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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It wasn’t a blackjack-, brass knuckles-type thing. “It went like this,” Morris explained. “He’d knock on a door, sometimes of someone not even connected to the case they were investigating. He’d flip open his wallet, show his badge and say, ‘I guess we don’t have to tell you why we’re here.’

“And more often than not the guy starts bawling like an infant, ‘How did you find out?’” And then disgorges some shameful criminal secret no one would ever have known about otherwise.

I have a feeling about why Morris likes this. There’s the obvious lesson—everybody’s got something to hide—and then there’s the subtle finesse of the question: “I guess we don’t have to tell you...” No water-boarding needed, just an opening for the primal force of conscience, the telltale heart’s internal monologue. It’s one of those mysteries of human nature that private eyes know and Morris has made his métier.

For three decades Morris has painstakingly produced brilliant documentaries on subjects ranging from pet cemeteries (Gates of Heaven) to jailed innocents (The Thin Blue Line) to lion tamers (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) to cosmologist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time) to Holocaust deniers (Mr. Death), Vietnam War architects (Fog of War) and Abu Ghraib’s “bad apples” (Standard Operating Procedure). And more recently, in 2010, a long-forgotten, insane tabloid war over “the manacled Mormon” sex scandal in Britain. This film, Tabloid, is a strange, delicious documentary that uncannily anticipated the current tabloid scandal there. And (like Gates of Heaven) Tabloid is really an investigation into the nature of perhaps the ultimate mystery: love.

He hasn’t stopped making films; indeed, he’s making one now with Ira Glass of “This American Life” dealing with cryogenics, of all things. But films take time, so in the past five years, Morris has turned to writing, developing a unique new genre that combines philosophical investigation with documentary transcripts and inventive graphics.

It began with a three-part, 25,000-word New York Times series on the question of the arrangement of some rocks in the road in two 150-year-old photographs taken during the Crimean War. (The “rocks” were actually cannonballs; they just looked like rocks in the photos.) I know: You’re running for the exits. Twenty-five thousand words on some rocks on a road?! But believe me, it becomes an absorbing intellectual adventure story.

I suppose I should disclose that I make a brief appearance in what became the first paragraph of the first chapter of the book, Believing Is Seeing. Wherein I ask Morris incredulously, “You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?”

To which he replied: “No, it was actually two sentences.”

Sontag had implied that the rocks in one of the photographs had been “posed,” and this lit a fire under Morris, who believes that everything in photography is “posed” in one way or another, not merely by what’s put in the frame, but by what’s left out.

To illustrate the near-impossibility of establishing veracity in photography he engaged in what might seem like a mad, hopeless enterprise: to see whether the cannonballs were initially on the road or placed there—posed for ideological impact. An investigation that involved him going halfway around the world to the Crimea to find the road and subsequently interviewing “shadow experts” on the time of day each photograph might have been shot.

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