I've always thought of my portraits as my own version of the Museum of Natural History," Errol Morris said a few years ago, "these very odd dioramas where you're trying to create some foreign exotic environment and put it on display." Those portraits--in nonfiction films such as Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and the recent Mr. Death--have also put on display the brilliant, deadpan Morris sensibility: the bespectacled egghead happily marooned on Tabloid Island. This is a man, after all, who unsuccessfully proposed to the Department of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was once a graduate student, a thesis on the insanity plea, a group of Wisconsin serial killers, and monster movies. He has described his films as being about "epistemic concerns: how do we come by certain kinds of knowledge," while his first filmed interview question elicited the wonderful statement, "Trooper was the kind of dog who didn't have other dogs to relate to."
He has talked about one film as "an essay on false history," another as "a Tristan and Isolde type of story" about his affinity for Nabokov's "clueless narrator," and has either produced or imagined films on pet cemeteries, a lion tamer and a topiary gardener and a robot designer and a mole-rate expert, a show dog put on trial for murder in Michigan, paralyzed genius Stephen Hawking, a guy who bred a giant chicken, and Floridians who cut off their limbs for insurance money. One of his movies solved a murder. An Errol Morris movie, with its appreciation of the richness of the mundane, the ordinary in the offbeat, and the rhythms, truths, and deceptions of everyday language, is its very own thing.
This season, in First Person, an 11-part series of half-hour odd dioramas airing on the Bravo channel through May 10, Morris brings his contemplative prurience and distant immediacy to television, the happy home of prurience and immediacy. Like his films, First Person focuses--with intelligence, artfulness, and even a sort of cautious tenderness--on bizarre individuals and stories. There is the woman who went from autistic child to designer of humane slaughterhouses, the parrot who may have witnessed a murder, the director of a museum of medical oddities, the man who froze his mother's head, the woman who fell in love with not one but two serial killers, the doctor in a passionate hunt for a living giant squid, the Unabomber's pen pal, the CIA agent who creates new identities, and the woman who, after her son's messy suicide, became a crime scene cleaner-upper. Morris finds in the stories both absurdist humor ("The parrot knows a lot," a woman asserts) and huge life themes ("You aren't your body," a cryogenics expert pronounces). The short story genre, which is where Morris places the project--in his hands, these are fables--fits him very well.
Although clueless narrators abound and one senses Diane Arbus hovering nearby, the freak-show possibilities are largely offset by the fact that these are short stories narrated in the first person (Morris unapologetically eschews journalistic "balance"), by Morris's treatment of his subjects as articulate monologuists, and by the sense that these subjects are speaking right to you. "These are stories about how people see the world," Morris says. "The arrow points inward." Like his films, the series makes extensive use of direct, close-up interviews: A two-way mirror device he invented, the Interrotron, allows subjects to look directly into the camera at Morris and thus directly at the audience. The subjects' words and faces--sometimes just an eye and ear, or eyes and a nose--are mixed with lingering looks at inanimate objects, archival clips, Philip Glassish music, and stylized, sometimes surreal and film-noiresque re-enactment footage. As Saul Kent, the cryogenics activist and mother's-head freezer, talks about death ("It's the disappearance of everything") and his admiration for Dr. Frankenstein ("He's just been misunderstood"), we see shots of a grave being filled with dirt and of an elderly woman being fed green Jell-O in a nursing home, and Frankenstein clips. We see cow-empathic Temple Grandin, the autistic slaughterhouse designer, resting quietly in a "squeeze chute" used to inoculate cattle, and walking through her "stairway to heaven," the ramp that leads the cows, who see only the rump ahead of them, unknowingly and calmly to slaughter. In First Person as elsewhere, Morris creates what he calls "mental landscapes"--haunting verbal, visual, jazzy trips through unusual heads--and they are, with occasional exceptions, amazing places to wander.
Perhaps that is partly because they are also filled with death. "Why is death so bad?" Morris, with his characteristic combination of dry humor and genuine curiosity, asks Kent at the very beginning of the cryogenics episode. Although the how-do-we-know-what-we-think-we-know themes of Morris's other work are found here, along with what he has called "the nobility of the inconsequential," death is First Person's most prominent theme. Most of the episodes involve it directly, and there is much death talk. These people--like Morris himself--are very interested in death. "I wanted to find out what happens when you die," Grandin says of her decision to seek out a slaughterhouse. "Regular religion was way too abstract; it was just meaningless. But the slaughterhouse was real." Sondra London, the woman in love with serial killer Danny Rolling--whom we watch at one point serenading her at his sentencing hearing--talks about her childhood fantasy in which the bogeyman rode up to her on a black stallion and swept her, swooning, away on his horse. She describes the message of Rolling's horrific killings: "Evil is real, and evil walks this earth like a natural man." Kent locates people on a five-category scale from "hard-core deathists" to "hard-core immortalists." He plans to cheat death and meet his mother--well, her thawed and neurologically repaired brain attached to a healthy body--in several hundred years. Joan Dougherty, the crime scene scrubber, literally cleans up after death.
It is remarkable to see such things discussed so matterof-factly and thoughtfully and humorously on television. Death makes a quite different appearance here than anywhere else on television, nothing like the maudlin death scenes on hospital dramas, the standard-issue afterlife propaganda of Touched by an Angel, the violent-death-as-plot-device on police shows, or the sensationalized deaths of helicopter-driven local news. Not only is First Person's encounter with death more philosophical; it is more practical.
Still, death talk notwithstanding, there is something disturbing about how comfortably Morris's offbeat characters and kooky stories fit in their new television home. Whereas in theaters, Morris's films look distinctive compared to the predominant cinema verité style and social-commentary content of traditional documentaries, on television they rather blend into their background. Certainly in comparison to PBS documentaries they remain highly unusual--Morris's work is to that of the Burns brothers, a New York Times critic suggested last year, "as Chagall is to Grant Wood." But locate him where his First Person actually is, on commercial television, and his quirks seem a bit less quirky.
"In an era where people think they've seen it all, I want to show them that they haven't," he says in Bravo's press release, sounding a lot like, say, the inventor of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire? or Pets Who Kill. And many of the devices he uses to tweak the documentary form, to suggest that narration tells us more about the narrator than the world being narrated, to challenge "the metaphysical claim that style guarantees truthfulness" and "the notion that people have privileged access to their own minds," are by now standard features of "reality" television. Morris's innovative talking-to-the-camera strategy feels ho-hum familiar on television, having been institutionalized on many a TV drama over the past few seasons and on television commercials over the past few decades. Watching the re-enacted murder of Jane Gill, even with the wacky element of the parrot (who seems to speak in Jane's voice, screeching "Richard! No! No! No!"), one could easily be watching Unsolved Mysteries.
Morris himself is well aware of all of this. He provides reminders of his own role in constructing these profiles, something even television almost never does, showing Sondra London saying, "What a lame question! You can do better than that!" and Temple Grandin asking if she's holding her head in the light the way he wants, before reciting a poem. Even more tellingly, in the last six installments of First Person, produced much more recently than the first five, Morris has made some significant changes. He has modified his Interrotron into a device that is "20 cameras rolled into one" ("I guess I'm calling it the Megatron"), providing multiple, unusual angles on his subject; he no longer uses re-enactments, since by television convention they illustrate truth rather than, as Morris likes to use them, states of mind, errors, self-deceptions. He has changed his visual approach, at least in part, to avoid looking too much like a cheap "imitation of myself, only less interesting"--that is, to avoid looking like television.
There is no way Morris can make something truly conventional--he once tried to make a Stop & Shop commercial by asking employees to describe their worst day on the job--and First Person simultaneously partakes of and undercuts the genre of "reality" television. Yet the undercutting is tricky. What might elsewhere appear ironic or outrageous or controversial or over the top can seem quite straightforward on television, where one would not be all that surprised to find a bird on the witness stand or a psychotherapist in an obsessive relationship with Ted Kaczynskiw. It's a place where sometimes even Morris's characters, whom television should only be so lucky as to house for years to come, look almost commonplace. ¤
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