Tuesday, March 16, 2004
Low Visibility

Each year, I have the opportunity to work at a pretty significant documentary film festival in Arkansas, and in the process to steep myself in documentary films for three full weeks. Last year, my prediction to anyone who would listen was that Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans would easily win the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars that year.

That, of course, was a few months before the eventual winner, Errol Morris' The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara was released. In my defense, I will say that while boosting Jarecki's film, I was simultaneously recommending strongly to the festival director that Errol Morris was far and away the juiciest score for the 2004 festival guest of honor. (Hopefully next time I make a statement like that, they'll remember how accurate I was this time.)

I've been a student of Morris' work since around 1994, when I first saw an early film of his, Vernon, Florida, in high school. I frequently hold him up (along with Albert Maysles) as one of the leading lights of the documentary film genre, and have been known to coerce people into watching his films, sometimes repeatedly. I have only now finally gotten to see his latest work, and my first thought upon coming out of the theater was this:

I'm not really sure what any of that actually meant.

There are a few things that I should probably point out. The Vietnam war ended, for Americans at least, on April 30, 1975. I was not born until December of that year. Thus, Vietnam is mostly an academic subject for me... until I was in college, I knew it mostly as the subject of movies and as a chapter in high school history books that we never seemed to reach. I have always found it a confusing episode in history, although given the current state of the world, I am more than open to any parallels that might exist between the Vietnam war and the second Iraq war.

Going into this film, I was hopeful -- expectant, even -- that I would find some insight, some kernel of wisdom that might help me comprehend the dangers of our current war. I'm sure, for those who know the material well enough, that those do exist in the film. I, however, managed to find only vague gestures in the general direction of real insight, shadows of some truth that I can only assume is there, but am not personally equipped to perceive as of yet.

What I did come away with is this: war is bad, difficult to control, and inevitably tragic; those who conduct it rarely take responsibility for the destruction they authorize and execute; and the Bush administration almost certainly lacks even the wisdom possessed by the men who brought us Vietnam. Important conclusions? Sure, I guess... although nothing I didn't already know.

So, so much for that.

As a documentary, the thing that most struck me is that Morris seems to have finally met his match in the interview. Morris is highly respected for his ability to wring small truths and telling admissions from his interview subjects, not through the hack's technique of badgering, but through an almost superhuman ability to use the uncomfortable silence to his own benefit. He conducts his interviews through a complex arrangement of monitors, mirrors, and cameras (dubbed "The Interrotron"), which leaves his subjects isolated in a separate room, faced only with a bank of equipment and Morris' face on a video monitor. This seemingly-dehumanizing barrier, however, also permits (actually forces) his subjects to maintain direct eye contact with the viewer at all times, creating a highly sympathetic, human bond between the perceiver and that which is being perceived. It's almost impossible to view one of Morris' subjects as anything other than a living, thinking, feeling human being, exactly like oneself. And this, in turn, leaves the viewer open to ideas and identifications, and thus to the reality of the world in which the subject lives, in a way that is almost the essence of documentary film.

But unlike Morris' past subjects, McNamara has spent the best part of 60 years having his opinions and motivations probed before the public. He knows what's at stake, he knows what the results of any statement can be, and he's nobody's easy mark: this is a man who knows how to deal with a question, and with an uncomfortable silence. Watching the interview unfold, it seemed to me that Morris, for once, was almost intimidated by his subject's control over the situation, and at the very least was deeply respectful of McNamara as a "worthy opponent" if not as an architect of war.

Morris' being slightly at a loss as to how to handle McNamara is evidenced in the film by the unusual (for Morris) inclusion of his own questions in addition to McNamara's answers. Normally, Morris can extract sufficient narrative from his interviewees to enable him to blend into the background as an interviewer; only a few times in the past have we heard his voice intrude onto the soundtrack. Not so this time: Morris is audible, to varying degrees, throughout the film. Furthermore, for the first time that I can ever remember in an Errol Morris documentary, we hear McNamara plainly refuse to broach certain subjects. The fact that Morris includes these refusals in the film again points to his respect for McNamara as a subject: McNamara has the upper hand here, and Morris isn't too ego-driven to admit it.

I have to wonder exactly why Morris decided to take on McNamara as a subject. He lacks the obsessive weirdness of Morris' typical subjects; he's immune to Morris' particular genius as a documentarian; and the obvious subject matter, while particularly interesting at this point in time, is not an easy fit with Morris' filmmaking style. Vietnam -- especially in the context of the Iraq war -- seems to demand judgement, and Morris has never been a judgemental documentarian. He has opinions, certainly, but he strictly refrains from imposing them onto his films... this is one of his major strengths. He allows his subjects to be the flawed human beings they are, and he allows us to appreciate their humanity, where perhaps we were blind to it before. I have heard many others express dismay at Morris' unwillingness to challenge McNamara; my response has been that this is simply not Morris' interest. He lets his subjects speak for themselves, and allows us to make of that what we will.

But at a time when so many human lives are being lost on a daily basis in an active, ongoing war, is the recognition of an elderly engineer of war's humanity really helpful, or even appropriate? On the one hand, I believe that the recognition and acceptance of human frailty is always appropriate. On the other, my anger at this purveyor of war, and at all those who are doing his work today, perceives no justice in the recognition of the humanity of one who has refused to recognize the humanity of so many others. There may be a time for reconciliation and understanding, but right now, I am too frustrated by an ongoing war to accept that this is the right time for this particular film.

Perhaps that's Morris' shortfalling; perhaps it's mine.

Otherwise, Morris' work is, as always, of a high standard. He never ceases to amaze me with his ability to shoot reel-to-reel tape recorders in visually interesting, even beautiful ways... and I say that with tongue only halfway in cheek. He does some amazing work with vintage film, bringing old images up to date by way of interesting visual effects. The Phillip Glass score was perhaps slightly too similar to his score for "Mr. Death," but basically worked. (It's not as if Glass doesn't always sound pretty much the same, in any case.)

The film's Oscar was certainly well deserved; Errol Morris is such an extraordinarily gifted documentarian that even this misfire ranks among the finest documentary work of the year. But for the first time, I find myself thinking that the very quality that I most admire in Morris' work -- his hesitance to take sides -- has gotten in the way of making a really effective film. Hopefully the passage of time will point out the error in my thinking.
8:45 PM ::
Amy :: permalink