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Executioner's Song: Portrait of the Artist

By Dan L. Wagner, Crimson Staff Writer

To speak with the critically acclaimed film director Errol Morris is to look at him as one of the characters in his films. Like their dialogue, his conversation ebbs and flows, persistently returning to underlying themes even as he digresses. Also like them, if you let him keep talking you're bound to hear some remarkable things. Sadly, it is unlikely that he ever will be a character in one of his films or one like them, primarily for two reasons: it seems unlikely that Morris himself will ever run across another personality like his to interview, and it is even more hard to imagine another filmmaker like him to do the job.

Morris' entire body of work, which includes the films The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap, and out of Control and most recently Mr. Death, which opened in select theaters in December, was featured in a retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive last month. The event was not only a remarkable opportunity to watch his films on the big screen; it also provided a unique perspective into the interrelations that are woven through these works.

Although the films deal with such diverse subjects as pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven, 1978), Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time, 1992) and an autistic professor designer of human slaughterhouses (Stairway to Heaven, 1998), certain themes appear repeatedly, emerging from the tightly woven web of humor, philosophy and idiosyncrasy that is Morris' signature like ghosts of questions past, resurrected and back for more.

Morris the Artist

This thematic approach, common to all of the films, is perhaps best demonstrated in 1997's Fast, Cheap, and out of Control, in which Morris takes four very different people with very different obsessions and, like magic, weaves their ideas into a beautifully integrated feature. The integration is, as it turns out, no accident.

"I like the idea of making a movie where you took four things that were ostensibly totally unrelated and brought them together," Morris says. "I mean, each of the stories had themes that interest me, but the idea of making them into one film was the underlying idea." The director's emphasis on content over, or at least preceding form, does not date to his beginnings as a filmmaker. Unlike the light and audience-driven fare that has become the norm in movie theatres, Morris' work is guided more by his own curiosity than by a stylistic or commercial vocabulary.

"I always imagined that I would be doing stuff that interested me," he reports. "In fact, I'm always puzzled by people who say they want to be film directors independently of wanting to convey anything, as if somehow it's a job description, it's a container without content. Originally, I wanted to be a writer, and I started interviewing people well before I became a filmmaker. I don't think it was ever wanting to make films, per se, but I was becoming more and more excited by the idea that the stuff I wanted to say, I could say as a filmmaker."

Morris first grew interested in film while working on a graduate degree in History and Philosophy of Science at Berkeley. He describes "obsessively, compulsively" attending movies at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley's on-campus film repository, and becoming interested in the way the medium could be used to communicate the sorts of ideas he had been dealing with through other means. From there, he went on to work on several projects for the German director Werner Herzog before going on to make his own first film, a feat which Herzog commemorated by publicly eating his own shoe. Morris is quick to point out that he never went to film school, adding, "I somehow believe the real film school is the movie theatre."

Given his focus on communicating ideas and questioning the audience, it is surprising to note that Errol Morris considers his work to be patently anti-vrit. "I have nothing wrong with cinema vrit as a style," he says. "That's fine-handheld cameras, available light... why not? The crazy thing is to think that style guarantees truth, that there's a truth machine, like a meat grinder. That if you put in the right ingredients, that somehow, magically, truth results. I mean, that's nuts. Even a moment of reflection tells you how deeply wrong that has to be. You make decisions all the time, by choosing to be in one place rather than another, by choosing to record one thing rather than another... and the list continues."

"Truth can't be manufactured," he continues. "Maybe the appearance of truth. There's another word for the appearance of truth. It's called falsehood, and falsehood can be very easily manufactured."

This is not to say that Errol Morris has entirely given up on truth, although his views on the matter are notably more complex than those of most documentarians. "It seems a very odd conceit that film itself is a vehicle of truth, per se. It can be, but truth isn't something that's served on a platter. To me, truth is a linguistic kind of thing." As a result, he rejects the traditionally dichotomous relationship between documentary and feature filmmaking.

"We hear these distinctions between drama and documentary: one is true, the other is made up. I don't think that makes much sense. I mean, there's a big difference between using real people and having no script, and having actors and a script that they follow; that seems to be fairly clear. It occurred to me that the difference between the two was about control, more than anything, that when we think of a scripted movie, we thing about movies that are controlled by the director, or the director and the writer if they're not one and the same. Whereas documentaries are unrehearsed, they're spontaneous, they're out of control. Yes. But I think that dividing line often shifts and is hard to pinpoint."

Morris believes that films are so inevitably arbitrary that they do not necessarily produce truth, but this does not preclude a real belief in truth itself. He describes himself as a "at heart a realist," professing to believe in a real world and in right and wrong. "There is truth, and it's not subjective, not up for grabs," he says. "It's just hard to arrive at. But if there's anything noble about the human enterprise, it's trying to find out about the world."

In their pursuit of the truth, the films Morris has produced over the years do not feel bound to a traditional documentary notion of validity of sources. Once his interviews are completed, he works with sets, storyboards, and the rest of the production elements associated with feature filmmaking. Nevertheless, the films "do obey one central rule of spontaneity, and that's the interview. What people actually say on camera isn't scripted for them; they come into a studio and they say it. They write it for me, if you like, and then the text becomes the script for what follows."

This approach, of using the interview itself in the way that most directors use a screenplay, may be the key to what sets Morris' films apart from others, fiction and non-fiction. He effectively combines the elements of reality of documentary film with the studio shots, props, and visual artistry of pre-written productions.

Of whether his efforts have succeeded in communicating what he hopes to communicate, Morris says, "I somehow feel I've just started. I'm still excited by all kinds of filmmaking. I think I have made interesting films, different and complex films. I sometimes think of a lot of current filmmaking as incredibly unambitious, and sometimes as devoid of any ambition at all. And that seems sad, because they're so much you can do."

Mr. Death

"Mr. Death," Errol Morris' new film, is subtitled "The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.," a formidable label that seems to imply a sort of melodrama that, while dramatic and intensely emotional, the work never really approaches. Instead, it is the disturbing, offbeat, and darkly comic story of Leuchter, a self-taught expert in execution equipment who travels to Auschwitz in order to prove that the holocaust never really occurred.

The project came about when Morris was preparing to shoot his interviews for "Fast, Cheap, and out of Control." This was the first time that he had used his Interrotron, a device of two-way mirrors and video equipment that allows his subjects to speak to him while looking directly into his video image while he does the same. This device is responsible for the way his subjects look directly into the camera, an innovation that gives lends his films a more personal quality. He needed a subject for a throwaway interview to test the machine before he began shooting the others, and Leuchter, who Morris always refers to as Fred, was that subject.

The interview was a success, one of the best Morris had ever done, in part thanks to what he has dubbed "the TV set that cares, the TV set that wants to find out more about you." Nevertheless, several years passed during which the filmmaker was alternately consumed by other projects and unable to secure the money needed for what was clearly a risky project. When funding did arrive, Morris returned to Auschwitz to recreate parts of Leuchter's journey and interviewed him again, recording many more hours of an older, if not wiser, Fred.

Although the action of the film is Fred's story, his "rise" to being a successful execution technologist and his "fall" to being discredited, poor, and alone, the force at work the surface is thematic examination of the man's character, and what that character represents in a broader context. "I think the central idea is influenced by Nabokov, who probably more than anyone else conceived this idea of the self-deceived, clueless narrator. Think of Pale Fire and Lolita. These are narrators who have no idea whatsoever of what's going on. Fred is certainly an example of that kind of clueless narrator."

The interviews that form the core of "Mr. Death" are strikingly non-judgmental, allowing the audience to make up its own mind about Leuchter based on the words that he wants them to hear. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Morris himself has few doubts about his subject. "My only claim on behalf of Fred," he muses, "is that I find Fred interesting, and that there are likeable aspects to Fred's personality. This is not to say that I think Fred is a good person, or that what he has done is a good thing. I think that he's done terrible things. The trip to Auschwitz itself was an abomination, and what followed was worse. But we have this fantasy that confronted with really, truly evil things, that there should be some kind of evil character waiting in the wings, responsible for these acts of malefaction-an Iago, or a Lady Macbeth, or a Richard III. And the surprise is, Fred just seems pathetic, self-deceived, ordinary. Is he truly monstrous, is he hiding something? Does he know full well what he's doing? Or is he a kind of self-deceived, vain, in many ways self-satisfied, moral fool?"

Leuchter, who Morris believes is honestly not an anti-Semite, appears confused and frightened by other people's responses to his actions, but he remains confident in that he did the right thing. "There's nothing in the movie that made him change his views in any way," the director says. "I gave him a laundry list of all the reasons why I thought he was wrong, and you know what he said? 'Even so, I think I'm right.' If you want to hold a belief, I mean really hold a belief, there is no evidence that can force you to abandon that view. That's not a position on rationality, but it's a position on human nature."

He continues: "It's like when I ask Fred at the end of the movie, 'Fred, have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong?' and he says 'I'm well past that.' Well, none of us are well past that."

So to Morris, Fred's holocaust denial is "a device for examining false beliefs. False beliefs interest me. It raises so many questions, particularly given that 99% of what we all believe is probably false. False belief is not somehow the exception; it's the rule. It's just that there are instances where false belief becomes intolerable. There's a very interesting thing about lies: on the one hand, there's that factual issue, and then there's that question of, like, 'what are they thinking?' Is this conscious mendacity, or is he somehow in this twilight zone where he's somehow convinced himself that what he's saying is true?"

Although such exploration does interest him, Morris is quick to point out that he doesn't see himself as more enlightened than Fred, or any of the people (he calls them characters) he interviews. "I don't think I'm any less self-deceived than the next guy," he chuckles. "I don't think that I'm better than my characters, or different than my characters, or in some odd, privileged position from my characters. I think I'm one of them."

THE THIN BLUE LINE

With 1988's "The Thin Blue Line," Errol Morris took his compositional approach to documentary filmmaking further than he had with his two earlier works, "Gates of Heaven" and "Vernon, Florida." Instead of a misleadingly straightforward, observational style, this film includes entire scenes shot as reenactments. "I've been accused of creating reenactment television," Morris says, "but the reenactments in The Thin Blue Line are all ironic, they never purport to show you what happened. When I see reenactment television the conceit is that they're actually showing you what happened, whereas in my film, it's exactly the opposite."

"Basically, you're dismantling piece by piece by piece the case against Randall Adams [a man unjustly imprisoned for shooting a policeman], which consisted of five 'eyewitnesses.' There three wacko eyewitnesses that claim to have passed by the crime scene at that crucial moment, a policewoman, and David Harris, the chief prosecution witness who turns out to be the real killer. And so we learn sequentially that all of these accounts are wrong."

In this way, Morris says, "Mr. Death" can be seen as a companion piece to "The Thin Blue Line." Although both are "essays in false history," "in the case of Mr. Death it's a false history shared by very few people. In the case of "The Thin Blue Line," everybody believed the insane stuff. Could the Dallas police really have believed that Randall Adams was guilty?"

The most unusual thing about "The Thin Blue Line" is that it blends two genres: the mystery-detective story in which the writer is aware of the outcome even as the exposition takes place, and the documentary film, which is known for its spontaneity. Through this combination, the audience is treated to a step-by-step account of a real investigation.

"I wasn't retelling a story," Morris says, "I was conducting an investigation. When those eyewitnesses essentially admit perjury, this had never been recorded before; I didn't know what to expect at the beginning of the interview." As a result of this investigation, the falsely accused Randall Adams was subsequently released from prison.

After "The Thin Blue Line" was released, Morris says he was inundated with requests to make movies proving other peoples' innocence. But the director had already worked as a private investigator and had little interest in completing another investigative film. "At the beginning of "The Thin Blue Line," before it even became "The Thin Blue Line," I kept saying thank God I don't have to be an investigator any more. Of course, that proved untrue."

THE FUTURE

Errol Morris' most significant upcoming project is a series for Bravo called "First Person," which is based on the Interrotron. He describes the series, which will ultimately consist of eleven episodes, as "first-person stories, shorter stuff that doesn't fit into an hour and a half." The programs have already aired in the UK, and will begin showing here in February.

Morris also has several films in the works, including a fictional feature. Of the transition from non-fiction work to scripted material, he says "there are certain stories that are best told as non-fiction, and certain stories that are best told as fiction. It's interesting, you know-every feature film is a documentary, a documentary of someone's performance. To me, the most important thing about film is spontaneity, and that applies just as well to feature filmmaking."

Sadly, "Mr. Death" and the Bravo series are the final two projects that will include the music of Caleb Sampson, Morris' longtime collaborator who passed away in 1998. Morris describes Sampson in glowing terms, calling him "immensely talented. I felt that he was growing very much as an artist," he continues. "I looked forward to the collaboration being a lengthy one, so this whole thing has been a shock."

However, audiences can still look forward to his peculiar brand of interviews, which he describes as "the shut-up-and-listen school." He says of this style, "if you go into an interview with some kind of fixed agenda, than you learn nothing. But an interview where you have no idea what you're going to hear... it's just worked well for me over the years and that I will continue to use. An interview is a kind of human relationship in an odd, laboratory setting. I never try to do anything more than simply elicit a story. As an investigative tool, it's far more productive than backing people into a corner."

Morris himself is an odd blend of the visionary and the realistic, maintaining his values and consistently producing excellent work while maintaining a consciousness of the audience's experience. "Of course I worry about whether anyone will ever go to see these things, but I don't make them with that in mind. I read somewhere that some journalist had said that "Fast, Cheap, and out of Control" was some kind of cynical attempt on my part to make a commercial movie. I thought that was really insane. Yes, it's like that commercial formula we're all familiar with-the robot scientist, the topiary gardener, the mole-rat photographer, and the lion tamer."

Today, people are responding to Errol Morris' films more than ever, with "Mr. Death" already on several top ten lists and "The Thin Blue Line," "Vernon, Florida," and "Gates of Heaven" all being reissued by the Independent Film Channel. One way of looking at his success in creating great art without "selling out" is that he engages people by respecting them, by trusting their intelligence. He doesn't assume a superiority that would lead him to simplify his presentation, and in doing so, he engages audiences on levels unusual to many current films.

So, have the years have brought him any closer to portraying some sort of truth?

"No," he laughs, "but I'm still having fun."

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