Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Errol Morris.
In 1988, a documentary about a man in Texas convicted of a murder he did not commit made it to the top of numerous critics’ best-of lists, became one of the most widely-seen non-fiction films of its era and even created enough publicity to overturn the conviction of the film’s subject. However, The Thin Blue Line, despite the considerable attention and critical praise it attracted, was absent at that year’s Academy Awards because it was reportedly not considered a documentary.
One can easily make a case inverse of the Academy’s evaluation, that this particular work actually defined what the documentary is, and can be, in North American filmmaking since. In what seems to be a decade-plus-long mainstream renaissance of the non-fiction form, The Thin Blue Line’s influence is palpable to a level nearing ubiquity.
At the same time, nobody makes films quite like the intimidatingly intelligent and perceptive Errol Morris: filmmaker, investigative journalist, essayist, perceptive tweeter, and arguably (depending on who you ask) the first postmodernist documentarian.
So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who inspired Werner Herzog to eat a shoe.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Errol Morris
1. Think, dammit
“The role of a good documentary is not to convince you about what happened, but to force you to think about what happened. And if it does that, then it really has done its job.”
Speaking about Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (which he co-produced with Herzog) to The Boston Globe, Morris lays out in direct terms what he sees as the point of documentary filmmaking. Documentary is still persuasion, yes, but it exists to persuade the audience to engage in critical thinking, to approach information outside of the terms already assumed and agreed-upon.
In an era where we’ve become ever-more resigned to consuming information that simply reaffirms what we already believe, people who approach documentary filmmaking like Morris and Oppenheimer are exceedingly important.
2. Re-conceive history
“You have the freedom to re-conceive history and how to do history…The focus of this movie is what Donald Rumsfeld thinks about Donald Rumsfeld.”
Morris is interested less in conveying information “directly” (i.e., chronologically under abstract notions of journalistic “objectivity”) than he is in investigating the frameworks by which we gather knowledge and articulate our worldview. His work is a testament to that effort, like in what is (for my money) his greatest work, Mr. Death.
In this snippet interview with The New York Times about his newest film The Unknown Known (a feature-length interview with Donald Rumsfeld that is currently making the festival rounds), Morris talks about approaching the subject of history as a process of selecting amongst a variety of available frameworks.
Of all the documentaries made about the Bush administration made in the past decade, you can likely rest assured that Morris’ film isn’t interested in dragging the skeletons back out of W. and Rummy’s many calamities. He’s interested in investigating one framework in particular: how a figure like Rumsfeld, an imposing giant of recent history, sees himself.
3. Forget the routine of storytelling; focus on the specific
This notion of approaching history as a smorgasbord of possible frameworks for looking at issues, events, and people has motivated Morris’ filmmaking for quite some time. Here’s how he goes about doing so: orienting the viewer away from simple chronology (and its – often false – performance of causality) and towards a particular detail as a starting point.
How then does that detail allow us to examine the subject in a way different from received wisdom? This interview was conducted in advance of Standard Operating Procedure, his film about American soldiers’ self-documented abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which is a film that is explicitly about frameworks. How do we look at such pictures differently when we consider what might lie outside of their framing?
4. Constructing reality is part of reality
“I’ve been in the process of making a movie about the photographs at Abu Ghraib. And what is so very odd about the photographs – and this is also true of Treadwell, I believe – they involve posing. Treadwell is often presenting himself to the camera quite consciously. He is performing for the camera. But at the same time that performance is part of what is being captured. It’s part of a verité moment. That’s why I object to this idea of something that’s posed not being real, the posing can be part of the reality of what you’re looking at.
“What’s so interesting about the Abu Ghraib photographs is that many of those scenes were orchestrated for the camera. They were posed. And the fact of them being posed doesn’t make them less real. In fact, it makes them more horrific and more deeply disturbing.”
In Morris’s joint discussion with Herzog (they’re pals, if you can’t already tell), Morris compares his approach to Standard Operating Procedure with Herzog’s Grizzly Man, particularly in the context of what can or cannot be considered “real” in documentary filmmaking. In assessments about Morris’s postmodernist approach to the documentary, the filmmaker has been situated as moving away from the focus on everyday truth and reality that verité documentarians like The Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker found of utmost importance. Morris complicates this idea by arguing that the reality we make for ourselves daily, or the frameworks we create, is just as constitutive of reality as anything else.
Do not approach self-presentation as inherently suspect – it’s an important way that we make sense of ourselves and the world around us. We can’t pretend that there is a pure reality outside of mediation and interference; in fact, that mediation and interference is exactly where we develop real experiences of all types, including the horrors at Abu Ghraib. After all, who doesn’t look at those pictures and experience something poignantly, disturbingly real?
“To me, ‘investigative’ means something specific…It means you don’t know where you’re going when you start out. Thin Blue Line is a good example. The Act of Killing is a good example. Where you’re drawn into a story and it changes as you go along, sometimes radically.”
Morris was a private investigator in the 1980s until his filmmaking (and commercial-making) career launched at the end of that decade. In the past few years, he’s returned to discussions of what journalism means, particularly in the context of journalism’s crisis.
In this interview, Morris asserts that journalism that isn’t investigative is gossip. Action, interaction, even interference is necessary in order to truly begin to understand a subject. And yes, investigating something inevitably changes it, but that should be seen as a generative, not a problematic, part of the process.
I don’t read Morris’s comments quoted above as suggesting that observance is not without its own worth, especially after his note on details. Investigation, for Morris, probably doesn’t mean sticking a microphone into somebody’s face, but developing a relationship of depth in the subject matter – getting lost in it.
That’s how he can sustain a feature-length interview with a single person. We’re invited to get lost in his active, immersed act of observation. After all, if Morris’ films say anything, they say that looking is a consequential action on its own.
6. Embrace the perverse, preferably with Werner Herzog
“The intention is to put the audience in some kind of odd reality. Werner certainly shares this. It’s the perverse element in filmmaking. Werner in his ‘Minnesota Manifesto’ starts talking about ecstatic truth. I have no idea what he’s talking about. But what I do understand in his films is a kind of ecstatic absurdity, things that make you question the nature of reality, of the universe in which we live. We think we understand the world around us. We look at a Herzog film, and we think twice. And I always, always have revered that element. Ecstatic absurdity: it’s the confrontation with meaninglessness.”
From the aforementioned conversation between Morris and Herzog, the filmmaker in question waxes philosophic about what this focus on details, this disruption of frames, this process of investigation actually does. One should think of meaninglessness not as an absence of meaning, but as a productive negation of conventional ways of thinking that can open up a universe of possibilities in terms of the way we perceive – or, rather, re-perceive – the world around us.
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Despite Morris’ immeasurable influence on contemporary documentaries (not to mention his many books, commercials, essays, and even fiction films), you’d he hard-pressed to find another working director who is – through both his spoken eloquence and his filmmaking practice – engaged with investigating the nature of truth in a way that can discomfit, shock, and surprise you this much.
That’s why Morris’ films are so rich and fascinating: they’re incredibly informative in terms of whatever subject he chooses, but they’re ultimately about something much greater, about the myriad ways in which we encounter and interpret these things called Truth and Knowledge.
And let’s be honest, with an expert interviewer who has published and recorded quite a few words of his won, we’re only scratching the surface here in terms of what Morris offers for non-fiction filmmaking. But instead of continuing through an endless terrain of revelatory observations about epistemology, here’s a picture of Errol Morris and Werner Herzog hugging under a rainbow.