Humans are like robots.
Humans are like insects.
Humans are like rats.
Humans scurry around the
Earth, stumbling and fretting, accomplishing nothing;
then they die.
Furthermore, the documentary films of Errol Morris conclude
that humans are impulsive, self-obsessed and about as
in control of their lives as one of Pavlov's pooches.
But there's no reason to get defensive—Morris still thinks
that human beings are the best thing the Earth has got
Morris, the 53-year-old father of modern documentary filmmaking,
has a short but formidable filmography that spans three
decades, including seven documentaries and one rarely-seen
fiction feature, Dark Wind. Morris' documentary
subjects include a botched murder case (The Thin Blue
Line), convoluted cosmology theories (A Brief History
of Time), even Holocaust denial (Mr. Death: The
Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.).
What makes Morris controversial
is not subject matter but the fact that he often IGNORES
the implications of said subject matter, instead focusing
on the goofy hobbies and character quirks of his idiosyncratic
interviewees, many of which have little to no relevance
to the stories as a whole. To some, this technique belittles
the importance of Morris' topics. To others, this technique
humanizes Morris' films, turning them into something much
larger in scope and grander in design.
Take 1999's Mr. Death,
which details Leuchter's career as a designer of humane
execution equipment—gallows, lethal injection machines,
gas chambers, electric chairs. Leuchter's already macabre
tale takes a turn for the truly unsettling when he is
hired by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel to conduct a series
of chemical tests from within the walls of Auschwitz,
in order to "prove" that the gas chambers are myths and
that six million people did not actually die. As provocative
as this is, Morris chooses to spend a good deal of time
on Leuchter's unfathomable daily intake of coffee (40
cups) and his nearly criminal daily intake of nicotine
(six packs). Rather than take Leuchter to task for his
offensive theories, Morris instead prefers to listen to
Leuchter explain how he met his wife, filming Leuchter's
infectious, over-eager grin with almost loving attention.
Asks Morris: "How do these minor details, when added together,
equal 'Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., Holocaust Denier'?"
Answers Morris: "Who knows?"
Answers have never been
Morris' specialty. Questions, on the other hand, are.
In fact, Morris is the inventor of the Interrotron, an
interviewing innovation that allows the subject to see
a live picture of Morris superimposed on the camera lens,
allowing them direct eye contact with Morris (and, subsequently,
us), while also making the interview process more comfortable.
And once his interviewees are comfortable, strange things
begin to happen. They start rambling. They tell jokes.
They pause awkwardly, pick their noses, belch. These moments
of radical unaffectedness act in lieu of lengthy, explanative
character backgrounds, making Morris' characters infinitely
real in one fell swoop.
Today, reality-based programming
is dominated by the fringe weirdoes of the "Jerry Springer"
variety, who effectively function to distance us from
one another. Morris (who owes a debt to Fred Wiseman,
the documentary legend of the verité classics Titicut
Follies and High School) prefers subjects that
are overtly—almost obscenely—normal. More than any living
filmmaker, Morris recognizes the transformative magic
of celluloid. He knows that people and actions that aren't
given a second look in real life are radically metamorphosed
when projected on a movie screen. Morris works in the
opposite way of Springer, elevating the mundane, taking
the minutia of daily life and, through achingly beautiful,
slow-motion photography, turning tasks as prosaic as cutting
weeds or brewing coffee into spectacular feats of simple
Morris' most outrageous
works are those that aren't about notorious newsmakers
or contentious topics. Morris' first film, Gates of
Heaven, which Roger Ebert calls "one of the ten best
films ever made," is ostensibly about two California pet
cemeteries. But as the film progresses, it ambles further
and further away from the central focus, eventually dwelling
upon the musical aspirations of one of the supporting
characters, as if Morris' wandering eye got bored with
dead pets and found something else of more immediate interest.
This aggressive abandonment of standard film structure
would become a Morris trademark and begs the question
that can be asked of all his films, "What is this movie
(1981), Morris' most subtle and enigmatic picture to date,
is made up of a series of loose interviews—a duck hunter,
a local sheriff and several peculiar old men, none of
whom are identified. Relation to each other: geographical.
Relevance to a national audience: none. Vernon
has no story-line, but is filled with stories; as these
small-town folk expound upon ambidextrous store owners,
pine tree patterns and how to price a good used van, their
involvement in their stories BECOMES the story. Some of
the men in Vernon mumble so badly that you can't
even understand them, yet the WAY they mumble—as well
as the fact that they don't realize that they are unintelligible—is
endlessly engaging. As with Mr. Death, it does
not matter if the characters are right, wrong or even
make sense; it matters that they say what they are compelled
companion piece is 1997's Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control,
which, through startling audio and visual juxtapositions,
fuses the story of four men—a topiary gardener, a robot
builder, a mole-rat specialist and a lion tamer—who share
nothing in common, save an obsession with making nature
do something that it is not naturally inclined to do.
Along the way, the robot builder makes a most telling
observation: while studying ants, he noticed that, individually,
ants often fall over, go the wrong way and accomplish
nothing. But as a group, they manage to slowly progress,
somehow achieving their goals.
This is the foremost message
of an Errol Morris film. As humans, we believe that our
lives have plots, just as we believe our films have plots.
But along the way, we get caught up on our own problems,
our own obsessions, our own bad habits and indulgences.
Yet, almost miraculously, the human race progresses, inch
by inch. Would we have humane execution equipment if Fred
Leuchter didn't drink 40 cups of coffee a day? Would we
understand the cosmos if astro-physicist Stephen Hawking
(A Brief History of Time) wasn't obsessed with
pictures of Marilyn Monroe? In a word: no. This leap of
logic sounds complex, but it is really basic. No matter
if you're an acclaimed astro-physicist or a rambling retiree,
there is nothing more satisfying and reassuring than the
sound of your own voice reasoning life out, striving to
make sense of the whole mess. And that's what an Errol
Morris film does—it talks about things out loud, maybe
compares them, maybe not, maybe even decides to start
talking about something else. But this is how all great
thoughts and actions begin—by letting your mind find inspiration
from whatever naturally inspires it—whether that be coffee,
nicotine or famous blonde bombshells.
The Thin Blue Line
(1988), Morris' most famous work, is his one cinematic
exception. Blue Line is the only motion picture
to ever overturn a murder case and is credited with reversing
the Death Row conviction of Randall Dale Adams. With a
stark re-creation style that has since been aped by every
America's Most Wanted-type show on television,
Blue Line forsakes character development to focus
on a convoluted plot that is, by necessity, obsessed with
details—license plate numbers, cigarette butts, chocolate
malts. Despite his
critical success and that fact that he is one of the only
documentary filmmakers in America assured of a theatrical
release, Morris has yet to even be nominated for an Academy
Award. This fact befuddles critics and fans every year
that Morris releases a film and invariably leads to countless
articles on how royally screwed-up the Oscar documentary
nominating process is. But if Oscar gold comes with resigning
himself to more traditional filmmaking techniques, Morris
won't ever be making a tearful acceptance speech.
If anything, Morris' style
is becoming more and more eccentric, as he continues his
search for the ultimate human-recording device. His newest
invention is called the Megatron; a mysterious machine
that records an interview with up to 20 interlinked digital
video cameras. Still, as Morris' techniques and style
grow flashier, it is Vernon, Florida, his most
stubbornly unconventional film, that haunts this writer's
memory. There's a moment where an old, amateur photographer
shows Morris a bad, out-of-focus photo of a star in the
sky. Morris clearly believes in what the man says: "Every
star you see, maybe it IS a world."