by Troy Williams
Errol Morris is the legendary filmmaker behind The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Fast Cheap and Out of Control. Film critic Roger Ebert referred to Morris as “a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.” What sets Morris apart from his contemporaries is an intrepid determination to seek out knowable truth. His obsessive curiosity about the world has set him off on globe-trotting adventures to uncover hidden facts and improbable details.
But uncovering absolute truth, either in photographic or cinematic form can be elusive. There is often a tenuous relationship between image and reality. And often, as Morris argues, our beliefs about the world can defeat sensory evidence. Morris maintains that beliefs don’t determine objective reality, only what we “see”.
In The Thin Blue Line, Morris doggedly investigated the shooting of a Dallas police officer and the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams. Ultimately, Morris procured the confession of the real killer, saving Adams just three days before execution.
And Utah audiences enjoyed Errol’s most recent film Tabloid — which chronicled the mis-adventures of beauty queen Joyce McKinney who allegedly kidnapped a Mormon missionary back in 1977 (co-starring yours truly).
I spoke with Errol Morris on KRCL’s RadioActive to discuss his work and the difficult pursuit of truth through photography and cinema documented in his new book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography.
Having survived a grilling in Morris’ famous camera “The Interrotron” (which creates Morris’ signature “first person” style) I was eager for the opportunity to interview the master interviewer myself.
Podcast the entire interview:
(audio includes lengthy discussion of Abu Ghraib photos not transcribed here.)
Troy Williams: How are you doing?
Errol Morris: I’m doing okay. Working too much. Too many diverse things. I never thought I’d end up as a writer and a filmmaker but that seems to have happened. And it makes my life a little more complicated.
TW: Well let’s get into that. As a filmmaker you are fascinated by subjects with obsessive and often perverse passions — but it never really struck me until I read Believing is Seeing that YOU Errol Morris are a man who is equally obsessed by your passions!
EM: Might be the case. You’ve outed me!
TW: It’s true! Most people don’t travel to the Ukraine to unravel the mystery of a photograph taken in 1855.
EM: Maybe not. Although I was really surprised. We flew from Istanbul to Simferopol which is the capital city of the Crimea. And there were all of these British tourists who were coming to the Crimea to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the fall of Simferopol, which marked the end of the Crimean War. I was just another Crimean War johnny come lately tourist.
TW: We’re going to talk about the Fenton photos in a bit, but first tell us about the adventures of Young Errol Morris. How did your curiosity for the world manifest as a kid?
EM: I used to work as a private investigator. This was before i became a filmmaker. I’ve always been an investigator as far back as I can remember. As a very young man I traveled to various crime scenes. My obsession was investigating stories involving true crime. I suppose Tabloid is just one more example of that sort of thing. It started pretty young for me.
TW: How did that happen?
EM: I heard about these investigators and I thought maybe this is something that I could do. Long before I became a filmmaker I was interested in interviewing people. I think it was true crime that brought me into all of this.
TW: What kind of cases did you take?
EM: I worked for about two and half years on Wall Street crime. I was fortunate to work for this amazing private investigator. You would open The New York Times financial section and usually there would be a case that I was working on the front page of the financial section. It wasn’t matrimony or bad divorce cases. They were usually big cases involving security fraud or insider trading.
TW: So, no femme fatales?
EM: Well there are always femme fatales regardless of whether it’s a big financial case or some small domestic case. What’s really interesting about big complex financial cases is that on some level they are like everything else. They involve people. The kinds of things you need to investigate them is really no different than what you would do for a smaller case. Except the stakes are higher.
TW: Your films often have a noir quality — and they are often investigations to get to irrefutable truth. In all of your films — and in this new book — you are determined to get to “truth”.
EM: The lesson I learned working on The Thin Blue Line where I was investigating a murder in Texas, the murder of a Dallas police officer and a man who had been sentenced to death. It was a terrible miscarriage of justice. He was sentenced to death for a crime that he did not commit and was no way involved with this murder. I spent three years investigating and eventually getting a confession from the real killer. And proving this man — the fall guy — was absolutely innocent.
TW: Randall Adams.
EM: He had nothing to do with the crime. One thing I would often remind myself in the course of the investigation; there’s a real world out there. There is a fact. Someone killed this police officer. Someone pulled the trigger. And it’s my job to find out who it really is. It’s not up for grabs. There is an absolute truth. There is a real world in which things happened. I needed to find out who that someone was.
TW: But there was a police investigation, there was a trial and a jury and a conviction. But that didn’t satisfy you?
EM: It deeply dissatisfied me.
EM: I wouldn’t say it’s unique to me, but it’s certainly something that I’m proud of. You can ask the question what distinguishes me from some kind of crazy conspiracy freak that sees an alternative explanation around every corner. As an investigator I’ve always been obsessed with facts with reasoning about facts and accumulating new facts that people may have never looked at before. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is a suspiciousness about reality or the received view of reality. I’m also really interested in error and how errors are made. Is it enough to investigate a case and to say, well this guy is innocent, he didn’t do it and this guy is guilty, he did do it. Or to go beyond that and ask questions how could such a terrible mistake happen? How could an innocent man come three days of being electrocuted in Texas? Call me a connoisseur of error.
TW: The title of your book inverts the idiom ‘seeing is believing’. You argue that actually believing is seeing. You make the case that our beliefs inform how we interpret what we see. Which is what leads us to error.
EM: We wander through the world with endless conceptions, pre-conceptions, misconceptions about experience. And yes, often the beliefs that we have determine how we see things and not the other way around. Our beliefs can condition us. For example, the murder of this Dallas police officer. If you are of the mindset to believe that the drifter — this guy Randall Adams was the true killer — it’s easy to see the evidence as supporting that belief. This is a question I often wonder about. If believing is seeing does that mean there is no truth? That we can ultimately believe anything? And the answer is no. We have to test our beliefs. We have to ask certain questions to try to figure out if our beliefs make sense.
TW: You journeyed to Crimea to investigate two photographs shot by Roger Fenton in 1855. These are possibly the very first iconic photographs ever taken of a war.
EM: They probably are. Fenton is considered by many to be the first war photographer. If you were to pick the iconic photographs of the Crimean War it would be these two Fenton photographs: The Valley of the Shadow of Death.
TW: Describe the differences between the two “On” and “Off” photographs.
EM: He took two photographs. At first people were not clearly aware of it. Clearly this was a large camera, mounted on a tripod with a wet collodion plate. These are not easy photographs to take. You have to coat the glass plate. The exposures were lengthy. We didn’t really know which was taken first.
But there are notable differences between the two. One has cannonballs scattered on this dirt road that bisects the picture. The other does not. So the question became did he pose the photographs with the cannonballs? Did he carry all of these cannonballs onto the road and pose the second photograph? And does that make the photograph invalid as a result?
TW: A fraud?
EM: That would be the claim.
EM: There is this idea that when you take a documentary photograph, this would certainly be true of a photography documenting a war, you should touch nothing. Keep your hands off the landscape. Set your camera up and take a picture. Click. Touch nothing! As a result of these two photographs we know that somebody touched something. Those cannonballs didn’t just appear miraculously on the roadway. So what I try to do is examine the mystery of what actually happened. A photograph is like a time machine that allows us to enter history in strange places that we wouldn’t ordinary visit. The Fenton photographs are the perfect example of this sort of thing. All of a sudden I find myself on a road, a certain place, a certain date. My enterprise is to see it through, to see what extent I can walk into a photograph and figure out what I’m looking at.
TW: You actually travel to the Crimea, you find the road, you try to determine the shadows, the time of day, the direction, and then you actually find a cannonball to put it down there. That’s incredible!
EM: Oh yes.
TW: Ultimately why is it important for you to know what photo was taken first?
EM: By looking at things carefully and scrutinizing things you unpack all kinds of issues about photographs that we might not have noticed otherwise. It’s a way of thinking about photography. How photographs can lead us astray. How we form beliefs about photographs that may not reflect their underlying reality. It’s an excuse for me to investigate. I suppose I’d love to be seen as the Sherlock Holmes of photography if I can get away with it.
TW: Are you concerned with Fenton’s intentions?
EM: I’m concerned with what people imagined his intentions to be. Susan Sontag wrote a book about war photography where she imagines what Fenton’s intentions might have been. But it was 150 years ago. Who knows what he was thinking? Often the reasons why someone took a photograph are not preserved in the photograph itself. We have to imagine it.
TW: You are famous (or infamous) for staging recreations in your documentaries. Are you posing or manipulating the scene?
EM: It’s certainly something that I’ve had to deal with again and again in my career. It came to a head during the making of Thin Blue Line — my reenactments of the murder on this lonely roadway in west Dallas. I argued unendingly that the movie was an investigation of a crime and a pursuit of truth. In fact it’s an extraordinary story because this movie did lead to a conviction being overturned. Are people arguing that the use of these re-enactments invalidates that investigation? I hope not. I used them as a way of focusing people — of getting them to attend to certain details and to think about the evidence of the case. I was trying to develop a logical argument based on evidence. Because someone shoots something in a certain style — let’s say vérité or direct cinema — they use a handheld camera or available light, or they don’t touch anything. That somehow makes it all true.
TW: Your films are the opposite of that.
EM: Yes. To me style doesn’t guarantee truth. It’s not because you shoot something in a certain style that it’s true. It’s that you are pursuing truth.
TW: Let’s talk a little bit about Joyce McKinney. For folks who don’t know — Joyce is the subject of Errol Morris’ most recent film Tabloid — she of course was the infamous beauty queen who allegedly kidnapped a Mormon missionary in England and held him bound spread-eagle for a weekend of food, sex and fun.
Did you find the truths that you were looking for in that film?
EM: Well yes and no. It’s a good example of a story where you are playing with an incomplete deck. Imagine evidence as a deck of cards. What happens when people remove cards from the deck? The Joyce McKinney story is the perfect example of that. Several of the people who knew what happened are now dead. And several others won’t speak. At least they haven’t spoken so far. And Joyce herself is not what I would call a reliable witness. In fact she may be one of the more unreliable witnesses that I have ever had! But we do know several things about the story. We know that the tabloids struggled over the interpretation of what was going on. They used her as a way of selling newspapers. We certainly know that she is not a completely innocent party. I know that Joyce sees herself as a complete victim of the Mormon Church and the British tabloids.
TW: And you!
EM: And now me! And now probably you too. But I believe there is evidence that Joyce went over to Britain with a gang of heavies, with a toy gun and a bottle of chloroform and surveillance material. She did all of this. Now whether she ultimately kidnapped her boyfriend I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever know. So you tell me.
TW: I tried.
EM: Don’t get me wrong, you came up with the best analysis of anybody! But ultimately we’ll never know what went on in that cottage.
TW: I’ve come to accept that while much of Joyce’s story is dubious — I believe that Joyce believes her story.
EM: I think she does, absolutely. But I also think she probably didn’t rape him. Although I know that you have your own views on this. I find Joyce marshmallow in the parking meter story more or less compelling.
TW: And what people don’t know if they’ve seen the film, Errol and I got in a fierce debate whether it’s possible for a woman to rape a man and I argued yes, it is possible! But most of that got cut out.
EM: My apologies.
EM: Errol doesn’t know what really happened! And say I was able to interview Kirk. And probably you have a better chance of anyone. Could I trust Kirk? We all know that Kirk would have a vested interest in seeing himself as a victim. Mute point. He’s never agreed to an interview. I’m often embarrassed when people ask me about Tabloid because the feeling is, Mr. Morris you go on unendingly about the pursuit of truth — and your desire to uncover the truth. But you didn’t do it in this instance. You came up short. What went wrong? Did you not make enough of an effort? Did you give up early? I don’t have any good answers. At a certain point the movie didn’t seem to be ultimately about whether Joyce raped Kirk Anderson. I don’t believe I can ever really give you an answer to that question anyway. But it became about clashing beliefs. Call it my interest in how people see the world. The belief systems that they all operated under. Be it Joyce, or the various tabloid reporters — or even my crazy Mormon interview Troy Williams!
TW: Don’t believe a thing he says!
EM: I’ve had to question all of it of course! Yes, I think it’s a kind of wonderful portrait of various people thrown together in this story. And their attempts to grapple with it and to try and figure out what it means. So I’m rather proud of the film. Even though it may not serve up truth at the very end. It does an admirable job of telling you why the truth may never be arrived, at least in this story.
Errol, Troy and Booger Hong: LA premiere of Tabloid (photograph by David Newkirk)
The official Errol Morris website: www.errolmorris.com.
Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography is now available through Penguin Press.
Tabloid is available on DVD Nov. 1st