The Real Speaks
Contrary to Frederick Wiseman, whose physical voice never becomes part of the elements captured in his films, Errol Morris constantly finds ways to reinscribe his voice, both physically and authorially, in his work. As a matter of fact, despite expressing admiration for Wiseman, Morris makes a point of emphasizing that his work is far from the Direct Cinema or cinéma vérité style usually aligned with Wiseman and other filmmakers of the latter’s ilk. In an interview, Morris observes that
"[t]here’s a whole style to cinéma-vérité -- you take very light equipment, use available light, follow the action, remain as unobtrusive as possible. I do the exact opposite.... These people are performing for the camera. They’re perfectly aware of what’s going on." (Bloom 4)
Morris, a former private detective, employs the documentary -- he prefers the term “nonfiction film” -- as a mode of investigation. Morris’ nonfiction films usually take on a subject -- the failure of justice and capital punishment, the pet cemetery industry, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, the incident at Abu Ghraib -- and deconstruct it to its elements, searching for a truth by way of multiple accounts and perspectives as well as the use of multiple narrative modes.
Stylistically, Morris’ work exhibits certain consistent traits: the films employ low-key lighting, similar to the type one would find in an American Noir film; reenactments share the same filmic space with interviews and testimonies; music, oftentimes by Phillip Glass, drives the rhythm of the “plot” the same way one would find in any suspense film. But more importantly, for the film’s interviews, Morris has devised a particular system which he’s called the Interrotron, which sets up two screens, one in front of the interviewer, the other in front of the interviewee, from which each party can engage with the other as if it were in a face-to-face interview. That way, Morris can have his subjects break down the forth wall, as they look towards the camera.
Morris and his Interrotron
"Now, I’m very fond of pointing out to people, people talk about reenactments, “why do you use reenactments?” I like to point out that reality is reenacted inside of our skulls, routinely. That’s how we know about the world. We don’t -- We walk around in the world. The world isn’t walking around in us. We take in evidence with our senses. And we try to figure out on the basis of what we learn, what we read, what we see, what’s out there." (Meyer)
This tendency has elicited the scorn of various critics who believe that the use of these appendages in conjunction with the indexical material disqualifies Morris’ claim to Truth.
Despite all of these embellishments, other critics like Brian Winston have lauded Morris’ films for approaching a brand of truth otherwise inaccessible; a type of truth achievable only with the use of what Winston calls the “dramadoc.” Winston, a historiographer of the documentary form, has noted how the attack on the use of the reenactment is a break with the form’s acceptance of such a method in the past.
"What matters here is that the creation of a form, ‘dramadoc,’ which is all reconstruction, has helped cast the use of reconstruction in the old form, ‘documentary,’ into doubt. In so doing, it served to confirm the triumph of the journalistic ‘fly-on-the-wall’ Direct Cinema style as being the only legitimate documentary form. The result was that documentarists were now lambasted about the ‘reconstruction’ they had always used, directly denying one of documentary’s foundations." (Lies 25)
Initially, one would find the idea of using and, oftentimes, prioritizing these elements -- lighting, mise-en-scène, extra-diegetic music, a variety of multi-speed and multi-sensitive film stocks -- to go against the documentary’s claim to Truth. As Bill Nichols has noted, when viewing a documentary, audience members take what occurred in front of the camera (the profilmic event), and the “historical referent” as being “congruent with one another. The image is the referent projected onto a screen. In documentary we often begin by assuming that the intermediary stage -- that which occurred in front of the camera -- remains identical to the actual event that we could have ourselves witnessed in the historical world” (25).
However, therein lies the presence of the signature in Morris’ films. Morris as the filmmaker makes no bones about the hyper-constructedness of his films. In a sense, he needs the films to emphasize the iconic, not the indexical, since all the events he chooses to “document” have already passed, much as they did for someone like Flaherty. It would seem that for Morris the filmmaker has to saturate all the senses, cause them to tire and become lax, and once he or she achieves this, peel away the layers of simulacra, the veneer of each situation, thus giving rise in the audience to what can be described as a hyperawareness or “wink” on the part of the director. Morris’ highly lauded The Thin Blue Line contains an example of this method.
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
The Thin Blue Line weaves together the details surrounding the 1977 murder of Robert Wood, a Texas police officer, as well as the eventual conviction of Randall Adams as a result of incriminating testimony. Morris brings together about six different reenactments of the testimony provided by various witnesses to the crime, newspaper clippings, photographs, forensic documents, and has these share a filmic space with direct interviews with some of the actors, including Randall Adams himself. Consequently, as Elizabeth Cowie has written with regards to the use of the image in documentaries, “[the image] becomes narrated in the transformation of the document into the documentary as a presentation of the facts and the testimony of participants in the events and action shown” (31). Employing all this material, Morris builds a narrative space where diverging accounts converge, never seemingly prioritizing one over the others. However, as the film progresses, and without the need for Morris to speak up until the end, the audience can tease out which side the filmmaker aligns with. In the process, Morris subverts the witness accounts, including that of David Harris, the person who we ultimately find out allegedly committed the crime.
Morris’ signature can be perceived in the sequence that includes the testimonies of Emily Miller, Robert Miller, and Michael Randell, the three key witnesses of the prosecution. Morris has shown in his work to have an interest in odd characters and these three personages fit the bill. During the trial Emily Miller came forward stating that she had seen Adams in the driver’s side of the vehicle and that she had witnessed the moment when Adams supposedly shot Officer Wood, going so far as to say that she saw his face clearly out the driver’s side window. Robert Miller, Emily Miller’s husband, who was driving the car as they passed the stopped vehicles, simply maintained his wife’s testimony. Michael Randell, who was also driving past the scene moments prior to the shots, also testified to seeing Adams’s face clearly. These three testimonies are believed to have been main reason for sending Adams to jail. However, during his interviews, Morris allows the witnesses to debase their own testimonies themselves. First, Emily Miller and Robert Miller are portrayed as a dysfunctional couple and in dire need of money, since Mrs. Miller had been laid off two weeks prior to the testimony in the Adams case for stealing at her job.
Emily Miller in Morris' The Thin Blue Line
Morris edits in moments where Mrs. Miller expresses a desire throughout her life to be a detective, or the wife of one, so that she could be involved in deciphering crimes and finding the culprits, longing to beat the police in the resolution of a crime. After this information, Morris provides instances that would allow audiences to start questioning the veracity and integrity of the Millers as witnesses. For example, the husband, who is portrayed as just following his wife’s will, goes as far as to admit that his wife once called in the authorities after they had had an argument, accusing him of smuggling drugs from El Paso which allegedly turned out to be a false accusation. The film also shows the Millers doubting the entire sequence of events and the details attached to the case. Mr. Miller constantly states on camera that he didn’t see anything, “but she did” referring to his wife. Mr. Miller even adds that his recollection of the man that night didn’t accord with the man he eventually saw in court. Mrs. Miller herself states at one point of her testimony on film that “it was hard to see in that car.” Morris intersperses these comments with images of text reading “too nosey” and “$21,000.” These flashes, which apparently come from the transcripts of the trial, punctuate details the same way that a crime scene photographer would capture at the scene of a crime. But instead of a knife or bullet holes, Morris’ choices feel as if he is commenting on the details themselves. According to other participants, and the Millers themselves, they got involved in a situation in which it is questionable if they actually had anything to offer in the first place. The sequence of events as Morris constructs it would indicate that the Millers could have as easily not been at the scene of the crime, but moreover, that their entire motive to provide information to the authorities was the $21,000 offered for any information having to do with the crime.
Michael Randell in Morris' The Thin Blue Line
Michael Randell is presented using the same technique. Randell, a salesman, claims to have photographic memory, an ability that allowed him to recall the vivid details of that night. However, in an almost humorous sequence, Morris’s camera finds Randell doubting his own details.
"I'm a salesman. And you develop something like total recall. I don't forget places, things, or streets, because it's a habit. Something I just picked up. I just stare intensely at people and try to figure them out. Being nosey, I just stare.
I was leaving the Plush Pub one night, driving a 1977 Cadillac, heading west on Hampton. I noticed a officer had two individuals pulled over to the curb in a blue...some type of vehicle. It was...it was a blue...it was a blue...I think...it was a blue Ford. It was a blue something.
The driver, I think had long blonde hair and a mustache. And the other one didn't have no hairs on his face.
A person that's white going through that area at night - he's a sore thumb to stick out for the first reason. And if they don't look right, they're gonna stop you.
The officer, he walked up to the vehicle. He had walked up. His car was...let me see...I don't know if it was behind or in front, but I knew he had him pulled over, and he was up to the car. I think he was up to the car. Let me think. Yeah he was up to the car... and I was going by... he had to have been up to the car. I didn't see no bullet. I didn't see no gunfire. Because I went on." (Morris)
In the act of allowing the witness to speak uninterrupted, and in the way Morris picks and chooses the moments in which to present the reenactment or to present Randell’s confused looks, seemingly searching for the details in his memory bank, Morris is actually “speaking” himself, addressing the audience by presenting how faulty this witnesses’ recollections are; in other words, and here I agree with Elizabeth Cowie’s reading of Lacan with regards to Truth, Morris becomes “Truth’s witness.” As Lacan has pointed out “Truth draws its guarantee from somewhere other than the Reality it concerns: it draws it from Speech” (qtd in Cowie 27). Morris juxtaposes Randell’s account of seeing two men in the car against the Miller’s testimony of just seeing one man in the vehicle. Randell goes on to accuse the Miller’s of fabricating their testimony just to get the money. In the way it is all presented, Morris is in essence commenting on -- “witnessing” -- the inconsistency of the testimonies, a detail which according to Morris should have been enough to raise a red flag in the decision of convicting a man to death. But as Randell states in his final appearance in the film,
"They already decided what to do with you in the hall. That's why they call it the Hall of Justice --- the scales are not balanced. The scales are in the hall, and they go up and down. They might go up for you in favor one way and they might go down against you. So if they DA wants you to hang 15 or 20 years, you hung."
David Harris in Morris' The Thin Blue Line
But perhaps the clearest instance of a signature in Morris’ film involves David Harris and his testimony. Throughout the film, Morris comes back every so often to both Harris’ and Adams’ contending versions of the truth. We see Harris grappling with his recollections, constantly looking off into the horizon; Adams never minces words, seemingly having the capacity to retrace all the details of his whereabouts and experiences of that night. We see Adams dressed in jail clothing, his last name clearly on display on the screen. Harris, however, is only show wearing a collared, orange “shirt.” Morris’ mise-en-scène during the Adams interview segments include the grilled partition that separates inmates from visitors. For Harris’ interventions, Morris opts for what looks like tiled columns in the background, omitting any markers that could inform the audience of the location. As the film progresses, Harris becomes more and more cynical and forgetful, his statements often punctuated by an “I guess” or an “I don’t know.” Eventually, at the hour twenty-five minute mark, during one of Harris’ last instances in the film, he’s recounting the events after he identified Adams on a police line. Right at the end of the sequence, Morris’ camera unexplainably lingers on Harris for an additional beat. It is at this time that Harris lifts up his hands to scratch his head that we see that throughout the entire film he has been in handcuffs. Suddenly, the orange shirt gains new meaning as do the tiled pillars behind him. At the time we find out Harris was on death row for the killing of a Texas man. Morris, by choosing the way he composed the shot, withholding details of location, and selecting when to edit, has manipulated the amount of information the audience has received from him. Moreover, Morris reveals the artifice of his own film; much in the same way that all the witnesses and records have manipulated the act of narrating for their own purposes, Morris exposes that he himself has been constructing a narrative, molding it to his film’s needs. Thus, Morris’ use of evidence in his films aligns with Spence and Navarro’s idea that “when it appears in a documentary, evidence has already been interpreted by the documentarian and arranged in a particular way; its impact ... usually the result of this kind of arrangement” (40).
The filmmaker’s voice has been prevalent all along. But now at the end of the film, Morris decides to also include his physical voice in the film. And the construction of this moment speaks volumes about his choice. According to Morris, he was granted only one day to access Harris for interview. During the second session, Morris’ camera jammed. Rather than stop, Morris decided to record the rest of the interview with audio tape only. During this encounter, Harris opens up to the point where he ultimately admits to having committed the crime himself, and that Adams was a scapegoat, a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Aside from the importance of this testimony for the eventual exoneration of Adams, the cinematic dynamic of this moment does various things. To begin, Morris, albeit by accident, removes the indexical register of the interview; the audience is only presented with a tape recorder from various angles, but never do we see Morris or Adams in this all too important event. Second, Morris can now be heard asking his questions. Morris has brought himself physically into the film without the necessity of actually seeing him. Finally, this moment, which lacks a direct visual signifier, will come to resignify the entire film. Therefore, in a film as constructed as this one, where the visual detail has saturated and dictated our comprehension of the events, Morris eventually resorts to the act of removing the visual detail.
Meditating on Truth in an interview, Morris has noted the faultiness of the image as way to approach Truth.
"Someone comes up to you and they say “well I’m a postmodernist. I really don’t care about truth. Truth is subjective. Or there are all kinds of different versions of truth. Your truth; my truth; someone else’s truth.” and then you say to them, “Well, then it doesn’t matter to you who pulled the trigger. It doesn’t matter to you whether someone committed murder or not. Or someone in jail is innocent or not. It’s just a matter of personal opinion. Our intuitions, I believe our intuitions strongly are that it does matter. It matters a great deal what happened in the world. You know, our vision is incomplete in every respect. We try to find out about the world by collecting evidence, by thinking about things, by looking at things. Nothing that we ever create is complete. But you try to figure out what our relationship is to reality, to the real world, to what happened, to what transpired. Use every means at your disposal."
Thus, after the barrage of images, Morris seeks the employment of another one of the available means; speech becomes such a tool. At this point, Morris literally speaks his way into the film, by “stating” that this moment, this final testimony, stands in for a Truth greater than all that which we have been experiencing all along. As a result, “Truth... (becomes) not a quality or meaning that is immanent in reality; rather, it is an effect of human discourse” (Cowie 26). Morris can finally peel away all the ‘truth’ which turns into minutiae, simulacra, in the context of the only information needed in the decipherment of the case. In the process, this highly orchestrated film, I believe, becomes an anti-film. Thus, it’s the “Voice” which ultimately returns Randall Adams to liberty. It might have been an accident that brought about this moment, but the accident became a revelation for Morris. Although his work still exhibits the use of reenactments, low key lighting, driving music, and multiple film stock choices, films like Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure have taken advantage of the incursion of the filmmaker’s voice into the final product, always integrating this same anti-film quality, this filmmaker’s signature, into his subsequent films.
Bloom, Livia, Ed. Errol Morris: Interviews. UP of Mississippi: Jackson, 2009.
Cowie, Elizabeth. Recording Reality, Desiring The Real. U of Minnesota P: Minneapolis, 2011.
Meyer, Michael. “Recovering Reality: Errol Morris on Abu Ghraib.” Columbia Journalism Review. March 5, 2008. <http://www.cjr.org/video/recovering_reality.php>
Morris, Errol. The Thin Blue Line. 1988. MGM. DVD. 2005.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Indiana UP: Bloomington, 1991.
Spence, Louise and Vinicius Navarro. Crafting Truth: Documentary Form and Meaning. Rutgers UP: New Brunswick, 2011.
Winston, Brian. Lies, Damn Lies and Documentaries. BFI: London, 2000.