In 1975, Errol Morris, a young writer at the time, arrived in Plainfield, Wisconsin with the intention of learning more about the serial killer Ed Gein, who had lived in the rural Mid-west town for most of his life. After conducting multiple interviews with the imprisoned murderer, he hatched a plan with acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog to dig up the grave of Ed Gein's mother to confirm their theory that Gein had already done so years before.
On the day they planned to actually commit the grave robbing (or is that grave breaking and entering?) Herzog arrived with shovel in hand, but Morris had second thoughts. He would then spend almost a year in the town interviewing its inhabitants and collecting hundreds of hours of material for a book or film he would never produce.
Herzog returned to the small town months after with $2000 in cash for Morris to get him to leave the project behind and start something new. Morris rejected this offer by throwing the envelop of cash out of his motel room window. It would only be after Herzog retrieved the money from the parking lot and offered it again to Morris, accompanied by a stern “Please do not do that again,” that he finally left his project for good.
This is is a good encapsulation of a man who today is considered one of the most famous and influential documentarians in cinema history: bold tenacity, determination for truth and a hard streak against anything coming close to authority. This anti-authoritarianism also defines his style of documentary, which has taken every aspect of what was considered the proper form of non-fictional filmmaking and ignored or outright rejected it with an almost playful glee.
Since his first feature film, the Gates of Heaven (1978), a documentary about competing pet cemeteries in southern California, Morris has chosen not to follow nearly every aspect of what was considered proper documentary filmmaking at the time and hasn’t stopped since.
Pre-Morris, the tradition of documentaries was heavily influenced by the cinema verite school of filmmaking, in which the camera, and in turn the viewer were intended to be as unobtrusive as possible with regards to the action that is being recorded. The subject was also never to look directly at the camera, but the unseen, usually silent interviewer just off to the side.
This style was theorized to be the most accurate way to present unadulterated reality and in so doing, presented reality as is. Another presumed effect of cinema verite was that the viewer would become immersed in the actions taking place on the screen and feel like they were present in the space and time of the documentary, an observing ‘fly on the wall’ as it was put by many filmmakers.
This form of filmmaking carried with it many rules to keep these ideas of an unmolested reality in place. The camera must be lightweight and handheld and only natural light must be used to illuminate the subject. To prepare a scene with proper lighting and a tripod would require the subject to be extracted out of their ‘real’ activity and essentially create a false dramatization out of the subject and their actions. These falsities of a well lit, fixed shot would also supposedly create a barrier between the audience and the reality of the documented subject and in turn reduce the ‘truth’ of the documentary.
Errol Morris would go on to break so many of the rules of cinema verite that one of his most successful film, the Thin Blue Line, a film about a man falsely accused of murdering a police officer still behind bars, would fail to receive on Oscar nomination for Best Documentary on the grounds that it did not fit the criteria of a documentary and was simply considered a “non-fiction film”. Around the time of its release, even he would shy away from calling it a documentary, or as he put it “the d word”.
The subjects of his document would be very well lit and recorded by a large 35mm tripod-fixed camera. He would also instruct the interviewees to speak directly into the camera, and therefore, directly at the viewer. Beyond this, he would even produce dramatizations of the central crime of the documentary, an inherently false depiction that goes so far beyond the verite style that it defied the very definition of the genre.
Of course, Morris was not necessarily going after the truth of the reality behind the Thin Blue Line but the falsehoods that fill the kangaroo court system of 1977 Dallas County, Texas. With each interviewee giving their own version of the crime, the dramatization changes to fit their narrative. As these scenarios begin to contradict each other, Morris begins to pick apart what was at that point considered reality.
This cinema mensonge arguably struck at the reality of the Dallas justice system so hard that it directly resulted in the main case of the film to be reviewed, and in doing so acquitted the wrongfully accused Adams. By brazenly rejecting the traditional values of documentary filmmaking, Errol Morris delivered a message more powerful than any documentarian before him.
He would push his method of direct subject interaction even further in his series “First Person”, in which he developed a camera system he dubbed “Interrovision”. The camera rig is composed of a teleprompter with a feed of Morris projected on to it and fixed directly over the camera, so that interviewee can better interact with Morris while speaking directly at the camera. The viewer than experiences Morris’ signature direct interaction style at a stronger level and in doing so further distances his work from the traditional cinema verite style.
Although he was very sheepish at first to refer to his work as a documentary, it is evident in this interview that he no longer has such apprehensions. “Documentary filmmaking is not one kind of filmmaking.” This may simply be the voice of a filmmaker more comfortable discussing his own validity, but it may also signify that he has helped redefine the documentary through his rebellious work.
As Werner Herzog, his compatriot in subversive documentary, and fellow would-be grave robber put it, “We must never be flies one the wall, unobtrusive and just registering. As filmmakers we should be the hornets that go out and sting.”
Documentary in the Digital Age , Maxine Baker, rough biography of Morris as well as breakdown of cinema verite in relation to documentaries
The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris
The Gates of Heaven , Errol Morris
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=542PtuAbqZc , Morris interview with Scott Feinberg
http://mitpress.mit.edu/sites/default/files/titles/content/9780262630580_sch_0001.pdf , an essay on cinema verite in general
http://www.errolmorris.com/content/profile/singer_predilections.html , detailed profile of Morris