Errol MorrisCurious is the word that comes to mind when I read or think about Errol Morris. Nodoubt that he is somewhat of a character, but it is his intractable curiosity that makes himgreat. His record suggests that although quite intelligent, he has at times lacked the driveor ambition to complete things. He tried to talk his way into several prestigious graduateprograms after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree inHistory. Turned down by Harvard and Yale, he gained entrance to Princeton where heenjoyed a brief sojourn studying the history of physics.He left Princeton and ended up at University of California at Berkeley pursuing a PhD inPhilosophy. As his disenchantment with Philosophy grew he became more of a regular atthe Pacific Film Archive, where he was recognized as a film noir enthusiast. Inspired bythe film Psycho he visited Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1975.While in Wisconsin he had many interviews with Ed Gein, an infamous serial killer. Heand Werner Herzog made plans to return to Plainfield the next summer and dig up Gein’smother testing the theory that Gein himself had already dug her up. Morris had plans fora film or a book and the next year conducted many interviews. He never completed theproject. Herzog then challenged him with a $2000 cash gift. Morris used the money to goto Vernon, Florida otherwise known as Nub City. This name came from a particular formof insurance fraud in which the city’s residents engaged. They deliberately amputated alimb to collect the insurance payment. In this way they created a city of well to docitizens with nubs instead of healthy limbs.Morris’ second documentary movie was about the town of Vernon, but it made nomention of the insurance scam and the nickname of “Nub City.” While working on a filmthat he had tentatively named Nub City, he read a headline in the SF Chronicle that said,“450 DEAD PETS GONG TO NAPA VALLEY.” Morris immediately left for Napa andbegan working on the film that would become his first feature, Gates of Heaven.
Werner Herzog promised to cook and eat his shoe if Morris completed the project. Thisto inspire and challenge Morris whom Herzog viewed as incapable of following throughon projects that he had conceived. Les Blank made a documentary film of the pubic shoeeating.Morris became interested in Dr. James Grigson who was a psychiatrist living in Texaswho made a comfortable living testifying for the prosecution that defendants who wereguilty were likely to commit violent crimes in their future if not put to death. Hisvigorous testimony had earned him the name “Dr. Death.” Through and because ofGrigson, Morris met the subject of his next film, Randall Dale Adams.At about this time Morris had been working as a private investigator for a well knowagency that specialized in Wall Street Cases. Bringing together his investigative skillsand his obsessions with murder, narration, and epistemology, Morris went to work on theRandall Adams case in earnest. Eventually Adams was found innocent and released fromdeath row. The film that Morris had made, The Thin Blue Line,” was popularly acceptedas the force behind getting his subject out of prison.Morris said of the film that it was two movies grafted together. The first was the filmabout “did he do it or not.” The second and on a much different level was an essay onfalse history. (Italics added) The film was very positively received making many criticstop ten lists from 1988. It won documentary of the year from the New York Film CriticsCircle and the National Society of Film Critics.
Morris career as filmmaker and director has grown and prospered over the years. One ofhis more recent films was Standard Operating Procedure, a film about the abuses of AbuGhraib prison. His latest short film is about the man who was the only one with an openumbrella at the site of the Kennedy assassination in November 1963. Over time he hasmade many short commercial spots. Some have been for political candidates, othersstrictly commercial.In 2004, Morris won the Oscar for Best Documentary for his film about the life andcareer of Robert S. McNamara, famous for being one of the major proponents andarchitects of the Vietnam War. McNamara’s complex characteristics, and his conflictswith General Curtis LeMay were brought out. How these interacted to produce hisresponses to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam issues were carefully presentedhelping with understanding how McNamara became the historical Secretary of Defensethat he was.Roger Ebert has said, "After twenty years of reviewing films, I havent found anotherfilmmaker who intrigues me more...Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great afilmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini." Recently, the Guardian listed him as one of the tenmost important film directors in the world.Morris has for several years been writing about the verisimilitude of photographs. Theseessays of analysis have been published in the New York Times and can be found on thatpaper’s web site. They are of particular interest to those who engage in thinking orwriting about photography. Recently a number of these essays were collected andpublished as a book entitled Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries ofPhotography. When it became apparent that there were two photos of Fenton’s Valley ofDeath, Morris went to the extreme of visiting the Crimea and finding the road in thephoto. After much study he concluded that it actually made little difference and trying todiscern which photo was a bit of a fool’s errand.In the photo shown below, there is one with many cannon balls and the other has none inthe roadway. It has always been the story that Fenton paid soldiers to collect unexplodedcannon balls and place them in the road. In the other the road is obviously cleared, whichis the real photo and which is the “posed” one? Does it actually make a difference?Morris decided it did not. ᚖ
For his interviews Errol has developed and refined a device called The Interrotron, adevice similar to a teleprompter. Errol and the subject each sit facing a camera. Theimage of each person’s face is then projected onto a two-way mirror positioned in frontof the lens of the other’s camera., so instead of looking at the blank lens, each person islooking directly at a human face. Morris believes that the machine helps to explore therelationship between "monologue and language, and how people present themselves tocamera, and express themselves to camera. ᚖ
In an Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes in July 2008, Morris deals with the issue of the“digitally altered photograph.” The photo in question is: “A picture that purports to showfour missiles being fired rather than the three shown in other photographs of thelaunching. Are we to infer that no missiles were launched? Or just three? Or maybe onlytwo? Take several steps back. Are we being tricked into thinking that Iran is a biggerthreat than it is?”Morris asks how this controversy became international news. He asks if we are on the
brink of another war? He recalls the bellicose posturing and the photographs that led us towar in Iraq. And he recalls Colin Powell displaying photographs of Iraq showingincontrovertible evidence of WMD. We now know that this was false. According toMorris, “We don’t need advanced digital tools to mislead, to misdirect or to confuse. Allwe need is a willingness to uncritically believe.” Morris continues, “The alteration ofphotos for propaganda purposes has been with us as long as photography itself; it is notan invention of the digital age. But while digitally altered photographs can easily fool theeye, they often leave telltale footprints that allow them to be unmasked as forgeries.” Thelow quality Photoshop-ing is shown in the second image above.As stated earlier, the alteration of photos for propaganda purposes has been with us aslong as photography itself. It certainly does not require Photoshop skills or digital
photography. In the series shown above, Stalin is accompanied by three officials, thentwo, then one, as they successively fall out of favor and are cropped and airbrushed intonon-existence. (In the end, in a painting based on the photograph, he stands alone.) Weunderstand Stalin’s intentions by removing comrades, but what is the purpose of theseIranian missile photographs? They are clearly altered. The question remains: Why, and towhat end?There is the same question re: the missiles photos from the government of Iran. Morriscloses his essay: “The photographs tell us little about the real threat of Iran. The dangerhere is not in three missiles versus four. We do not understand the intentions behind thephotograph — real or digitally manipulated. Is it a threat? A warning? Or a bluff? All wereally know about the photograph is that the government of Iran wanted to get theattention of the world, and it succeeded.”There are other materials on his web site that might have special application in teaching aclass of photography students. The editorials are all plainly written and speak toimportant topics. There are links to trailers or excerpts of each of his movies, which areenjoyable and might lead some to actually view the full movie. Book reviews and reportsof failed projects are also present.There are four characteristics that make Errol Morris the successful intellectual and criticthat he is. Exposure to people of his sort is important to students, especially today in thetime of instant access to tid-bits of information—I confess, I got most of these “facts”from Wikipedia.Errol Morris is first and foremost curious about both people and the world they inhabit.Secondly he is committed. He traveled to the Crimea to visit the road shown in Fenton’sphoto “the Valley of Death” in hopes of resolving which of the several photographs wasthe “photo.” Third, he is creative; and fourth, he is intelligent. He thinks about things hesees or hears. He often makes a plan to pursue it. He writes well. His prose is uncluttered.I find his website interesting and useful. I recommend it.