August 21, 2011

Meet Errol Morris

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Above, my interview with Errol Morris, using two cameras plus my intimacy-inducing open-source Interro-hat.

There are plenty of things that make Tabloid newsworthy – sex, Mormons, kidnapping, cloning – but it was by total chance that Errol Morris’ documentary opened in theaters just as the tabloid-worthy “British hacking scandal” was descending upon a slice of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid empire.

It was also by considerable chance that Morris happened upon the story of Joyce McKinney, the truth-tangled former beauty queen at the center of his latest you-couldn’t-make-this-up-but-maybe-someone-else-did story. She flew to England, rescued her fiance from the Mormons, and absconded with him to a Devon cottage for a weekend of sex before he decided to return to his missionary friends with the sordid tale. Or so she says. (He says he was kidnapped, and the British tabloids, if not the government, accused her of rape.)

Thirty years later, Morris happened to read an AP wire story in the Boston Globe about a woman who had her dogs cloned in Korea; the last paragraph mentioned the possibility that she was McKinney. He and his crew packed the interrotron – the whimsical face-to-face interview machine for which he’s become famous – and headed for Van Nuys to get one of documentary’s greatest, weirdest interviews.

This wasn’t by total chance of course: as a documentary filmmaker – and one-time private detective – Morris has spent his adult life looking for and then, very carefully,at tabloid stories. This doesn’t mean just the sensationalized supermarket-line fodder, of course. He’s trained his sharp, uncanny eye on serious crimes (The Thin Blue LineStandard Operating Procedure) as often as he has on unlikely characters (Mr. DeathVernon, Florida). His next film, his first real feature, is an adaptation of a fascinating story on This American Life about one of the first attempts at cryogenics. His interests he said were informed by his aunt, an erstwhile resident of mental hospitals.

“I’ve never had any problem with crazy people, I like crazy people, I probably am a crazy person myself,” he told me. “It’s made me able to listen and enjoy stories. I like to think that I’m nonjudgmental, that I can listen and be engaged by almost anything. My crazy aunt used to take me to science fiction movies and really, really, really scare me horribly. The ’50’s was sort of the high point of American science fiction, with these movies like This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man,Them. She scared me silly but I really loved her and I really loved those movies.”

Morris’ stranger-than-fiction movies aren’t just examinations of fascinating people but the strange ways that the facts circulate around them. Ways that, he wants to remind you, are affected by the telling of the story itself, by the medium in which they are told. “From the very very very beginning, probably from the first attempt at journalism, whatever that was, in Cro-Magnon times, there was a tension, and that tension remains between storytelling, wanting to entertain, wanting to drag in an audience and keep their attention… and the truth. It’s always there,” he said.

Like all stories, his are onion-like, shedding layers to reveal new ones underneath. To wit, some little known Errol trivium:

  • Morris is credited as a director of one feature film, 1992’s Dark Wind, but he had a creative disagreement with producer Robert Redford.
  • Before it was a quiet down-home Americana portrait, Morris originally intendedVernon, Florida to be about the townspeople’s predeliction for insurance fraud – until he starrted receiving death threats.
  • Errol’s son, Hamilton, is a correspondent for Vice and produces a geeky show about psychedelic drugs (although I work for Vice, I did not know this until after setting up our interview)
  • Randall Dale Adams, whose death row conviction was overturned thanks in part toA Thin Blue Line, later sued Morris to control rights to his story. (Morris gladly handed them over.)

This tension in his films between fact and fiction, their concern with objectivity, is why I asked Morris about his relationship with Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science whom Morris had as a professor while briefly pursuing a PhD at Princeton in the 1970s. Kuhn is famous for his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and his notion about the way that scientific discovery proceeds, through a series of paradigm shifts that prove that there is no definite reality to grasp onto. Morris was not taken with Kuhn’s idea. In the midst of an argument over a 30-page paper Morris had written about James Clerk Maxwell (Kuhn’s comments, typed on unlined yellow paper, were also 30 pages, single-spaced), Kuhn threw an ash-tray at Morris’s 24-year-old head. It missed, but it signaled the end of Morris’ career as a student and the beginning of his film life. (He made a little film of the ash-tray in flight for his popular New York Times blog; we used it in the video above.)

Despite their argument, Kuhn’s prevailing concept of a truth that is forever elusive seems borne out in part by Morris’ own kaleidoscopic investigations. Standard Operating Procedure fractured the widely-held premises of the photographs of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison. Tabloid goes out of its way to offer no definitive claims about what Joyce did, though it does offer lots of great title effects and copious photographs of Joyce, both clothed and unclothed. (She claims unconvincingly that these are fake.)

“I believe it was probably less than ten minutes that went by from the invention of photography to the point where people realized that they could lie with photographs. I think it’s part of the whole photographic idea from the very very very beginning, it didn’t just happen yesterday with Photoshop or some such nonsense,” he was nearly shouting at this point, in his own charming way. “People lie, and they always are very very creative in finding new ways to lie.”

That aside, Morris is certainly bothered by the post-modern suggestion that nothing is true – after all, he helped free a man from death row, after an examination of the facts – and was perplexed at my suggestion that maybe he and Kuhn had more in common than it may appear. “Do you really see similiarites between me and Kuhn?” he asked later. I explained why, and then a publicist showed up. Morris then began recounting a line he had misremembered from the 1977 film Bad, by Jed Johnson and Andy Warhol, in which two characters are planning a murder: “I don’t want premeditated, I want crazy.”

“In the movie she says the exact opposite. But I always accepted it as a principle for filmmaking,” he said. “We want things to be out of control. We want things set loose in some way. Uncertain. Unconstrained. Chaotic.”

“I’m sorry,” interrupted Charlie, the publicist, “but I have to get you on the phone with this one person.”

Morris turned to me, looking fatigued but still smiling. “Nice to meet you.” TC mark

Alex Pasternack

He has written for Time, Domus, the New York Observer, Foreign Policy, Treehugger, the Guardian, New York, Slate …

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