Decide for Yourself
Truth in the Films of Errol Morris
May 4, 2015
12 Min read time
Donald Rumsfeld in Errol Morris's most recent documentary, The Unknown Known (2014). Image: RADiUS-TWC
The Cinema of Errol Morris
Wesleyan University Press, $29.95 (paper)
Since breaking through with The Thin Blue Line (1988), a noirish investigation into a botched Texas murder case (is there any other kind?), Errol Morris has been making something previously unseen in the sober realm of independent documentary: something stylish, engaging, witty, philosophical, and personal. And with subject matter ranging from obscure Holocaust deniers to the name-brand statesmen who shaped the last half-century of American foreign policy, Morris has become one of the few documentarians to make movies that get people talking.
What makes his work so memorable? More than anything else, it is his wry intelligence. As the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote about Morris’s Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control: “A successful open work, in contrast to a merely sloppy or random one, has enough formal rigor to limit a viewer’s choices, not simply to allow a chaotic free-for-all where any and every meaning is possible.” Morris is the master of such controlled openness. He avoids a didactic approach that slams the audience over the head with capital-T truth. Instead his films—of which there are more than a dozen—are both pointed and open to interpretation. He puts his specimens under the glass and observes them with almost clinical regard while they run in discursive circles that intersect, at least occasionally, with the facts. In this sense he is a cinematic poet of self-deception, an obsessively curious man who burrows into the strange ways in which we delude ourselves and others, sometimes harmlessly, other times not.
By picking gracefully at the peculiar ways in which we craft stories about what really happened, Morris not only takes the audience a little closer to what might have happened but also finds the surprising joy at the meta-level: why do we think we know what happened? As he once told an interviewer, he has a two-part interest in truth: “An interest in the pursuit of truth and an interest in examining how people manage to avoid the truth in one way or another.”
In some ways his epistemological emphasis makes him an odd figure in the documentary tradition. Too smart, cantankerous, and aloof for populist agitprop, he is not an activist with an obvious cause, nor a charming but sloppy polemicist like Michael Moore. He doesn’t perform wacky on-camera stunts like Morgan Spurlock, nor does he cut his films with the percussive force of rock music videos or the salacious eye of Reality TV. Instead, he simply dissects—and in doing so has changed the face of nonfiction filmmaking in the contemporary United States. I can’t imagine Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling’s gorgeous and troubling new documentary for HBO, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, without Morris’s precedent. Yet Morris still has one foot outside the documentary mainstream for reasons that have less to do with the look and subject of his films, and more with their tone and the impulse behind them.
The great scholars of the subject, people like Bill Nichols, Michael Renov, Stella Bruzzi, Jane Gaines, Tom Waugh, and others, suggest that independent documentary exists for a number of reasons: to “show us life” that we would otherwise be unable to glimpse; to satisfy the endless hunger for knowing, called epistephilia; to provoke a kind of “political mimesis” by which textual claims are translated to the real world (such as when an activist film brings people together to create social change); to bear witness to the agonies and joys of the human condition out of a sense of spiritual or ethical communion; or to simply be entertained with a good story that happens to be true. Morris doesn’t fit neatly into any of these camps.
• • •
All this complexity and contradiction, not to mention the variety of his accomplishments, makes it appropriate that Morris should receive a book-length treatment called (what else?) The Cinema of Errol Morris. A Film Studies scholar now teaching in Alabama, David Resha has written a great book for anyone who cares about one of the most compelling figures in the contemporary mediascape. Resha is clearly a fan, but his passion for his subject doesn’t undercut his analytical cool. If the extended close readings of films do not compel the general reader, they will prove very useful to film students hoping to learn more about Morris’s influential career.
Errol Morris avoids a didactic approach that slams the audience over the head with capital-T truth.
The book is not a biography, and we don’t learn much about Errol Morris the person, though we do get a sense of his career. An “unpleasant” grad student at Princeton and an eccentric one at UC-Berkeley (he was asked to leave both programs), Morris got a bump in the right direction from none other than Werner Herzog, whom he had met at the Pacific Film Archive in the mid-seventies. With sideways encouragement from the German director, who promised to eat his smelly desert boot if the younger man ever completed a film (the result is a great little Les Blank film called, sure enough, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe), Morris got friends and family to put up money for a project about two pet cemeteries in California. The result, Gates of Heaven (1978), was hailed by Roger Ebert as “one of the ten greatest films of all time,” but few people saw this first effort or the brilliant (if vaguely condescending) follow-up on the strange rural storytellers of Vernon, Florida (1981). Up against the poor distribution and limited funding familiar to anyone working in nonfiction during those pre-digital days, Morris had second thoughts about filmmaking and even started working as a private detective until he found his way to the disturbing case of Randall Dale Adams, an apparently innocent man sitting on death row in Texas for the 1976 killing of a Dallas police officer.
The documentary he made out of this case, The Thin Blue Line, was a revelation. It was a slick-looking, trance-inducing, genre-bending, conversation-starting meta-film—something far beyond what Morris had achieved in his first two projects. It was an American Rashomon, with the difference being that it was real. Well, sort of. In a then-unorthodox move that mystified some viewers, Morris included speculative re-enactments alongside interviews and other typical documentary elements. The Thin Blue Line didn’t look like anything else, and the movie was a small hit with audiences and critics and scholars alike (and it is now number five on a British Film Institute poll of the best nonfiction films of all time).
However, the distributor, Harvey Weinstein, was not happy with his director. Criticizing Morris for being “boring” after hearing him on public radio, Weinstein advised him to hawk his wares like a Hollywood flack on a junket. “Tell them, “It's scarier than NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET,” he insisted. “It's like a trip to the Twilight Zone!” Of course, no one remembers how Morris marketed the film; what we remember are its formal innovations and the real world impact. Despite a stylish veneer that was the product of smart lighting and a haunting Philip Glass score, The Thin Blue Line sunk its teeth into the world in the tradition of cinéma engagé: it helped to get Randall Dale Adams freed from jail after twelve years behind bars. The fact that Adams turned around and sued Morris for securing the rights to his life story only added to the aura surrounding the controversial film.
• • •
Resha’s book provides clear, insightful, and grounded readings of Morris’s formal innovations. My favorite chapter explores The Fog of War (2003), one of his most commercially and critically successful films.To help us understand the power of The Fog of War, Resha gives a great sense of the filmmaker’s blend of innovative methods, technical prowess, and aesthetic insight. Shooting in 24p high definition video, Morris and cinematographer Robert Chappell placed four semi-transparent screens behind their interviewee, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, to keep the background beautifully and evocatively hazy. Such careful choices were not limited to shooting the interview. As Resha describes, The Fog of War is also built from “stylized, slow-motion photography, staged re-enactments, and asymmetrical, fragmented framings,” as well as television news, government training films, and battlefield footage in a wide range of film stocks and video formats.
Resha also explains how Morris used his famous “Interrotron” system, an unusual camera set-up that allows the director and his subject to look into one another’s eyes via two separate monitors, one of which is connected to a two-way mirror with the camera semi-hidden behind it. The result is part of the distinctive look of Morris’s films: the illusion that the subject is looking directly at the viewer in an unnervingly natural manner that feels different than when a subject stares into the lens. Morris didn’t invent this complex system for conducting interviews, but he certainly mastered it, nowhere more so than in The Fog of War, where it makes McNamara seem somehow more naked and vulnerable, more human, than he has ever seemed before.
All this cinematic variety works toward a complex portrait of the sole interviewee, allowing Morris to create a film unusual among political documentaries for its open voice. Resha describes how most political films trade in the certainties of the formal voice, in which an on-screen consensus seems to emerge about what is true or false in a film. By contrast, Morris is far less didactic, giving the audience more space to make its own inferences. As Resha puts it, “The combination of the film’s visuals, testimony, and structure openly explore, rather than rigidly explain, the ways in which McNamara understands his own past.” What results is not an isolated interviewee who gets the last word, but an occasion for a remarkably close scrutiny of McNamara and his notorious worldview, which brought little more than “data” and “efficiency” to moral questions of life and death. Talking about Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Resha says, a “loose associational structure . . . challenges the audience to make meaningful connections between the people and ideas in the film,” Resha. The same is true ofThe Fog of War.
Morris is wise to put people in the center of the frame and let them run their mouths.
Though he is sometimes criticized for not pushing hard enough in his interviews, I think Morris is wise to put people in the center of the frame and let them run their mouths. Maybe I’m letting him off too easy, but I appreciate his willingness to let the story speak for itself without excessive punctuation or a melodramatic 60 Minutes-style confrontation, which is sometimes little more than a phony performance of moral outrage in which someone screams “gotcha.” If Morris doesn’t shout, “Robert McNamara is a self-serving war criminal son-of-a-bitch” in The Fog of War, it’s because he doesn’t need to. Instead, he lays down plenty of rope for the viewer to hang the former defense secretary for his epic miscalculations, or better yet, to hang the system that elevated this blinkered technocrat to the apex of Cold War power. Or, even better still, the film encourages something more than easy denunciation and moral superiority: It invites a humane regard for McNamara’s folly, as if he were a deluded king in Shakespearean tragedy who we can’t quite reject outright. Without in any way excusing what McNamara did, Morris shows an awareness of human frailty and contradiction that we often attribute to great novelists.
• • •
There is a risk to faith in the documentary form. Documentary can provide the illusion of political activity, presenting human suffering in the form of an aesthetically pleasing drama that we can turn off with the click of button, at which point we feel a rush of moral self-satisfaction that the comedian Louis CK would appreciate: Aren’t we wonderful for having watched that? Aren’t we noble for caring enough to rent that film? Cynically, one could even suggest that documentary provides the perfect vehicle for political self-nullification in an era of faux connectivity: a window to the world through which we never need to step. The danger, then, is that documentary will substitute for real politics.
Indeed, for someone who often focuses on seemingly political subjects in several films, Errol Morris is not what you’d expect from a political filmmaker. At some level he is an idealistic muckraker hoping to shock the system into reform, but he often seems more interested in the slippery nature of narrative itself and the comic-tragic flaws of the species. He listens closely to the lies we tell ourselves and invites the viewer to wonder about the trouble they might cause, whether at the level of national policy or something much more intimate in scale. If someone gets freed from jail as a result of his filmmaking, he won’t complain, but it is almost a by-product of the subtle philosophical project that occupies his real attention. Admittedly, this approach is not always easy to love. Sometimes it seems mighty privileged—indeed, almost aristocratic—to poke so coolly at truth’s embers.
Other times it seems eminently sane and necessary. Errol Morris pushes us to rethink the normal order of things in an incurious world. He can sound quite modest about his task at times. “Cinema is no more a vehicle for truth than a magazine or a book,” he concedes. “It's just another one of those devices that we use to tell stories.” But he has never been some sort of semiotic nihilist staring into the void of nothingness for a thrill; he believes there is something to be gained from making nonfiction film. As he puts it, “I think underneath all of it, on the part of the person actually making the films, there can be an interest in truth and in the pursuit of truth that can be captured and talked about in a movie. And I hope that, at least in part, that's what my career has been about.” I think that is quite right, and for all his quirks, we’re lucky to have him. Morris remains one of the most significant filmmakers of our times, someone whose latest film, the portrait of Donald Rumsfeld called The Unknown Known (2014), reveals no slackening of his attention or artistry. Morris is not ready to gather dust in some museum of nonfiction where good intentions go to die. Rather, he is very much alive and active, continuing to work on projects that will invite us to consider, as the Rumsfeldian tagline to The Unknown Known puts it, “What you didn’t know you didn’t know.”
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
May 04, 2015
12 Min read time