Errol Morris and the Early Years

As the resident documentary reviewer here at Crushed Celluloid (by no other virtue than that I am the one who has been reviewing documentaries so far), I noticed over the last month or so that I had one big, glaring hole in my doc-knowledge: Errol Morris. While never the household name that Michael Moore became, Morris is easily considered the granddaddy of American documentaries, if not to the  genre in general. His films have probably influenced the tone and presentation of documentaries more so than any other director. He still makes films today, as he has turned towards a more political spectrum, and his name has been brought up often with the recent true crime series The Jinx affecting a real life arrest after information was revealed in the film (more on this later). With the re-release of three of Morris's films for the Criterion Collection, I figured now was a good a time as any to dive into the films that made him the towering artistic figure that he is today.  


Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida are packaged as a double feature by Criterion, and it is just as well, as the two features together even out to 140 minutes. There is an air of simplicity to these documentaries, coming  across as oddly meditative character studies that seem to have no beginning and no end. They are just stories, seemingly picked up at random places, and leaving before any conclusion. At the same time, the brief glimpses into these people's lives and thoughts end up in oddly prescient places, saying something deep about life and universe through such small actions.  


In 1978 Errol Morris released his first film, Gates of Heaven. Famously, Morris has attributed his whole career to Siskel and Ebert for taking notice of his film and recommending it to the county at large on their hit TV show, At the Movies (Ebert even listing it as one of his 10 favorite movies by the end of his life). Gates of Heaven takes its primary focus as pet cemeteries, the owners and the people who bury their animals there. One half of the film involves a soft-spoken North Dakota man whose life dream was to provide a place for pet owners to lovingly and respectfully bury their animals. When this idea ends up financially failing and the pet cemetery land in Nappa Valley is bought by someone else, the investors drive themselves nearly to bankruptcy (if they did, though, it was not discussed in the film) digging up the pets bodies so that they can be buried again, properly. It is a touching and quirky look at these utterly inimitable people who love their pets but also seem slightly out of touch with reality. There is one particularly funny scene where Morris juxtaposes one pet owner complaining about the pet cemetery against another pet owner complaining about the previous pet owner. It is the documentary equivalent of watching old women gossip at a Bridge Club. The second half of the film focuses on a successful pet cemetery that has become a family business. While this family's rhetoric may be the same about pet loving and such, they are obviously more business minded, with the father passing the business onto one of his sons, while the other son helps out minorly while living a strange hippie/rocker lifestyle in a shack on a hill, overlooking the cemetery.There is a scene with this wayward son where he plays a tape of some music he's recorded, with vocals and an electric guitar soloing over an acoustic guitar. It sounds like the musical equivalent of fan-fiction, if he were writing a companion piece for Rush's "2112". It is a cringe-worthy scene as you watch the son's face while the music plays, wondering if his expression is one of deep concentration or of realization that the music he is playing is utterly bad.  


Vernon, Florida (1981) is a shorter film, coming in at 55 minutes (what is the movie equivalent of a novelette?), whose backstory is just as interesting as the film itself. Morris had heard about this town, Vernon, FL, where there was a group of people scamming insurance companies by cutting off their own limbs. While Morris was prepared to go through with this documentary, he began to receive death threats from these limb frauds, and instead turned the project into a look at the strange personalities that reside in Vernon. Unlike Gates of HeavenVernon, Florida does not have a central conceit that it revolves around, instead using the same method he used in GOH where he gives his subjects carte blanche to talk about whatever they want, and have the people reveal themselves in unexpected, but sometimes poetic ways. There is one particular man who loves turkey hunting with a fervor that borders on bloodlust. But he also talks about this pastime with such calm and measured thinking that at times you almost forget he's talking about killing perhaps hundreds of these creatures, and instead he might be talking about his personal search for God.  


Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida share similar aesthetics. Both films employ an interview style that sinks the director into the background, as the people seem to be divulging their stories without any prompts. It gives the films a free-flowing feeling, as the segment that is cut to may have little to no relation to the scene that came before. Despite this, though, the films (together) still feel like one long, flowing diatribe about nothing in particular. They are serene, mild, and ultimately inconsequential, which is strange for a documentary. In an age where Netflix recommends movie after movie, professing whatever aspect of the political spectrum you may fall under, it is refreshing to look at a documentary that has no urgent point to make and doesn't need to hyperbolize its point.  


One thing Morris shows quite an aptitude for early on is staging his subjects. He seems to find spots in these peoples homes, or wherever they happen to be, that seem to highlight the inherent qualities of these characters. There is one particular woman, dressed in green pants, a white shirt, and a green neckerchief, who sits among antique furniture, with a framed picture of a poodle in the background that feels like a visual joke in itself


Placing these people in such an abstract but natural setting gives viewers a small look into their world, and eliminates the need for backstory or much in the way of explanation at all. Once again, you are just experiencing this, these people do not need your validation, nor do they care about your indifference. There is something almost Zen-like in the way that Morris can sketch these intimate niche's of life. 


Seven years after the release of Vernon, Florida (which was actually filmed before Gates of Heaven, which Werner Herzog cooked and ate his shoe after the release of, believing Morris would never finish a film, but this is all besides the point) Errol Morris came back to the screen with The Thin Blue Line, a reference to the adage that police are the thin blue line between society and anarchy. The film conceptually began as an exploration of psychiatrist James Grigson, or "Dr. Death", who spent 15 years giving essentially the same testimony at criminal cases, saying that a defendant was mentally unstable and that he was "100 percent certain that the defendant would kill again, given the chance." Grigson's testimonies disproportionately led to death penalties in the Texas courts (Grigson was also later expelled from the American Psychiatric Association). But while researching Grigson, Morris grew interested in the case of Randall Dale Adams, turning his camera on this case instead. 


The Thin Blue Line begins in an unexpected way for an Errol Morris film: with music. Generally the only music to be found in his first two features was diegetic, but now music was being used to inform the narrative of the film (and being composed by Phillip Glass, no less). Also, now there was a narrative to the film. The Thin Blue Line essentially tells the story of a crime that either involved Randall Adams and/or David Harris as one of them shot a cop to death on a road outside of Dallas, TX. The film exhaustively goes over the details of the crime scene, witness reporting, witnesses reporting on other witnesses, the lawyers, the District Attorney, and the testimony of both the men involved. But the film continuously circles back to the inexplicability of Adams performing the crime.  


Morris largely uses the same documentary style of letting people explain themselves, as if they are going off one long monologue, with each person in front of a seemingly symbolic background that captures some small aspect of their personality through aesthetic alone. He intercuts these confessionals with a recreation of the crime scene that progresses with more details and a different point of view each time it is replayed from someone’s testimony. It is an extremely effective technique, and combined with the somber, yet subtle Phillip Glass score, the film truly creates a tension that is no less artistic (perhaps, even more so) than Hitchcock. It is a strange shift from Morris’s first two films, but at the same time there is something strangely reminiscent of their sense of introspection. Even with the sense of urgency the film paints, it still feels meditative and thoughtful like his previous films. There are no bad people, just misguided ones (well, except for one glaring exception). 


The crux of The Thin Blue Line and where it ties back to the recent hit show, The Jinx, is the ending of the film. After all is said and done, and the movie could have easily been over with you drawing the same conclusion (if not vaguer), Morris has one last un-filmed interview with David Harris where he cavalierly admits that Adams was wrongly convicted by his testimony, and that he was the one that shot that police officer. It is chilling, watching Morris’s tape recorder roll, and hearing Davis's almost jovial voice at this other mans misfortunes. After the film premiered, it eventually led to Adams release (though it took a while as the film was not played very widely at first, Morris even claiming that he lost money on the production). The Thin Blue Line managed to do what every good film strives to do, and that is change the world in some fundamental way (hopefully for the positive). 


What Morris seemed to be searching for in his first two films he seemed to find a little too much of with The Thin Blue Line: truth. Where his first films were about finding something inherently human in its subjects, The Thin Blue Line finds a character in David Harris that lacks any sort of humanity. In a way, his art trying to imitate life led to life imitating his art, in much the same way that Andrew Jereki made a fiction film about Robert Durst, and when that didn’t turn out as well as he hoped, he made a documentary mini-series about him (The Jinx), ending up with Durst accidentally confessing to the murder of his wife. There is probably something deeper and more poetic to be said about the symbiotic cycle of art and reality, but sometimes it is just better to be meditative about such issues and find something good and human in even the strangest of people. 

March 31st, 2015