Documentary | Filmmaking | Interviews | Television

Stranger than Fiction

1 Sep , 2000  

Written by Dave Avdoian | Posted by:

Errol Moris breathes new life into television programming with his series 'First Person' on Bravo.

Errol Morris first dropped into my cultural radar with the PBS airing of his 1988 masterpiece "The Thin Blue Line." Advertised as the first murder mystery to solve a murder, the film was unlike any documentary I had ever seen (admittedly the breadth of my documentary knowledge at the time was suspect at best). Featuring hypnotic reenactments, a haunting musical score, fascinating characters and culminating with a shocking admission of guilt, "The Thin Blue Line" was film and detective work of the highest order.

Many years later, while going through a pile of used screeners in a Rochester, NY CD store, I came across a copy of Morris’ 1978 effort, "Gates of Heaven". Prompted by Roger Ebert’s famous recommendation scrawled across the top of the video box, "A

masterpiece… One of the top ten films of all time," I shelled out $5.00 and bought the tape.

Although I remembered "The Thin Blue Line" I was completely unprepared for the power of "Gates of Heaven." Examining the lives of people who run a California pet cemetery, it features a bizarre cast of rumpled characters all dreaming of greatness while succumbing to failure. It’s the kind of film that would make you cry if you weren’t laughing so hard, or vice-versa.

The people that inhabit "Gates of Heaven" are ripe for ridicule, yet in Morris’ hands they become the objects of high art: Tragic, deluded, hopeful, sad, and comic. This complex mingling of emotions packs a considerable wallop that’s the hallmark of an Errol

Morris film. It’s a strain that runs through all his projects: "Vernon, Florida" (1981); "A Brief History of Time" (1988); "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" (1997); "Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr." (1999); and now his 11-part television series, "First Person," which just completed a second run of its premiere season on Bravo.

Described as "non-fiction short stories," Morris’ series ranges from exploring the motivations of a man who hunts giant squid to tracking a psychologist’s quest to befriend the Unabomber. "First Person" allows viewers to delve into the head of another person in half-hour doses. Sometimes, such as in a particularly disturbing episode dealing with a woman who has had relationships with multiple serial killers, that’s too much time.

In both concept and execution, "First Person" puts the rest of television fare to shame. The show incorporates sets and tripods at a time when handheld camera work is used to measure the "realism" quotient of a show (ala ER). As in his features, Morris employs use of his now famous "Interrotron," which enables the subject to stare at his/her interviewer on a monitor while simultaneously looking into a camera lens. As result, much of the show consists of the subject looking directly at the viewer in varying levels of close-ups. The effect is stylistically arresting – it’s difficult to turn away when someone’s entire face is filling the TV screen. It’s television at its most real.

There’s an enormous amount of kinetic energy bound up in each episode, yet each remains expertly controlled, wound tight like a wristwatch. The camera moves in for a close-up, gradually retreats, slightly tilts, and then returns for another close-up. Edits vary with the content. Sometimes cuts happen between breaths, sometimes we linger longer. Cuts to black are common, as are title cards (sometimes too much so). In one memorable shot during an interview with Clyde Roper, giant squid hunter, there’s a free-frame as he exhibits an enormous grin while the audio rambles on. It’s a little stylistic delight that stays with you, the way the spinning police siren from "The Thin Blue Line" stays with you.

As with many of his projects, Morris sometimes uses news footage, stock footage, and old movies to help illustrate and emphasize his point. A particularly brilliant example occurs in "In the Kingdom of the Unabomber." In this episode, a psychologist named Gary Greenberg calmly explains his desire to befriend the Unabomber to further his publishing career. Unfortunately he soon discovers a group of suitors with similar intentions have already surrounded Kaczynski. An elaborate game of deception is played, each suitor backstabbing the other to gain footing. As Greenberg describes the "palace intrigue" occurring as the various lawyers and psychologists vie for the Unabomber’s affection, Morris cleverly inserts footage from Orson Welles’ "Othello." The effect is both enormously effective and pleasing.

The content is vintage Morris: Unique, shocking, and bizarre. In "The Killer Inside Me," the viewer is treated to a home video Sondra London created for her serial killer lover. Swathed in catlike make-up and backed by moody keyboards, she pauses in the middle of

her song to ruminate on the utter unfairness of capital punishment, in much the same way an R & B singer will slow it down to discuss the love he feels for his special lady. By the end of the song, she has reached the momentous conclusion that "we are all killers."

Another visual gem occurs in "Stairway to Heaven." The episode looks at Temple Grandin, a famed designer of humane slaughterhouses. Grandin’s affinity for animals becomes strikingly apparent when she suddenly appears strapped into her own personal "Squeeze Machine." The machine replicates the effect of a squeeze chute, which is used for controlling animals before they become inoculated. Much like the animals, she finds it relaxing and calming. The image of Grandin silently hanging out in the machine is audacious and unforgettable.

The series is also appealing because it provides Morris fans the opportunity to see the filmmaker at work. Although not as prevalent as other television interviewers (for example, you won’t find any shots of Morris nodding thoughtfully as his subject speaks),

his presence is accounted for by the occasional offscreen comment or question, usually excitedly shouted out. The utter giddiness in his voice reveals his enthusiasm for what he’s doing, a feature not as obvious in his other work (the only other time I remember him on tape is during the infamous confession in "The Thin Blue Line").

These little glimpses into Morris’ own personality are particularly interesting for what they reveal about him. The eagerness in his voice as he conducts the interview appears to match that of his subjects as they discuss their particular obsession. Perhaps he resists trivializing his subjects (both in his films and in "First Person"), no matter how easy the target, because he sees something of himself in them? Maybe he recognizes there’s obsession in all of us. It’s how we use it that matters.

Check Bravo’s website for upcoming air dates or for more information about Errol Morris’ films..

Check Bravo’s website for upcoming air dates or for more information about Errol Morris’ films..