The Films of Errol Morris
This fall, the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of New Orleans, where I teach, will add a non-fiction track to its current concentrations in fiction writing, poetry writing, screenwriting and play-writing. In so doing, we join a nation-wide trend toward recognizing non-fiction as an equal member in the brotherhood of the narrative arts. In the September, 2000, issue of The Writer's Chronicle, Old Dominion University Professor Michael Pearson argues the case for non-fiction in an article titled "The Other Creative Writing." "Does it make a difference," Pearson asks rhetorically, "if we make our stories out of facts or fictions any more than it matters if a sculptor makes a statue out of marble or clay?" In significant part, the nation's creative writing programs are moving to recognize the increasing dominance in book sales of non-fiction titles over works of fiction. But if non-fiction is finally being given its artistic due in the print medium, the same is hardly true of the film medium where the documentary continues to be a step-child and the most talented American documentarian, a true practitioner of "creative non-fiction" is routinely snubbed by Academy Award judges.
I am talking about University of Wisconsin history major and Berkeley philosophy student Errol Morris who, over the last two decades, has made the most arresting documentaries in world cinema, yet has found only a small audience and only a smidgen of the acclaim he deserves. In a genre dominated by films about historical and social issues, Morris has chosen to tell different fact-based stories in strikingly different ways. His first film, Gates of Heaven (1978) looked at the owners and patrons of a Southern California pet cemetery. His second, Vernon, Florida (1981), looked at the eccentric residents of a small town. Morris finally garnered a bit of attention with The Thin Blue Line in 1988, a film so powerful and convincing that it resulted in the freeing of a man convicted of a murder he didn't commit. Oscar judges, though, were said to dismiss the film because it employed sequences of dramatization, despite the fact that these sequences were staged in a way to make their emphatic re-creation altogether obvious. Morris attracted somewhat less attention in 1992 with A Brief History of Time, his biography of ground-breaking cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Since then he has all but fallen from view once more, despite directing two more mesmerizing documentary features. This essay will strive to explore Morris' distinctive oeuvre by looking closely at his best known work and his two most recent.
American Justice on Trial
One of the formative moments of my baby-boomer youth occurred when Perry Mason requested permission in his weekly murder trial to be allowed an unusual procedure. The judge was perplexed and undecided and turned for comment to prosecuting attorney Hamilton Burger. Burger suggested that Mason be allowed to proceed, remarking that the object of a murder trial, after all, was truth, that its goal was not victory, but justice. In my memory, this happened more than once—almost weekly, I recall, though no doubt incorrectly. Whatever, Burger's response, whether once or repeatedly, had a profound effect on me. It made me fiercely proud of an element in American democracy that made us distinctive as a people, but one I ultimately discovered that resided in the sepia-toned world of ideal rather than the stark and glaring world of reality.
In the forty years since that particular episode of "Perry Mason" blinked off the tube, I have, I hope, waxed more sophisticated in my grasp of the complexities of American criminal justice. But no level of creeping cynicism, I think, could prepare any first-time viewer for the withering attack on our justice system waged by Morris in The Thin Blue Line, which proves that a convicted murderer, still serving a life prison sentence at the time of the film's release, was innocent beyond the shadow of a doubt. In so doing the film impugns the intelligence of the police officers who investigated the crime, the motives of the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, and the worthiness to sit on the bench of the man who heard the case as judge. In the final analysis, the movie calls into question just how often our adversarial system results in such horrifying miscarriages of justice.
The details of the murder case in The Thin Blue Line are these: Shortly after midnight on November 29, 1976, a Dallas policeman named Robert Wood stopped a blue compact automobile for driving without lights. As his partner waited in the police car, Wood approached the violating vehicle. He planned to issue a verbal warning and send the driver on his way. But when he stepped alongside the window, a series of shots rang out. The fatal rounds were fired into Officer Wood's head after he had already fallen to the ground. The small blue car then sped away into the cold fall night.
Officer Theresa Turko, Woods' partner, did not manage to get the license plate number. But she did offer the observation that the driver was alone in his car and was wearing a jacket with a large fleecy collar. Beyond that, the Dallas police were able to generate very little to go on. On December 3, 1976, after notices of a $20,000 cash reward appeared in Dallas newspapers, a woman named Emily Miller came forward and filed a written affidavit claiming that she'd passed the crime scene moments before the shooting. The driver of the blue compact, she said, was "a light-skinned Negro or a Mexican."
Dallas police spent thousands of man hours studying automobile tire tracks and examining auto registration records for Chevy Vegas (the make of the car identified by officer Turko). But by the third week of December they were still without substantive leads and admit in the film to a feeling of public humiliation. Never before in the department's history had they failed to apprehend a cop killer within forty-eight hours. The break in the case came on December 19, 1976, and came from a most unexpected quarter. Three hundred fifty miles from Dallas, in the small town of Vidor on the Texas-Louisiana border, local authorities arrested sixteen-year-old David Harris for a crime spree in early December of that year. In the process of their investigation, Vidor police ascertained that Harris had recently stolen a blue Mercury Comet and a .22 caliber pistol and used the latter while committing several burglaries and an armed robbery. Furthermore, friends of Harris told investigators that for nearly a month Harris had bragged of having "offed a pig in Dallas." Led by Harris' vidor police retrieved the .22 revolver from a nearby swamp, and it proved the weapon with which Officer Wood was murdered.
When interrogated by Dallas police, however, Harris maintained that he was innocent. His story of killing Wood was told to "impress his friends." The actual shooting, Harris now asserted, was committed by a twenty-eight-year-old Caucasian laborer named Randall Adams, a hitchhiker Harris had picked up in Dallas on the day of the killing. Harris claimed to have witnessed the murder from the front seat of the stolen Comet, which, he said, Adams was driving. He did not report the crime because the (stolen) murder weapon was his. Randall Adams had no prior record, but on December 21, relying on Harris, testimony, Dallas officials arrested him and charged him with the murder of Officer Wood.
During his interrogation, Adams admitted that he had been given a ride by Harris on the morning of November 28, 1976, and that the two had spent a large portion of the day together driving around Dallas. In the early evening the two of them had purchased beer and attended a drive-in screening of two teenage sex flicks. According to Adams, though, they departed the drive-in around 9:30 p.m., and Adams arrived back at the Comfort Motel where he was residing in time for the end of the "Carol Burnett Show" and the beginning of the "Ten O'Clock News." Adams claimed that by the time Officer Wood was murdered he had been asleep for two hours. The Dallas police, however, chose to believe Harris' account, and Adams was bound over for trial.
The court proceedings began on April 26, 1977. Adams was prosecuted by Douglas Mulder, an assistant district attorney with an undefeated record and an astonishing reputation for convincing juries to return recommendations for the death penalty. The defense attorneys were Edith James, who had never before worked a case involving a capital felony, and Dennis White, whose speciality was real estate. At the trial, Harris repeated his accusations against Adams. The defense attempted to impeach Harris' testimony by referring to his Vidor crime spree and his statements to associates that it was he who had killed Wood. Judge Don Metcalfe disallowed such rebuttal, however, ruling that Harris' statements and activities after the murder were not relevant to the issue of Adams' guilt or innocence. Officer Turko testified that Adams' bushy hair probably looked like the fleecy jacket collar she had described earlier.
Still, going into the last day of the trial, defense counsels White and James thought that they were surely going to win, that the state had not proved its case. But when they arrived in court on the fateful Friday, April 29, 1977, Mulder produced three surprise witnesses, all of whom identified Adams as the driver of the blue compact. The most damaging witness was Emily Miller, who dramatically named Adams and further claimed that she had picked him out of a police lineup. Shaken and confused, White and James made critical errors at this point. Namely, they did not confront Miller with her earlier statement that the driver was "either a Negro or a Mexican." Nor did they reserve the right to recall her and the other witnesses at a later date. The trial recessed for the weekend with the defense case in tatters.
And it got worse the next Monday. Defense had now prepared a strategy for impeaching Miller in particular. But she was not in the courtroom. And prosecutor Mulder informed the judge that she had been dismissed and had subsequently disappeared. In her absence White requested permission to show the jury Miller's statement from December 3, 1976, but Judge Metcalfe refused, stating that since Miller was unavailable to defend herself against the impeachment, such a procedure would be unfair.
In his closing remarks to the jury, Dennis White argued that David Harris was easily the most likely killer, that both the car and the weapon were his, that he had a long record, and that at the time of the shooting he was in the midst of a crime spree. Furthermore, White submitted, the primary case against Adams derived from Harris, evidently self-interested accusations. Speaking last, though, D.A. Mulder stressed the final day's testimony from Miller and the two others. In an eloquent closing Mulder spoke of Officer Wood, his widow and family, and of all courageous policemen as a "thin blue line" who protect civilization from the omnipresent threat of anarchy. "But who protects the police officer?" he asked. "Who picks up their banner when they fall in battle?" Judge Metcalf recalls to this day how moved he was by Mulder's summation. And a stirred jury returned both a guilty verdict and a recommendation for the electric chair.
The Thin Blue Line takes us through the years after the verdict, through Randall Adams' repeated appeals, through his stay of execution by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell three days before he was to die in 1979 and through the 1980 commutation of his sentence to life imprisonment by Texas Governor William Clements, a move that denied Adams a retrial on the facts of the case. It also takes us through the subsequent years in the life of David Harris, through his enlistment in the U.S. Army and subsequent arrest by military police in 1978, through his 1979 apprehension and 1980 conviction for a California crime spree that included attempted murder of a police officer and his efforts at trial to blame the incident on a hitchhiker, through his arrest for attempted rape, through his arrest and conviction for the murder of a man he first wounded in a gun battle and then dispatched with three deliberate shots to the head. And much more. Morris produces evidence that Miller and the other surprise witnesses lied, that Harris was carefully coached by the prosecution and that D.A. Mulder deliberately withheld and misrepresented evidence.
Why? Because Dallas was crying for vengeance. Because David Harris was only sixteen and could not be tried as an adult and could not be given the death penalty. Because Randall Adams was twenty-eight and could. Because assistant district attorney Mulder had a perfect trial record and couldn't bear to lose. And because as Mulder told one of his friends who reported the incident to Morris, "It takes a skilled prosecutor to convict even a guilty defendant, but it takes a great prosecutor to convict one who's innocent." The Thin Blue Line is a daring and gripping piece of cinema, easily as involving as the tautest fictional thriller. Anyone who has ever contemplated the merits of capital punishment should see this film before adopting a final stance. Randall Adams was finally released from prison, but only because Morris had the fortitude and artistry to make such an overwhelmingly convincing motion picture. When I first saw the film in the late 1980s, Adams was still in jail, and even today I recall how sick at heart the film made me, sick that a country as great as ours can steal over a decade of an innocent man's life. In recent days, of course, DNA testing has shown that the case of Randall Adams was no isolated aberration but a single instance in a wide pattern. The Thin Blue Line suggested as much years before biotechnology advanced to solve the scores of cases Errol Morris couldn't.
Splendor of the Human Spirit
Morris described his 1997 film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control as "the ultimate low-concept movie—a film that utterly resists the possibility of a one-line summary." He's right. But I can say something brief in judgment of his picture: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is the most unusual movie I've ever seen and one of the most fascinating. It's a picture which makes the viewer squirm with pleasure while in the theater and provides fuel for conversation for days afterwards.
Like Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, the 1997 film eschews the usual documentary strategy of trying to chronicle an event or explore an issue. Focusing locally to contemplate globally, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a reverential meditation which endeavors to "document" the variety and splendor of the human spirit. The picture works this way: It intercuts interviews with four men who don't know each other, with scenes of the men at work and with old B-movie footage and cartoons. Odd? You bet. Involving? You bet!
Dave Hoover is a wild animal trainer and circus performer who idolizes the late action-movie and serial star Clyde Beatty (some of whose work is also included). Dave works mostly with lions and tigers but has sweeping theories about animal psychology, all formed from his extensive interaction with wild beasts. George Mendonca is a topiary gardener who uses old-fashioned pruning shears to shape hedges and trees into bears, giraffes, elephants and other creatures. Ray Mendez is an expert on the fairly recently discovered hairless mole-rats, tiny beaver-faced mammals who organize themselves in nests that most resemble insect hives. And Rodney Brooks is an M.I.T. engineer who has designed some of the world's most complicated autonomous robots.
As the picture rapidly introduces us to each of these men, we sit wrinkle-browed trying to figure out what in the world they have in common. Gradually we understand. Each of their lives is somehow connected to animals. Mendonca makes animal shapes out of plants. Hoover trains and performs with animals. Mendez studies a specific species of animal, a mammal that acts like an insect. And Brooks achieved his breakthrough in robotics by studying insect motion. Based on his understanding of insects, he designs machines to do for man what man once might have employed draft animals to do.
In addition, these four men share a reverence for the animal kingdom. Mendonca's art is always expressed in the shape of animals. Mendez could clearly spend all his waking hours watching the activities and charting the social relations of his beloved mole-rats. Brooks has discovered that the key to complicated human development lies in understanding the simplest of Earth's creatures. And Hoover passionately believes in demonstrable animal intelligence, individual personality, memory and will.
The four have other things in common as well. They each possess an unbridled enthusiasm for their work. We are nowhere told how much money any of these men make, and we aren't because it doesn't matter. The M.I.T. engineer may make quite a lot, and the topiary gardener may make very little. But neither man would begin to measure the product of his life's endeavor by the size of his paycheck. In fact, it's altogether obvious that measurement is of absolutely no concern to any of these men. They do what they do because they are enraptured by doing it. The value of their efforts to the human race as a whole arguably varies. Brooks' work may produce countless advantages for us all. But Hoover is just an entertainer and one, at that, who admits wild animal acts like his will probably not last another generation. The works of a sculptor or painter can be preserved in museums for millennia, but Mendonca suspects that his topiary garden will die along with him. And Mendez's study of mole-rats might be dismissed as a mere scientific curiosity. Still, whatever its socially sanctioned "value," Brooks' work ethic stems from his boundless fascination, not from his sense of altruistic mission. And none of the others is for an instant troubled by the seeming impracticality of that which he does. Too, Brooks might be the first to find unsuspected value in what the others do. Look what he learned from insects.
In the final analysis, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a rumination on evolution, from insects to mammals that act like insects to great beasts to man who can create objects which act like animals. And here it is Brooks who proposes that robots may represent the next step in the evolutionary process. Robotics scientists are very close to designing machines with levels of intelligence equal to and greater than that of human beings. It will not prove hard at all to produce machines that can reproduce themselves. Brooks admits once machines with high levels of intelligence have been made operational that they may well prove alien to us in the way that we may seem alien to the "lower" creatures with whom we share the planet. And intelligent machines may well prove hardier than human beings. A variety of disasters could wipe out, as Brooks puts it, "flesh-based life." In that case the machines we call robots may survive us, may endure when we expire, may be our legacy for a future very different from our own time.
Morris' title refers to Brooks' robots, but it's also a humble joke about his own work. In this he is way overly modest. However fast and cheap this movie may be, its control is astonishing. I have only scratched the surface of its treasures. The picture can be described little easier in a thousand words than in a single sentence. Watch this film with your children. And say a prayer that each of your children finds a calling in life as passionate as that of Dave Hoover, George Mendonca, Ray Mendez or Rodney Brooks—and, I might add, Errol Morris. Only someone who loved his craft would make a picture like this and could make it so compelling.
The Ordinary Face of Evil
In his typically arresting latest documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter,Jr. (1999), Morris addresses a question historians have wrestled with for more than half a century: How could the Holocaust happen in an ostensibly Christian country where people went to church and read a Bible that taught, "Love thy neighbor as thyself"? Even where acknowledged prejudice is factored in, how could God-fearing people turn their faces away as their co-workers, former schoolmates and fellow citizens were rounded up, forced into squalid concentration camps and ultimately murdered by the millions? Though we hardly have to look any further than recent events in Serbia and Kosovo to see how ethnic hatreds translate into unspeakable violence, the answers to questions about the Holocaust are nonetheless nowhere clear and everywhere sad. The murder of six million Jews didn't happen in the hot rain of machine-gun fire, wasn't the product of renegade soldiers settling ancient grudges in a frenzy of killing. The Holocaust was organized and cold, perpetrated not by street toughs but by doctors and accountants. Nazi true believers dropped the gas pellets, but an entire nation collaborated. They did so by willing themselves not to know what evil surrounded them. We see this willful ignorance still struggling to survive today among right-wing conspiracy theorists who cling to the straws of sophistry and lie in order to maintain that the Holocaust, in fact, never happened.
One such individual is a Maiden, Massachusetts, engineer named Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. A slight, balding and nerdy man, Leuchter is living proof of the old saw that "a little education is a dangerous thing." By the mid-1980s, Leuchter had taken his degree in engineering and developed a business for himself as an expert on instruments of execution. As state after state rushed to reinstate capital punishment after Gary Gilmore's 1977 death by firing squad in Utah, Leuchter began to build or refurbish a number of death machines, including lethal injection appliances, electric chairs and gas chambers. In a particularly morbid assignment from the state of Tennessee, Leuchter was hired to construct an electric chair using wood from the state's disassembled gallows. Recalling this period, Leuchter looks into Morris' camera and declares his interests in execution devices to be purely humanitarian. He wants to help the condemned die quickly and with as little pain as possible. Leuchter is so mild and innocent looking, we might believe him if he didn't rush on to describe with discomfiting relish the flaming heads of botched electrocutions and the spewing bodily fluids of those who have been executed too slowly and with too much pain.
By the late 1980s, Leuchter's grim expertise had attracted such notoriety that ultimately he became the subject of feature articles in The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times. And then in 1988, his life took a sudden, distressing and finally disastrous turn. At the time, a neo-Nazi named Ernst Zundel was being prosecuted under Canadian anti-hate-crime legislation for publishing two books that denied the Holocaust ever took place: Did Six Million Really Die? and The Hitler We Loved and Why. Forced by legal procedure to prove his allegations true, Zundel hired Leuchter as an expert on gas chambers to investigate the death compounds at Auschwitz and Birkenau. What Leuchter thought he was up to at the outset is unclear, but his actions might be deemed laughable if they hadn't produced such outrageous results.
With a film crew hired by Zundel documenting his "research," Leuchter traveled to the Polish killing grounds and scrambled over the ruins of the old concentration camps. At the sites of the gas chambers, Leuchter inspected doorways and vents and repeatedly chiseled chips of bricks and mortar from walls, ceilings and floors. He had no authority to do this, of course, as he readily admits, and from what we see he was hardly systematic about labeling his "samples," which he sweeps into plastic bags and stuffs surreptitiously into his pockets, glancing around in obvious concern that he might at any minute be arrested. He even relates for Morris his wrapping the "samples" in his dirty laundry so they wouldn't be discovered by police and confides his plans to have made a run for the border if anyone got wind of what he was up to. Leuchter obviously doesn't see these statements as confessions of anything other than the stress under which he worked. But they just as obviously suggest to the viewer that the death engineer brought a clear agenda to his research.
Back in the U.S., Leuchter had his samples "blind tested" by a chemical firm. And when the tests found no significant traces of cyanide, Leuchter declared that no one was killed with poison gas at either Auschwitz or Birkenau. In his infamous The Leuchter Report, he went on to argue that the rooms he investigated in Poland could not conceivably have been gas chambers because their doorways lacked adequate seals and exhaust vents. Leuchter tried to enter his report as exculpatory evidence at Zundel's hate-crime trial, but the judge would not allow it.
Morris produces witnesses who illustrate why. James Roth, the chemist who did Leuchter's lab work, explains that residual cyanide would have penetrated into surrounding surfaces a tiny faction of the thickness of a human hair. Leuchter's "samples" were inches thick. With no instructions about what they were looking for or why, Roth's lab pulverized the brick and mortar chips and tested for cyanide. The process was like looking for a traceable drop of human spit in an oil tanker full of Mississippi River water.
Historian Robert Jan Van Pelt points out other flaws in Leuchter's clandestine and hasty "research." The compounds at Auschwitz and Birkenau are badly deteriorated. Building materials from both sites were scavenged by area residents for rebuilding shattered homes and business in the aftermath of the war. So the current absence of door seals and exhaust vents proves only that a lot of time has passed. Moreover, lacking any knowledge of German and employing no translator, Leuchter examined no historical records. Van Pelt shows Morris signed and dated camp documents referring to gas chambers and placing orders for cyanide pellets. Morris doesn't even bother to produce the testimony of camp survivors who know first hand that their loved ones were taken from them and murdered.
But to this day, Leuchter remains unconvinced by the devastating rebuttals to his own "evidence." If Auschwitz and Birkenau were slave labor camps, he argues, why kill those who must do your bidding? In asking such a question, of course, he ignores a series of historical facts. First, the Nazis systematically killed the old, the very young, the weak and the sick. They then starved those they didn't kill immediately until their victims fell into one of the latter two categories. Moreover, Leuchter's argument ignores the fact that the majority of the killing took place in the last months of the war, an orgy of cynically concealed, cold-blooded murder designed at once to cover up earlier atrocities and to leave the Final Solution as Hitler's enduring legacy. But why kill the Jews with gas? Leuchter asks. Bullets would be faster and cheaper. The answer lies in history that men like Fred Leuchter strive to subvert. As James Moll's Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days points out, Hitler's army lurched into Hungary in 1944 for no observable military purpose and busied themselves almost exclusively with arresting Jews. While the allies made preparations for D-Day, Hitler pulled thousands and thousands of troops away from critical strategic assignment in the west to a dragnet for persecution in the east. Why did the Nazis do what they did? Because they were mad men and monsters. And because people like Fred Leuchter let them get away with it then and deny they did it now.
Some hoped that Morris would finally land an Oscar nomination with Mr. Death because he had finally addressed, however oddly and even obliquely, a significant historical issue of the sort that the Academy Awards has liked to honor. But once again Morris was passed over. And he was, I think, because his depiction of Leuchter is so subtly humane. Yes, Fred Leuchter emerges as a creep, so insensitive he took his wife to Auschwitz as their honeymoon. At some level, though, he's a fool rather than a conventional villain. The lesser artist could easily have demonized Leuchter, but Morris understands that Leuchter's very ordinariness makes him all the more frightening. The film ends with Leuchter telling a story without a trace of irony about how he sat in an electric chair as a youngster and grew up to defy the superstition that a child who does such a thing ends up being executed as an adult. This despite the fact that his actions in the Zundel case cost him his wife and his career and have turned him into a public pariah. Still, Morris has said that he thinks Leuchter really isn't an anti-Semite, and though Leuchter has smelted toxically flawed research into poisonous historical revisionism, he doesn't seem the calculating hater that, for instance, Zundel does. But whatever Leuchter's motivations, his denial of history is a willful act of mental gymnastics and a very dangerous one. The Leuchter Report has sold millions of copies in a dozen different languages and has become gospel for countless readers. Always the most imagistic of documentarians, Morris repeatedly invokes a powerful metaphor in Mr. Death by stylizing Fred Leuchter's hands and tools as they hammer and chisel at brick and mortar. The walls are the historical truth. The fragments Leuchter chips away become the evidence of an elaborate revisionist fraud.
In a sensationalized world obsessed with glamour, Errol Morris is fascinated with the man so common he is usually invisible. That man, like Randall Adams, is sometimes innocent. Or, like Fred Leuchter, he is sometimes guilty. He is often hilariously quirky like the cast of Vernon, Florida or devastatingly lonely, like the people we meet in Gates of Heaven. Morris is interested in them all because he has an unsurpassed appreciation for human individuality.
I might wish that documentary film achieve the status now being accorded the non-fiction book. And more specifically, I might wish that Errol Morris find both the audience and the acclaim that he deserves. But I needn't worry that he will be long distracted by awards he should have won going to other, lesser work. For I am confident that Morris makes the films he makes because they are the films he wants to make. As he perhaps best illustrates in his most thematically challenging film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, elusive human happiness is claimed not by recognition or reward but by daring to dance to the music that plays for you alone.