Errol Morris: Connecting the Dots

Sunday, October 24, 2010

  Errol Morris
There’s a pattern of critical judgment in festival reviews of Errol Morris’s “Tabloid” that is manacling itself to the film as tightly as its heroine, Joyce McKinney, trussed her Mormon ex-boyfriend to a bed. It’s the notion that because the subject of “Tabloid” isn’t a subject of monumental historical significance like “The Fog of War” and “Standard Operating Procedure,” then it is somehow a throwaway, a mere Snickers bar amidst the strong meat of his career. I can imagine two reasons why they might think this.

The first possibility is that they haven’t seen most of Errol’s films. This is borne out by the way some are surprised that Errol is funny, which is exactly like saying they’re stunned that Zach Galifianakis is funny. Despairing but still laugh-out-loud gallows humor is what made “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida” controversial—“is he making fun of these people?”—and what made “The Thin Blue Line” hysterically funny to audiences, despite the Kafaesque tragedy it chronicled.

The second explanation is that these critics haven’t been curious enough or taken the time to think about why they like his movies. Even if they have praised him as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, if they are honest with themselves, they just know that his films have an impact on them that they can’t exactly put their finger on.

Gates of Heaven Poster For my defense of “Tabloid,” which, by the way, is my second favorite Errol Morris film, let me start with his debut, “Gates of Heaven.” The film was not about the Vietnam War, Enron, environmental catastrophe, or the struggle for civil rights,” it was seemingly about two pet cemeteries, one that failed and one that succeeded. Yet Roger Ebert considers to be one of the top ten movies of all time, along with films like “2001,” “Casablanca,” Citizen Kane,” “Raging Bull,” “La Dolce Vita,” “Notorious,” and “The Third Man.”

Why?

For starters “Gates of Heaven” is about a hell of a lot more than pet cemeteries. The topic is actually nothing more than an opportunity for Errol to let people talk about all sorts of things, beyond people’s relationships with animals, business strategies, and death. Before making his debut film, Errol had done numerous audio interviews and had discovered that people will often talk a very long time before he asked the first question, a method he has since described as “leave people alone, let them talk, and in two or three minutes they’ll show you how crazy they are.” As Roy Grundmann and Cynthia Rockwell wrote:

Morris uses the cinematic medium to seek realism in a philosophical rather than objective sense, by exploring the intersections of the “fictional” and “real” worlds we create and inhabit. In Morris’s world-view, people live inside personal story worlds that they construct for themselves about who they are and what they’re doing, worlds that may be divorced from reality and which are revealed by a person’s language, through the stories that they tell about themselves.

Errol, Me, Julia Sheehan at Telluride for the World Premiere of Errol's Temple Grandin film "Stairway to Heaven" Errol elicits unexpected revelations about his subjects’ interior life through interviews that go far beyond two or three minutes, but more commonly six hours or more. One of his favorite starting gambits is to ask people about what they wanted to be when they were children. A crucial part of his aesthetic is what he calls his first-person visual style, where his subject speak directly into the camera eye—and to the audience—just as a TV anchorman or politician does. This is an artistic choice Errol made before he ever shot a frame of film. For his first films, he approximated it by placing his head as closely as possible to the lens. Unsatisfied, he invented a device which allowed his interviewees to see an image of his face in front of the camera lens. In addition to perfecting the First Person effect, this contraption, which his wife Julia dubbed the Interrotron, had the effect of taking him out of the interview room. This distance boosted the power of the effect, because, as he has said often, people will tell you a lot more on the phone than they will face to face.

Errol begins the process of making his movies with a complete openness to whatever happens once he starts listening. More than once he has begun a film on one subject and changed it to another. And his biggest process of discovery is in the editing room, which can take a very long time, even years. It’s not unusual for him to take a film to a level to a certain place, tear it apart and start over.

Standard documentaries tend to be jigsaw puzzle narratives constructed and solved by the filmmaker.They are filmed, written and edited to fit together a certain way. One by one, the filmmaker lays a puzzle piece down until an overall picture is revealed for the audience: Enron was a very bad company; the war in Iraq was mismanaged; our [health care, education, environmental, fill in the blank] system is a disgrace. The audience leaves the theatre with fascinating information that has been shaped by the filmmaker’s agenda for their benefit.

Errol makes jigsaw puzzles too, but they don’t function that way. He gives the audience pieces from many different puzzles, and he doesn’t solve any of them, he leaves that work to the audience. And then the audience has the even bigger task of uncovering what the connections are between the puzzles. I don’t actually think that Errol makes movies, rather he creates experiences that just happen to be movies—and going through an Errol Morris experience is an assignment for the impossible quest of connecting the dots.

This explains why Roger Ebert has shown “Gates of Heaven” dozens of times to people in all walks of life, and every viewer has something completely different to say about it. There is no possible way to watch “Gates of Heaven” without being forced to invent your own movie.

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control Four men with unusual professions are interviewed in “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control”: an M.I.T. robot scientist whose creations are inspired by insect behavior; a lion tamer, an artist/gardener who trims topiary into “Edward Scissorhands”-style giant animals; and a man passionately engaged in the study of the African naked mole rat. At first they might seem to have nothing in common, but as the film unfolds, certain similiarities emerge, from the comic absurdity of their obsessions, to themes like man’s attempt to control animals, and finally the melancholy understanding that some good and noble things are destined to fade away. The lion tamer is practicing a craft that he believes will die out soon after he does; the elderly gardener knows that a storm could destroy years of his effort and in any case, his sculptures will disintegrate when he dies; and the robot designer cheerfully talks about the future, when robots will outlive our species. Driven by Caleb Sampson’s wistful music, and a cornucopia of cinematic styles from slow motion, multiple film stocks, and offbeat angles, “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” is a film that is as easy to love as it is hard to summarize. The odd impact of “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” is that nobody in the audience needs to give a damn about mole rats or animal topiary design before or after they see the film. It’s beside the point. The emotional power of the film comes from the connections that each member of the audience makes while watching it.

Henry Shipes, Turkey HunterAn Errol Morris film rests on the bedrock of self-deluded people. Some center on a single person, who has two strange moments associated with their life, like “Mr. Death”’s Fred Leuchter, Jr., who is a designer of humane execution devices and a holocaust denier, and “Tabloid”’s Joyce McKinney, an American woman in a 70s British sex scandal who later on clones her dog in South Korea. Films like “Gates of Heaven” and the under-rated “Vernon, Florida” feature an ensemble of eccentrics. For example, the residents of Vernon, Florida include a red wiggler worm salesman, a couple with a jar of sand they believe is growing, and my favorite, a turkey hunter with a plaque with three pairs of gobbler feet and their beards, who tells glorious stories of how he bagged each one. Put all that stuff  together, why don’t you? You’re on your own. Errol sure isn’t going to help you.

I can hear somebody saying, “What about ‘The Thin Blue Line,”? That has a wrap-up. Errol solved a murder! I think it’s wonderful that Errol got an innocent guy out of jail, but that’s only a distraction from what makes the film a masterpiece. It’s not that it finds the solution to a murder trial in Texas, but rather that it is an exploration of the mysteries of the human mind and its endless need for self-delusion. The “reenactments” in the film are said to have inspired everything from History Channel crime shows to “Man on Wire,” but in fact they the opposite of reenactments—they were illustrations the falsehoods and confused thinking behind what the eyewitnesses claimed to have seen.  The movie demands that the audience try to interact and make sense of it. “The Thin Blue Line” poster tagline is: a softcore movie, Dr.Death, a chocolate milkshake, a nosey blonde and The Carol Burnett Show. Solving this mystery is going to be MURDER.”

Errol told me when we were at the Toronto Film Festival that during the Bush/Cheney years he felt the imperative to make more political films. It’s understandable that when you live through a time when your Vice-President says, “Yes, we torture! We make no apology for that!” you might want to make a movie like “The Fog of War,” a film about the past which resonates so well with the Iraq war. I can obvious why he felt the need to make a movie like “Standard Operating Procedure,” that proves indisputably that the jailed servicemen and women who snapped photos at Abu Ghraib got a raw deal. Of course, in that film he does that by employing his current fascination with the battle photography and truth (as elaborated in his New York Times blog and his upcoming book), but to me, this kind of stuff is really nothing new for him. I admit I haven’t read it all, and I know I’m being laughably reductive of what I have read, but basically his point is that you can’t trust photos to be true because they are looked at by human beings, and the reasoning of human beings is subject to many variables, that distort judgment. He doesn’t believe that seeing is believing; he believes that “believing is seeing.” To me, this is a corollary to his notion that people live in the movies they have written, directed and starred in, and find distribution in the theatre inside their heads.

Joyce McKinney Even if you don’t agree with what I’ve written above, I hope you can understand why “Tabloid” is my favorite Errol Morris film after “Gates of Heaven.” My reasoning couldn’t be simpler. I find Joyce McKinney to be the quintessential Errol Morris character, a miracle find. If his stated career goal is “sick, sad and funny,” she is by far the sickest, the saddest, and--oh my God!—the funniest one ever. And like all his films, you have to connect the dots. What does a woman’s tabloid sex scandal have to do with her cloning her dog years later? (Errol thinks he knows and he answers the question in Q&A’s and interviews. I wish he would stop doing that, as I think it’s like giving away the secret to a magic trick.)

But there is more. For the first time in all of his movies, Errol hands over the camera to his main character. There’s a sequence of Joyce’s home movie footage that he incorporates into “Tabloid.” Joyce is videotaping her father sleeping and her empty yard. “Nothing is happening here,” she says. In a literal sense, Joyce is documenting that there is no reason for the dog to be incessantly barking next door, but when Errol runs it over and over the meaning is obvious. After all her Lindsay Lohan-style escapades on the world stage, this is where Joyce’s story ends.

 

I could never have written this without the book Errol Morris Interviews, edited by Livia Bloom. My thanks to all the authors of the interviews and essays within. If you like Errol’s films, this book is a must.

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