Happy belated birthday to Errol Morris

Errol Morris — the Oscar-winning documentarian whose first film Gates of Heaven (1978) made Roger Ebert’s all-time top-ten list, and whose later films The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997) rank among my own all-time favorites — turned 65 yesterday. So, to mark the occasion, I have re-posted all the articles I’ve written on his films over the last decade and a half. These include my phone interview with Morris in November 1997, my review of Fast, Cheap & Out of Control for BC Christian News, my articles on Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (2000) for Books & Culture, and my review of Standard Operating Procedure (2008) for Christianity Today Movies.

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Review: Standard Operating Procedure (dir. Errol Morris, 2008)

Errol Morris has been open about his politics at times, not least when he spoke out against the invasion of Iraq while accepting an Oscar for his documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. But until now, his films have never been all that concerned with current events. Instead, they have tended to explore the nature of evidence and the psychological factors that affect how people interpret that evidence. Where some documentaries can come across as works of politically-minded journalism, Morris, a former private detective, tends to be more interested in forensic science, and in the philosophical ambiguities and absurdities that result from people’s investigations of the cold hard facts.

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The Self-Deception of Mr. Death / Errol Morris’s new film peers into the mind of a Holocaust denier.

“Have you ever seen a man’s brains?” That question is asked by one of several old eccentrics who populate Vernon, Florida, the town after which Errol Morris named his second documentary feature in 1981. It is a question that has been at the heart of just about every film Morris has made; he seems fascinated, even haunted, by the question of how the mind works. He explored that theme in his recent docu-poem Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). It also provides the key to what seems at first like a meandering digression in Morris’s most celebrated film, The Thin Blue Line (1988). Near the end of that documentary, about an innocent man who was sent to prison and almost executed for a murder he didn’t commit, Morris lets another man, David Harris, talk about his own childhood. It was Harris’s accusations that prompted the police to arrest the innocent man in the first place; now that Harris himself is on death row for another murder, he all but admits to Morris that he committed the original crime himself. For most viewers, the case is closed, the story told. Yet Morris lets Harris go on and trace his reckless behavior back to his youth. “I wasn’t doing nothing but hurting myself,” Harris concludes.

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Artificial Life

Human beings, as C. S. Lewis once put it, are amphibious creatures. We are both creations and creators; we follow instincts and hungers we cannot control, one of which is the impulse to make things in our image just as God made us in his. And so we feel a kinship with nature, as well as a pride of sorts in the things we create, yet they fill us with anxiety too.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, in a small but impressive body of work, has spent the past two decades exploring these issues, and his latest film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, is perhaps his most intricate and stimulating yet. In the film, Morris considers the worlds of animals and robots and asks how different we are from either of them. Are we, as computer scientist Marvin Minsky has said, simply machines made of meat?

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Review: Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (dir. Errol Morris, 1997)

Fast, Cheap & Out of Control proves, once again, that Errol Morris is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.

His newest documentary does not have the celebrity appeal of his Stephen Hawking bio A Brief History of Time, nor will it make headlines like The Thin Blue Line, which singlehandedly overturned an innocent man’s murder conviction. But it does represent a bold artistic step forward for Morris, and it explores crucial existential themes with a thoughtfulness and perceptiveness unlike anything Morris has done since his first film, Gates of Heaven.

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Interview: Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, 1997)

Date: November 12, 1997
Place: Cambridge, MA (him) and Surrey, BC (me)

I conducted this phone interview as part of my research for an article I wrote for Books & Culture. I have liked the films of Errol Morris ever since I saw The Thin Blue Line in 1989, and the film which occasioned this article, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, was easily my favorite film of 1997. I had heard that Morris lets his interviewees ramble without interruption, the better to see what they reveal about themselves, so I tried a similar approach.

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