It was a strange coincidence that when I was reevaluating Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, just a number of weeks after delving into The Thin Blue Line, that I caught wind of one of my favorite podcasts (WrongReel) dedicating half of an episode to Errol Morris. Rather than influence my own opinion, I proceeded with the write-ups and listened to the podcast afterward. Here is the cast in question, where they also talk about another film, The Seven Five that sounds up my alley.
It was an excellent episode, and just like I did with Salò (link), I am going to piggyback on their thoughts and add some of my own about his entire body of work.
First off, Morris is a master interviewer. This is particularly apparent in The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. Often in his documentaries (although not in his early ones), you can hear his voice in the background asking questions. He asks pointed, sharp, and sometimes difficult, penetrating questions. He basically put Robert McNamara on the spot to get him to admit to being wrong about his entire operation. One thing the WrongReel guys touched on was that Morris intentionally does not react to something a subject says. In that aspect, some of his subjects think he isn’t listening to them – quite the contrary. He just does not want to influence them one way or another, and by doing this, somehow they just talk aimlessly and in the process will reveal details they might not want be known. One example is a witness at one of the trials who basically incriminates herself. McNamara nearly does the same to himself, although he’s careful not to absolutely place blame on himself (he indicts the war machine).
The guys point out how Morris chose a couple of his subjects out of his own morbid curiosity. That hadn’t dawned on me before, but when you look at his filmography, it is absolutely and unequivocally true. Even Vernon, Florida, which is among his lighter and funnier documentaries, originated as a way of exploring people who blew up their own limbs as an insurance scam in “Nub City.” Those people wouldn’t talk to him without threatening or inflicting violence, so he talked to the town goofballs instead.
This morbid taste is more obvious with some topic choices, such as <emThe Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death. Other topics lean in a morbid direction. With the two politician films, he takes them down a path for them to revisit the atrocities committed during the war while they were in office. Even with A Brief History of Time, which is the least Morris-like documentary, he has to talk about the condition that put Stephen Hawking in a near vegetative state. Gates of Heaven is about people burying their pets. Errol Morris is without question into dark topics.
Philip Glass also plays a major part in the key works of Errol Morris — The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and The Fog of War. It is difficult to imagine these films without Glass’ music. The documentary styles are a perfect marriage, and I have to give the editors credit for coupling these two styles for maximum affect. Glass also scores Godfrey Reggio’s The Quatsi Triogy and a number of other documentaries and fiction films, but at least for me, it is the Errol Morris documentaries where his music has the most presence.
Since I’ve seen just about all of them, here are my personal top five Errol Morris films.
4. A Brief History of Time
3. Mr. Death
2. The Fog of War
The top two are among my favorite documentaries of all time, so this was a close call.
I’ll end with a story. My father is a Vietnam veteran. If you’ve met many, you’ll know that they often don’t like to talk about their time in the war. My father and I have had some brief conversations about it over the years, but nothing substantial. My father also planted the seeds for my love of film. After being enamored by The Fog of War, I thought this might be a way of bonding with my father if we watched it together. I thought that maybe it would help him process some things, plus I know that he loves a good documentary.
My father watched it pensively. I could see him fidgeting as we watched. Afterward he conceded that it was well put together. When I asked if he liked it, he said it was okay. I pursued, and finally he said (without anger), “I just cannot believe the nerve of that asshole!” I learned later that the troops and protestors reviled McNamara back in the day, that he was the poster boy for what was wrong with the war. Even though I was decently educated about the war, I did not realize the venom towards this one figure. That was not a part of my generation. My father’s main reservation was that this was a mea culpa, only it was 30 years too late. His problems with the movie were the same as my praise, just from a completely different perspective. I respected my Dad’s opinion and have never brought the film or the war up again.
Fast forward a decade and I watch The Unknown Known, which is a similar format as the McNamara film only with Donald Rumsfeld as the subject talking about his time overseeing the Iraq war. Having lived through that debacle, I had a tough time taking anything Rummy said seriously. The fact that he was deliberately evasive and became semantic with the nature of the questions showed that he was the opposite of McNamara. This was no mea culpa, but more of a quagmire. It angered me more than anything because this was the same stuff the guy was doing in the White House. I respected the filmmaking, but I could not bring myself to “like” this film.
I found myself in a film discussion with someone who passionately loved the Rumsfeld doc. His argument was that this was the point. The circular logic that Rumsfeld expounded revealed his flaws as a human being, and that Morris was making light of that. That’s why he titled the movie The Unknown Known because, frankly, the phrase is illogical. This individual made a decent argument, but I was seeing none of it. Later I learned that my debate opponent was 20, so he was 10 during the high point of the war and in elementary school during its inception. He didn’t have the preconceived and impermeable perceptions of the individual. It dawned on me at that very moment that this kid was me ten years ago, and I was my father after seeing The Fog of War.
The way a message lands depends on the recipient.
Keep making movies, Errol.
Before there was Paradise Lost, Serial or The Jinx, there was The Thin Blue Line. Even if it was not the first true crime in media (America’s Most Wanted’s debut was the same year of its release), it feels like it. A good argument could be made that it is the most influential crime documentary of all time, and it has influenced countless other crime stories, not to mention documentaries in general. In addition to being revolutionary from a filmmaking perspective, it also set the pace for criminal advocacy filmmaking, which has successfully brought attention and scrutiny to victims of the justice system. In many cases, including all of the ones I’ve cited in this paragraph, it has contributed to revelations in the case.
That’s not to say that The Thin Blue Line is not without controversy. It broke a cardinal rule of documentary filmmaking by actually reenacting the crime and other situations. Of course the idea of cinematic purity is a silly one, and I’ve debated it already when discussing My Winnipeg. Plenty of celebrated filmmakers have played with their subjects and shown things that are not true. Whether they are the staged actors of Robert Flaherty or the deliberate interaction between the filmmakers and subjects in Harlan County, USA, that line has been blurred many times in the past.
Errol Morris played with the truth by re-staging the murder, hiring actors to portray the key participants, including the two police on the scene, and the one (or two) alleged killers. This may not be “true” cinema or “vérité,” but in the case of this film, it enhances the understanding of the crime. If we just had talking head interviews or court transcripts to describe the events, the film would be bland and the crime difficult to visualize. Morris is getting the most out of the visual nature of film. Plenty of documentaries have done the same thing, including the Serial podcast, which tried to reproduce of the events of their subject to see if they fit the alleged timeline. Together with one of several great Philip Glass scores to Morris movies, the restaging makes for a more watchable documentary, while still having enough interviews and testimonials for credibility.
What happened on the night of November 27th, 1976? That’s what Errol Morris endeavors to uncover. He tackles the case with vigor and sheds light on the political and judicial process that allowed for a man to be convicted when he claimed he was innocent. When the film begins, we learn that a car was pulled over by the police, and officer Robert Wood was shot dead when he approached the driver. He had a partner in the car, but her view and memory of the incident would not conclusively lead to the killer. Instead the police relied on the testimony of David Harris, a 16-year old kid, against Randall Adams, a 28-year old that had recently moved to Texas.
Morris spends a great deal of time talking to Harris and Adams, both of whom are in jail. They tell their version of events on the day, but their interviews, like David’s testimony and Randall’s statement, do not match up. Adams insists that he was innocent. He says his car ran out of gas earlier that day. Harris picked him up in a stolen car, and they spent the day together drinking, drugging and later going to a drive-in movie. Adams says that he went home afterward, whereas Harris says that they were still together and Adams was driving when the incident occurred.
Morris does not stop at just the victims. He explores the entirety of the Texas judicial system, particularly how they are obsessed with the death penalty. That is why Adams thinks he was ultimately convicted because, as he put it, the D.A. “wanted to kill me.” Since he was older, he could be given the death penalty, whereas Harris was a minor so the chances were slim. With this being a cop-killing and a frustratingly unsuccessful and prolonged investigation, the D.A. put together a flimsy case and achieved a conviction. According to Adams, the system was more interested in clearing the case than finding the truth.
One man’s word against another is not usually enough to get a conviction. Adams was a suspect and gave a statement, which was transcribed on a typewriter. Morris again reenacted this for the screen. It is one of many examples of him using a visual, filmic element to reveal part of the story. Adams’ statement only said that he and Harris were together, but did not touch on the events later in the evening. Adams signed it, and it was considered to be close to a confession. The newspapers even reported it as such.
During the trial, eyewitnesses came forward. Morris had unfettered access to most people in the case, including the attorneys, the judge, and some of the witnesses. When Morris puts the eyewitnesses them in front of the camera and asks frank questions, he gets surprising answers. Even if Adams was guilty, it is clear that this was not a open and shut case. There were issues at every stage of the process, from the investigation to the prosecution.
Why would people go to such lengths to obtain a conviction? Why would people compromise their integrity to put someone away? Unlike his later films, we don’t see or hear Morris on camera, but we can tell that he asks tough questions and gets revealing answers. We get an idea why the witnesses testify. Was it because they had some self-interest or because they legitimately witnessed the crime? That depends on who you believe. As to why the police were invested in a conviction, well that is answered with the D.A.’s opening statement. He says that there is a “Thin Blue Line” that protects the people from anarchy. That line has to be protected. Adams would say that they were doing the opposite by turning away from the truth.
The great thing about this movie is not only that it asks the questions, but it also provides answers. Yes, it provides THE answer. It is not a clear “so and so killed him in such and such way.” It is a veiled and carefully worded statement, captured on an audio recording. The image of the tape recorder playing back that interview is the most memorable and shocking of the entire movie. By the end of the movie, we know who killed Officer Wood. I will not reveal it here because the movie is a must see, but I will say that people’s lives were changed as a direct result of that tape recording and this film.
Film Rating: 9.5/10
Errol Morris Interview: When I first read about the supplements on this disc, I was disappointed that there was not a commentary. When I got to the 2014 Errol Morris interview, that disappointment vanished.
Of course he would do an interview. That’s his thing! And he made for a fascinating subject, and probably provided a great deal of information that would have been on the commentary, but through the interview format, he is able to retell it as stories. The 40-minutes went by like lightning. It was fascinating hearing his experiences. I actually took about 600-700 words of notes while watching, which is far too much to write here. Plus I don’t want to spoil what he says. Instead, below is a list of the topics he delves into:
- The reenactment. He explains why he chose this method and what he hoped to accomplish.
- He talks about his background as a Private Detective and how this influenced his work on the film.
- He talks about his exposure to the Texas justice system through meeting another subject.
- He discusses his first impressions of the trial transcripts and the case when he first began considering this as a topic.
- The most fascinating part is when he talks about how he interviewed the person that would later be revealed as the killer. He immediately knew the truth when meeting this person and tells a story of how he feared for his life.
- He talks about the witnesses, especially Emily Miller.
- He delves into the film’s ending and his feelings about his findings.
- He talks about the aftermath of the movie and his relationship with the subjects.
Joshua Oppenheimer: Director of The Act of Killing.
Oppenheimer is a young documentarian, but he earned a lot of credibility with his first feature film. Like many documentaries (or one might say almost all), it owes a great debt to Errol Morris. He says that to call The Thin Blue Line great is to diminish it. The movie redefined the idea of a documentary.
Oppenheimer talks about the idea of using reenactment as a way to “excavate layer upon layer” of the story. In the film, we never see what really happened. Frankly, we never really know. We see incorrect versions based on whoever is telling the story. This shows that the participants are telling lies, but they believe their lies.
He also addresses direct cinema, the filmmaking style of the reenactments and his overall impressions. This is a shorter interview, but it is enlightening
Today Show: This is a 5-minute segment with Randall Adams, Randy Schaffer and Errol Morris. They talk about the aftermath of what happened and how the experience impacted all of their lives.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
People can be extremely protective about the definition of a documentary. There are some purist that insist that the only real documentaries are cinema vérité, where the camera is a mere fly on the wall and the directors do absolutely nothing to obstruct real life from happening. Of course people have been testing that definition for nearly 100 years. Robert Flaherty is famous for casting actors and staging the action, yet his documentaries like Nanook of the North and Man of Aran are seen as revolutionary.
While many have stayed true to the essence of the documentary, the envelope has continually been pushed over the years. Errol Morris broke a major rule by actually reconstructing real events for The Thin Blue Line. Today the definition of a documentary has been stretched even further. With My Winnipeg, Guy Maddin did not so much as push the envelope, but tore it up into little pieces, ate it up, and regurgitated it. And it is magnificent.
First, let me get a disclaimer out of the way. Guy Maddin is not for everyone. I had seen two of his films previously, The Heart of the World and The Saddest Music in the World. In both I recognized the talented craft of a filmmaker who had studied his film history, especially black and white silent film. These films were a mixture of silent film with David Lynch. I preferred “Heart” over “Saddest”, respected both and loved neither. They were intriguing experiments and not much more. Despite the accolades, I skipped My Winnipeg until now.
Another disclaimer, I love documentary and could care less about the purity. I love Flaherty, especially Morris, Steve James, Berlinger & Sinofsky (R.I.P.), and everyone in between. If someone wants to experiment with form in order to make a point, whether for the purpose of art or revealing a truth, then I say go for it. One of my favorite documentaries of the last several years is Exit Through the Gift Shop, which may be a complete farce. It has some truths, because it talks about graffiti artists whose work exists, but we ultimately do not know what is truthful. We may be the subjects just as much as those on screen. The same could be said with Guy Maddin’s documentary.
My Winnipeg is both a love letter and hate letter to Maddin’s home town. Ultimately it is a little bit of both. He loves the uniqueness, the absurdity, yet hates the cold, the monotony, and how it reminds him of the symbolism of his childhood, such as the furs, the forks, and the lap. Don’t worry if that last sentence doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make too much sense in the film either.
The film is rooted in Maddin’s own life. He recreates his childhood using actors to play his mother, his dead brother, and even his dog. They stage much of it at his recreated childhood home at 800 Ellis. Since his father died, they pretend that his body was exhumed and buried in the living room.
Maddin provides the narration, which begins with him riding a train through Winnipeg, and the voice is his own reflection of the city. As he narrates in his monotone voice, he intersperses archival footage, maps, quick shots of furs, laps and forks, with scenes of him trying to stay awake on the train. In this manner, the style is similar to the other Maddin films, with nods to silent films (weird title cards), quick dissolves between different types of footage, grainy film, shaky camera work, and the scenes cut back and forth from the train to his home, to the stories of his childhood and of the city. This is not like any other documentary.
It is immediately apparent that Maddin is playing with the truth, not just of his own life, but the entire city. He states some facts, one of which is that Winnipeg has 10x the sleepwalking rate of any other city. Of course that cannot be true. How is it even measurable? Yet this “fact” plays into his train-riding reflections of the city that in many respects resembles a dream world. He also claims that Winnipeg is the coldest city in North America. This is partially true depending on how you measure. It is the coldest large city. There are a few towns in Nunavut that would blow Winnipeg doors off. Maddin’s intention, however, it is not presenting an absolutely factual representation of the city. How much fun would that be anyway?
As he ventures away from his own history, he looks deeper into the city. “Winnipeg!” he says, as he introduces another absurdity, like not being allowed to keep any old signage. All the old signage is kept in the signage graveyard. He talks about a TV show called Ledgeman, where every episode has someone standing at the edge of a ledge, and every show ends with a suicide. Is that real? You can easily Google it to find out. If not real, then what is Maddin trying to say about his city? The TV show is not real, and I think this is part of the hate letter to his city, the fact that people would be entertained by people leaving their city in one of the most gruesome ways imaginable.
There are other tidbits of “facts,” some more absurd than the last. He talks about the MTS Centre, or the MT Centre with the S flickering on and off so that it really says “empty center.” This was the hockey arena, but has become a betrayal because Winnipeg’s market could not sustain an NHL hockey team, so it was demolished yet stilled fielded a team called “The Black Tuesdays” that consisted of former players aged 70 or older, who played hockey amid the wreckage, sometimes with the wrecking ball actively destroying the arena. Maddin also claims that he was born and raised in the Centre. He was nursed in the wives room, and loaned out to visiting teams as a stick boy.
Some of the above paragraph is true, some embellished, and some outright lies.
Finally we get to the horses, the lovely and beautiful horses. I am not going to delve into this story because it is such a terrific scene and needs to be seen without description. This scene also has a little bit of truth, a little bit of embellishment, and of course, some lies.
Some events seem to be absurdist revisionist history, but are absolutely true. That’s part of what is gorgeous about this documentary. Not only is it engaging and fascinating, but it is a mystery. One could spend hours trying to fact check the documentary, and some probably have, and still could not tell the entire truth from the lies.
There is one telling line near the beginning of the film. “Everything that happens in Winnipeg is a euphemism.” Of course this is not literally true. Plenty of true things happen every day. Perhaps everything that happens in My Winnipeg is a euphemism.
Sometimes strange is truthier than fiction. I loved this movie.
Film Rating: 9/10
Cine-Essays: These are a series of short essays that Maddin refers to as little “points” that when finished point by point, will encompass Winnipeg. The topics are puberty, colours, elms, and cold. They are, very much like the film, indescribable and inexplicable, but just as much fun.
Guy Maddin and Robert Enright – This is a 52 minute conversation from 2014. He talks about the evolution of the project, and of course, about the factuality of the piece.
The documentary was commissions by Michael Burns for the Documentary Channel. Maddin was fascinated by trains and wanted to use this as the basis to show that Winnipeg is the “frozen hellhole” that we know it is.
He describes the mythologizing as “embedding the stories in emulsion.” It has been called Auto-Fantasia. The debate whether something is really documentary was mostly settled. He cites Herzog who presented “ecstatic truth.” Truth uninhibited is different than truth exaggerated, and that’s how he feels about My Winnipeg.
Even history is flawed because it is the victor’s viewpoint. If they look at the other side, it gets romanticized.
He cites influences, notably Chris Marker, although he does not want to compare himself to Marker. He was also inspired by Fellini’s I Vitelloni. He also references Detour because he cast leading lady Ann Savage as his mother. He does not make the connection, but one could connect the unreliable narrator of Detour with Maddin himself in My Winnipeg. He may be the least reliable narrator in any film.
Of course he does talk about which parts are real and fake, yet in a playful manner. He jokes that he would always get asked the same questions at festivals and screenings, so he challenged himself to always give a different answer. He does tell of some things that were real and embellished, but you can tell that he is answering carefully and could be giving different answers. Even as an interview subject, he is not the most reliable narrator.
”My Winnipeg:” Live in Toronto – This bit shows a screening at the Royal Cinema in Toronto with Maddin providing live narration. He felt nervous. He was told it is normal to feel terrible before and great during. He was surprised how he got big laughter during certain scenes.
Spanky: To the Pier and Back (2008)
This is a film about his dog Spanky, the same one he used as a replacement in the film for his childhood dog. Sadly, this turned out to be his last walk with the dog, as he died shortly afterword. What’s odd is that Maddin calls it an artless film, but I have to call him out on that statement. This is the most interesting dog walk to a pier and back that I’ve seen. Like his feature films, he uses a lot of quick cuts, and frenetic, sweeping camera motions. 8/10
This is a film that would be incomprehensible without the intro. Maddin was angry about some political, racist issues in Canada. Bryan Sinclair was an Indian, but had a treatable condition and was in the hospital, only to be found dead later. This film is the perspective of Sinclair in the waiting room. 5/10
Only Dream Things, 2012
This was developed for the Winnipeg Art Creative. He recreated the bedroom where he lived and used sounds that he remembers. The movie was dreamlike, with the typical Maddin style, only in color. The dreams themselves are more vivid, alternates between foggy dream state. In a way this film reminded me of someone who goes crazy with Photoshop filters or Instagram. 3/10
The Hall Runner, 2014 – This was one he was hoping to make into a feature but he did not get it off the ground. The film follows hall runner rugs with Maddin narrating. 5/10
Louis Riel for Dinner, 2014
Riel was a politician, and one of the founders of Manitoba. This was an animated short in which Louis Riel was a duck that could not be eaten. This one cannot be described and must be seen, and is probably my favorite short on the disc. 8/10
This was a treasure trove of riches and a nice, recent discovery for me. I expect this will be one of my favorite releases by the end of the year.
Criterion Rating: 9.5/10