I sometimes like to imagine a parallel universe in which every one of us, in accordance with Andy Warhol’s over-appropriated prophesy, becomes world-famous for 15 minutes by appearing as a subject in an Errol Morris documentary. Few filmmakers have conveyed such a balance of fascination and generosity toward ordinary weirdness with esthetic and interrogatory rigour. (This is arguably most apparent in Morris’ earliest films, if for no other reason than the fact that his later subjects, be they Stephen Hawking or Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld, have led lives rather less than ordinary.) Like his most important predecessor, the late Albert Maysles, Morris exudes curiosity and continuously reminds us that there is no golden key to arriving at truth in cinema, whether we call that cinema documentary or something else. Criterion has just released Morris’ first three films in two separate, equally excellent DVD and BD packages, giving us a chance to revisit this remarkable filmmaker’s work while his sensibility was still gestating.
Gates of Heaven (1978) profiles some charismatic California entrepreneurs who try to make of go of it in the pet-cemetery business, which, we are assured, is “not a suede shoe game.” Morris came upon his debut film’s subject after reading about the financial failure of Foothill Pet Cemetery and the 450 animal corpses that had to be relocated to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Most often framed within various kinds of prosceniums, speaking directly to the camera, allowed to tell their stories unencumbered by narration, the quietly eccentric, inherently cinematic figures at the centre of this film speak to what might be a fundamentally American ontology. Their concern with the afterlife and preservation of animals, along with their business acumen and unabashed vernacular, form a kind of cultural portrait that has been endlessly imitated and rarely equaled. In Criterion’s supplementary interview Morris recalls the great golden-age director Douglas Sirk admonishing him for making something he regarded as little more than a slide show, and for presenting his subjects in a manner that could be considered ironic and thus resented by certain audiences. The first criticism would prove shortsighted, yet another example of the old guard’s failure to recognize an innovative methodology. The second criticism would prove prophetic. There are still those who read Morris’ films as mocking, though I feel Morris’ unwillingness to sentimentalize his subjects is ultimately a more respectful choice and among his greatest strengths as a storyteller. He’s a filmmaker who refuses to instruct us in our reading.
Gates was famously championed by Roger Ebert, who considered it one of the greatest films of all time. I must confess that I personally hold still greater fondness for Morris’ even more peculiar, even less easily classifiable follow-up, Vernon, Florida (1981), which Criterion has bundled together with Gates. The film was originally titled Nub City, the name given to Vernon by insurance-fraud investigators who pegged it as a place people go after deliberately amputating one of their own limbs so as to cash in on a claim. We are from the first moments immersed in a rich sense of place—the sort of place where city hall resembles a bowling alley. As with Gates, there is no voice-over to offer preemptive context. Only a weirdly breathy harmonica underscoring is heard before one of Morris’ subjects speaks words that Morris could have written: “Reality? You mean this is the real world?” Everyone in this film is being themselves and everyone in this film is performing—no one more memorably so than a man who might be described as the Captain Ahab of turkey hunters, whose existential aggrandizement of his sport is beautifully accentuated by scenes such as the one where Morris films him in profile, against the morning sun, in Zen-like contemplation of his prey. Perhaps one of the things I love most about Vernon, Florida is the way in which is seems to be finding itself as it goes along.
Lastly, Criterion has released a stand-alone package for The Thin Blue Line (1988), the film for which Morris remains most famous—in part because the film played a pivotal role in getting Randall Dale Adams out of serving a life sentence. Morris’ editing schemes emphasize the Rashomon-like quality of the various conflicting testimonies that led to Adams’ wrongful conviction for the murder of a Dallas police officer under extremely peculiar circumstances. The film marked Morris’ first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, whose music imbues the film with celestial gravity, and it inaugurated Morris’ occasionally problematic deployment of quasi-minimalist reenactments, performed in a sort of void with comic-book symmetry and sparseness. Again, the conclusions to be drawn from the film are not spelled out for you by the filmmaker, which makes it that much more interesting to revisit in the wake of NPR’s extremely compelling, enormously successful, and in many regards similar true-crime podcast Serial—though those similarities end when it comes to the absence or presence of commentary, something essential to Serial’s investigative narrative and speculative framework. Which isn’t to diss Serial, but rather to suggest that, in keeping with Morris’ ethics, Serial likewise reminds us of the imperative to keep reconsidering how best to seek truth, and even justice, in non-fiction storytelling.