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An Appreciation for Errol Morris

Errol Morris

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.

5. Gates of Heaven

4. A Brief History of Time

3. Mr. Death

2. The Fog of War

1. The Thin Blue Line

Reenactment of the crime.

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.