At DOC NYC's Sunday afternoon presentation of "In Conversation: Errol Morris," the Oscar-winning (The Fog of War, 2004) documentarian and inventor of the interrotron was questioned about his perception of truth and how he thinks truth is best presented in nonfiction film.
In response, Mr. Morris reiterated what he's said before elsewhere: "I don't believe truth is conveyed by style and presentation. I don't think that cinema verite is necessarily more truthful than other styles of documentary filmmaking. Because it's grainy and shot with a handheld camera, that doesn't make it more truthful. Truth and style in film are not one and the same. You can't just obey a set of set of documentary conventions and discover or present the truth. It doesn't work that way."
Referring to his 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, which was rejected for Oscars consideration because it includes scripted reenactments that were deemed by the Academy to be too fiction-like, Mr. Morris pointed out that there had been several questionable versions of the circumstances surrounding the crime investigated in The Thin Blue Line -- specifically, the killing of a Texas police officer -- and that his job as a documentary filmmaker was and is to differentiate facts from versions of the truth, and present them in such a way that audiences can grasp the truth of what he's discovered.
According to Mr. Morris, although there are philosophical considerations about truth, including the out and out rejection of the notion of objective truth, there are facts. Plain, simple, irrefutable facts.
In that police killing investigated in The Thin Blue Line, for example, everyone acknowledged that there was a road in Dallas, where a police officer approached a stopped a vehicle that had one or more persons in it, and that that police officer was shot and killed.
Mr. Morris owned that his responsibility as a filmmaker was and is to investigate what happened around and in between those facts, and during the police investigation and the trial that put Randall Adams on Death Row -- and to present his findings in such a way that audiences could grasp what he had discovered and the truth therein.
"I didn't know how it was going to turn out," Mr. Morris said. "I didn't know that I had a film until I got that final interview."
" Actually, my camera had broken and I got that interview only on audio tape. What you couldn't see, because it was only recording audio, was that David Harris nodded, indicating his his guilt. Then, it didn't matter that you couldn't see it, because a while after that, he formally confessed." Mr. Morris said. "I think that finding and showing the truth in that case, in getting a wrongfully accused man cleared and out of prisonfreed from prison, which I did, is the thing I'm proudest of having accomplished in life -- after my marriage and family, that is."
Mr. Morris also spoke some about the complexity of discovering the truth in his latest film, Tabloid, the New York premiere of which was to be presented by DOC NYC several hours after this "Conversation."
In Tabloid, Mr. Morris, using his interrotron to full effect, but eschewing reenactments -- because, he said, he's so tired of being criticized for them -- takes a stab at revealing the truth behind another alleged crime, one that was covered widely and fully capitalized upon by two leading British tabloids. The case was so sensationalized and scandal-clad that parsing the facts from the fodder must have been challenging, indeed.
But, basically, it's the 1970s. A blond ex-beauty queen named Joyce McKinney and a Mormon man named Kirk Anderson become romantically engaged. Kirk's Mormon mother does not approve. Kirk leaves town, ostensibly on a Mormon mission. Joyce discovers Kirk is in England, and follows him. They reunite and spend three days alone in a cottage in Devon. Kirk accuses Joyce of kidnapping and raping him, and she is jailed.
The tabloids kick in with banner headlines. Joyce is released on bail, and leaves England. Kirk returns to Utah and marries a Mormon women. Joyce vows she will never stop loving him. And so it goes. Lots of facts -- that also happen to present very intriguing plot twists in this tabloid 'stranger than fiction' sequence of events that eventually ends up with a sequence about cloned dogs -- yes, fact -- but, no spoilers here, you'll have to see the movie to find out how the cloned dogs fit into this nonfiction story.
But, all of the facts -- perhaps with the exception of the cloned dogs, ironically -- are tightly wrapped up in several entangled and highly contradictory interpretations.
What an interesting challenge for a nonfiction filmmaker, and who better to meet that challenge than Errol Morris?
Using archival footage, photographic stills and clever, often amusing graphics to create connective tissue and counterpoint, Mr. Morris presents in up close and in your face interviews with several first person 'I was there' witnesses.
Kirk Anderson is missing -- we learn later that he's refused to participate -- but there are the two tabloid lead reporters who were assigned to squeeze the juice from the story, a Mormon man who comments on what Mormons typically think and do, and an airplane pilot ostensibly hired to help with the kidnapping and, most importantly, there's Joyce McKinney, now around 60 but still, as shown in the film, pretty, vivacious, sweetly sassy and amusing (when Mr. Morris, off camera, asked her whether she thinks you can rape a man, she looks directly into the interrotron and responds, "No, that would be like putting a marshmallow in parking meter," and the comment raises an outburst of laughter in the house).
Joyce seems to be a credible character. A little outlandish and flamboyant, perhaps, but believable. But the other witnesses give very different descriptions of her behavior, and there are some nude photos that don't quite match up with the way she presents herself and profiles her behavior. So, who do you believe? I suppose that depends on your own personal bent. And that, I suppose, is the point -- or one among many -- that Mr. Morris, from his own complex, sophisticated perspective, is making about truth, and the perception thereof, and the way in which perceptions are shaped by media. And, it works. Mr. Morris and his film do get you thinking.
Following the screening, Mr. Morris takes to the stage for a second time that day, again making himself available for as brief Q&A. Helming the session, DOC NYC's Artistic Director Thom Powers poses several questions that, again, seem to gravitate towards considerations of what is truth in filmmaking, and particularly in nonfiction filmmaking. Mr. Morris goes over some of the truth territory he covered earlier in the day. But the audience for the screening is quite a bit larger and of a different constituency than the one that attended the "Conversation," and Mr. Morris' comments are received with attentive appreciation, some laughter and a lot of applause.
There's suddenly a pause, and a woman's voice calls out from the audience, "What's Joyce up to now?" And that question is answered immediately by another emanating from the very back of the theater -- a female voice that is instantly recognizable as the voice that shouted "liar" loudly at the screen several times during the screening -- that declares, "Ask her. I'm right here."
Neither Mr. Morris nor Mr. Powers summon Joyce McKinney to the stage, but the audience is all but chanting for her to appear.
Accompanied by a large black cloned dog on a leash, Joyce, looking somewhat older than she does in the film and clad in a hot pink dress, makes her way slowly, almost painfully, down the steep aisle from the back of NYU's Skirball Auditorium to the proscenium, and climbs up a short flight of stairs to join Errol Morris and Thom Powers on stage. The audience applause dies down and she, having taken the microphone from Thom Powers, begins to speak -- lambasting the film!
First off, she admonishes at length that the film neglected to show how the Mormon Church brainwashes its members and ruins lives. Then she says she objects to the use of nude photos of her in the film, which she finds terribly embarsssing, and claims that she never posed nude and that the nude photos of her are faked composite shots.
A shock wave ripples through the audience when she accuses Errol Morris' producer, Mark Lipson, of having ransacked her suitcase and stolen photos of her, and used them in the film without her permission. She goes on to say that she has never met the men who are interviewed in the film about her behavior.
Her comments converge into a sort of rant. This is a very different Joyce than the one we've seen in the film. She seems as delusional as Grey Gardens' Edie Beale who spoke into the Maysles' cinema verite camera in a way that's remarkably similar to how Joyce addresses Errol Morris' interrotron -- except that with Edie, we see in additional fly-on-the-wall footage that she's living in a strange, off kilter mental realm, while with Joyce we get a glimmer of daftness, but nothing of delusions.
This is a shocker. Nobody knows quite what to do. A few people walk out of the theater, but most are frozen in their seats. On stage, Joyce talks right through Thom Powers' polite announcement that we must all now leave the theater so it can be prepared for the next screening. Joyce insists that she needs to have story told -- her real story.
Raphaela Neilhausen, DOC NYC's Executive Director, sitting in the first row of the auditorium, suggests to Joyce that she finish her book, and Joyce veers off into talking about how all of her documents were stolen so she can't use them for her book, but maybe she could finish it anyway. And more of the same, until Thom Powers says that it's time to take the dog outside because it seems to be about to dirty the stage.
Powers' comment seems to break the spell. Some people laugh. Most rise from their seats and exit, with murmers of 'oh my God' beneath their breath. This has been a true documentary moment, but how is it to be interpreted?
The episode fuels concerns about truth in nonfiction filmmaking -- even calling into question one's own perceptions about the truth as presented in Tabloid. Did Mr. Morris look deeply enough into Joyce's psyche before inviting us to witness her on screen? Did he limit our access to and impressions of Joyce to her first person storytelling and analysis because that would make for a richer element of suspense in his cinematic story?
The number of interpretations of the incident is probably equal to the number of seats in the sold-out house -- except, perhaps, for Joyce's interpretation, which may or may not be grounded in fact.
On the way out, I happen to overhear -- and I guess this is roughly equivalent to that last interview that convinced Mr. Morris that he had a film in The Thin Blue Line, albeit without the same impact that the nodded confession ultimately had on the iconic sequence of events shown in that film -- two filmmakers discussing John Anderson's interesting New York Times article, published that day, in which Mr. Morris is among other documentary filmmakers interviewed about their ongoing relationships -- characterized as frought, for the most part -- with the people who appear in their films. Mr Anderson writes:
"Perhaps the most notorious illustration of the fraught relationship came in the aftermath of Errol Morris's celebrated Thin Blue Line (1988): Randall Dale Adams, convicted of murdering a police officer, was freed from death row after revelations of prosecutorial malfeasance uncovered by Mr. Morris's film. Soon after his release, however, Mr. Adams sued the filmmaker over just who controlled the rights to tell his tale. "Mr. Morris felt he had the exclusive rights to my life story," Mr. Adams said at the time. "I did not sue Errol Morris for any money or any percentages of The Thin Blue Line, though the media portrayed it that way."
Mr. Morris portrays it exactly that way. "He believed I was making a lot of money on The Thin Blue Line," Mr. Morris said. "My answer was, 'You obviously never met Harvey and Bob Weinstein,''" the film's distributors. (Mr. Morris and Mr. Adams settled out of court.)"
And, later, Mr. Anderson writes: "Mr. Morris said remaining connected is not, for him, a matter of moral responsibility. "In many cases I'm still interested in them," he said of his subjects, who have included former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War), who died in 2009, and the electric-chair innovator Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (Mr. Death). He's not in touch with Mr. Adams."
I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens with Ms. McKinney, and what truth shakes out of Tabloid. Meanwhile, you can see the Q&A episode for yourself on YouTube.
(PHOTO: Errol Morris, filmmaker. Courtesy Fourth Floor Productions.)