Errol Morris

Active - 1972 - 2020  |   Born - Feb 5, 1948   |   Genres - Culture & Society, History, Film, TV & Radio

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Biography by Jonathan Crow

Part detective, part philosopher, part poet, part iconoclast, Errol Morris is one of the most important and influential non-fiction filmmakers of his generation. Like such documentary masters as Jean Rouch and Frederick Wiseman, Morris delves into vexing philosophical issues of death, identity, and society. But, unlike many other non-fiction filmmakers, Morris challenges the very presumptions of the documentary by incorporating multiple points of view and giving his works a stylistic polish usually reserved for mainstream fiction films. His movies have largely achieved great critical success, and he has received a Guggenheim fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. Born in 1948 in Hewlett, Long Island, to a Juilliard graduate and a doctor, Morris was well on his way to getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley until his obsession with movies overwhelmed him. He landed a job programming shows at the Pacific Film Archive, where he watched three or four films a day. Intrigued by a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that read "450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley," Morris scraped together money from his family and his fellow graduate students to make Gates of Heaven (1978), a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a bankrupt pet cemetery, edged with humor, pathos, and irony. Not merely a work about dead dogs, the film is a meditation on the human experience that never condescends and never fails to entertain. The film met with great critical acclaim and a strong cult following; Roger Ebert exuberantly declared it one of the ten best films ever made. The film also prompted German director Werner Herzog to eat his shoe after losing a bet with Morris that the film would never get made. He followed the success of his debut with Vernon, Florida (1980). Originally titled Nub City, the film was to have been an exposé of residents of a sleepy swamp town who dismember themselves for insurance money. A number of death threats soon convinced Morris to rethink the film, and he instead recorded several of the town's more eccentric citizens: one believes that her collection of radioactive sand is growing, while another extols the virtues of turkey hunting. As with Gates of Heaven and his later works, Morris focused on people lost in their own eccentric worlds and managed to convey their sense of wonder about their obsessions, be they turkey hunting or astrophysics. In the years immediately following Vernon, Florida, Morris' funding dried up. Through family connections, he briefly got a job as a private detective, working primarily for the Wall Street set. This experience would later prove invaluable for his masterpiece, The Thin Blue Line (1988). Dubbed by critics "a murder mystery that actually solved a murder," the film was directly responsible for saving the life and gaining the release of Randall Adams, a man wrongly sentenced to death for killing a police officer. Instead of envisioning a non-fiction film as an objective, authentic document of reality, The Thin Blue Line self-consciously questioned the limits of documentary. The movie featured lush cinematography, slick re-enactments, and a score by Philip Glass, all of which heightened its artificial quality. Blue Line never directly asserts that one testimony is more correct than another. Instead, the film's lack of narration and multiple points of view raise the specter, like Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), of the impossibility of objective truth. The film garnered international acclaim and was also relatively commercially successful for a documentary. Though the film failed to get an Oscar nomination (an extremely controversial snub), it was voted best documentary of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle. It has since been widely recognized as one of the finest and most influential movies of the '80s. Fresh off this success, Morris stumbled with his first foray into fiction film. The Dark Wind (1991), starring Lou Diamond Phillips, was stymied by studio politics and eventually shelved, only to be released on video two years later. In 1992, Morris regrouped to adapt Stephen Hawking's best-selling book on cosmology, A Brief History of Time. The result was pure Morris. The film is less interested in Hawking's groundbreaking theories on the origin of the universe than in his connection and disconnection to the outside world; his interior world is dominated by theories about black holes and entropy while his body slowly atrophies from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease). The film received nearly universal critical acclaim and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, even if it was -- again -- ignored by the Academy. For his next feature, Morris further experimented with the documentary form in the unusual Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997). The film links seemingly unrelated stories of a quartet of obsessed individuals: a lion trainer, a topiary gardener who carves animal shapes out of hedges, an MIT scientist who designs robots, and an expert on blind mole rats. As in Gates of Heaven, the film's seemingly mundane stories soon devolve into a compelling and profound exploration of human evolution and humans' need to control their environment. In 1999, Morris released his most provocative work since The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter. Originally titled The Accidental Nazi, the film focuses on Leuchter, an electric chair designer and Holocaust revisionist. Instead of making a straightforward depiction of bigotry and hatred, Morris provides a much more harrowing exploration of the sources of evil. Though he is no ideologue, Leuchter is so enamored of his own expertise that he asserts the Holocaust never happened based on the evidence of his own flawed research. Though Mr. Death was the talk of both the 1999 Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals and opened to widespread critical acclaim, it went mostly ignored by year-end awards groups, including the forever Morris-averse Academy Awards documentary committee. Shifting his focus to television in 2000, Morris created the weekly, hourlong documentary series First Person. Though smaller in scope than his theatrical-release films, the show allowed the director to explore subjects both minor and monumental, from a pilot who miraculously landed a troubled passenger plane to a philosophizing bodybuilder. By allowing his subjects to tell their stories directly to the camera without the intrusion of other points of view, Morris perfected an even more intimate process of documentary filmmaking. Such a process proved to be a perfect fit for the subject of his next film, 2003's The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Focusing exclusively on the life and times of the controversial former Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy, Morris subjected his at first reluctant subject to over 20 hours of interviews. Combining this material with artfully compiled images from McNamara's life, the director culled a portrait of a brilliant statistician who became one of the most influential men in Washington -- a man whom many blame, at least partially, for the Unites States' involvement in Vietnam. After a strong Cannes premiere, The Fog of War collected numerous year-end prizes from critics' groups, and even a Best Documentary Oscar for its heretofore snubbed director -- who took no small pride in chiding the Academy for taking so long to award him. He kept up with his political films with Standard Operating Procedure, an examination of the illegal activities at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2008. 2011's Tabloid was yet another examination of obsession and the slippery nature of truth in its profile of a former beauty queen who became a tabloid sensation not once, but twice in her life.

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