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