Fast-food restaurants and “continuity errors”.

Errol Morris‘s latest blog post is a reply to some of the people who have commented on his earlier posts, and it’s a fun read. It also includes an intriguing discussion of a dissonance of sorts in his landmark documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988), between one interviewee’s reference to a certain fast-food restaurant and the appearance of an entirely different fast-food restaurant in the re-enactment of that interviewee’s testimony.

The film revolves around the question of who shot a cop by the side of the road in Texas way back in 1976. Dale Holt, an Internal Affairs investigator, says the cop and his partner had been to a Whataburger — a Texas-based fast-food chain apparently common in the southern states — mere moments before the shooting. But the actual restaurant at that location was a Burger King. So Morris had to decide which restaurant to depict in his re-enactment of that fateful night. As Morris puts it:

I had a choice: re-enact what Dale Holt said or what I knew to be the truth. Presumably, I could have chosen either. One re-enactment would be faithful to what Holt believed was the truth (to the interview), the other would be faithful to what I knew was the truth (the underlying reality).

This creates a problem for me as a filmmaker. I know what Holt says is false. It’s not a Whataburger. Should I re-enact something that is false. Or should I re-enact the truth? The problem is exacerbated by the fact that if I show the police car leaving a Burger King, there will be an inconsistency between the image and the narrative. Holt says: Whataburger. The image says: Burger King. Viewers will be disturbed, even annoyed by the discrepancy. In essence, it’s a continuity error. . . .

The Whataburger/Burger King confusion may seem to be trivial, but it is at the heart of the problem of representing reality. What is more important: consistency of narrative (the absence of continuity errors) or faithfulness to the facts? In a documentary film, where an implicit claim is made about the relationship between the movie and reality, faithfulness to the facts is a central issue. . . .

Moreover, consistency vs. faithfulness is at the heart of different theories of truth: theories that stress the importance of overall consistency of a conceptual scheme (as in Duhem and Quine) vs. theories that stress the correspondence between a truth-bearing sentence and the reality it refers to (as in Tarski).

We might ask questions about the narrative in our own heads. Is it a documentary or fiction?

I love the way Morris can take a seemingly minor detail and extrapolate it into a major philosophical point. And what makes this whole tangent even better is that, as Morris notes, Dale Holt made his remark in the context of discussing the fallibility of memory — specifically the fallibility of the memory of the partner of the cop who was shot on that night. So in the course of that discussion, Holt had an incorrect memory. Fun stuff.

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