Planet of the apes

Planet of the apes – film director George Mendonca

Chris Chang

If you stare at a word long enough, it turns into gibberish. If you stare at a human long enough — especially if it’s given a chance to open its mouth — the human turns into gibberish. Errol Morris is a filmmaker who has based a career on this phenomenon. Although his technique and style has evolved with Darwinian efficiency, his vision remains unchanged; his subject matter will always be humans, and the contradictory stories they tell themselves, each other, and anyone else who cares to listen. Morris: “The thing that makes civilization possible is that people lie to one an other routinely.” Contradiction is the key to the universe.

To remain consistent with his own subject matter, Morris presents an immediate contradiction when you try to classify his work. Any time his name pops up, so, inevitably, does the term “documentary.” As it turns out, “the `D’ word,” as he calls it, is a term he’s somewhat averse to; his preferred terminology is “nonfiction film.” Part of the reaction is based on the limitations the “D” word seemingly signifies. Documentaries have rarely had the audience draw of feature films. Simply put, the real world prefers an escape into the world of the movies, rather than a circular escape back into the real world. As a participant in Morris’s Vernon, Florida remarks, “Reality! You mean this is the real world?!? [Laughs.] I never thought of that!” Although everyone knows truth is stranger than fiction, what we don’t always realize is that Truth and Fiction can be outmoded concepts. The dissolution of the barrier separating the two — and a subsequent assault on dichotomy in general — is at the heart of the Errol Morris project.

In a 1987 New Yorker profile by Mark Singer, Morris summarized his program: “I like the idea of making films about ostensibly absolutely nothing. I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory. That’s what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we’re in a position of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we’re just a bunch of apes running around. My films are about people who think they’re connected to something, although they’re really not.”

Since Gates of Heaven (78), the not-so-prolific but forever busy filmmaker has made five nonfiction films, one fiction film (The Dark Wind, a 1992 Tony Hillerman adaptation taken away from him during the editing process), three episodes of a TV series that never went into syndication, and a few ads. Along the way, a tantalizing array of thwarted projects have passed through various stages of preparation. Since we know certain formative predilections Morris admits to — including fascinations with casualty statistics, mass murder, the insanity plea, and amateur taxidermy — a slight pathology begins to emerge as we browse the catalogue of unmade films: King Boots: an English sheep dog with the most successful show career in American history is put on trial in Michigan for the murder of his owner’s 87-year-old mother. Car Baby: a couple with a reversed set of priorities trade their infant child for a brand new Corvette. Insanity Inside Out: an adaptation of Kenneth Donaldson’s book about the fifteen years he spent in a mental institution after he was wrongly committed by his own parents. Ablaze!: a study of spontaneous human combustion. Whatever Happened to Einstein’s Brain?: title tells it. Weirdo: a California teenager breeds a giant (28-pound) chicken. Road: portrait of a man maniacally obsessed with building a highway across northern Minnesota that no one wants (an allegory for Morris himself). The Wizard of Wendover: something to do with “laser-induced fireball experiments in Utah.” Etc. Needless to say, Morris, a 1989 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship — the so-called “Genius Grant” — is fond of both The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News.

Gates of Heaven, Morris’s first film, is a fully formed realization of his trademark interview style. The film was inspired by a newspaper headline: 450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY. (Newspapers, pages from books, legal documents, maps, diagrams, formulae, and other blocks of text are couldn’t visual punctuation marks throughout his films.) It was a headline he couldn’t refuse. The “story” unfolds in a series of interviews that form the foundation of the film, and the core of Morris’s filmmaking strategy: He provides his subjects with a great deal of cinematic space, and a significant amount of time to dwell therein. The director’s presence, in terms of his own voice and questions, is less than minimal. “The idea is to allow each character to create a world for themselves, a dream. I’ve always thought of my portraits as my own version of the Museum of Natural History, these very odd dioramas where you’re trying to create some foreign exotic environment arid place it on display.”

Gates revolves around two California pet cemetery projects — one successful, one not. The failed version was the dream of Floyd McClure. Since the death of his childhood collie, McClure has been possessed by a vision — a self-proclaimed mission to create a memorial to comfort people grieving over their dead housepets. The film is composed of cinematic snapshots: Each individual sits in his or her own characteristic environment — home, office, livingroom, etc. The camera is locked down on the tripod; the participants appear locked down in their seats. Movement is scarce, and the composition of each frame remains onscreen long enough to leave almost painterly impressions in the viewers’ memory banks.

Roland Barthes, in his perennially irritating book Camera Lucida, writes of the punctum, an innocuous aspect of a photograph that somehow manages to transcend its own mundane existence, puncture the surface of the commonplace, and arrest the eye. In Gates, all of the compositions have punctums. (As Barthes explains, the punctum is a subjective thing, so bear with me.) For Floyd, you can’t help but notice the Scales of Justice knickknack on a piece of furniture behind him. You also can’t help noticing the pen and pocket organizer in his shirt pocket — identically positioned even after he changes shirts. And then there’s one of Floyd’s pet cemetery investors who has polyester dress socks that all but drown out his interview. Or the chat with a cemetery groundskeeper with a can of Coors sitting disturbingly untouched on the table before him. Obviously, Morris chooses set and environment carefully, and he balances his choices with a discreet emphasis on the meaningless debris people surround themselves with, as if the two negatives of meaningless people and meaningless things canceled each other out and produced an ineffable profundity. Morris allows reality to basically let itself be, and take care of-its own set-dressing. He captures moments when you can see people with their own production design strategies laid bare, as his film sets become analogues of, and vacillate with, the realities they represent.

Vernon, Florida (81) opts for both looser image and freer organization. If Morris is aiming for the ultimate “film about nothing,” this is getting pretty close. (Actually, amidst its obsessive cast of worm farmers, wild turkey hunters, and whitetrash philosophers, I think it’s about God.) Even though he’s switched from the West Coast to the South, the people he’s found are carved from the same stone. The film’s opening sequence sets the stage for the characters to come: As a quiet swamptown slumbers, a truck slowly plies its way through the streets, pumping clouds of what is most likely toxic insecticide in its wake. And as the town’s various inhabitants are introduced, one can only speculate bleakly as to the health effects of the chemicals. Which raises a crucial point: A cursory reading of some of the “characters” Morris interviews begs the question of directorial condescension. Some of the people seem so out-there, and so damaged by their own reality, it becomes somewhat suspect for a director to prey on them for the benefit of filmgoing audiences. invariably, people will laugh at some of the relatively grotesque lifeforms Morris parades before our eyes. But in carefully modulated ways, his revels in the realms of human oddity seem more akin to forms of identification, rather than patronization or satire. (Even though ultimately it’s all three.) Morris readily admits that by placing people within his own films, he “uses” them. Addressing an audience at Harvard after screening his new film, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, he explained how the four completely disparate subjects that comprise the film were chosen. In regard to the film’s “shiteating mammals who live in tunnels,” Morris commented, “I’ve just always loved mole rats.” The director finds a kindred spirit in the hapless rodent’s absurdity. To take identification to a more physical — and human — level, and to get the shots he wanted of the insecticide truck fumigating the sleeping residents of Vernon, the camera was placed directly in the path of the oncoming clouds of poison. They drift over the frame, the camera, and presumably the director himself. Perhaps the ultimate statement of solidarity with the dispossessed occurred in the New Yorker article when Morris commented on a habit he’d picked up at the Ed Sullivan Theatre, the home of many fundraising telethons: “My favorite was the Stop Arthritis Telethon. When I would go to these things I would always see the same people in the audience, and I’d look upon them with some pity. And then I realized I was one of them.”

Morris claims it’s more effective to look as if you’re a good listener than to actually listen well. The technique hit paydirt during the shooting of his groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line (88), a film that not only freed a wrongly convicted killer but also anticipated the renaissance of what we now call, in a zenith of TV phraseology, Reality Based Programming. Morris was acting as the perfect listener but not actually listening when he interviewed Emil Miller, “one of the whacko eyewitnesses” whose testimony eventually helped get Randall Adams off death row. (Adams was falsely accused of shooting a Dallas police officer in the spring of 1977.) After filming her interview, Morris was reviewing the footage back in the editing room. Much to his surprise, Miller, a key witness, had admitted that she failed to identify Adams in a police lineup, contradicting her original testimony and throwing the entire court decision into question. Morris, a man who takes obvious pleasure in both impossible-to-summarize films and films uniquely summarized, called TTBL “the only murder mystery film that actually solves a murder.”

At times, an Errol Morris film acts as the cinematic equivalent of cosmological entropy. Hawking: “It is a matter of common experience that disorder tends to increase with time if things are left to themselves.” On the other hand, the apparent disorder of an Errol Morris film can seemingly reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and create intuitive forms of order out of chaos itself — much like the experience one has when watching the slowly evolving cohesion of the disparate stories of Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, or Vernon, Florida. Hawking didn’t want his film to be about anything else but the science he was involved with. Morris, working for the first time on a film he hadn’t initiated, expressed trepidation, but the result, as the director once again turns antagonized contradiction into art, is a surprisingly moving biographical meditation on a genius trapped in a broken body — and the possibility of using science as an interface with “the mind of God.” And it’s another example of Morris’s mastery of the ironic, a tool that suddenly takes on mystical proportions in its explorations of human absurdity.

Since TTBL, Morris has followed two basic themes: True Crime, reflecting his lifelong interests and also an actual stint as a private detective; and Weird Science, reflecting his “failed” education in both the history of science and philosophy. (A poignant and ironic example of the two paths crossing occurred when Morris was assaulted by his own graduate advisor on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. The scuffle was instigated by a theoretical paper Morris had written.)

Morris gave True Crime a technological twist by designing a device called the Interrotron. Two cameras are linked by silvery projection screens; as Morris “listens” to his subjects, the image of his face appears onscreen so the subject can look at Morris — and vice versa — while also looking directly into the lens. The talking-head format gains greater visual veracity as you literally feel the subject making eye contact with you. “We’re actually looking at each other down the central axis of the lens. It’s the difference between faux first person and the true first person. There’s an added intensity. The Interrotron inaugurates the birth of true first-person cinema.” It’s a subtle nuance, but once you’re aware of the heightened degree of optically subjective penetration, especially when dealing with subjects who are probably lying through their teeth to protect themselves from implication in various criminal acts, the effect is mesmerizing. Morris, even though he’d be the first to rail against it, is putting the verite back in cinema. (He shot three segments of the proposed Interretron series. The stories involved a parrot that may have witnessed a murder, a man who froze his mother’s head, but may have removed it before she was dead, and a post office supervisor who was so fascistic in his methods, he may have been the final straw for an employee who went berserk with a shotgun. Maintaining his characteristic conceptual waffle, may is the primary operating principle of The Interrotron Stories.)

Morris has a favorite line from Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 masterpiece Out of the Past. Robert Mitchum — forever ensnared by the noir fatalism that surrounds him — mutters, “I could see the frame, but I couldn’t see the picture.” When Morris describes the apparently agonizing process he faces in the editing room, you can imagine him mouthing the words as a mantra. At Harvard, he described his work on Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control: “The movie was a nightmare to put together. It was a very, very difficult editorial process.” He even admitted to a desire for a standard film element that he will probably never employ — at least “normally”: “It occurred to me over and over again during the editing that movies really do have story lines.” Although FC&OC was begun years ago, put on hold, and then resumed, Morris, in response to the death of his mother and stepfather in the interim, now calls the film “an elegy.” And, indeed, the film amounts to a tremendously moving — not to mention entertaining — evocation of human finitude, and a documentation of various attempts to surmount it.

The four men whose various obsessions bind FC&OC together can be lumped into two fuzzy camps. Dave Toover, the liontamer, and George Mendonca, the aging topiary gardener (think geriatric Edward Scissorhands), have their minds and emotions firmly planted in the past. Toover has a severe case of nostalgia for both the late Clyde Beatty and the world he was a part of: “We lost part of the circus industry when we lost him…. And I don’t know if there wi#’be anyone of that stature left in this business.” Mendonca’s malaise is more abstract: “It’s just cut and wait … Cut and wait…” (Morris describes the phrase as one that most closely resembles his experience with editing the film.) Ray Mendez, the naked-mole-rat enthusiast, and Rodney Brooks, an MIT scientist who builds robots and is intrigued by the possibility of silicon-based lifeforms as the next phase of earthly evolution, are clearly looking toward the future. All four men are extending themselves into their surrounding environment with the help of the “animals” of their trade. In a way, they are each somehow incomplete without these externalized obsessions, and it is surely the vector of obsession itself that landed them roles in Morris’s film. (The animal analogue, not-so-incidentally, is where it all began. “The first interview I ever filmed was the Howards [from Gates of Heaven], and the very first line, which was probably the start of my film career, was when they said, “Trooper was the kind of dog that didn’t have other dogs to relate to. He lived with adult human beings,”)

FC&OC is the most visually sophisticated film Morris has ever made. Using a variety of grain and emulsion, found footage, Super-8, 16mm, Super 16, 35mm, video, color and black-and-white, 35mm transferred to video and then reshot on 35mm, etc., the director goes ballistic with a barrage of image and texture that suit the multivalent layering of obsession that drives the film. During the sequence of the topiary animal garden at night, he explains he achieved “some kind of documentary absurdity,” a phrase that truly gets to the heart of his work. To achieve the shot, he brought in four rainmakers, three cranes, a fog generator, and a group of 16 and 18k HMIs to boost the light to five times the normal level, allowing the camera to capture the scene at the ultra-slowmotion speed Morris and his DP, Robert Richardson, desired. (Richardson was responsible for shooting Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, the greatest rock video ever made.) In shots like these, you can truly feel Morris on the brink of something totally different. What that is, however, is beyond even his imagination. Temporarily.

Whether creating order out of chaos, or just adding more chaos to the existing chaos, the underlying thread tying all of Morris’s work together is deep emotional realism. (That you can frequently laugh at.) After everything is said and done, and after “all the valiant human enterprises come to naught,” Morris will continue to revel, cherish the moments, and interview the bystanders. When he speaks in public, his language is riddled with references to anything from Nabokov — whom he greatly admires for his use of the “self-deceived narrator” — to Yeats, to Shakespeare, to one of his favorite — and most hated — quotes from William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech. Faulkner said that not only should man endure, he should prevail. Morris, fueled by the powers of contradiction and his own creative angst, has his own variation: “Who said we should even endure? Let alone prevail?”

Chris Chang contributes to Microsoft Cinemania and Santa Fe’s The Magazine.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Film Society of Lincoln Center

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group