Friday, March 2, 2012

There are indeed many talented documentary filmmakers with brilliant sociopolitical messages for the world, etc. Their messages are essential for people to consider and understand. Whilst important, too many of them follow an information-bias agenda. Errol Morris, with thirty plus years of documentary skill, seems to have always followed a different drum. Although he has accumulated his own filmic style, it is the subject matter within most of his films that has placed Morris in a high position of influence within the documentarian community. Morris would likely disagree with his informal, yet recognized status. Admirably, though, his films show no signs of progressive egotism.

He is indeed consistent in many areas of subject ranging from sexual relations, occupations, and violence. Perhaps the most intriguing of his work are the films that share in a universally spellbinding topic--Death. The death procedure, rather. How it operates, who's to blame, what it looks like, how it is admired, and the consequences. Morris works are just cleverly weird, especially since death is their common denominator.

Death's unfolding may be a worldwide phenomena, but to describe this phenomena, Morris amusingly begins and ends with the--usually unorthodox--individual point of view. His often bizarre interviewees attest to the rather commonplace idea that death and its significance can indeed be a state of mind. Whether there is any vitality or sadness to be gained from death, it is a decision perhaps best located in the subjective experience. Taken together, the odd bird interviewees of the Morris series create a panorama of differential opinion.

His subjects are without doubt odder than the average person odd--if such exists, anyway--and to hear their separate view points on death is almost as fascinating as it is overwhelmingly uncomfortable. Morris films are able to convince the viewer that the director has nothing to do with what you see. The interviewees steal the show. Their words, their faces, and their body language take up most of the viewer's attention. Not to say Morris isn't crucial to the equation, of course he is, but the people he finds and places in front of the camera practically make up the entire story.

Morris brings to light that there are interesting people who often become caught up in the varying degrees of death. I think viewers should probably thank him for doing so. Each degree of death is enthralling in its own way. Whether the film explains the instrumentation involved in dying (Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.), or the morality in killing, there is someone to illustrate its rationale. If there is a mass, prolonged execution, like a war, or the infliction of the feeling of death--all as a means to a collective end--, someone from either Standard Operating Procedure or The Fog of War will attempt to validate such actions. Say death is out of cold blood,--a sociopath claiming his or her victims--, then The Thin Blue Line may answer some of the "why?" questions so commonly asked of murderers, even without a direct, coherent answer. Upon reflection, Errol Morris films generally assert that death, whether intentional or say, natural, is tricky. Nonetheless enthralling. Errol Morris, bringing his own curiosities to the field, has for a long time now understood the human's inability to comprehend its universal power. Morris has therefore set out to discover death's many capacities. His subjects of film  shouldn't be dismissed. If they are found repulsive in nature, they can certainly serve as an ethical no-no. Nonetheless, the intrigue over mortality remains.

In conclusion, Errol Morris films have predominantly discussed the process of death since his career beginning. Gates of Heaven, his debut documentary, launched this engrossing series of works on the topic. Perhaps the paramount aspect to these films is that, despite their focus on the dreadfulness of death, there is a penetrating unconventionality to their storylines. It isn't that I don't take death gravely, but like Morris maybe wonders himself(?), "why on earth does death happen the way it does? If it affects all of us, shouldn't there be a collective agreement over how it is handled/processed?" Anyway, Errol Morris films are definitely worth the mental and emotional fun.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

The lightning sequence in the beginning of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. does not only allude to the bizarreness of the film, but also to the superb cinematography throughout. Despite its aesthetic feat, the film’s material and its main subject, the one and only Mr. Fred A. Leuchter, are its most difficult features to process. 
Leuchter, for the start of the film, is considerably intelligent. He appears savvy and engrossed in his career field. Curiously, his speciality is the construction of more ‘humane’ executional devices for American penitentiaries. 
His interest for the art began with his early exposure to the prison lifestyle and the prisoners themselves. Leuchter wasn’t locked up for any crime, rather his father held a security position at the local lockup. He gains first hand knowledge of the prison social experience; that despite their reasons for imprisonment, the inmates are merely a bunch of simple men and great to speak with or hang around during the day. Leuchter ultimately classifies them as human beings. In succession, Leuchter becomes fascinated with prison execution methods. He earns his living by constructing new and improved--and don’t forget humane--execution devices. 
Facetiously, to say the least, director Errol Morris films an intensely attractive biography of Leuchter’s life and his profession. The film connotes that Leuchter lives a dream of a life. Leuchter compares his intelligence and career as that of a missionary’s. He thrills on the idea that he brings the virtue of humanity to the execution. He thrives on how his cooking recipes mediate the humane side of killing people with the monstrous side. He feels he is a hero to take on this task and execute it so gosh darn well. 
Straightforwardly, he seems to excrete a completely estranged sense of logic. The bit of anger from that last sentence is derived from the latter half of the film. This high and mighty ‘mouse of a man’ experiences a public hanging of his own. In the late 1980s, Leuchter is recruited by Ernst Zundel, a man --a blabbermouth ignoramus-- who recruits Leuchter to help disprove the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp. If nothing is scientifically unearthed from the site, Zundel’s theory that the Holocaust didn’t exist will be undeniably true. Backlash inevitably ensues. Leuchter, meanwhile, becomes pigeon to the thrill of spotlight and controversy. He is duped by his own egoism. 
Morris recognizes that Leuchter is an utter screwball and accentuates the man in quite interesting filmic ways. The film includes a well organized montage of people involved, often parallel to eerie and noir choices of archival footage. For certain, the wackiness of the shots and appealing distortion of graphics do not make you feel ‘good’. The angles and content are enough to conjur vomit for some. The montages don’t necessarily empower your mind, heart, soul, and brain with good disposition. Morris’s intimate shots of Leuchter cause the desire to want to move back in the seat or walk out of sight of the screen. Never let Leuchter’s eyes to catch hold of you, especially when he sits in his pride and joy of an execution chair, or when he stares wide-eyed into the high or low angled lens. The film is far from poor quality, but bits like the final shot sequence of an angelic looking Leuchter buckling up for death in his chair that incite the strong sentiment of: Glad that’s is over. No more of that man. No more. Fool. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Thin Blue Line (1988) by Errol Morris

One thing is for certain: on November 28, 1976, during a routine traffic stop, Texas Police Officer Robert Wood was shot and killed. 
Soon after, Randall Dale Adams received the unexpected brunt of angry law enforcement.
Adams, formerly of Ohio, seems a nice enough fellow, at least to hold a conversation with in town or something. Yet, in the film, his mind is blatantly preoccupied. Likely over why the hell he is the one behind bars when there is another fellow, David Harris, reportedly better deserving of his situation. The situation is that Adams is convicted of murdering Officer Robert Wood in cold blood that curious November evening. 
At the adult age of 28, Adams isn't any sort of rascal who rolls around in his vehicle late at night waiting to express his sociopathic aggression. No, he is a citizen with a newly acquired home in Texas and has a steady paying job. Prior to 1976 Adams has to no criminal offense nor any legitimate association with the law enforcement. He is otherwise passable for a good man. It was in November of 1976 that he unfortunately met the young David Harris, who, by sixteen, becomes a human succubus. 
Whilst Harris vaunts about shooting the officer, it is Randall Adams that gets the blame for the attack. Harris points his nasty trigger finger at Adams and off goes the man hunt, without any redress (on behalf of the authorities) of Harris or his involvement in the November crime. Surprise surprise, Harris’s freedom results in more crime, including robbery, kidnapping, sexual assault, and another murder, for which he is finally sent to jail. Concurrently Adams appeals his conviction over the death of Officer Wood and is finally granted the appeal. Although Adams served a life sentence at the time of the documentary’s production, The Thin Blue Line (1988) is accredited for his eventual release. 
From an artistic standpoint, Errol Morris’s crime reenactments qualitatively put those of the friday night crime mystery hour to utter shame. The reenactments surpass all other attempts because they provide the viewer with detailed visual proof of what each of the parties involved claim to be true. Never mind the fact that The Thin Blue Line sets an aesthetic standard in the late 1980‘s--the standard holds true for documentary film today! To be fair, its technical and visional prominence are likely unattainable for present day documentarians. Unfortunately, not for Morris’s use of mimeo, but the rather wishy washy reenactment style of docudrama (one of ‘kind of but not really similar to the real guy actors with an overuse of eccentric camera shots’), has put filmic regeneration at a quality standstill. Or perhaps the overuse has also caused a reconsideration for the technique. Nonetheless, the reenactments, along with the anomaly of characters and their stories, not only draw the viewer into the bizarre world of crime solving, but help the viewer make a decision on who is guilty. The evidence Morris chronicles is nonetheless telling to what indeed happened and who really deserves to rot in a cell.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gates of Heaven by Errol Morris

Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris’ debut film, certainly created that eccentric rhythm featured in his later features. For his first film, oh, where to initiate! The beginning sequences consist of a conversation with Floyd ‘Mac’ McClure, a man similar to Robert S. McNamara in that he presents himself as a man incapable of human error. McClure’s naivete is rampant, as long as he makes sure his animal clients are laid properly to rest. McClure’s life passion is precisely this, to open a decent pet cemetery in California, and create a spiritual haven for people and their late pets. His drive appears steadfast, but McClure likely had little preceding knowledge to his subsequent financial afflictions that pulled so heavily at his heart strings. The experience of starting the pet cemetery caused for McClure a great social strain from fellow human beings. He states a few times that humans are indeed unreliable and corrupt creatures, whereas pets are more intuitive to humans and harbor a better spiritual connection. 
Almost as early as meeting McClure appear other individuals who are too involved in this man’s pet cemetery dream. These people include his business rival, once business partners, other pet cemetery owners, and couples that are experiencing the loss and burial of their beloved pets. Mac’s story comes to pass rather early in the film, allowing other pet cemetery businessmen, such as the Harberts men,  to explain why they feel impassioned by the career. The Harberts family --father and son-- soon becomes the center of attention, the son in particular.  
By no mistake does Errol Morris include these men to begin a discussion on personal discourse over the afterlife--why it exists, who is allowed/what is allowed in Heaven. The narrative weans away from the late animals and their legacies unto the human interviewees, thus exploring deep philosophical stances of people who are involved in a grave business. Also including their particular sentiments over the matter of success and individual growth as well. The spectator cannot get enough of the tediously haughty life advice from Philip Harbert --”mind over matter”-- knowing en masse that some of his points, on say mental confidence, may actually be kosher. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer’s preference. 
The film visual, on the other hand, is surely aesthetic, in a rather enigmatic way. Much of the dead center shots put a serious touch to the topic of death and the afterlife, although they are so centered that one cannot help but be amused. With serious respect to those interviewed and the animals lost, this Errol Morris production is quite distantly ironic. Ironic in that the shots appear so basic when discussing such intricate, ineffable topics as death, vital growth, and the afterlife. To boot, the color exposures are a riot because they feel so particular to the late 1970’s-- the fashion, the furniture, and the vegetation are all of a jazzy glow. The exposures are, sincerely, of a great droll contrast to the miseries of figuring out how to live and die, despite your species of birth. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

The various forms of media used in this documentary memorialize Robert S. McNamara’s discrete experience as Secretary of Defense under both President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Like the Kennedy Administration, in 1961 McNamara was affirmed to the White House with the ambition of forming a greater America. His reputation became concurrently clear (as he seemed a knowledgable, tactful executive) and unclear (as he too appeared detached and egotistical). In attempt to comprehend the mortal and methodized predicament of the Vietnam War, film director Errol Morris holds an interview with the former Secretary of Defense (1916-2009). His documentary of the man is subsequently named The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. The film is uniquely personal (as plenty of Morris’ films are). 

The archival footage of the Vietnam War experience shares perhaps as much film time as the footage of Morris’ interview with McNamara, yet it is the latter who is the dominant fascination of the film.  

Throughout the interview, I wavered upon whether I could sympathize with Robert S. McNamara as a human being. Nonetheless, did his involvement in the Vietnam War cause him to qualify as a monster, rather than a human being? Considerably many Americans regarded him as a major figure for blame. If he shares his personal account, will his actions and reactions be justified? Is this man at all worthy of clemency from this particularly black moment in American history, especially after the amount of time that has past? Has he been falsely accused?!--As the viewer, these were the questions that I asked before, during, and despite the viewing. 

In attempt to fathom Robert S. McNamara’s personality, I seemed to conjecture that he, at some point unknown to everyone other than him, checked out--socially, mentally. I myself digress on mostly every thought and more in my speech, therefore, I can possibly conceive the irregular ties of conversation humans tend to make. But I have to say “But...” in regards to Robert S. McNamara. He appears, to me, that for much of his life he has convinced himself to be exceptionally evasive in nature. Perchance the most candid statement he makes to Morris (followed by a reminiscent grin) is of the role of interviewee: Answer a question according to how you wish it were asked. Another statement in similar taste is his line, “We see what we want to believe”.  Essentially, I feel McNamara was living, breathing, speaking, and worst of all thinking crookedly. 

By some means, perhaps Errol Morris was unsure how to regard McNamara. Morris’ use of close ups and medium close ups can easily be regarded as an artistic expression of his desire to want to crack McNamara; to finally get to the truth of what happened and what was he thinking(?!) out of the man. I share in that desire.