totally real in every moment, and this time I was like, “What if I have real characters who go to a crazy place?” I wanted to make a culturally relevant movie that didn’t make you want to slit your wrists. It referred to what was going on and some of the problematic elements of what we’re dealing with in society. We’re having this peak moment in conspiracy theories. They’ve always been around, but this is definitely where they’ve achieved a peak moment that I find very disturbing. So, it’s usually a territory I want to explore and an actor I want to work with.
How do you research or prepare to authentically treat conspiracy culture?
Well, there’s this thing called a computer and a thing called the internet, and boy, is it all in there! [laughs] We went down a rabbit hole with Mike O’Brien, my co-writer. It’s so fascinating because there’s little in-fighting. They really bonded over Pizzagate and the Twin Towers being an inside job, but then when it comes to hollow earth versus the earth is on fire, they’re at odds and frenemies for life. It’s insane, the shit you find.
How do you approach shooting improvisational dialogue? There’s a very naturalistic feel to it, but there are hardly any vocal fillers like “um” or “you know.”
Well, you get the right cast, so that really helps. I’ll tell you, you can do a lot in the editing room. You’ll see it on screen, there are these runs of incredible monologues. But if I’m cutting away to another actor for a reaction shot, it’s often because I’m slicing out an “um” or an “ah” or a little bauble. The edit room is the most redemptive place in the universe. It’s incredible what you can do and how you can carve out the right story. Especially with improvisation, it really is where the actual script is written. Our first cut—it didn’t feel fat, it was funny throughout—was two and a half hours long. I was like, “How am I going to cut out five to seven minutes, much less an hour?” And for me, a comedy has to be 90 minutes, so I knew I needed an hour out of there. It was like, “This is hysterical, this is gold, but it’s not serving the story. Ultimately, what is the story? It could be this, or it could include this, but let’s just hone it down to Mel’s emotional arc and make sure we can track it through the craziness.” We want to care about these people just enough and balance it. There was so much work in the edit room.
Sword of Trust is definitely a comedy, but the scene I found most striking was Mel explaining his history to your character, Deidre, and in such a matter-of-fact, serious fashion, in the back of the truck. Did you always intend to set off this important part of the story with such a stark tonal contrast?
No, it wasn’t. When Mike O’Brien really insisted that I be in the movie, I finally relented and thought I was going to be a random customer who came in for five seconds. But then, I realized she could be a device that helps us track Mel’s arc. I was really panicking for a long time because I couldn’t figure out how to make her funny. I can be comedic, but she wasn’t comedic. She was so desperate and tragic. Then I finally realized that I wasn’t going to worry about it. I wasn’t going to try to turn her into some kind of laughing-stock. I was just going to be what she feels like she needs to be. That was an indication that this movie is going to have that real element of heaviness to it, but it happened really organically. I wanted you to care about these people, but I didn’t realize there was going to be that much depth to one of them, so much poignant heart and humanity. That was a nice surprise.
You’ve described your writing process as being “upside-down,” where the script develops alongside the characters. How did you develop this writing style?
I never went to traditional film school. I had this long, circuitous route to get to what I’m doing. I started as a theater actor, then I went to photography and started doing experimental work, but everything as a solo artist. The most important work of the film, making the process of the acting, is obstructed at every turn by the process of making it. You’re out of order. In theater, you at least get to play a story from beginning to end and feel it out. You’re at scene 35 on the first day and like, “What’s happened before this? Where am I emotionally?” And then you’ve got to do it 40 times with the camera in different positions and act like nobody else is there. The whole thing is so hard, unless you’re Meryl Streep! But if you’re not working with Meryl Streep, what do you do as a director? I need real people on screen.
My second feature, My Effortless Brilliance, was a total experiment. I came up with these characters in my head and tried to cast them from a pretty small pool of actors. They were nothing like the characters. I realized, “What if you did it the other way? What if you had a person you wanted to work with…” That was where I started with that idea, and all I cared about was to make it feel like a documentary. I wanted you to turn the TV on and be like, “What am I watching? Am I in these people’s lives?” And people have said they’ve had that experience where they’ll turn it on in the middle of Showtime and have no idea what they’re watching but that it feels like a documentary. Which is like, “Yes! That’s what I meant.”
And then I honed it with Humpday. Once I knew I could work in that way, I upped the stakes. I’ll bring in a few lights. I had said, “No lights! Me and another camera operator with tiny cameras, a boom op, that’s it.” I eliminated the crew. But that was where I came up with that initial impulse, to make it feel really real. If the character fits the actor like a glove because it’s half them or three-quarters them and they’ve developed it with me…I want real humans.
I actually had that experience of picking up one of your movies and not missing a beat. I was late to my showtime of Your Sister’s Sister in the theater, but I didn’t feel like I was lost. Then a few years later I watched it at home from the beginning, which helped it make a little more sense. But I felt I had easily intuited what I had missed.
It’s funny because I want my movies to feel like you’re paratrooping into somebody’s life. We’re taking a little journey down the river of their life for a while, and then we leave again. I don’t like to tie things up too neatly at the end because I want you to get the sense that they’re continuing to live their lives, and who knows what’s going to happen in the future. But you just sort of paratrooped in a little bit later! [laughs]
On that note, there’s a line toward the end of the film where Jillian Bell’s character, Cynthia, takes a deep breath and says, “What a strange experience.” Is that line improvised or scripted? In a lot of ways, the line feels like it sums up where characters often net out at the end of your films.
That was all improvised! It’s all ordinary people going into crazy land, but yeah, ordinary people having weird dramas in their everyday lives. I mean, it can happen. I’ve heard stories of shit happening to random people that feel like…you couldn’t write that shit!
Review: Into the Ashes Brings Nothing New to the Country Noir Genre
Aaron Harvey is prone to pulling back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale.2
Aaron Harvey’s Into the Ashes is the latest in an increasing string of so-called country noirs set in the dilapidated backwoods of rural America, places ravaged by the opioid crisis and populated by jobless people long ago abandoned by politicians. It has little to distinguish itself, narratively or thematically, from similarly dour films, and it lets generic images of its rundown Alabama locale (rusted trucks, cramped houses, landlines in a wireless world) stand in as symbols of national decline without truly seeping into the complex social rot of the place. Its plot, of a reformed criminal forced to contend with his old gang leader over some stolen loot, is similarly superficial, hitting the typical beats of its genre.
Where Into the Ashes gets a boost is in its excellent cast of grizzled character actors, all of whom vibrantly express varying degrees of weariness and rage. Luke Grimes plays the erstwhile ne’er-do-well and ex-con Nick Brenner with the nervousness of a man who’s just learning to let go of his past and give in to hope. The man’s gruff, taciturn nature is leavened by his tender relationship with his wife, Tara (Marguerite Moreau), and he projects his faith in normalcy onto her. Nick relies so heavily on Tara for his emotional wellbeing that he anxiously calls home while on an overnight hunting trip just so he can hear her voice.
Equally human beneath a hard exterior is Nick’s father-in-law, Frank (Robert Taylor), the local sheriff whose intimidating Tom Waits-esque voice and stiff demeanor belie his fumbling, masculine attempts to welcome Nick into his family. Strongest of all, though, is Frank Grillo as Sloan, Nick’s recently paroled and vengeful boss. Grillo is at home playing big-fish-in-small-pond villains, and the actor makes the most of Sloan’s thin characterization, exuding psychopathic menace when Sloan confronts Nick in the latter’s home, drawing out every oblique threat as he circles the subject of the money that Nick stole from the crew’s last job before Sloan was sent to prison. Grillo expertly inflects even the silliest moments of sub-Tarantino dialogue with a disarming venom, such as an extended riff on pie and ice cream.
But if the actors are primed to explore the contours around a basic premise, Henry constantly pulls back from any moment that might give greater depth to his revenge tale. Women exist to be supportive and to become victims, while character-driven conversations between Nick and Frank devolve into asinine ethics debates over justifiable violence. Worst of all, there’s just no sense that the film is saying or revealing much of anything. There’s one moment where Into the Ashes achieves a touch of bleak grace akin to the work of Cormac McCarthy by skipping over the events leading to a shootout and focusing only on its grisly aftermath: bodies strewn about in puddles of blood that look like reflective pools of black ice in the pale moonlight. Then, not five minutes later, we get a flashback showing the lead-up to that carnage. As with so much else in the film, a haunting moment of elision is negated by literal representation.
Cast: Luke Grimes, Frank Grillo, Marguerite Moreau, James Badge Dale, Robert Taylor, Brady Smith, Jeff Pope, Andrea Frankle Director: Aaron Harvey Screenwriter: Aaron Harvey Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Stéphane Brizé’s At War Is Politically Charged but Artistically Inert
The film is content to bluntly affirm that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders.2
Seven months after the first flare-up of France’s Gilets Jaunes, the nascent populist movement shows no signs of ceasing. Combined with the country’s ongoing Telecom scandal, in which several executives have been charged with “moral harassment” after 35 workers were allegedly hounded into committing suicide, it’s evident that what’s simmering there is an extension of the same unease escalating around much of Europe, and the world at large. It’s a state of affairs that makes At War seem especially of the moment, and which leaves its eventual failure to offer any special insight so disappointing. Provided with a prime opportunity to animate the zeitgeist, Stéphane Brizé’s labor-focused drama instead uses this timeliness to prod along the most obvious of points, its nuts-and-bolts, process-oriented approach never amounting to more than a surface look at the issues it purports to confront.
The film in some ways functions as an unofficial prelude to Brizé’s prior The Measure of a Man, in which an unemployed machinist played by Vincent Lindon finds a new career as a hyper-market security guard, where he’s eventually forced to choose between serving as a traitorous management lackey and losing his job. Here, Lindon’s Laurent Amédéo is still in possession of his original occupation, though things are hanging by a thread, as a last-ditch organizing effort attempts to halt the closure of a manufacturing plant in Agen. Surrounded by a cast of convincing non-professionals, Laurent leads the picket line, refusing to waver from the straight and narrow, an intense figure of principle whose scruples are never in doubt.
At War is largely notable for its steadfast devotion to a kind of mechanistic aesthetic, which unfortunately lines up with its cheerless didacticism, the two qualities cohering in a scene-by-scene summation of a strike action that repeatedly hammers home the same general points. The scenes themselves evince heft, fluidity, and an impressive sense of improvisation, but the staging is static and the eventual outcome is always clear. The game is given away by Lindon’s stoic face and the gradual unraveling of the plot, which envisions internal disintegration—leveraged by outside pressure—as the insidious method by which solidarity is smashed. Despite some genuine drama in this dissolution, it’s always clear who’s right and who’s wrong, which material interests each is representing, and who’s lying and who’s telling the truth.
This didn’t have to be the case, as proven by David France’s procedure-focused documentary How to Survive a Plague, which balanced a similarly diagrammatic narrative with extensive character detail, expanding the stakes while affixing a deeper subtext about the ways the victory of a marginalized group eventually diminishes its radical standing. Intent on emphasizing the connections between callous corporate greed and populist unrest, Brizé’s film is bluntly focused on the bottom line. There’s a certain dramatic function to this technique, as it examines the individual human actions that allow such interests to put their will into practice, but it doesn’t justify the flat, exhortative style of address.
As another example of how well this kind of economic criticism can be carried off, there are the dazzling docu-essays of German filmmaker Harun Farocki, who routinely found surprising intricacies in the cold façade of modern capitalism, while offering empathetic alignment with workers as a matter of course. At War, on the other hand, merely summarizes what its audience already knows, affirming that corporate attempts at compassion are always secondary to providing profit to shareholders, and that genuine humanity and integrity are liabilities when confronting such an unfeeling monolith. Like Ken Loach’s recent Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, it’s a film whose political principles are hard to disagree with, yet which leans so heavily on this moral certitude as to render itself entirely inert.
Cast: Vincent Lindon, Melanie Rover, Jacques Borderie, David Rey, Olivier Lemaire Director: Stéphane Brizé Screenwriter: Stéphane Brizé, Olivier Gorce Distributor: Cinema Libre Studio Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Bottom of the 9th Strikes Out with Too Much Plot Incident
Raymond De Felitta’s film offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension.1.5
Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th offers a sampler course of formulas, which creates a strangely unfulfilling tension. Just when you expect the film to go in a certain direction, it goes in another, only for it to again switch routes, though there’s never a sense of expectations being deliberately challenged or tweaked. Rather, the filmmakers merely seem to be indulging a variety of passing fancies, which is a shame because the actors here are game and occasionally imbue the shopworn scenes with liveliness.
Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello) is the perfect hero for either a noir or a redemptive sports film, a man approaching middle age who just served a 19-year sentence for manslaughter. Famous in his Bronx neighborhood for being drafted by the Yankees, only to flush his life down the toilet, Sonny is attempting to patch his life together while doing a perpetual apology tour on behalf of friends and strangers alike. He’s initially hired by an old friend, Joey (James Madio), to work in a fish market that seems to be a front for something. Joey has a cagey energy, and this narrative isn’t without intrigue, but De Felitta and screenwriter Robert Bruzio unceremoniously lose sight of it in succumbing to a number of clichés.
Of course, Sonny is revealed to have a woman who got away, Angela (Sofia Vergara), who one day runs into her old beau at a market. They clearly have chemistry, as do the actors playing them, but their dialogue is composed of nothing but redemptive platitudes. In these scenes, Manganiello and Vergara are stuck in a worst-of-all-worlds situation. Their characters are relentlessly mousey, which is appropriate to the awkward context of Sonny and Angela’s reunion, but which also robs these sexy actors of the opportunity to enjoy playing off one another. Meanwhile, said mousiness isn’t poignant either, as the characters haven’t been imagined beyond the respective stereotypes of the fallen man and jilted woman.
Bottom of the 9th then flirts with a narrative similar to that of Bull Durham and Major League, in which Sonny is hired by a local minor league ball team to rein in the fiery, egotistical talents of a rookie named Manny (Xavier Scott Evans). Evans is ferociously charismatic, suggesting a young Wesley Snipes and giving Manganiello a kinetic vibe to play off of, and so the film finally begins to come to life, with great character actors like Michael Rispoli and Burt Young riffing on the sidelines. However, this conceit is also left hanging, as the film shifts into a story of the unlikely comeback, with Sonny’s own talents taking center ring.
De Felitta might’ve gotten by with these contrivances if he were a natural showman, but the filmmaker displays little interest in the Bronx setting in which his characters live, or in rendering their experiences in a fashion that refutes screenwriterly index-card portraiture. For instance, a prison flashback in which Sonny gets into a fight during a ball game is reduced to trite and melodramatic close-ups, while much of the remainder of the film is composed of medium shots designed to accentuate only the largely uninteresting dialogue. There’s truly nothing in Bottom of the 9th but plot incident, and the leisurely, impersonal one-thing-after-another-ness of the film’s construction is stifling.
Cast: Joe Manganiello, Sofía Vergara, Denis O'Hare, Burt Young, James Madio, Yancey Arias, Michael Rispoli, Vincent Pastore, Dominik García-Lorido, Michael Maize, Kevin William Paul Director: Raymond De Felitta Screenwriter: Robert Bruzio Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Crawl Is Fun and Economical but Lacks Go-for-Broke Inventiveness
The film is more straight-faced than Alexandre Aja’s prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws.2.5
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water.
Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment.
If Crawl, then, is an easily digestible piece of workmanlike thrills, its only real bit of gristle is its po-faced father-daughter bonding. Haley and Dave are somewhat estranged; the family home was meant to have been sold off after Dave’s recent divorce from Haley’s mother; and flashbacks to childhood swim meets show father and daughter tempting fate with flagrantly ironic use of the term “apex predator.” In the face of certain death, they cobble their relationship back together through Hallmark-card platitudes while sentimental music plays on the film’s soundtrack. It’s the absolute thinnest of familial drama, and it will do little to redirect your emotional investment away from the survival of the family dog.
Between these family moments, of course, the flood waters run red as people get got by gators. Aja is prone to lingering in prolonged closeup on things like a protruding bone being shoved back into place, but he otherwise seems to have gotten the most inspired bits of underwater violence out of his system with Piranha 3D. Crawl is more straight-faced than his prior work, trading absurd kills for narrow escapes from gaping alligator jaws. And while these moments are suspenseful, with nail-biting scrapes involving a handgun, some loose pipes, and one particularly clever shower-door maneuver, there’s precious little of the go-for-broke invention or outrageousness that might have made the film more than a fun and economical thriller.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Morfydd Clark Director: Alexandre Aja Screenwriter: Michael Rasmussen, Shawn Rasmussen Distributor: Paramount Pictures Running Time: 87 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Farewell Thoughtfully Braids the Somber and the Absurd
The film taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.3.5
In the opening scene of writer-director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a Chinese grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), affectionately referred to as Nai Nai by her family, and her Chinese-American granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), have a warm, affectionate phone conversation in which each woman incessantly lies to the other. A professionally adrift, financially bereft millennial whose writing ambitions have come to naught, Billi lets her grandmother believe her life is busy and full of social engagements; for her part, Nai Nai insists that she’s at her sister’s house, rather than in a drably decorated doctor’s office. Wang frames Nai Nai against the kitschy, oversized picture of a lagoon that hangs on the wall, as if to emphasize the flimsiness of the illusions the pair is painting for one another.
The sequence calls to mind the advantage of audio-only phone calls: for allowing us to more easily maintain the falsehoods that comprise a not insignificant portion of our relationships. Given that minor mistruths prop up our most basic social connections, Wang focuses The Farewell on the moral quandary of whether a big lie—specifically, culturally contingent situations—might actually be an expression of genuine love. The film takes up the question with a tone of melancholic drollery, a sense of irony that doesn’t lose touch with the human feelings at its core. The Farewell is “based on an actual lie,” evidently an episode from Wang’s life, and its careful mixture of the somber and the absurd rings true to life.
As it turns out, Nai Nai has terminal lung cancer, but Billi’s father’s family elects to lie to the woman about her MRI results, an action that’s evidently within the bounds of Chinese law. But as Billi’s assimilated immigrant father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), points out to his brother, Haibin (Jiang Yongbo), during a crisis of conscience, such a thing is both frowned upon in America and prosecutable. Struggling even more with the decision, of course, is the more Americanized Billi, who can’t reconcile her Western notions of love and the sanctity of the individual with the widespread practice of lying to family members about their impending deaths.
To create a cover for a family visit to Beijing, the family forces Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao (Chen Hanwei), who lives in Japan, to marry his girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), of three months. This plan provides plenty of fodder for Wang’s dry humor, as the family attempts to maintain the veneer of celebration while also bidding farewell to their ostensibly clueless matriarch, who’s confused by Hao Hao and Aiko’s lack of affection and the generally dour mood that predominates in the lead-up to the wedding. It’s potential material for a farce, but even in its funny moments, Wang’s film is contemplative rather than frenetic, preferring to hold shots as her characters gradually, often comically adjust to the reality that Nai Nai will soon be gone.
Awkwafina, hitherto notable mostly for her comic supporting roles, gives a revelatory lead performance as Billi, the thirtysomething prone to bouts of adolescent sullenness. Perhaps playing a Bushwick-based, first-generation-American creative type isn’t much of a stretch for the Queens-born rapper/actress, but she immediately brings to the role the depth of lived experience: We believe from the first frames in the long-distance love between Billi and her grandmother, and the existential crisis the young woman feels as she negotiates two cultures’ differing approaches to death and disease. In taking us to Beijing through Billi’s eyes, which are often blinking back tears as she says goodbye without articulating “goodbye,” The Farewell’s morose but not hopeless comedy taps into universal truths about the passage of time, the inevitability of loss, and how we prepare one another for it.
Cast: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Hanwei Director: Lulu Wang Screenwriter: Lulu Wang Distributor: A24 Running Time: 98 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
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