There’s a chance you’ve watched at least one of the documentaries created by Errol Morris, but know very little about the man. Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, each of his works critically-acclaimed, and a regular in top ten lists with each release. With ‘The Thin Blue Line’, Morris notoriously freed an innocent man, imprisoned and heading for death row. In ‘The Fog of War’ he extracted a confession from former Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara, getting the tight-lipped technocrat to admit that they “were behaving as war criminals” for planning the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which burned to death 100,000 civilians in a single night. Morris’ documentaries helped spur a rebirth of non-fiction film in the 1980s. After his first two films, Morris found financing for new projects hard to come by, so he turned to a unusual source of income – working as a New York private detective (he cites his detective experience as providing the necessary skills for his investigative filmmaking, most notably in “The Thin Blue Line”).
Morris uses techniques not traditionally seen in documentaries, to make his films more dramatic and diverse, such as ‘The Thin Blue Line’s eerie Philip Glass score, and the haunting reenactments of the policeman’s murder. ‘The Thin Blue Line’s multiple points of view have drawn favourable comparisons to Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (1950). His own innovative film style is very influential. Like Hitchcock, Morris knows how to create careful doses of emotional reality, which can have much more impact on a viewer than a literal reality can be on film. But what really stands out (in his later work – most notably in ‘Fog of War’) is his devising of the Interrotron (terror and interview) – two cameras, one on Morris and one on the interviewee. Each seeing the other’s images staring directly into the lens, to give the audience the appearance the subject is talking directly to them. Just as Jonathan Demme brought us uncomfortably close to Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1990) using the first person perspective, presenting the audience with a subject telling their side of a story (seemingly) directly to them, can lead to a more intense psychological connection, and, at times, deliver an incredible emotional blow.
His work explores a wide range of subjects (politics, death, astrophysics, pet cemetaries…). Morris has stated his films break down into “Completely Whacked Out” and “Politically Concerned.” Many focus on people with strong, unusual obsessions. His documentary series ‘First Person’, was especially effective presenting compelling individuals such as Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who has autism. Grandin designs animal slaughterhouses to be humane. He has never shied away from taking on difficult subjects, such as ‘A Brief History of Time’ (1991), about the paraplegic physicist Stephen Hawking, illustrating Hawking’s revolutionary theories (one of which led to us creating ‘TIME AND PLACE’), and comparing the paralyzed scientist’s own rich interior world periled by ALS, with the complex, dying universe.
Morris, who received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, says none of his films have made him money, so he directs commercials, and won an Emmy in 2001. A series of campaign ads he did for John Kerry was little shown. Morris’ much-criticised approach was to Interrotron actual Republicans and conservatives who had switched to support Kerry, versus George W. Bush. Morris has an occasional feature in the New York Times ruminating on the power and meaning of photos. Despite him being a relative unknown to those outside “the biz” he is arguably amongst the most important documentarians of our time, and we highly recommend you check out his work.
The Thin Blue Line // Fog of War // A Brief History of Time