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The Errol Morris DVD Collection
Reviewed by Alejandro Adams

“Early Morris” is a phrase which could be attached to the new trio of DVDs from MGM, and its implications would not merely be chronological.

From Gates of Heaven (1978) through Vernon, Florida (1981) and The Thin Blue Line (1988), we watch Errol Morris rarefy his technique and exorcise a strong tendency toward wry open-endedness, arriving rather quickly at the sort of flamboyantly poeticized probing which characterizes his work thereafter. The Thin Blue Line is, coincidentally, the very line at which his films make the unlikely leap from gently abstract and rubbery to substantive, literal, sometimes aggressively topical, suddenly abounding in visual fripperies and hypnotic music where they were once Spartan and resolutely quiet. The taut tendons which provide the framework for The Thin Blue Line can be seen in the keenly investigative (more needling than journalistic) films which follow, most notably Mr. Death and The Fog of War. The only major difference in technique from then to now—and it’s noticeable—is that Morris has armed himself with the Kafkaesque Interrotron, a souped-up teleprompter which allows interview subjects to look directly into the camera lens while simultaneously looking directly into Morris’s face. It’s done with mirrors, naturally.

The Interrotron has helped Morris “purify” his interview footage by preventing subjects from looking here, there and everywhere as they chat freewheelingly before the camera. Now they stare at the camera as diligently as a doe stares at oncoming headlights. Morris’s be-all, end-all Interviews now require a studio, meaning that there will be no more of the sorts of casually captivating monologues which suffuse Gates of Heaven, in which the milieux of the interviews are integral to their content: most memorable is the rendering plant manager, unctuous from start to finish, gesturing through the window of his office to the edifice of the plant itself, tickled by those who don’t understand his role in society (“It may be the oldest industry in the world,” he says defensively). But even more revealing than this man’s relationship to his natural habitat are the conspiratorial grins he shoots at someone on his left, away from the camera (a colleague? a boom operator? Morris himself?), the very thing the Interrotron eradicates. The squeaky-voiced old man with a cane in Vernon, Florida also looks at various people behind the camera as he talks about Creation with the unwavering conviction of a ten-year-old Sunday schooler. He is, as it were, addressing his congregation.

Whether these desultory gazes are instances of gregariousness or shiftiness, such elements are beyond a director’s control and build character mightily in rapid strokes. By contrast, those subjects staring into the void of the Interrotron seem to be pickled in formaldehyde. Maybe it’s that the characters in Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida seem to be making actual human contact with the person interviewing them, discussing fears, disappointments, strong beliefs, petty successes; and the dissonance of seeing them perched against a gray cloth backdrop a la Mr. Death, their faces mounted on the screen like the head of a ten-point buck, would be insufferable. Never has a subject staring into the Interrotron been as spontaneously demonstrative as the unintelligible old man discussing the various parts of the brain while standing in front of a dilapidated service station in Vernon. Never has a subject staring into the Interrotron been as proud as the turkey hunter enthroned among his poultry artifacts; or as aw-shucks as the worm-farmer brandishing his pitchfork; or as collaborative as the three tattered men huddled on a bench debating the ineptitude of a town suicide; or as self-sufficient as the gaunt old man aimlessly rowing his boat through a dusky swamp and explaining God as a simple matter of semantics. These interviews have the advantage of being irreducibly organic. And, really, the “relevance” of these people would be obliterated by the formality of a studio interview—if they even bothered to show up when scheduled.

It seems that the strengths of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are attributable, in large part, to the lack of 007-like gadgetry involved in their production—which is not to say that these early films are quantifiably superior to Morris’s later films, only that they are delightfully different. It seems reasonable to suspect that Morris’s infatuation with the Interrotron will preclude the making of any more films like his first two. Thus, to some degree, gushing over this new collection of DVDs requires a bit of eulogizing as well.


Gates of Heaven
I’m writing this in Berkeley, across the street from the university campus where Werner Herzog, true to form (bombastic, impetuous), declared he would eat his shoe if Errol Morris could make a feature-length documentary about pet cemeteries. Snatching up this auspicious gauntlet, Morris made Gates of Heaven, which Roger Ebert immediately proclaimed one of the ten best films of all time. In Les Blank’s short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the eponymous publicity hound does, in fact, eat his shoe prior to the premiere screening of Gates of Heaven, meanwhile waxing ecstatic about the unprecedented achievements of Morris’s first film: “It's the only authentic film on love and emotions and…late capitalism. And maybe it's the only authentic film on…distortion of feelings and degeneration of feelings. It's a very, very sad film and very purely done. It's an extremely pure film, a very mature film…”

Can any film live up to that kind of hype?

Gates of Heaven begins by investigating the “rise and fall” of a pet cemetery in Los Altos, California. There are interviews with, say, ten people who are affiliated in some way with the cemetery. At some point among these interviews it becomes clear that the cemetery folded and the animals’ corpses had to be exhumed and removed from the property. Without ado we’re transplanted to another pet cemetery, this one a bit further north: Napa. We meet the proprietors of this apparently more successful (at any rate still operational) business and their two sons, who help maintain the grounds. If the first half of the film seems perfunctory, the latter half seems self-indulgent. The film revels in its unevenness, celebrates its formlessness.

Beyond the halfway point, we see a wide shot in which a middle-aged married couple and the cemetery patriarch discuss a deceased dog and the details of its interment. It’s a remarkable shot because it’s the first we have of people interacting with one another. The scene plays out with static austerity rather than with the non-anticipatory energy of most of the documentary filmmakers working in the United States in the last half-century, including Drew, Leacock, and the Maysles brothers. Without the conceits of direct cinema, this scene feels staged. Then the angle changes, and we realize that we’re being shown a re-enactment on the scale of Nanook crawling toward Flaherty’s carefully-positioned camera. What we’re seeing is only hypothetically “real.” Here the seed is sown for Morris’s career obsessions with reality and its (mis)representations.
Near the end of Gates of Heaven, Morris licks his chops somewhat over the two brothers who maintain the cemetery grounds. They have remarkably little to say about their current work. Instead, the older one talks about his sales record at a previous job, displaying numerous trophies behind him, while the younger talks meekly about his music, finally lugging his guitar up to a hilltop where he plays it through an amplifier aimed, messianically, over the town spread below. Morris, at the time a 32-year-old graduate student, may have been expressing a sort of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I sentiment, understanding that both of these young men had forfeited (slightly) more glamorous aspirations to help out with the family business, a dead-end in terms of job advancement and, it appears, job fulfillment. But this sequence has also been read as cruel, with these two hangers-on swaddled not in pathos but in a vile, anti-social sense of humor.

One good piece of ammunition in the argument that Morris belittles his subjects is that he seems to hang on malapropisms and muddled phraseologies with a sort of uninhibited glee (“glee” might be too wholesome a word; it’s akin to schadenfreude). For instance, as the older brother sits with his legs crossed, marinating in self-satisfaction, discussing the course of his life in somewhat philosophical terms, he says “delge” where he means “delve.” Refracted through the prism of Morris’s later work, there is a sense that this is what tickles the director’s ear, this lone detail. It is his subjects’ supreme lack of self-consciousness about their verbal flubs and faux pas that seems most to please Morris and that he is most at ease exploiting. Academics have called it “an investigation of the limits of language,” but it looks more immediately like the schoolyard humor of an unpopular geek. It seems important—vital—that his subjects are not self-conscious or timid. Timidity would be too sympathetic. If they were timid, we would have to be barbarians or fascists to laugh at them. As it happens, we’re able to laugh because their absurdity is so thoroughly extroverted.


Vernon, Florida
Errol Morris’s second feature was to be titled Nub City. It would be set in the town of Vernon, Florida, where an astonishing number of residents had committed insurance fraud via self-mutilation. But when they got wind of his intentions, the would-be subjects of the film threatened to murder the director (he was beaten up by the son of one of these “nubbies,” as he calls them), so the idea was re-structured into Vernon, Florida, which can most tactfully be described as a series of interviews with the eccentric, mostly elderly inhabitants of a rural Southern community.

But the remodeled film wasn’t completely innocuous: at an early festival screening Morris had to answer accusations that he was mocking the people onscreen. He was not, he claimed, mocking them. Then what on earth was he doing? His personal orientation to the material has become even more slippery in light of a recent remark that Vernon, Florida is a “place where no one in his right mind would go, let alone spend a great deal of time there.”

At the beginning of the 56-minute film, an old man seated on a park bench asks Morris to look at a dubious jewel he keeps in his pocket. As usual we neither see nor hear Morris. There is no indication that he responds to the man’s request. The man quietly lowers the jewel and examines it himself. After showing off a captured opossum, another old man asks if he should put it back in its pen. Again the director offers no response. Why not? In both of these cases the viewer is left feeling lower than a voyeur, complicit in Morris’s aloof, don’t-feed-the-animals approach. And if we happen not to take umbrage at his manner, we may soon find ourselves thinking, conversely, I hope I never have to drive through that part of Florida. Or any other part of the Deep South. Maybe only sophisticated urban liberals should be allowed to vote. Maybe these people should be institutionalized. Maybe I am a fascist.

Over the years I’ve lent my tattered VHS copy of Vernon, Florida to colleagues, friends, and family members, and each of them has had a unique viewing experience. It’s remarkable how convicted people can be in their disparate readings of this film. The material in Vernon, Florida is presented with such immaculate detachment that arguments have erupted over whether, for instance, the turkey hunter in the film is derided or sentimentalized. This is a testament to the extreme ambiguity of the work.
But this whole debate concerning the filmmaker’s intentions can’t last much longer: Morris has grown bored with his posture of neutrality. He recently announced that he will no longer try to deny an ongoing interest in ridiculing his subjects: “If they are ridiculous, why can’t I show that? Does it make the other humans nervous? Am I writing ad copy for some kind of television program on Neptune on why the human race should be allowed to continue?”


The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line, like Vernon, Florida, started out as something much different from the final product.

In the mid-eighties, Morris was working as a private detective to make ends meet (he later called himself a “detective-director”) and was desperate to make another film—so desperate that he tried to raise money for a project that didn’t even interest him. It began as profile of Dr. James Grigson, also known as “Dr. Death,” a Dallas psychiatrist who testified in capital trials and invariably recommended the death penalty—with invariable success. While interviewing various inmates who owed their sentences to Grigson’s testimony, Morris came across Randall Adams, a drifter convicted of killing a Dallas police officer in 1976. Adams’s story—and more importantly his manner of telling it—intrigued Morris immediately. It was this case that became the focus of Morris’s unprecedented, literally life-changing third film.

Superficially, much has changed in the six years since Vernon, Florida. The slow-motion reenactments stand out, as does the camera moving gracefully over stationary images—courtroom sketches, newspaper headlines, mug shots, police reports. But the most fundamental development is the music: Philip Glass is nervously everywhere, scurrying to prevent moss from gathering on this eleven-year-old case, his shrill strings building insidiously, elliptically, coating every snatch of interview, kneading the tangle of conflicting details, congealing the divergent elements of every dream-like montage, until there is one throbbing, palpable sphere of evidence and testimony.

But at times the music makes things that much more comically surreal: the extreme close-ups of popcorn popping, a milkshake spilling in slow motion, innumerable cigarette butts being mashed into a small ashtray—a sequence which goes on and on, getting closer and closer, delivering less and less meaning, until finally it inspires an involuntary laugh. Only so much gravitas can be pumped into such images before they lose their structural integrity altogether.

In terms of the investigative properties of the film, there are, of course, solecisms and oversights. Morris takes a few potshots. My favorite is the close-up on a police report which reads “forcebly pryed.” How droll. Unfortunately, one’s spelling technique has nothing to do with one’s ability to solve a crime. This red herring offends the critical thinker, the “detective-viewer” (and as Terrence Rafferty noted, Morris inspires us to be detectives by being such a fastidious one himself). Why fill the entire screen with a double-barreled spelling mistake instead of something admissible in a court of law? But then this isn’t a movie about something as menial as Law.

The Thin Blue Line seems most facile when read as a philosophical treatise which uses a particular incidence of wrongful conviction to support its thesis. Within the boundaries of the work itself, there is no moral agenda. It does not say, “Here is Randall Adams, who should be freed.” Instead it says, “Here is a justice system that is unreliable.” Its currency is fact, not sentiment, so it must function in the negative—against rather than for. Morris cared enough about the case to testify (with the astounding result that Adams was exonerated), but the film itself doesn’t have any heart. Morris is careful not to let it become cinematic social work. He would rather it look like the fine-toothed comb of a nitpicking nihilist.

An argument could be made that The Thin Blue Line is misanthropic in its extensive use of high irony: it often seems as if the film’s observations are those of a supercilious celestial being rather than those of a sympathetic fellow human. There is, of course, something pungently adolescent about any monolithic anti-establishment harangue—just think of Buñuel’s Land without Bread or Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, the contemptuous smirks they must have been wearing when writing the voice-overs. But because The Thin Blue Line seems more like a sustained attack on the viability of truth (“epistemological,” you might say) than a bratty debunking of our institutions of law and order, its acrimonious cheek is more refined, timeless, possibly noble, and certainly tolerable. For Buñuel or Franju, it probably would have been sufficient to make fun of the state of Texas for the casualness and alacrity with which it seems to place people on death row. Most of the time, to his credit, Morris is bigger than that. He does not ingratiate himself with meaningless political contortions. There is just the take-it-or-leave-it sangfroid of immense artistic and intellectual integrity—as if Morris is making movies for an audience of one. And that’s nothing to apologize for.


The Errol Morris Collection Specifications:
Studio: MGM
Discs: 3
Aspect Ratio: Gates of Heaven, 1.33:1; Vernon, Florida, 1.66:1; Thin Blue Line, 1.85:1
Bonus Features: One episode of Morris’s TV series “First Person” on The Thin Blue Line
Release Date: July 26, 2005

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Alejandro Adams writes essays and conducts interviews for BRAINTRUSTdv, a Web site dedicated to the subject of digital video. His current documentary project scrutinizes controversial filmmaker Caveh Zahedi. Alejandro can be contacted at alejandro@Braintrustdv.com
 

 

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