During his nearly forty-year career, Oscar winning filmmaker Errol Morris has been instrumental in redefining the impactful power of non-fiction storytelling in cinema. He has proven that films, especially documentaries, can evoke real-life change in the world. Morris’ films have also shown that cinematic aesthetic of documentaries can be just as exhilarating as the stories at the core of the films.
As his latest film The B-Sides: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography hits theaters, Morris once again reminds viewers of his uncanny gift for getting his subjects to open up in surprising ways. Making them unconsciously reveal nuggets about themselves that further shine light on the complexities, foibles, and commonalities of the human condition.
For those unfamiliar with Errol Morris’ spectacular canon of films, and in honor of the recent retrospective that played at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema here is a quick guide to help bring you up to speed. Rather than ranking his previous film in order of preference, as each one has something unique to offer, I will simply break them down by three specific categories: The Essentials, The Politics of Morality and The Oddities of Life.
The Essentials: Consider this your must–see starting point into the world according to Errol Morris
The Thin Blue Line
“It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”
One of the most important and influential documentaries ever made, Morris’ 1998 film is simply stunning. In exploring the alleged killing of a police officer by suspect Randall Dale Adams in Dallas in 1976, Morris uncovers several discrepancies that support Adam’s claims of being convicted for a crime he did not commit. Combining interviews with key parties, Phillip Glass’ riveting score and well-crafted re-enactments, the film is a haunting portrait of how easily the miscarriage of justice can occur.
A Brief History of Time
Think you know all there is to know about famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking? Well I am sure that you will discover a few new things in Morris’ wonderful 1991 film about the man himself. Captivating to watch, Morris’ camera work accentuates Hawking’s ponderings of the universe nicely, the film is leaps and bounds more engaging observations of Hawking’s life than a film like The Theory of Everything.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
“If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we’d better reexamine our reasoning.”
Errol Morris’ only Academy Award win so far was for his insightful interview with Robert S. McNamara. In the film, the former Secretary of Defense, serving under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations, provides a candid and eye-opening look at the incomprehensible intricacies of war through both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. While McNamara’s personal and professional life are equally fascinating, his warning about the dangers of human fallibility, especially in a structure where one man holds the keys to nuclear war, still feels extremely relevant today.
A superbly bizarre “love story” full of twist and turns, Tabloid perfectly encapsulates the side of Morris’s canon that is fascinated with the oddities of life. Documenting how ex-beauty queen Joyce McKinney fell in love with a devout Mormon man and, through a serious of events, landed on the front page of the tabloid newspapers, the film is a surreal tale of sex, crime, Mormons and fame. Just like the tabloids McKinney found herself on, the film is a sensational reminder that life will always be stranger than fiction.
The Politics of Morality: Films that look at people whose actions and decisions have huge ramifications.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
As the title suggest, this 1991 film explores the career of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. A self-made execution technician, Leuchter managed to secure work modifying electric chairs, to make them more humane, in various American prisons despite not having any formal training. While the premise may sound like it should be in the oddities section of this guide, the film takes a very disturbing turn when it reveals Leuchter to be a stanch Holocaust denier. The film’s cinematography and mixture of oddball humor and dark tones make for an unsettling and utterly compelling story.
Standard Operating Procedure
“The fear of the truth silenced people”
Showcasing the darker side of the War on Terror, Morris offers an unflinching look at the torture and abuse that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison. Using the gruesome and demeaning photographs, taken by members of the U.S. military police, as an entry point, Morris questions the abuse of power at various levels. Morris’s film presents a stirring meditation on the power of images and the untold stories that often lingering behind them.
The Unknown Known
A companion piece of sorts to The Fog of War, Morris’ 2013 examination of the life and career of former United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is full of truths, half-truths and contradictions. Focusing heavily on 9/11 and the Iraq War, Morris’ film attempts to cut through the rhetoric that clouded these events. Though Rumsfeld occasionally tries to dance around some questions like a boxer caught in a corner, Morris proves to be a more then able to rise to the challenge of going toe-to-toe with one of the most fascinating men in politics in recent years.
The Oddities of Life: The individuals who remind us that living life means doing what you love.
Gates of Heaven
In his debut film, Errol Morris dived into the underappreciated world of the pet cemetery business. While the trials of starting a business, and the importance of pets as companions is front and center, what makes the film so fascinating are the intangibles that he weaves throughout the film. We may be watching a film on pet cemeteries, but we ultimately walk away contemplating the existential aspects of life.
Errol Morris’ follow up to Gates of Heaven was a look at the town’s folk of Vernon, Florida. While he originally wanted to make a film about an insurance scheme that was occurring in the area, the final product is a strange, and at times comical, series of rambling stories about hunting turkeys, buying land, etc. Despite the eccentricities on display, the film it is worth watching if you want to complete your tour thorough Morris’ body of work.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
“If you analyze it too much, life becomes almost meaningless.”
What do a lion tamer, a hairless mole-rat expert, an M.I.T. scientist who designed tiny robots and a topiary designer have in common? It turns out quite a bit. An entertaining film in its own right; the 1997 film is most known for being the first film to feature the Interrotron. Invented by Morris himself, Interrotron is a machine that allows him to conduct face-to-face style interviews while actually looking directly at the camera lens. It is a technique that would become a staple in his subsequent films.