Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, April 16

Gapers Block

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Don't get too close to your heroes -- more often than not, they turn out to be painfully human.

In college, I studied philosophy, radio production and documentary film. Fields that, as expected, have provided scant opportunity for financial reward. Fortunately, this lack of monetary gain has been recouped in culture and sophistication.

In the realm of documentary, my tuition was realized in exposure to extraordinary films. Specifically, in the work of Errol Morris.

There's a school of thought in documentary circles suggesting that the filmmaker's role is to capture truth with the camera, and slap the unfiltered product before an audience. The director is expected to act as and unbiased conveyance -- the physical operator of a recording machine, and nothing more. It's called Cinema Verité, and it's bunk.

There have been some extraordinary efforts toward realizing a truly objective style of filmmaking -- Don't Look Back and High School come to mind. But to suggest that Pennebaker was the least bit objective in his ingratiating portrayal of Dylan in Don't Look Back is absurd.

The upshot: The very process of sticking a camera in front of a subject shatters the notion of objectivity. Moreover, the simple desire to put a camera in front of anything, automatically rules out objective documentation.

And so the brilliant filmmaker won't even try to be objective. Better to craft non-fiction with agenda laid bare and production values on a par with commercial pop-culture. This is Errol Morris.

Gates of Heaven, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, A Brief History of Time, The Thin Blue Line. These are the films that won me over. Non-fiction film crafted with the cunning (and thoroughly subjective) direction of Hitchcock, the pacing of Stephen King, and the gorgeous detail of Georgia O'Keefe.

So I'm a fan.

And so a preview screening of Fog of War, the latest from Morris, had me quite excited. It was described, according to Errol's web site, thusly:

"It is the story of America as seen through the eyes of the former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara. One of the most controversial and influential figures in world politics, he takes us on an insider's view of the seminal events of the 20th Century. Why was this past Century the most destructive and deadly in all of human history? Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Are we free to make choices, or are we at the mercy of inexorable historical forces and ideologies?"

Going into it, I was a bit worried. Putting things on pedestals is an unhealthy habit of mine. I expect so much, I'm inevitably disappointed. Fortunately, the film lived up. As I've come to expect from Morris, it proved moving, gut wrenching, etc. Morris melds computer animation, archival footage, audio recordings, and his unique brand of interviewing into something extraordinary. I spent the better part of the film with my mouth agape.

Morris himself, however, left me wanting.

Not called upon during the post-screening Q&A session (I never am), I took it upon myself to join a few other Morris enthusiasts for a more intimate conversation. Errol was kind enough to put up with our questions.

Asked about his portrayal of pet cemetery proprietors in Gates of Heaven, he replied, "I've been defending myself for years against accusations that I made fun of them. You know what I say now? 'So fucking what?!'"

I was impressed. It was a line that conveyed everything I find extraordinary about his documentaries. Though clearly non-fiction works, they nonetheless convey something of his own bias and perspective. So fucking what.

The conversation then turned to the more political aspects of Fog of War, something that can't be avoided when it comes to a figure as controversial as McNamera; one of the architects of the Tokyo firebombing in World War II, and widely considered the driving force behind the war in Vietnam. University of Chicago students know far more about politics and history than I do. I stood quietly to one side and listened.

But when given an opportunity, I turned the discourse back toward the subject of filmmaking.

"Before the film began, you mentioned that you were trying to make a film that focused exclusively on a single person. McNamera. But this isn't really what happens in the film, is it? There's McNamera on the screen, but you enter into it as well. We hear your raw, questioning voice throughout the film -- it comes out of the ether, off screen."

Morris smiled and said, "Yeah, I cheated."

I went on to ask about his editing of the interview footage with McNamara. Rife with jump cuts and seemingly unnecessary changes in angle, we weren't sure what he was getting at.

"What's with all the jump cuts?"

"Really, I was just compressing it all for time. It wasn't an effort do something brilliant" he replied.

Here's where I got into trouble.

"It reminded me of the Mac commercials you made."

At this, Morris blanched. He seemed aghast that I'd compare his latest masterwork to a series of commercials he'd created for Apple Computer.

He stammered.

"Are you kidding? The content was certainly very different. I don't think they're similar at all."

"Well, I wasn't speaking of the content, I was referring to the framing and --"

At this, he turned to someone else. Apparently, I was dismissed.

I felt a bit stupid for mentioning those Mac commercials. But on the way home, I realized that his insistence that there was a clear distinction between the two was, quite simply, wrong.

Fog of War attempts to sell Morris's conception of McNamara in exactly the same way as he was trying to sell Mac computers. This being true doesn't detract in the least from his films -- indeed, it evidences his utter genius.

That he was unaware of this was disappointing.

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Phineas / December 7, 2003 10:35 AM

I had no idea Morris was behind those Switch ads. Much is now explained.

I guess the moral is you should never remind an artisté about the time you saw them whoring his ass on the street corner, no matter how good his ass may have looked at the time.

So to speak.

alicia / December 9, 2003 3:43 PM

aw. i wanted to see the film, but only made it to the lecture. had i seen you there i would have said hi dave. i recorded the lecture but i'm not sure if i will post it.


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