Errol Morris: “Elusive Truths” lecture at Wisconsin Union Theater

For the uninitiated, Errol Morris is, in my opinion, the greatest living documentary filmmaker. His films often deal with both political subject matter and more quirky, elusive matter, the latter group which he likes to refer to as “tabloid films,” based on the fact that he often starts working on the film after he reads an interesting story in the tabloids. Morris came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (both his and my own alma mater) on October 21 as part of the Distinguished Lecturer series and the ongoing Year of the Arts that is taking place campus wide. His visit coincided with a retrospect of all his feature films, each in a great 35 millimeter print.

Morris describes himself as a man who probably deserves to be beaten up constantly, but somehow manages to escape it, though there was one instance while he was filming Vernon, Florida (which I’ll get to later) in which his luck wasn’t too good. He began the lecture speaking of his time at the UW campus back in the 1960’s, who at that time apparently “accepted everybody” (he admits he was a bit of a ne’er-do-well in high school), with some interesting anecdotes. Most amusingly, he admitted to how he somewhat cheated his way to getting a single dorm room based on a made-up allergy which would have required his roommate to wear rubber clothes. He also spent some time discussing two prominent professors in the history department, George L. Mosse, whom our campus’s humanities is named for, and Harvey Goldberg, whose lectures would trend toward the political side. Both professors received dedication in his 2003 Oscar Award winning documentary The Fog of War.

His interest in films seemed to come from various places. As a student he would often take out 16mm prints of old Warner Bros. films and watch them on a projector from the State Historical Society. He also had a fascination with rather mentally ill people, and had often bragged about interviewing Ed Gein… before he actually interviewed him. He ended up finding work around campus working on film-related projects before graduation. After college, however, he spent time working as a private detective in New York, another aspect of his life which seems to have influenced films of his, especially The Thin Blue Line, which actually managed to free an inmate from prison. This story is often told that he was freed from death row, but in actuality the man’s sentence had been changed from the death penalty to life in prison before an interview he had conducted revealed perjury of an eyewitness. To this day, he says, his career as a detective is the work he is most proud of in his life.

Morris approaches his films with only a vague idea of what he wants to film, and ends up discovering the film he is shooting it. He went into great detail about the production of Vernon, Florida, in particular. He had been attracted to the city through an article on a place dubbed “Nub City,” where there was a high incidence of people removing their limbs to fraud insurance companies. They would take out “vacation insurance,” which was apparently very inexpensive to purchase and covered injury, and would end up removing one arm and one leg to receive insurance money. It was while researching one of the “nubbies” that he would get beaten up by one of their sons, and promptly decided that his film would have to change its focus. Instead, he became fascinated with the townsfolk, and the film that became Vernon, Florida remains a rather humorous look at the interesting inhabitants of a small southern town.

He had more interesting and humorous anecdotes about the creation of his films Mr. Death, including a scenario in which various crew members strapped themselves to an electric chair that the subject of the film maintained for a living; The Fog of War, which happened by a stroke of luck when a last minute interview with Robert McNamara, originally planned to be a part of his excellent PBS series First Person, turned into a conversation that lasted for days; and my favorite film of his, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which the girlfriend of the robot mechanic interviewed for the film was so disgusted with how he was portrayed that she immediately married him. Morris also spoke a bit about his own wife, including various quotes and ideas of hers had helped propel his film career, and his friendship with Werner Herzog, including his infamous bet in which Herzog was to eat his shoe if Gates of Heaven ever saw release. The way Morris remembers the bet, which he doesn’t like talking about, was that Herzog had actually said he would eat his foot.

One belief that Morris holds is that truth is objective, not subjective as postmodern ideas have popularized. He described a scenario of an innocent man strapped up to an electric chair, about to receive the death penalty. In this scenario, a postmodernist walks into the room saying, “you might have done it, you might have not, but its your responsibility to take the punishment despite your innocence,” a situation that would anger Morris very much were he to encounter it in real life. When asked if he had ever been forced to bend the truth in editing one of his films to achieve some sense of narrative coherency, he admitted that there probably were times in which the editing had been a bit tricky, but that he tried to preserve the context of his interviews as truthfully as possible.

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About Adam DiPiazza
I love Peach Snapple.

One Response to Errol Morris: “Elusive Truths” lecture at Wisconsin Union Theater

  1. Mac Colestock says:

    I had an opportunity to see Vernon, Florida a few years ago, but instead of taking that opportunity I went bowling all night with some friends. It was fun, but now I don’t see any of them anymore. If I’d instead watched Vernon, Florida, I might have had something meaningful to say here about Morris’ technique or the general craziness of his films instead of rambling about a meaningless anecdote.

    That said, this was a great write-up. You’ve reminded me that I still need to see Vernon, Florida. And the rest of his shit, for that matter.

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