Vernon, Florida “Occasionally you'll call a big gobbler away from some hens, but very seldom. I'd rather not even try to call one away. Well, you always try, but you can't do it. I never have. Very, very, very seldom.”

Vernon, Florida

The Works of Errol

There's a common belief that documentary films have to be objective and impartial, presenting an unbiased picture of reality: just the facts, ma'am. Of course, this is a load of garbage. While documentaries can be mere journalism, the best ones ascend to the level of art, and by definition art expresses the personal viewpoint of the artist. The very act of editing film footage alters reality into a subjective expression, even in a humdrum report on a city council referendum airing on the local news. Depending on how you measure it, the "unbiased documentary" is either a myth or a dreadful bore. Great documentary filmmakers simply exploit the inherently manipulative nature of the medium to its highest potential. And in return, they getting slammed for not telling both sides of the story, or accused of having a Michael Moore agenda. Disagreeing with a particular work is no justification for placing false creative parameters on an entire form of art.

Errol Morris has built a triumphant career out of tweaking the conventions of the documentary form and playing with people's expectations of what a fact-based motion picture should and shouldn't do. His bold, uncompromising style has made him my favorite documentary filmmaker, and it's also made a lot of viewers despise him. Morris's films aren't for everyone, and that's a good thing. He's doing his part to prove that documentaries aren't beholden to illusory rules of objectivity and don't have to be all things to all people.

I first encountered Errol Morris in the curriculum of a film criticism course I took in college. We watched his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, an investigation of the murder of a police officer in Dallas. The most remarkable thing about the film was that the evidence it gathered led to the reopening of the case and the release of the man who had been wrongly convicted of the crime. Even aside from those sensational real-life consequences, The Thin Blue Line is a striking tour de force. Stylistically it is a study in contrasts, with straightforward interview segments (more like monologues, really) interspersed with creatively staged dramatizations of the crime and its surrounding events. Conflicting reenactments give a Rashomon-style depictions of the varied recollections of the participants, leaving the viewer to decide which account is most real. Nowadays the visual style of The Thin Blue Line has become commonplace, thanks to the flashy, cinematic depictions of crime scenes, true and fiction, as seen in programs like America's Most Wanted and the CSI series. But back at the time of the film's release, this was revolutionary.

I was so impressed with The Thin Blue Line that I sought out more from Errol Morris at the video store. Discovering his two earlier films, I found them initially not at all what I expected. The dynamic visual flair was absent, and instead of a juicy murder tale, both of these films focused on the decidedly less riveting subject matter of eccentric middle-aged and elderly people chatting about their personal interests and beliefs. Once I dove beneath the seemingly dull surface, I learned that the true essence of Errol Morris films that makes them so fascinating and memorable has nothing to do with elaborate cinematography or sensationalistic true-life mysteries. It's all about the people Morris chooses to interview and the distinctive manner in which he films them telling their stories. This, the quietest and least demonstrative element of The Thin Blue Line, was the secret weapon that made the movie so powerful.

Morris likes to have his interviewees stare right into the lens while speaking, and for the most part he keeps himself unseen and unheard as the interviewer. The conventional method is for the interviewer to serve as the surrogate for the viewer, asking questions and interacting with the subject on behalf of the audience. We watch a conversation between two other people. By removing himself from the equation and leaving the subject alone in front of the camera, Morris shakes us out of our customary position of third-party observer and puts us into the conversation firsthand, making as intimate a connection with the viewer as the cinematic medium will allow.

To facilitate his novel interviewing style and make it feel more natural for his subjects, Morris developed his notorious Interrotron apparatus, which enables interviewees to look at a video image of Morris's face instead of an unblinking lens while they address the camera. Morris also eschews the standard practice of superimposed captions to identify who's speaking, eliminating another layer of artifice between us and the subject, and forcing us to figure out who they are based on what they have to say.

And who these people are is instrumental to the Morris method. The subjects of the Interrotron's gaze have proven to be a unique breed, seemingly evidence of Morris's affinity for eccentric and iconoclastic personalities who have lived by their own rules and have stories figures in abundance to tell. These have included such prominent figures as Stephen Hawking and Robert McNamara, but Morris is most in his element when his focus is on ordinary, unassuming people who happen to possess some measure of the extraordinary.

In this regard, Morris has made no great achievement than his 1982 masterwork, Vernon, Florida. Filmed in a sleepy bucolic town in northern Florida, this is a weird little film whose charms may not readily evident to the uninitiated. Morris's original intent was to make a documentary about the town's reputation as "Nub City," where an alarming number of residents amputated their own appendages to collect insurance money. He discarded that notion after getting death threats from the locals, and instead he assembled a surreal montage of rambling redneck raconteurs that doesn't explicitly seem to have much of a point. For me, Vernon, Florida is an endlessly fascinating work of art that yields new meanings and new mysteries every time I view it. It concisely encapsulates the joy, the absurdity and the tragedy of the human condition. On the other hand, many critics have argued that the film is nothing more than a cynical exercise in exploitation, with Errol Morris inviting us to laugh and jeer at the freakshow of dumb hayseeds.

Which brings us back to the larger issue of objectivity vs. subjectivity in the documentary form. The patented Morris filmmaking technique can almost seem to be a contradiction in terms, but that's only because of our prejudices about how documentary interviews are supposed to be conducted. From a certain perspective, Morris's effort to remove his presence as the interviewer in favor of unfiltered engagement between the subject and the audience could be interpreted as an bid for supreme journalistic objectivity. But it's plain to see that Morris revels in the subjective editorial presentation of his collected interview footage, gleefully smearing his fingerprints across every frame, every cut and every expressionistic visual counterpoint accompanying those stoically staged monologues. One could certainly interpret this as a creative paradox, an error in Morris's unorthodox documentary procedure. Why does he strive so ardently to maintain unblemished objectivity in filming interviews when he's just going to cook up a stew of subjective expression for the finished product?

But I think it's easy enough to reconcile this apparent contradiction with one statement: filmmaking is inherently subjective. And documentaries are no exception. Morris's philosophy of interview non-interference is designed to give each subject the maximum opportunity to express himself, but that doesn't mean Morris forfeits any expression of his own. He has simply found a new way to film interviews without the customary trappings, which too often dilute the subject's stories in favor of a bunch of unnecessary bullshit. The concerns dictating the prevalent styles of interviewing aren't so much about journalistic integrity as they are about entertainment value. We're used to seeing interviews this way because that's how TV producers believe they can best hold our interest. Consider the dreaded anathema of "talking heads" in news programming, which all manner of editing tricks and splashy graphics work assiduously to avoid. The Morris style is all about talking heads, staring dead into the camera, rambling on and on unabated. Morris stands as a maverick innovator not only because he dares to be bold and exciting, but also because he dares to be boring. He breaks the rules of what is supposed to make documentary features watchable and creates works of unfamiliar fascination.

Over the years Morris has relaxed his self-imposed rules somewhat, inserting himself as a questioner in Mr. Death and The Fog of War at points when he becomes so intensely invested in the subject matter that he has to step in and confront his interviewees head-on. The Interrotron device, originally designed as an instrument of invisibility, actually came to the fore in the TV series Errol Morris' First Person, granting viewers the bizarre meta-technological spectacle of Morris and his interview subjects interacting through television monitors while on television. Morris further defies artistic boundaries by achieving creative successes in the field of commercials. He has certainly reached a far more enormous audience through his advertising work than his own features, having directed national campaign spots for companies like Adidas, Levi's, Quaker Oats and Miller Beer (you know, the uber-macho red-blooded "High Life Man" commercials?). But Morris is best known in the ad world for his work for Apple, including the anti-Windows "Switch" campaign which made an Internet cult hero out of teenager Ellen Feiss.

As of this writing, there's talk going around that Morris will finally make his Nub City movie, but in the form of a fictitious horror/drama that hopefully won't incur the wrath of real-life fraudulent amputees. I would love to see this materialize as a companion piece to my favorite documentary film ever made. In any case I look forward to seeing more from Errol Morris, a filmmaker who's not afraid to battle with monsters and gaze into the abyss.

The Works of Errol Morris

Gates of Heaven (1978)
Vernon, Florida (1982)
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
A Brief History of Time (1992)
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
Mr. Death (1999)
Errol Morris' First Person (TV series, 2000-2001)
The Fog of War (2003)