February 8, 2004|My first was The Thin Blue Line in the winter of 1988. Working backwards, finding Errol Morris's first two films was extremely difficult in the years before DVD and the blossoming of the Internet as the world's finest rummage sale, but the picture made enough of an impression on me that I spent the next six months tracking them down. Gates of Heaven was a revelation, Vernon, Florida changed my life, and it didn't occur to me until much later that the obsessive process of finding them and the unexpected rewards of that search were similar to this filmmaker's process was, in fact, the profession (private detective) through which Morris made his living in the seven years between Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line. (Vernon, Florida is just brilliant enough to be career suicide, apparently.) So while Vernon, Florida has become something of a Medium Cool for a new generation of film brats (All the Real Girls director David Gordon Green cites the work as one of his all-timers), The Thin Blue Line has become the moment that many point to as the definitive modern reintroduction to the debate about the matter of degrees that separates fiction from non-fiction cinema. The title referring to the line of law enforcement that separates civilization from chaos, The Thin Blue Line is almost better read as the line between fabulism trusted as fact, and fabulism accepted as fantasy.
Morris is an extremely gifted filmmaker, his first three pictures forming a vital heartland trilogy bound by the essential American desire to make a story of their lives no matter how gothic, no matter how Byzantine. Other than the short Stairway to Heaven and a couple of segments of the Bravo series "First Person", however, Morris, in the sixteen years since The Thin Blue Line, has yet to make another film the equal of anything that came before. The films seem too self-conscious now, almost forced in their quirkiness: the artifice always there has moved to centre stage and taken on an air of defiance, a problem that his new film only partially exorcises. Regardless, Morris remains a crucial American voice--even his relative failures fascinating for themselves and for the conversations that they inspire.
Consistently, Morris's skillfulness has been obscured by the medium that he works in, but in a year in which the documentary has garnered a great deal of attention (the best of which the least seen: The True Meaning of Pictures, Blind Spot, The Same River Twice, Rivers and Tides, Stevie), Morris is poised to grab the spotlight for whatever that's worth. His new film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, has garnered the most attention of anything he's done post-The Thin Blue Line. The best reason for that is probably the obvious connections between the escalation of the Vietnam War beneath a bellicose leadership and our own experiences in Iraq under what increasingly appears to be a pretense, a grudge, and facts manipulated with a blinkered point of view. If there's a common thread to Morris's work, it's his ability to find subjects who tell themselves wonderful stories about their own lives--it's altogether possible that the more of Morris's films we see, the more intimately we glimpse the inner workings of a great filmmaker, and of how great, troubling films are made.
Speaking to Errol Morris the other day, I was stricken by the care that he took in answering questions and daunted by the idea that I had undertaken the task of interviewing one of the best interviewers of our time, not to mention a brilliant artist and, judging by his barbed response to Eric Alterman's review of The Fog of War in THE NATION, a closet academic. We didn't talk about Randall Adams suing Morris for, essentially, making a film (The Thin Blue Line) that freed him from Texas's oft-greased death row, but we did broach the topic of the extent to which he chose subjects that in some way reminded him of himself as a man and a filmmaker. And whether even that difference was just in the semantics.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: I followed with interest your rebuttal of Alterman's THE NATION article.
ERROL MORRIS: I wrote one letter which was very unusual for me, and we debated here in this office. The question of whether I should respond... In the instance of negative reviews, of course not--needless to say people have the right to say whatever they want to say about the movie. I made the film, I don't consider it to be some sacred cow that can't be attacked in a whole number of ways. But if people say that the history is bad, is erroneous, I feel that they should state specifically what their problems are which Alterman didn't, and then the question becomes if I feel that there's ample historical evidence to support what's in the movie, should I bring that evidence forward in rebuttal? And my feeling is yes, although, I mean, it's a set of questions really that dovetails with the movie: Does history matter, is it important to get things right, what is the relevance of our knowledge of history in relationship to things going on at the present time? A whole set of interwoven questions there.
Can you be specific about your conundrum?
Well I had read in a number of different places that McNamara was in favour of invasion and bombing during the Cuban Missile Crisis, very early on in the crisis if not actually at the very beginning, but I've read the various editions of the transcripts and listened, of course, to the actual underlying audiotapes of those executive committee sessions...
Yes, you use them in The Fog of War.
Exactly right. And so of course I've heard them, and my feeling is that McNamara played a very important role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but an important mitigating role and not an exasperating one. My conundrum I guess is mired in the idea that I have to take McNamara on a case-by-case basis. I need to remind everyone that I'm not a McNamara apologist but neither do I believe as popular history seems to believe that he's the prime instigator of, say, the Vietnam War. I believe that there is evidence to show that he advised Kennedy on getting out and that Johnson pressured McNamara into escalation and not the other way around. That doesn't mean that he didn't go along with Johnson, that doesn't mean that he didn't implement Johnson's policy--that he didn't play a central role in the escalation of the war. Just that it might be different than how it's been portrayed. But a difference in portrayal doesn't exonerate him from culpability in that escalation.
There arises the idea of a construction of history from truth and half-truth, and all of your films to some degree seem to get involved at that juncture. I look to Vernon, Florida, my favourite of your films, and I see in it a theoretical template that governs the best of all of your films.
That's interesting, a lot of these ideas do come out of Vernon, Florida--themes in Gates of Heaven as well. I'm very fond of this one line from Phil Harberts, the older son in the Bubbling Well pet cemetery, he says, "You know, there's a whole other world down there."
While he's mowing the grass.
(laughs) Right, and there's Albert Bitterling in Vernon, Florida telling his joke about the two sailors looking out over the ocean and the one says, "There's a lot of water out there," and the other saying, "Ayup, and that's only the top of it." There are these strange kinds of themes that repeat again and again in my movies, that idea of just scratching the surface and people in a strange way having the insight about themselves to maybe realize on some level that they're just skating on the surface of their own identities. Another theme I like, an even more powerful one, is Koy Brock, the preacher in Vernon, Florida who, I'm talking to him in a boat floating through a cypress swamp, and he says, "God means 'that just happens'"--and I thought to myself that if God is "that just happens" that's a God of caprice, a God of randomness who's out of control, and what kind of God is that? He rules over chaos.
And so do you.
(laughs) See, now one of the ironies of Fog of War is here you have a kind of control freak. A man who really believed in rationality, in the idea that there were rational solutions to problems, and yet the stories are very different. I use the structure of the eleven lessons to underscore the ironies, you know, like "Get the Data"--a very good principle, who could quibble with empiricism? But what if we're wrong? What if the data is wrong? What if we make flawed interpretations of the data? "Maximize Efficiency"? Also praiseworthy, but what if that inflated efficiency is used to terror bomb Japan with incendiaries? On and on--stories of confusion, stories of false ideology...
...The domino theory.
Exactly, we believed in the domino theory, we were wrong. We believed that the North Vietnamese were controlled by China, it's not true--they were fighting the Chinese for thousands of years. The Cuban Missile Crisis as the best-managed crisis, and perhaps it was in American history, and yet it was a crisis caused by our belligerence in Cuba. McNamara tells us that we were working on the basis of faulty evidence. Not that such a thing could happen twice. (laughs)
(laughs) Yes, that would be unthinkable.
Right, I mean, who could be so cynical as to imagine a world in which foreign policy is governed by an absolutely false belief?
Do you like the "He tried to kill my daddy" theory of Bush Jr.'s aggression?
Well who the hell knows? I mean the daddy thesis is probably as good a one as any and you know the whole believing is seeing thing is troubling, too, for how it can be abused.
Albert Bitterling again...
Yes, his opening voiceover to Vernon, Florida: "Reality. You mean this is the real world?" I never thought of that.
How do you compare your process of compiling facts, organizing them, and telling a story to your subjects who, for good or ill, do exactly the same thing?
Let me say that I'm no less fallible than the next guy. (laughs) I mean, it would be the height of arrogance to say that everyone is self-deceived except myself, I don't see myself in any kind of privileged position. We can't know truth, I believe that, but we can pursue truth. I have my own views about McNamara, of course, and I bring those to the table. I will say that in some instances--at least to my satisfaction--"the August 4, 1964 didn't happen, but the August 2nd attack did." I believe, for example, that McNamara wanted to get out of Vietnam and to me one of the great mysteries is how he ended up being so connected, so a part of that war, and how he eventually let himself do it. What I'm saying is that there are certain things I can answer and certain things that I can't--and however I approach anything, I can never remove myself from that equation. There are things that are mysterious to me and the answers, the only truth, is in the pursuit.
The question most asked of you is where you find your subjects--why do you suppose that is?
I think that maybe they think that I have some secret algorithm, some ironclad discovery rule that I fall back on, but I'm not certain why people want to know. Let me answer that in this way, that when I was embarking on Fog of War, McNamara had been on my mind for years. In retrospect what brought it all back were all these questions floating around--the two books that followed--and I looked at Wilson's Ghost, at these italicized sections that were McNamara's first-person accounts of events--and the first place that I'd read about Tommy Thompson and the Cuban Missile Crisis--and I thought to myself that I wasn't getting younger and neither was he. So anyway I think people ask because in a way they want to be reassured that these aren't their neighbours.
(laughs) Or themselves. The truth is that it's just happenstance, serendipity, luck.
Unlike your other films, Fog of War is being criticized for just recapping known history.
I can't say that everything in this movie is new, but I can say that there's a lot of new stuff in it. Yes, some of it has been told before--the Tommy Thompson story, the story of October 2nd, 1963 when he advises Kennedy to get out of Vietnam is told in retrospect. Conversely, the story of the firebombing of Japan and McNamara's role advising LeMay hasn't been told anywhere. We heard that story from McNamara, found hundreds of pages supporting it in the National Archive, and incorporated it into the movie. The story about seatbelts and falling skulls I don't think appears anywhere else. There's a lot of new stuff in the movie, but I have read a lot of reviews... You brought up the Alterman piece and that raises another question about what bothers me in reviews. I'm bothered when I'm accused of playing fast and loose with history and I'm bothered when people say that everything in a movie is essentially just a rehash.
A lot of reviews, especially today, could answer to that criticism as well.
(laughs) I'm bothered, too, if people say that I haven't done a good job interviewing a subject. Should I give you this list? Is this absurd?
(laughs) A bit. I am interested, though, in the role of criticism in your career--it's generally been a love affair.
Y'know, I'm a person who does read reviews and critics have been overwhelmingly been supportive of me. I got a review this last week from the L.A. critics, and I was at this dinner and I said that without critics, I wouldn't have a career. It's not just me being polite (laughs), it's really true. People championing my career have kept me going in one way or another all the way throughout.
Your films take a sharp turn in regards to observational temperament, to technique, to mood even at The Thin Blue Line.
That was a function of budget, I think, and a function of not having worked for years and years.
A function of Philip Glass?
Maybe, maybe. Philip's music...y'know, it just works. It's one thing to use traditional movie music that's pegged to directly comment on a specific scene--but Philip's music doesn't work that way. It creates this bed: People have uncharitably called it "wallpaper." But it does create this background against which the actual narration emerges. It's very interesting the access that his stuff affords. I always thought there was something musical about how I edited voices and the Glass music, used correctly, heightens that. Then there's the sense of time, of inexorability--it was so perfect for The Thin Blue Line because running through that whole movie were these themes of chance and fate.
Previous to that, the structure of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida were more predicated on parallel design and conscious echoing.
True--and for Thin Blue Line, having been with David Harris all day long, the die seems to have been cast. Randall Adams even says at one point that all of it feels like it was meant to be. Yet you realize that their meeting in Dallas, the Ohio drifter and the boy running from crimes he'd committed in Vidor, Texas, their chance meeting is so much of their story. A very powerful, interesting story--and the Glass music heightened the noir aspect of this miscarriage of justice story.
Yeah, I think that's another word that I'd use. I said about Fog of War that Glass lends this quality of existential dread--I told Philip that he does "existential dread" better than anybody.
What accounts for the new interest in documentaries?
Looking back on it, I think that the way was paved by some truly interesting documentary films, my own among them. I'm a big fan, by the way, of Crumb--and one thing that we've realized is that documentary isn't one thing. There was a kind of strange documentary orthodoxy, the vérité orthodoxy, that if a documentary didn't follow a certain set of rules it represented something fraudulent. I'm even thinking of people who would argue that they were less truthful if they didn't follow certain rules. But as I always point out, style doesn't guarantee truth. If you write a sentence in Copperplate Bold, Extra Condensed font, that doesn't speak at all to the underlying truth of the sentence.
In fact, and I'm thinking now of Steve James's much-attacked Stevie: It's actually more honest to reveal the level of artifice because there is always a level of artifice.
I agree with you. Well said. It's something out of the pages of Karl Popper, but it's skepticism that makes progress possible--we need to call attention to how images can deceive. That dialogue is an important one to engage in. You mentioned Vernon, Florida early on, and I wanted to add to our discussion about this that the idea of the sand that grows is the best expression of it. There's very little distance between the Gulf of Tonkin and the sand that grows, they're from the same intellectual pool of self-deception and perceived truth.
Why didn't you work for years after Vernon, Florida?
I couldn't find anybody who'd let me make a movie. It was a different time then, you know, my two movies didn't fit into any of the existing slots. They clearly weren't dramas, but they weren't documentaries either--no one in either camp recognized them in any shape.
That's still true, there had to be sort of an Errol Morris slot created by a body of work. You describe that slot in terms of the romantic--romantic in what sense?
(laughs) Maybe you're right about my needing to create my own slot--it took long enough. But my films, I think, are romantic in the sense that I'm in love with how people create dramas about their own life, about how everyone does, and it's chronicling those subjective stories that can be very powerfully romantic.
That reminds me of one of my favourite episodes of "First Person", about the lady who cleans up crime scenes.
Ah yes, Joan Doherty, "Crime Scene Cleaner." That's one that we love, too, we still talk about the "skin flip" that she mentions. She's terribly romantic, imagining the lives of what these people were like, her endeavouring to protect them, to protect their privacy. What kind of story do you present to the survivors, what kind of story do you glean from a crime scene? Finding things that a person has kept secret in their lives--do you tell people about them, or do you keep the secret? She becomes a hero--it's one of the things that I love about that story. Very romantic. The romance of self-expression.
The Fog of War is now playing in select cities across North America. Click here to read our review.