Turns out Errol Morris makes fantastic documentaries…and is just so weirdly interesting.
I first heard about Morris only obscurely through my obsession with Werner Herzog (possibly the only person I profess to be a personal hero of mine). While making his first feature film, Gates of Heaven, Errol was becoming frustrated and was going to quit. Herzog, being amazing, makes a bet with Errol that if he can complete his film, Herzog would eat his own shoe (I’ve come to realize my mind works on digressions, and that this post may never end, because my mind keeps thinking of things to say: in writing that last sentence, I began thinking about tenses, and whether I was using the right tense (future perfect?). If you, like past me, think that the tense of a language is boring, or lame, think again!, because, I assure you, it is not. In a chapter of his book The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker describes how tenses work, in terms of where in time the action is taking place, and whether it has taken place (is completed) or is taking place (being done / an action with no completion), etc. Actually, you can surprisingly read most of that chapter here, and just scroll to page 189). So after Errol finished the movie, Herzog held a press conference where he ate his own shoe. You can watch Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, the documentary made about it, below:
The film features Herzog cooking his shoes (the ones he claims to have been wearing when he made the bet) at the Berkeley, California restaurant Chez Panisse, with the help of chef Alice Waters. (The shoe was boiled with garlic, herbs, and stock for 5 hours.) He is shown eating one of the shoes before an audience at the premiere of Gates of Heaven at the nearby UC Theater. He did not eat the sole of the shoe, however, explaining that one does not eat the bones of the chicken.
Parts of Gates of Heaven can be watched as well:
Admittedly, that makes Herzog more interesting then Errol. But, for Herzog to care so passionately about this guy making movies, he must be amazing. And he is.
For one, he studied under Thomas Kuhn: “‘You won’t even look through my telescope.’ And his response was ‘Errol, it’s not a telescope, it’s a kaleidoscope.'”
Inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho, Morris visited Plainfield, Wisconsin in 1975. While in Wisconsin, he conducted multiple interviews with Ed Gein, the infamous serial killer who was a resident at Mendota State Hospital in Madison. He later made plans with German film director Werner Herzog, whom Tom Luddy had introduced to Morris, to return in the summer of 1975 to secretly open the grave of Gein’s mother to test their theory that Gein himself had already dug her up. Herzog arrived on schedule, but Morris had second thoughts and was not there. Herzog did not open the grave. Morris later returned to Plainfield, this time staying for almost a year, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews. Although he had plans to either write a book or make a film (which he would call Digging up the Past), Morris never completed his Ed Gein project. In the fall of 1976, Herzog visited Plainfield again, this time to shoot part of his film Stroszek. After the shooting finished, Herzog handed Morris an envelope full of cash. Morris walked over to the motel window and tossed the envelope out the window into a parking lot. Herzog went out to the parking lot and brought the money back, again offering it to Morris, saying, “Please don’t do that again.” Morris accepted the $2,000 and used it to take a trip to Vernon, Florida. Vernon was nicknamed Nub City because its residents participated in a particularly gruesome form of insurance fraud in which they deliberately amputated a limb in order to collect the insurance money. “In the hierarchy of nubbiedom, the supremely rewarding self-sacrifice was the loss of a right leg and a left arm, because, so the theory went, ‘afterward, you could still write your name and still have a foot to press the gas pedal of your Cadillac.'” Morris’s second documentary would be about the town and bear its name, although it makes no mention of Vernon as Nub City, but instead explores other idiosyncrasies of the town’s residents. Morris made this omission because he received death threats while doing research; the town’s residents were afraid that Morris would reveal their secret.
There are too many interesting things in that paragraph. Now I need to know if Ed Gein’s mother’s coffin actually contains her corpse. It furthers my belief that Herzog transcends everything I could ever love in a man. And…I need to watch this doc about the people who are severing their limbs (Vernon, Florida) (again, parts of which can be found on youtube:
(damnit, and now I’ve found a really interesting interview with morris about the Ed Gein story:
And then I went back to Wisconsin to interview Ed Gein [the serial killer purported to be the inspiration for the Norman Bates’s character in Psycho]
And I went up to Plainfield, Wisconsin, which is a small farming community, roughly in the middle of Wisconsin, near Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point. I told everybody, “My dream is to go up there and stay at the Bates Motel.” [Laughs]
In fact, I drove up to Plainfield on Highway 51. And in fact, there was a Plainfield Motel. And they had moved the main highway away. So that the old motel had very few guests. It was great. It started to rain and the windshield wipers were going. It was the ultimate “Psycho” experience,
Ultimately, I moved into a house owned by Ed Gein’s neighbors. They had moved to Hancock, the town south of Plainfield. I lived with them for the good part of a year. I started interviewing many of Gein’s neighbors and reading documents in the courthouse about Gein and other cases in that area. I became obsessed, not just with Ed Gein, but with Plainfield. One of the amazing things that I found out was that there had been other murderers who came from that same area. I started interviewing them as well. I even broke into this mental hospital to see one of the murderers.
SS: So you had been doing these interviews surreptitiously until this point?
EM: I’d be on the edge. I had the imprimatur of academia, like the letters of introduction I mentioned. While I was interviewing mass murderers, my mother, who had this euphemistic style, said to me, “Can’t you spend more time with people your own age?” I said, “But Mom, the mass murderers are my own age.”
SS: What is it about murder that fascinates you?
EM: I think it’s one of the great mysteries of who we really are. There’s this black box inside our skulls, and you think you know what’s going on in there, but it’s not clear you do. I like to point out that we have a very limited understanding of other people, but we think we have a better understanding of ourselves. (After all, our brains are resident inside of us.) But I think that, too, is an illusion. Murder raises the stakes. Murder constantly forces us to ask questions about ourselves and about other people. Even that question, “Are murderers like us?” Or, “Would I be capable of doing such a thing, or thinking such thoughts?” These are questions that arise in all kinds of extreme behavior, and are deeply interesting. It’s interesting to examine people who have committed terrible crimes or are responsible for truly aberrant behavior – and the people around them as well.)
More evidence Errol is awesome: his next movie was quite possibly the motivating factor for releasing an innocent man from death row. Again, lengthy quote from wikipedia:
In 1985, Morris became interested in Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist in Dallas. Under Texas law, the death penalty can only be issued if the jury is convinced that the defendant is not only guilty, but will commit further violent crimes in the future if he is not put to death. Grigson had spent 15 years testifying for such cases, and he almost invariably gave the same damning testimony, often saying that it is “one hundred per cent certain” that the defendant would kill again. This led to Grigson being nicknamed “Dr. Death”. Through Grigson, Morris would meet the subject of his next film, 36 year-old Randall Dale Adams.
Adams was serving a life sentence that had been commuted from a death sentence on a legal technicality for the 1976 murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer. Adams told Morris that he had been framed, and that David Harris, who was present at the time of the murder and was the principal witness for the prosecution, had in fact killed Wood. Morris began researching the case because it related to Dr. Grigson; he was at first unconvinced of Adams’s innocence. After reading the transcripts of the trial and meeting David Harris at a bar, however, Morris was no longer so sure.
At the time, Morris had been making a living as a private investigator for a well-known private detective agency that specialized in Wall Street cases. Bringing together his talents as an investigator and his obsessions with murder, narration and epistemology, Morris went to work on the case in earnest. Unedited interviews in which the prosecution’s witnesses systematically contradicted themselves were used as testimony in Adams’s 1986 habeas corpus hearing to determine if he would receive a new trial. David Harris famously confessed, in a roundabout manner, to killing Wood. Although Adams was finally found innocent after years of being processed by the legal system, the judge in the habeas corpus hearing officially stated that, “much could be said about those videotape interviews, but nothing that would have any bearing on the matter before this court.” Regardless, The Thin Blue Line, as Morris’s film would be called, was popularly accepted as the main force behind getting its subject, Randall Adams, out of prison. As Morris said of the film, “The Thin Blue Line is two movies grafted together. On one simple level is the question, Did he do it, or didn’t he? And on another level, The Thin Blue Line, properly considered, is an essay on false history. A whole group of people, literally everyone, believed a version of the world that was entirely wrong, and my accidental investigation of the story provided a different version of what happened.”
The guy is so cool. So cool, in fact, that Chuck Klosterman, in his book Eating the Dinosaur, writes about interviews in the first essay from that book: Something Instead of Nothing; in which he interviews Errol Morris.
(and, just to continue my theme of loving Herzog: from that same book, the second last essay, T is for True, is an analysis of irony and literalism in media and the works and psyches of Weezer front man Rivers Cuomo, German filmmaker Werner Herzog, and American politician Ralph Nader. The part about Herzog is so good. So good in fact, that this digression deserves more space: here’s a quote from that essay:
German film director Werner Herzog sometimes talks about truth being “elastic,” a modifier that should indicate his definition of honesty does not have much to do with being literal. His persona is built around fictionalized mythologies: He’s perceived as an egomaniac who supposedly pointed a loaded rifle at an actor in order to make him perform. While making the 1976 Bavarian glass-blowing epic Heart of Glass, Herzog hypnotized members of the cast to make them seem zombie-like on-screen. His singular cinematic achievement is 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, a movie where hundreds of Peruvian natives drag a 320-ton boat up the side of a mountain, entirely shot without the use of special effects. The dragging of the boat is a fictionalized version of a semi-historical event; in the late nineteenth century, a Peruvian rubber baron pulled a smaller steamship over a South American mountain, but even that craft was disassembled before it was moved. In other words, Herzog faked the reality of the event, but he did not fake the event itself: What happens in Fitzcarraldo is actually more unbelievable than the story it’s based upon. What was fabricated for the sake of the film was considerably more difficult than the factual achievement. To quote Herzog: “Facts create norms, but they do not create illumination.” He once said he would only touch truth “with a pair of pliers.” This sounds like a metaphor, but maybe it isn’t.
And to continue with the theme of documentaries: there’s a doc about the filming of Fitzcarraldo titled Burden of Dreams (by the same guy who directed the shoe doc). The trailer can be found on the criterion website, here.) Oh, and this:
In Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred Leuchter, Morris interviews Fred Leuchter, an execution technician who went on to present evidence against the use of gas chambers in Auschwitz. Actually, the whole wikipedia article is immensely interesting:
Using film made at American prisons, Leuchter talked about his upbringing where his father was a corrections officer. Through his family associations, young Leuchter claimed he was able to witness an execution performed in an electric chair. Leuchter’s impressions of the event was that the electric chairs used by American prisons were unsafe and often ineffective. The event led him to design modifications to the device that were adopted by many American states.
Leuchter claimed he was invited to other American prisons to inspect and design modifications to their electric chairs. Though not possessing any formal training or education in the matter Leuchter claims he was told that the individuals who did possess formal and accepted qualifications would not provide advice due to their opinions on the death penalty, fear of reprisals or that they were squeamish about the subject.
Leuchter’s career continued with other state prisons seeking his advice on execution facilities other than electrocution, such as gas chambers and lethal injection. Though initially professing his ignorance of other methods of execution, the authorities seeking his advice reminded him that others with more qualifications refused to help. Leuchter claimed to have taught himself on these other methods of execution and provided advice that was used by the authorities to improve safety and efficiency.
His fall began when Leuchter claimed to have been sought as a witness for the defence of Ernst Zündel on trial in Canada for publishing and sending material denying the Holocaust overseas. Leuchter was asked by the defence to travel to Poland to visit Auschwitz to investigate whether there had been operating gas chambers for executions at the camp.
At his first examination Leuchter felt that using poison gas in a building with the internal and external design of the buildings currently on display in the site would have caused the death of everyone in the area outside the buildings as well as inside. The film shows videotape footage taken in Poland of Leuchter taking samples of bricks in the buildings to take back to the United States forensic science crime labs to determine whether there was evidence of poison gas in the material. As per the usual procedure the samples were not identified where they came from. Leuchter claimed the laboratories claimed there was not any trace of any poison gas at any time.
As publicity ensued, Leuchter lost his positions as consultants to American prisons.
When Morris originally screened an early version of the film for a Harvard film class, he found that the students reacted by either believing Leuchter’s side of the story or by condemning the film as a piece of Holocaust denial. Morris had no such intention, however, as Morris had considered it obvious that Leuchter was wrong, and that the main idea of the film was intended to be the exploration of Leuchter as a being almost completely lacking in self-knowledge:
“The Holocaust has been used in movies as a way of increasing drama in a sense that the triumph of the human spirit never looked so triumphant against the horrors. This movie attempts to do something very different. It’s to try to enter the mindset of denial. You are asked to reflect on the whole idea of denial in general, not as some postwar phenomenon but as something that was inherent in the enterprise itself. You would think it would be the easiest thing in the world to identify this behavior as wrong, horrific, depraved. Those people did these things. To me, the question is how. With Mr. Death, it’s about finding out why Fred Leuchter holds these views.”
Thus, the “fall” of Leuchter’s life is portrayed not as a result of any particular ill feelings toward the Jewish people or passionate support for revisionist history, but rather as an absurd man bumbling into making politically incorrect statements. Errol Morris re-edited the film to include additional interviews with people who condemn Leuchter with varying intensity. Morris said this last part should have been unnecessary, since, to him, Leuchter was so obviously misguided in much of what he says in the film.
Some (who?) of you may have read my post on holocaust denial I wrote a while ago (here). Anyways, I feel good that I actually had read about this stuff earlier, and to know more about this ludicrous crank (Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.).
That whole movie can be watched here:
OK, but I haven’t gotten to his best movie: The Fog of War (which can be watched on google video here.) This movie blew my mind. If I wasn’t such a stickler for the use of the word literally, I would have added it to the last sentence. The movie is basically just former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara talking about his life and times. This is a guy who helped to reduce U.S. casualties during the bombing of Japan during WWII (not the nuclear bombs, mind you). However, the means whereby he decreased U.S. casualties lead directly to more Japanese casualties. How many people know that more people were killed in the firebombings of Japan then the two nuclears bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined (not including deaths from radiation from then till present)? The numbers are 500,000 for the firebombs, and 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki.
At the end of this post a table of the % of the citites destroyed using the firebombing technique. (also, now that I think about it, I may have known this from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States)
Right, McNamara was also involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis (you know, the time when U.S. and Russia almost sent the world into a nuclear winter?) and the invasion of Vietnam (note, I’m calling it an invasion as per Chomsky). Name a more interesting person, besides Werner Herzog…I dare you. I guess this sort of over-shadows how interesting Errol is…but he’s the guy who interviewed the most interesting guy…so you know…
Oh, AND! he had a t.v. show where he did one hour interviews with interesting people, many available on youtube:
- Season 1
- “Stairway to Heaven” — Temple Grandin, autistic college professor and expert on humane cattle slaughter techniques
- “The Killer Inside Me” — Sondra London, serial killer groupie and writer
- “I Dismember Mama” — Saul Kent, promoter of cryogenic immortality
- “The Stalker” — Bill Kinsley, employer and victim of the disgruntled postal worker Thomas McIlvane
- “The Parrot” — Jane Gill, victim of a murder with a possible avian eye-witness
- “Eyeball to Eyeball” — Clyde Roper, authority on the giant squid
- “Smiling in a Jar” — Gretchen Worden, director of the Mütter Museum of medical oddities in Philadelphia
- “In the Kingdom of the Unabomber” — Gary Greenberg, Unabomber pen pal and would-be biographer
- “Mr. Debt” — Andrew Capoccia, whiz lawyer for credit-card debtors (since disbarred & convicted)
- “You’re Soaking In It” — Joan Dougherty, crime scene cleaner
- “The Little Gray Man” — Antonio Mendez, retired CIA operative and master of disguise
- Season 2
- “Harvesting Me” — Josh Harris, internet entrepreneur (We Live in Public) and Television addict
- “The Smartest Man in the World” — Chris Langan, bar bouncer with the alleged world’s highest IQ
- “The Only Truth” — Murray Richman, lawyer to New York mobsters
- “One in a Million Trillion” — Rick Rosner, professional high school student and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestant
- “Mr. Personality” — Dr. Michael Stone, forensic pathologist and homicide aficionado, host of Most Evil
- “Leaving the Earth” — Denny Fitch, DC-10 pilot and hero
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