Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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The April issue of The Believer has an interesting interview with filmmaker Errol Morris, director of Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and, most famously, The Thin Blue Line. Morris makes what are generally considered to be "documentary" films, though his responses in the interview illuminate some of the problems in a category that broad.

Because I'm extremely interested in creative non-fiction, Morris's pictures hold special appeal. Although they tend to be stylized in a visual or structural sense, they document human conversation in a simple, direct manner. After explaining that he once thought of himself as an "anti-verité" filmmaker, he takes back much of the radicalism latent in that self-characterization:
There is a documentary element in my films, a very strong documentary element, but by documentary element, I mean an element that's out of control, that's not controlled by me. And that element is the words, the language people use, what they say in an interview. They're not written, not rehearsed. It's spontaneous, extemporaneous material.
Morris goes on to explain that he used to interview his subjects for a couple of hours straight but can now, thanks to the economy of digital media, extend his sessions to a whole day. The idea is that, given enough time, people will talk themselves out of the roles they wish to play, that they will therefore begin telling the truth of their subjectivity. This strategy makes Morris sound a little bit like a police interrogator -- I'm thinking of Homicide: Life on the Street here -- who keeps a suspect in "the box" until she or he cracks. By this means, Morris's resistance to cinema verité ends up leading him to a verity of his own.

In The Thin Blue Line, Morris fuses this search for "unrehearsed" speech with reenactments of situations described within that speech. Moving beyond staged testimony results in a staging of interview subjects' words. "Someone showed me a review of The Thin Blue Line on IMDB, and the reviewer chastised me for not doing it 60 Minutes style, for not putting myself into the movie as a Mike Wallace-type interviewer." The idea behind this argument seems to be that Americans are conditioned to regard 60 Minutes as a form that produces truth. "I remember one Dallas reporter saying to me, 'If you had just made this "straight" documentary, Randall Adams would have gotten out a lot sooner, instead of delaying everything by shooting these reenactments, using a score by Philip Glass, et cetera, et cetera.'" Morris disagrees strenuously with this notion, emphasizing A) that it was not the film itself so much as the detective work he did in order to make the film -- he used to be a private detective -- that led to Adams's eventually going free; and B) that the 60 Minutes style may not be the best way of proving a point. "Mike Wallace's interviews make great television, but they don't produce great evidence."

From my perspective, the most interesting part of the interview comes when Morris defends his use of reenactments on philosophical grounds:
I was surprised at the time that The Thin Blue Line came out that people reeacted to the reenactments as blurring the line between fact and fiction. Between documentary and drama. My feeling was the exact opposite. It was telling us how images confuse us. Images are not reality, nor do I claim that they are. In fact, they usually bear a very complicated relationship to reality. And when people complain about reenactments, I like to point out that consciousness, itself, is a reenactment. Everything is a reenactment. We are reenacting the world in the mind.
While it's certainly possible to deconstruct Morris's distinction between speech and image -- aren't the reenactments in our mind also "unrehearsed"? -- I feel that the point he's making here is more important than the point I could make by doing that work of deconstruction. I doubt whether Errol Morris has read anything by Lacan or post-Lacanian thinkers like Slavoj Zizek, but the argument he makes against the reliability of images aligns pretty neatly with the mature Lacan's distinction between the imaginary and the symbolic. Given the status of images in our society, that's a distinction that can be used to do a lot of good. The Thin Blue Line certainly does.

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