Archive for Errol Morris


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2008 by dcairns

Errol Morris’ favourite film, it turns out, is Edgar Ulmer’s DETOUR, filmed in six days on very limited sets, with a modest, small cast and no money. “There’s big-budget noir, medium-budget noir, and then there’s poverty row noir. And there’s something about despair being enacted on cheap sets…”

Who was it who said, “There’s nothing in that film except genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else”?

Anyhow, after hearing Morris express this preference at his In Person session, I mobbed up to him afterwards and asked if his fascination with the film had something to do with his interest, shown in most of his films, with the elusive nature of truth?

My theory of DETOUR has always been that the hero’s behaviour makes no sense for a good reason. (spoilers!)  First, he is present at a man’s death and assumes, for no good reason, that he’s going to get the blame for it. Then when fleeing from the scene, he stops to pick up a hitchhiker. This strikes most audiences as odd, I think. Then SHE meets an accidental death, which seems rather a coincidence. But it seems closely connected with the film’s funkiness. You don’t wish it made more sense, you revel in it. Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci both cited the film as a favourite, an example of what Argento calls “non-cartesian cinema”. I think they found the film’s nonsensical narrative justified their own lack of concern for motivation, verisimilitude and logic.

But my theory is a bit more rationalist. I propose that maybe the hero is an unreliable narrator, and the misadventures he recounts are really distortions designed to put him in a favourable light. He probably murdered those people. Or at any rate, he’s guiltier than he suggests. It at least seems a possible interpretation.

Anyway, I gushed a bunch of that at Errol Morris, and he kind of blinked and said something about the fate of the actors. Well, I think only one actor had a tragic fate — Tom Neal, the film’s doomed two-time loser, killed his wife and then committed suicide while serving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. He had, as they say, a history of violence, having beaten the crap out of Franchot Tone when he discovered they were both married to Joan Crawford.

(Erratum 2014: Neal never committed suicide, and died at liberty after doing his time. I have no idea where my misinformation originated. I should probably blame Kenneth Anger.)

(And Tone had a history of having the crap beaten out of him — years later he appeared in a Twilight Zone episode where he’s shot entirely in profile, due to the other side of his face having been beaten to mush.)

But anyway, DETOUR certainly IS a film with a tragic resonance, and a masterpiece of impoverished resources and rich imagination — every creative decision seems to be motivated by speed and economy. Ulmer even abandoned the clapperboard and just clapped his hands in front of the lens to signal the end of one shot, while the camera kept rolling and the actors proceeded directly into the next bit.

The movie also features a very large coffee cup, which I covet.

Ray of Light

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on June 26, 2008 by dcairns

Well, one can’t see five shows in a day at Edinburgh Film Festival without wanting to blog/brag about it, but the trouble is, one is tired.

A couple of days ago I started to flag, feeling quite ill during STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE (Errol Morris said he aspired to make a film that would rob an audience of the will to live, and maybe he’s done it). But I got my second wind and have been combining the odd meeting, plenty of socialising, a bit of partying, and a ridiculous amount of film-going, reasonably well. But it worried me, the tiredness. “How will I cope with my first feature film as director, should it happen, if I can’t handle a ten-day film festival (with a two-day lead-in of press screenings)? But I was chatting with Martin Radich, who’s just made his first feature (as director AND cinematographer) and he reckoned the fest was much harder work. So that’s good.

Today was hard not just for the eleven-hour span of events, but for the fact that four out of five shows overlapped. But since nothing ever starts EXACTLY on time, even at film festivals where there are no ads and trailers, I was able to get from screen to screen without missing anything most of the time. This was made harder by the fact that no two consecutive screenings were at the same cinema, and each cinema is five-fifteen minutes’ brisk walk away from the other. Bystanders would have seen a blue streak of Cherenkov radiation go by as I broke the so-called “light barrier”.

The trickiest part was the two unrepeatable events which were on simultaneously with each other. This is a conundrum that has baffled some of the greatest filmgoers of our time, but I reckoned that with SUFFICIENT CONCENTRATION it should be possible to attend both events at once.

It was slightly strenuous, but anything worthwhile takes a little effort.

Standard Operating Procedure

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 21, 2008 by dcairns

Busy day — DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID (Bunuel version), Errol Morris interview, Shane Meadows interview, a couple little parties, and THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF MY SEXUAL FAILURES (note: this is a film).

TOO busy — no time or strength left to write about it. Will try to tackle the highlights later. For now, my favourite story from Errol Morris’ 90 minute onstage interview/conversation/interrogation —

When Morris worked as a private detective (true!) after making the fabulous VERNON FLORIDA and finding himself unable to raise cash for further films, he met a few guys who were ex-F.B.I. or C.I.A. His favourite person was a man called Harry Gossett, who had quite the F.B.I. Morris asked why. It turns out Gossett just couldn’t bear it anymore, and the reason boiled down to his partner at the time.

As part of their investigations, the F.B.I. agents would do a lot or peripheral interviewing, talking to the guy three doors down, workmates, people not directly related to the case they were on. And when they rang the doorbell to talk to these innocent people, Gossett’s partner was in the habit of flipping open his I.D. and saying “Well… I guess I don’t have to explain why we’re here.”

And people would immediately start crying. (No one is innocent.)

Gossett was bothered by this and asked his partner to quit it. But it happened again. This time the sobbing man was real old. “I thought you’d never find me,” he wept. Turns out he was a WWII deserter.

Morris, hearing this from Gossett, asked, “So, you told him it was OK and let him go, right?”

“No. We were government agents. We had to take him in.”

And that’s why Gossett quit the F.B.I.


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