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.