Thursday, July 15, 2010

Modern Maestros: Errol Morris

Robert here, back with another entry in my series on great contemporary directors.

Maestro: Errol Morris
Known For: Documentaries about politicial, social and strange topics.
Influences: More film noir and French New Wave than classic docs.
Masterpieces: The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Mr. Death.
Disasters:Well his one narrative feature The Dark Wind sorta qualifies.
Better than you remember: History seems to recall all of his docs with fondness, as it should be.
Box Office: Just over 4 mil for The Fog of War

The alarming intimacy of the Interrotron, the impact of wildly composed visual asides, the clang of a Philip Glass (or similar) score... few documentarians bring a specific personal style to their films like Errol Morris. Yet his films could never be dismissed with that most common of eye-rolling declarations "style over substance." Morris's films are rooted in the revelations of his interview, utilizing his stylization as punctuation or underlining, but never the main course. This allows the interviews to simmer and rise eventually bubbling over with genuine insight and occasionally truth. Most documentarians will tell you that their work has more in common with journalism than fiction filmmaking. Morris considers himself not a journalist but a detective filmmaker, always seeking out new roads to reality. Yet it's not the sensational that Morris seeks (although perhaps the odd sometimes). He has eschewed the aggressive pursuit tactics of someone like Michael Moore, preferring to point his camera and let his subjects comfortably reveal. Part of his trick lies in his interratron, a device of his inventing that allows the subject to look into a monitor showing Morris's face, that is in fact a camera. Subjects know they're on camera, but by looking at Morris instead of a lens, they often let their guard down just a bit. Such was the case with The Fog of War's Robert S. McNamara and Mr. Death's Fred Leuchter who come across as more candid than usual (though still slippery.)

More impressively, Morris (before the use of the interrotron but with the use of his cunning interview skills) gets the witnesses and key players in the arrest of a man to slowly reveal the evidence of his innocence in The Thin Blue Line. This leads us to possibly Morris's favorite topic: perception vs reality. He's intrigued by the concept. If you ever have a free afternoon, stop on by his blog on the New York Times webpage where he goes on about such things as how an image can never be false. Even if the image is fake, it's a true representation of a fakery. It is only the concept that is applied to that image that can be untrue. And so on and on, the issue of perception fascinates Errol Morris. He's fascinated by the perceptions that lead to an innocent man's conviction, or those that lead a person to disbelieve the Holocaust. He's interested in how photographs can sway the public's perceptions of an event in wartime and the man behind one of the biggest perception-fueled events in history, the Vietnam War. Even in a less serious vein, he's interested in how unusual people perceive the world.

The quest for truth through the prism of perception makes Morris one of the most intriguing, intellectual documentarians working today. With documentaries becoming a bigger part of the cinematic landscape, Morris has seemed ahead of the curve. In fact, he still does, since no one has yet to make a film quite like his. Perhaps non content to have narrative nonfiction as a black mark on his name, Morris's next project will find him diverging from the world of documentaries once again. As a fan, I hope it goes better this time.


Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Every time I watch an Erroll Morris - whether it's about the Vietnam War, Abu Ghraib or a lion-tamer - I leave the cinema breathless, pondering the staggering enormity of the universe.

My favourite of his films (and close to my favourite film of the 90s) is Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. People don't talk about that movie anywhere near enough. That said, it's so difficult to talk about it - I go into a silent trance at the mention of its title. In fact, I love that film in a weirdly intimate way so I don't even think I wanna talk about it - but I do want everybody in the world [universe?] to watch it.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

^^ Every time I watch an Errol Morris movie, that is.


Y Kant -- so you don't stalk Errol Morris to watch him?

I wish i had something to contribute here but documentaries are the furthest from my forte.

i did see a section of FOG OF WAR once though and was suitably impressed. but i think it was during one of my months where i just couldn't deal with the stupidity of the world and its love of violence so i couldn't actually go through with watching the movie.

Robert said...

I recall watching The Fog of War over and over and over after I first saw it.

Fast, Cheap and Out of Control is a good entry film for Morris. It's got all his trademark awesomeness and is delightfully non-serious yet incredibly compelling.