All photos © Nubar Alexanian from Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

A Brief History of Errol Morris
By Daniel Kraus

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 going.

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 beauty.

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 REALLY about?"

Vernon, Florida (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 to say.

Vernon’s thematic 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."