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The Fog Of War (#110 of 5)

The Nature of Truth: Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line

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The Nature of Truth: Errol Morris’s <em>The Thin Blue Line</em>
The Nature of Truth: Errol Morris’s <em>The Thin Blue Line</em>

The most crucial and persistent message in Errol Morris’s body of work is his belief that human fallibility is the main obstacle in occluding the truth. Sometimes that fallibility is harmless, even amusing to watch (the occasionally radical theories espoused by subjects in First Show are testament to that), and yet just as frequently human error is disastrous. It allows atrocities to happen, people to be tortured and scapegoated, innocents to be sentenced to death row.

Morris’s films are more interested in revealing the frequently flawed interior workings of his subjects than in revealing any kind of objective truths themselves. That many of his works do end up revealing holistically a factual argument almost feels like an indirect byproduct of the sometimes dubious testimony he’s able to coax from his subjects. Morris has been called the “anti-postmodernism postmodernist” because his films don’t guarantee that truths are contingent on or irretrievably lost in the past, but that it can sometimes boil down to human judgment, error, and bias covering them up.

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: Tabloid

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Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Tabloid</em>
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2011: <em>Tabloid</em>

Errol Morris’s latest film, Tabloid, doesn’t tackle the major themes of war and torture that his previous efforts, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, investigated. Instead, he turns his eye toward the cult of celebrity through the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 followed her Mormon boyfriend Kirk Anderson to England, where he was doing missionary work, in order to rescue him from what she believed to be his religious “cult.” Depending on who is telling the story (McKinney, her associates, tabloid reporters) what happened next is either a beautiful, tragic love story or a lurid tale of kidnapping and sex. Essentially, McKinney appears to have taken Kirk (perhaps forcibly) to the English countryside for a weekend and attempted to “save” him by tying him to a bed and having sex with him for several days. When they returned to London, McKinney was arrested and eventually fled back to America.

Shifted Images

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Shifted Images
Shifted Images

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.” Umberto Eco

From a Spiegel magazine interview:

Q: You include a nice list by the French philosopher Roland Barthes in your new book, The Vertigo of Lists. He lists the things he loves and the things he doesn’t love. He loves salad, cinnamon, cheese and spices. He doesn’t love bikers, women in long pants, geraniums, strawberries and the harpsichord. What about you?
Eco: I would be a fool to answer that; it would mean pinning myself down. I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

Here are the films with images that shifted around most in my mind throughout the aughts. Not the best or worst, but the most enduring:

The Conversations: Errol Morris

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The Conversations: Errol Morris
The Conversations: Errol Morris

Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they’ll call it Errol Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn’t the subject of the documentarian’s investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That’s where unambiguous truth ends.

I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it’s fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a “documentary,” Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the “based on a true story” assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It’s like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you’d think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Morris’ documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else’s, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.

Visual Name-Calling: No End In Sight

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Visual Name-Calling: <em>No End In Sight</em>
Visual Name-Calling: <em>No End In Sight</em>

In the 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds, director Peter Davis interviewed inner-circle war hawk Walt Rostow. This was five years after Rostow had exited his National Security Affairs post, and well after the doomed strategies developed by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had been altered to suit both the realities of Southeast Asia and the larger Cold War geopolitical context. Rostow was not necessarily in a position where he still needed to cover himself politically; he would not have been either the first or the most important architects of the Vietnam war to renounce those early policies or to claim that mistakes were made. But in the film, when Davis asks, “How did we get to be in Vietnam?”, Rostow becomes annoyed and aggressive. “Are you really asking me this goddamned question?”, he demands, then indulges Davis with a condescending history lesson. It’s a revealing moment of bitterness—one that found its counterpart in Robert McNamara’s two-hour Fog of War stonewall 30 years later, and that haunted my viewing of Charles Ferguson’s Iraq war documentary No End in Sight.