Trial and Errol

Andrew Hultkrans on Errol Morris at the New York Public Library

Paul Holdengraber and Errol Morris at the New York Public Library. (Photo: Jori Klein)

ERROL MORRIS IS FASCINATED by the unreliability of images, memories, and the symbiotic, if often deceptive, relationship between them. It seemed fitting, then, that his mere appearance at the New York Public Library last Wednesday night served (for me) as an object lesson in one of his obsessions. While I had been aware of Morris and his remarkable, idiosyncratic documentaries since at least The Thin Blue Line (1988), I’d somehow gotten it into my head that he looked like the subject of his 1999 documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (the titular Mr. Leuchter—bespectacled, physically slight, classically nerdy—appears on the movie’s poster). When Morris took the stage with Live at the NYPL director Paul Holdengraber, I was to my surprise confronted with a large man with white hair who resembled a friendlier Ariel Sharon. The occasion was the publication of Morris’s book of illustrated essays on photography and epistemology titled Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, and my memory’s false substitution of Leuchter for Morris would have made a perfect footnote to his argument.

Morris’s lifelong project as a documentarian, and this book in particular, can be seen as a perversion of the famous anti-dictum—attributed to the eleventh-century Persian Hashishin (or Assassins), beloved of Nietzsche and William S. Burroughs—“Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” For Morris, it is more like: Something is true; everything is permitted (in the quest to find it). The latter clause has a personal edge for the filmmaker: The Thin Blue Line was showered with awards and praise in the year of its release, yet denied admission to the documentary category of the Oscars because of a prohibition against reenactments. Never mind that the arty, multiple-perspective restagings (of a roadside murder of a highway patrolman) involved a Burger King milkshake cascading through the air in slow motion as a Philip Glass score pulsed with inexorable circularity on the sound track; Forensic Files, it wasn’t. Cinema verité, once the province of intellectualized, ideologically motivated filmmakers, had become mainstream Hollywood dogma, and Morris wasn’t following the rules. Since then, both documentary filmmakers and the Academy Awards have fallen under the sway of his influence (he finally won an Oscar in 2003 for The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara). The superficial aspects of his style are, like Bob Dylan’s, easy to parody, yet remain strangely compelling.

Morris speaks slowly and deliberately, not unlike the rhythm of his films, and this gave the conversationat the NYPL a halting, if meditative, feel. Holdengraber showed an image of Wittgenstein’s iconic rabbit/duck drawing on the screens surrounding the stage and led Morris (a former philosophy student) into his thesis about “the ambiguity of images.” Discussing two nearly identical 1855 photos by Roger Fenton of a blasted landscape from the Crimean War—one with cannonballs scattered in a roadside ditch, the other with the cannonballs arrayed on the road itself—Morris elaborated on his beef with Susan Sontag, whose book Regarding the Pain of Others seemed to be a negative inspiration for Believing Is Seeing. Morris felt that Sontag had questioned the authenticity of Fenton’s photographs as documentary representations of history because of the conscious arrangement of cannonballs, even though the landscape had certainly seen battle action. This outraged Morris, who perhaps saw in Sontag’s attitude an echo of the vérité fascists who had once found his methods illegitimate for documentary. “Photographs are wormholes into history,” he said, “always with the mystery of ‘What is it?’ ”

Moving on to the infamous snapshots from Abu Ghraib, Morris continued to assail Sontag, who apparently called the photos “obvious.” In making Standard Operating Procedure (2008), about the shots of torture and prisoner abuse from the Iraqi jail, Morris found that the man who originally said he was the person in the Klan-like hood, standing on a box with electrodes attached to his hands, was not the actual person in the photo. This confirmed one of Morris’s assumptions about “historical” or documentary photography. “I’m a connoisseur of error,” he said. “I’m fascinated with how and why people make mistakes. Photos give us confidence that we’re looking at the truth, when it often isn’t the truth at all.” He went on to say that he didn’t think photos were true or false and that, to him, truth seemed linguistic, not imagistic. “All photos are posed,” he maintained. “They take a swatch out of reality. They’re all framed.” There could have been an elephant right outside Fenton’s frameline, Morris joked, and the photographer consciously chose to exclude it, regardless of how many cannonballs he moved. Similarly, the pretense of the vérité documentarians, thinking that “truth” would pop out at the end of their handheld, no-lighting process, was ideologically bankrupt. “Truth doesn’t come through style or presentation. Truth is a quest, a process of discovery.”

Holdengraber played a clip from Psycho (1960), a huge influence on Morris, and the filmmaker shared his early fixation on serial killer Ed Gein, an inspiration for the characters of both Norman Bates and “Buffalo Bill” from The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Morris met his future wife while in Wisconsin to interview Gein at a hospital for the criminally insane. He recalled asking the hospital director if Gein was a cannibal. “Absolutely not!” the director shot back. “I discussed this with Ed, and he said he’d eaten human flesh many times and it tasted awful!” Morris’s mordant sense of humor and morbid fascination with Gein were sources of an early friendship with Werner Herzog, who literally ate his shoe on camera to honor a losing bet with Morris that the latter would never finish his first feature, Gates of Heaven (1978). Referring at once to Mr. Death and his own interviewing style as a filmmaker, Morris deadpanned that wardens say “Please have a seat” to condemned prisoners entering the execution chamber. Turning serious, he inveighed against postmodern relativism: “There’s nothing postmodern about the electric chair.”