Movie Review: 'I Love You, Errol Morris'
There’s a miniseries running on FX and Hulu based on a book by the great documentary filmmaker Errol Morris. It’s called "A Wilderness of Error" and concerns the bizarre case of Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of killing his family nine years earlier. The case was a media sensation at the time, though it’s faded enough that I didn’t know anything about it. But Errol Morris being Errol Morris, I knew if he was involved in taking another look at it, then the whole thing was very, very, very far from cut-and-dried.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Morris is at least somewhat responsible for the fact that I’m talking to you right now. Back when I was an undergrad in college, I was obsessed with his movies, and decided to become a documentary filmmaker myself, leaving aside my previous path in psychology. Now, this didn’t pan out, because I didn’t know what I was doing, but it did lead me to having a deep interest in telling stories about people, and honing my production skills, which, after a number of years in my own wilderness, led me to public radio.
In 1978, Morris released his debut, Gates of Heaven, a movie the great German director Werner Herzog said would never be released, and promised to eat his own shoe if it were. Herzog did make good on his promise. The movie is ostensibly about a pet cemetery in California, but Morris does what he does best, which is simply to let people talk. The film moves from people describing their dearly departed pets into a gorgeous, strange, deeply moving meditation on life, death, hope, disappointment, broken dreams, and what people tell themselves simply to get through the day. In short, it shows us what’s truly magical about people. Roger Ebert called Gates of Heaven one of the 10 best movies ever made, and I agree.
And then, in 1988, decades before the current true-crime craze, Morris released the bombshell documentary The Thin Blue Line, which directly contributed to getting a wrongly convicted man off death row, as Morris investigated the killing of a police officer in Texas, and how the official story didn’t remotely add up. The movie uses a number of techniques that are now so common in documentaries that we think nothing of them, but at the time, “serious” documentarians sniffed at the film, saying, for some reason, it didn’t count. Still, Morris’s talent as a filmmaker, an investigator, and one of our most keen observers of human nature, was undeniable.
Every one of Morris’s films lies somewhere on the continuum of greatness, as along the way he created his own camera contraption he calls “The Interrotron,” which allows him to interview people from a separate room, maintaining enough distance that they don’t feel self-conscious, but which also lets him look them directly in the eye, creating that necessary human connection. His subjects range from topiary gardeners and mole-rat scientists, to Holocaust deniers, to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, to the nature of the universe itself. He’s become massively occupied with the idea of truth, what’s knowable and what’s not, what creates our understanding of truth, and how that can be obscured and manipulated. He doesn’t always get there, to the capital-T “Truth,” but he’s always poking, prodding, and looking from all directions.
I would be happy to talk to you for the next hour about Errol Morris, but instead I’ll just say this: There is not, and never has been, another person like Errol Morris. And watching his movies may teach us that the same thing is true about every one of us.