Archive for Errol Morris

Get thee behind me, Thetan

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by dcairns

GOING CLEAR, Alex Gibney’s exposé of the Church of Scientology (Scientology: literally, “science science”), is a proper documentary. I wish MAGICIAN had those chops. Welles deserves masterpieces and arguably the Scientologists deserve to be lost in the dust of history. But they also deserve to be exposed for what they are.

The model for Gibney’s approach is probably Errol Morris — tightly-honed interviews, carefully chosen archive, and dramatic images — a flung chair in extreme slomo makes an impression here. It’s not hugely ground-breaking but it’s meaningful, earnest, compelling, and very well made. Maybe they reuse their drone shot of the Scientology building too often, but it’s a super image, like a building opening its arms to give you a great, big, crushing hug.


It has a few really amazing figures at its centre. L. Ron Hubbard, seen in archive material, has the voice of John Huston’s Noah Cross (Paul Thomas Anderson missed a trick when he used that in THERE WILL BE BLOOD, thereby ruling it out for THE MASTER) and the smile of Uncle Milty, but is an immediately alarming creature, visibly calculating fresh perfidies in every frame of celluloid that passes. As with many cult nasties, you wonder why anyone would be taken in, but he does have a certain repulsive charisma and a free-flowing glibness.


Was the Bond villain pose really the best way to go?

David Miscavige resembles a sort of callow Ray Walston — my favourite Thetan? — nerdy in his absurd naval uniform. The leadership of cults tends to break down into two distinct types. The boss usually believes his own bullshit — he may have some kind of criminal past but his philosophy becomes holy writ even to him and so he’s totally wrapped up in the cult of himself. The second-in-commands, like high-ranking Nazis, are more of the gangster type. It’s not so relevant to them whether the faith they follow is genuine, it’s more about keeping it going and getting what they can out of it.

Then there’s Travolta and Cruise (seen in some of the really damaging maniacal interview stuff the Church never intended us to see). A lot of grinning. A sincere grin, we’re told, comes on fast and fades slowly. Hubbard is like an identikit, his eyes have no relationship to his mouth so his grin is frankly terrifying. I was never able to judge the sincerity of a Scientological smile because they DON’T FADE. They come of fast and then just FIX in position, as if the wind changed. Is it true that any Scientologist who smiles must then keep smiling for the rest of their life?


The two things missing from the documentary are not flaws, just things it occurred to me I’d like to see.

1) An interview with the former head of the IRS explaining why he granted the organisation tax-exempt status. The film lays out a pretty convincing case that he was pressured into it, but it’d be nice to hear him say so, if he’s alive. Personally, I don’t think they should reclassify Scientology as not a religion — it’s no crazier or fakier than Catholicism — I think they should just cancel tax exemption for all religions. You might allow exemption for actual charities administered by religions, if they proved they were engaged in beneficial work.

2) Analysis by an expert in micro-body language of what is going on with Hubbard, Miscavige, and ESPECIALLY Cruise in that remarkable interview. I think this could be very revealing and entertaining, in a morbid way. WHAT is Cruise laughing at? We ideally need a ticker-tape going across his forehead on which we can read all his crazy thoughts, his internal conversation/argument male voice choir. Some massive violation of the inside/outside dichotomy seems to be going on. I’m reminded of the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, who, upon having a brilliant idea, will immediately attribute it to his interlocutor. Cruise seems like he’ll be constantly delighted/angry/terrified by all the wonderful ideas everyone around him is having and not telling him about but that he knows anyway.

It’s striking to look at this astonishing interview with Robert Blake, which Fiona discovered and watched until YouTube wore out,  and realize that Blake, convicted in a civil suit of killing his wife, and obviously out where the buses don’t run in all manner of ways, is entirely and clinically sane compared to Cruise. Blake is persistently furious (and with good reason — everyone thinks he killed his wife – -and HE DID), oppressively FORCEFUL and EXPLOSIVE, and also peppers his dialogue with 1930s newsboy expressions commingled with beat poetry and the lost language of angels: “I am FLAT BROKE! I couldn’t buy SPATS for a HUMMINGBIRD!” Interviewer Piers Morgan, he of the inflamed, evil face, doesn’t even blink at this, because he has no poetry in the place where his soul should be.


Robert Blake doesn’t NEED Scientology because any Thetans foolhardy enough to clamp themselves onto him die of toxic shock or run gibbering into the night. Or turn up riddled with bullets from an antique Walther.

Piers Morgan doesn’t need Scientology (literally, “the science of science”) because he has no personality, he’s just a vaguely malevolent vacuum packed in pink meat.




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.