Errol Morris: The Thinking Man’s Detective

The documentary filmmaker has become America’s most surprising and provocative public intellectual

You probably know Errol Morris as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. Roger Ebert called his first film, Gates of Heaven, one of "the ten greatest films ever made." (Dina Rudick / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)
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My favorite private-eye trick is the one I learned about from Errol Morris.

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You probably know Morris as an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker. Roger Ebert called his first film, Gates of Heaven, one of “the ten greatest films ever made.” With The Thin Blue Line, Morris dramatically freed an innocent man imprisoned on a murder rap. In The Fog of War he extracted a confession from Robert McNamara, getting the tightly buttoned-up technocrat to admit “[we] were behaving as war criminals” for planning the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, which burned to death 100,000 civilians in a single night.

You may also know that Morris is the author of the recent massive, fascinating book called Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, which won rave reviews for the way it looks not just into the frame of a photo but behind, beneath it—the way truth is “framed” in every sense of the word.

You may even think, as I do, that Morris has become one of America’s most idiosyncratic, prolific and provocative public intellectuals.

But what’s less well known about Morris is that he brings to his work the invaluable experience he picked up working as a private eye. And he hasn’t given up the private-eye impulse: He’s back on the case, two cases actually—two of the most electrifying and controversial cases in the past half century.

Born in suburban Long Island, Morris graduated from the University of Wisconsin. After a stint of cello study in France, he talked his way into the Princeton graduate philosophy seminar of Thomas Kuhn, an icon of postmodernism, the man who coined the term “paradigm shift.” It wasn’t exactly a meeting of the minds. In fact, it almost cracked Morris’ skull, which is what Kuhn seemed to be aiming to do at the climax of an argument when the esteemed philosopher threw an ashtray at Morris’ head.

“The Ashtray,” Morris’ five-part, 20,000-word account of that episode and their philosophical clash over the nature of truth, is a good introduction to the unique kind of writing he’s doing now. (Don’t miss the section on the obscure Greek philosopher of irrationalism, Hippasus of Metapontum, a digression worthy of Jorge Luis Borges.)

After the ashtray incident, Morris eventually did two stints as a private eye. If there is one subtext to all of Morris’ subsequent films and writings, it is the private eye’s creed, the anti-postmodernist belief that “the truth is out there.” Truth may be elusive, it may even be unknowable, but that doesn’t mean, as postmodernists aver, that reality is just a matter of subjective perspectives, that one way of seeing things is just as good as another.

“I’m amazed,” Morris said when we spoke recently, “that you still see this nonsense all over the place, that truth is relative, that truth is subjective. People still cling to it.” He calls these ideas “repulsive, repugnant. And what’s the other word? False.”

But I digress (something impossible to avoid in writing about Errol Morris). I wanted to tell you about his private-eye trick, which he learned from a hard-bitten partner.

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