Art

The Cynical Optimism of Errol Morris

ErrolMorris_ThreeShortFilmsAboutPeace_NYT
Stills from Errol Morris, ‘Three Short Films About Peace’ (all images courtesy the New York Times)

In an interview earlier this year with The European Magazine, Errol Morris was asked to use one word to describe his work. His answer: “perverse.” He continued: “I tell stories in a way that is not only unexpected but also absolutely contrary to what people would like to hear. It’s an odd combination of the prurient and the pedantic.”

The subject matter of Morris’s body of work definitely tends toward the salacious and the desolate. Examples: Gates of Heaven (1978) chronicles the weird world of pet cemeteries; The Thin Blue Line (1988) investigates a murder case; The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, 2004 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature, is an extended interview with the former U.S. Secretary of Defense, which Morris groups into lessons learned from the human-rights horror and political debacle of the Vietnam War; Tabloid (2010) focuses on Joyce McKinney, a beauty queen who kidnapped and raped a Mormon missionary — in her mind, they were in love.

In addition to his feature films, Morris has been involved with the New York Times Op-Docs section from its 2011 inception. His short The Umbrella Man (2011) was one of the first five Op-Docs selections. Morris, who also contributes essays to the Times opinion pages on subjects as disparate as Abraham Lincoln and photography and the relationship between names and identity, has made seven Op-Docs in total, the latest a trilogy, Three Short Films About Peace, portraits of Nobel Peace Prize winners. Three Short Films About Peace marks a startling departure from Morris’s usual sensibility — in these films, his subjects’ quirks become vehicles for good, instead of for prurience, death, self-absorption, or self-delusion.

Gbowee_TheDream_byErrolMorris_NYT
Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee

Morris’s first four Op-Docs strike a similar tone to the majority of his work. Using his interview tool, the Interrotron, a live-video image on a teleprompter that enables subjects to continuously make direct eye contact with the camera, Morris focuses on quirky individuals; often one can’t tell if his interview style is predatory — is he making fun of his subject? Not necessarily — he is rather trying to tease out the nature of truth, the extent to which individual subjectivity shapes narrative, and the extent to which his protagonists, and consequently viewers, can lose themselves in conspiracies or simply self-serving and eccentric narratives. The Umbrella Man and November 22, 1963 (2013) excerpt Morris’s interviews with Josiah “Tink” Thompson, author of Six Seconds in Dallas, which claims that Kennedy was killed by multiple shooters, his assassination a conspiracy. The shorts delve into the dark world of the Kennedy assassination —The Umbrella Man debunks a conspiracy theory, but November 22, 1963 shows that video footage of Kennedy’s assassination fairly conclusively necessitates the existence of a second shooter. In both videos, the fallibility of human vision reigns. Like the two interviews with Thompson, El Wingador (2012) and 11 Excellent Reasons Not to Vote? (2012) question the extent to which individuals’ perceptions of the world are purely the results of their own idiosyncratic opinions.

Three Short Films About Peace, like Morris’s first four Op-Docs, are concerned with the first-person narrative. But compared to the other Morris shorts, the films are incredibly sincere, optimistic about humanity. In The Dream, the first of Three Short Films About Peace, Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee describes her personality: “I think maybe my spiritual side is that God has found someone who will do anything without thinking twice. My mother described me as the person who goes for a swim, never testing the water, whether there are alligators underneath. I just go. And whatever is underneath there, I face it head on.”

BobGeldof_TheMoment_byErrolMorris_NYT
Musician Bob Geldof

The Dream describes how this lack of fear enabled her to organize groups of women to confront brutal Liberian leader — subsequently-convicted war criminal — Charles Taylor. She recounts a tale of bravery: “The security people came and said they were arresting me. I told them I would make arresting me very easy because I would strip naked for them to take me to prison. As soon as I started, they all ran away and left me.” Gbowee’s natural absence of fear, which her mother branded as foolish, enables her to turn the threat of rape against her attackers. The idiosyncrasies of an individual become a catalyst for their constructive life path — Morris’s sensibility, here writ shockingly positive. The two accompanying shorts are similarly idealistic: In The Moment, musician Bob Geldof explains how rock and roll saved him, and how he, in turn, was able to use rock to save famine victims in Ethiopia. In The Shipyard, former Polish president Lech Walesa recounts how his only advantages in overthrowing the Communist regime were faith in his religion and faith in his cause. “I had no other strengths,” he says, “I was poor, uneducated, with a large family … ”

In the statement accompanying Three Short Films About Peace, Morris summarizes his usual worldview: “I sometimes think of myself as being as cynical as one can be. The world is bad and can’t be better.” He concludes, “I needed these people to remind me that there is still the possibility of doing good in this world and the possibility of helping other people. That one person can make a difference.” Morris understands the force of personal narrative, and in Three Short Films About Peace he uses it to optimistic ends; the shorts are sincere examples of the power one person has to change the world. I don’t entirely recognize this Errol Morris, but I’m not opposed to the change.

comments (0)