The Big Picture: New box set from one of the great American documentary filmmakers
Director: Errol Morris
Cinematography: Gates of Heaven: Ned Burgess; Vernon, Florida: Ned Burgess; The Thin Blue Line: Robert Chappell, Stefan Czapsky.
Studio information: MGM, 3 films on 3 discs.
Errol Morris is certainly one of the great American documentary filmmakers, and every time I revisit his first three films—1980’s Gates of Heaven, 1981’s Vernon, Florida, and 1988’s The Thin Blue Line—which are available on DVD in a new box set, I’m struck most by how firmly his technique was in place right from the start.
What’s most enjoyable about watching an Errol Morris movie for me is his absolute confidence in the medium. In the first two films he’s an invisible presence, neither seen nor heard, and in the third his voice appears only briefly at the end, in a recording of a telephone conversation. He doesn’t use any text on the screen to identify speakers, so we’re left with people telling their stories in their own words. And yet his movies have such attitude and conviction that they prove the power of cinema: like tiles of a mosaic, individual scenes may have a certain luster, but the real magic is in how they’re assembled.
Gates of Heaven is about pet cemeteries and the people who run them, visit them or live next to them. It’s frivolous on the surface but Morris subtly constructs themes of life and death, business and compassion, parents and children and, of course, people and their pets. The film is bizarrely ambiguous on whether these folks have crossed the line of sanity, but when Morris shows footage of back hoes digging up buried animals or caretakers practicing their electric guitars, it’s also unquestionably a comedy of fiascos and ironies.
He’s so good at getting people to talk that sometimes he accomplishes little else. His hour-long Vernon, Florida, is similar in spirit to Gates of Heaven, but it has a less cohesive net beneath its eccentric chatter. That’s a divide Morris has continued to straddle in his later films, sometimes developing a complex idea that transcends the individual parts—as in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control—and other times he’s content to listen to people, plain and simple, as in his First Person Bravo series, which is now available on DVD. For television, Morris spices things up with a multi-camera contraption and stronger presence as an interviewer, but he still employs his favorite techniques—delaying important details and letting people reveal themselves gradually—like a musician returning to his best riffs.
All Morris’s films to date are enormously enjoyable, but in the most satisfying ones his careful attention to casual conversation serves a larger purpose, and there’s no better example than his third film, The Thin Blue Line, a riveting investigation of a Dallas police officer’s murder. Once again the characters tell their own stories, but each of them knows only a sliver of the bigger picture, and Morris pores over the clues like a film noir detective seeking the truth among the tales of late-night motels, hitchhikers out of gas, and the cruel hand of fate.
When the film was released, fate had another laugh: The Thin Blue Line famously got a convicted man out of prison after he’d wrongly served 11 years of a life sentence. Every filmmaker since who documents a miscarriage of justice surely has this film in mind. In his best movies, Morris cuts his interviews where they break naturally and fits them into a gradually sharpening picture. It’s a skill that serves investigators and filmmakers alike.