errol morris: interviews-ed. livia bloom

errol morris is the reason i know about temple grandin. temple grandin is a person that both strombo and i are fascinated by. i saw errol morris in the red chair last year during george’s TIFF innerviews-because tabloid was going through the circuit. dood complained that morris was weird, evasive, playing with him during the innerview, and now that i’ve read a whole book of innerviews with him, that spans well over two decades-i can see why. the two men are quite similar. they are consummate interview-ers, and thus, kinda shitty interview-ees. both follow their own script, are very well-read and driven by their musical background, and are kinda jerky-in the best possible way.

“I love commercials, unreservedly. The haiku of the West. And I like to think of consumerism as the most effective preventative to genocide yet devised. When someone shows up at your door and asks you to hack your neighbor to death with a machete, you’re less likely to do it, if you have prior plans, say, to go and buy a DVD player.” (101)

“Nor should I be protecting my subjects from themselves. If they are ridiculous, why can’t I show that? Does it make the other humans nervous? Am I writing ad copy for some kind of television program on Neptune on why the human race should be allowed to continue, and have to show us to our best advantage?

I make enough commercials without having to turn my movies into them. I make my living from directing television commercials and have probably directed over a thousand ads in the last ten years.” (126)



4 thoughts on “errol morris: interviews-ed. livia bloom

  1. the stylistics:

    “And how does he do it? By not listening. ‘If your main interest is Keeping People Talking’-he recites the formula with reverence-’the important thing is to look like you’re listening, not necessarily to listen. Because if you really start to listen, you feel you have to respond in some way.’” (4)

    “‘When I worked as a detective, I felt like this well-paid conceptual cleaning lady for lawyers,’ he has said. ‘It’s like-There seems to be hair clogging the drain. My job was to clean it out and find out if it was really hair. I had one particular problem: people would start talking to me and when I’d leave I often couldn’t remember what they had said. I wanted to use a tape recorder, but my employer was totally opposed. So I worried about whether I was getting valuable information. I also worried about getting stains on my clothes-I had to wear suits all the time. Because I couldn’t use a tape recorder, my most important piece of equipment was my can of K2R spot remover.’” (31)

    “If you stare at a word long enough, it turns into gibberish. If you stare at a human long enough-especially if it’s a given a chance to open its mouth-the human turns into gibberish. Errol Morris is a filmmaker who has based a career on this phenomenon. Although his technique and style has evolved with Darwinian efficiency, his vision remains unchanged; his subject matter will always be humans, and the contradictory stories they tell themselves, each other, and anyone else who cares to listen. Morris: ‘The thing that makes civilization possible is that people lie to one another routinely.’ Contradiction is the key to the universe.” (55)

    “One thing I am fond of saying about Cambridge, Massachusetts, is that the name Baudrillard does not appear in the phone book. And this is not a film about how history and truth are up for grabs. This is far more old-fashioned in the sense that I believe in facts, knowable facts. Maybe the reasons people do what they do are more elusive, but the question of whether or not poison gas was used in Auschwitz is not something of conjecture. It’s something that has been established overwhelmingly with historical evidence.” (69)
    “I think there’s a very strong investigative element in all of my movies. Investigation and storytelling work in opposite directions from each other. Stories, by their very nature, have to be tremendously simplified versions of reality. Reality is too complex, it’s too chaotic. We tell ourselves stories so we don’t have to deal with reality. We create stories out of the mess of reality by eliminating material, by reinterpreting material, by rearranging material. But the investigative element is what connects the stories to the world. It’s what makes stories interesting to me.” (110)

    “Interviews are human relationship in a laboratory setting. They allow us to scrutinize the nature of how one person relates to another, and vice versa. As such all the things that are common features of ‘ordinary’ relationships appear in the interviews: deceit, coyness, misdirection, sincerity, honesty, dishonesty, confusion. In some instances-I dare say-there is the powerful impulse to protect a subject from himself or show him in the best possible light. I have a lot of these impulses. I actually like people to look good, and I attempt-even if I don’t succeed-to capture their complexity in the interview and in the film I eventually produce.” (115)

    “But I’ve never really believed in that style of interviewing where you’re supposed to coax some kind of answer out of your subject-particularly the answer that someone doesn’t want to give. People will tell you interesting things no matter what, if you give them the opportunity to do so. And that was certainly true in this case. I was told many surprising things by McNamara, and as usual, he told me things that I could never have asked questions about, simply because I didn’t know enough to ask them.” (132)

  2. animal magnetism:

    “It’s said that people have pets because they can’t have effective relationships with other people. I believe it’s the other way around: people have relationships with other people because they can’t have effective relationships with their pets. Maybe that’s my version of the human condition: a mixture of desperation, misplaced romanticism, isolation, and a sense of being totally and irrevocably lost.” (163-4)

    “‘I’d very much like to show you /Electrocuting an Elephant/. This elephant, Topsy, was, if anything, a /good/ elephant rather than a bad elephant. Topsy was being electrocuted because, as I understand it, some guy was smoking a cigarette and gave the cigarette to Topsy, burning the tip of her trunk. Now, the tip of an elephant’s trunk is the most sensitive part of an elephant. Topsy picked this guy up, tossed him in the air a couple of times, and hurled him onto concrete. I ask you: Does Topsy deserve the juice for this? The film of Topsy’s electrocution is a 1903 Edison short-one of the first times electricity was used in capital punishment. And, coincidentally, the equipment malfunctioned and the person who pulled the switch almost electrocuted himself while he was electrocuting Topsy.’” (47)

    “But I also very much wanted to have my cake and eat it, too. I wanted to make a movie that had a strong /factual/ element, but at its heart told a story about an /interior/ world. I’m very interested about how people see themselves. When we think about documentary, we think about documentary as being some species of journalism, as if we’re engaged in providing a picture of the /reality/. From my first film, /Gates of Heaven/, I believe I’ve been involved in a somewhat different enterprise: revealing an interior world, a /mental landscape/, how people see themselves as revealed through how they use language. If you listen to what people say, that gives you a route into how they see themselves. It’s a different kind of enterprise.” (77)

  3. technical facility:

    “Yes, I have always thought that, for example, the distance involved with a telephone conversation in an odd way makes it much more intimate than anything that happens face-to-face.” (99)

    “On many of these films, Morris used the Interrotron, his own invention. ‘I like the name,’ he explains, ‘because it combines the words interview and terror.’ It also reminds him of alien devices in fifties science-fiction movies. Instead of sitting face to face with his interview subjects, he has them look into a TV camera. They see Morris’s face reflected on a screen. Morris looks into another camera and sees the subject. One is somehow not surprised to learn that two-way mirrors are involved.” (103)

    “I’m not a great believer in redemption. I mean, part of the ugly truth is that you do bad things and they remain bad things forever! No matter what you do.” (135)

    “I’ve been a musician, a cellist, for forty years, and for me there’s certainly something musical about editing an interview. When it works, when the editing is just right, there is something musical about the human voice.” (163)

    “Language is the ultimate tool of concealment. Sometimes I think it was invented to facilitate lying, so that we can lie more effectively, not only to other people but to ourselves too.” (200)

  4. street smart:

    “I’m quoting Godard here, I think, but the real university of film is the movie theater. If you want to learn about film, go to see movies. Lots and lots of movies.” (192)

    “Exactly. My guidance counselor told me: ‘You know, you appear to be a lot smarter than you really are.’ I guess I like to make that extra effort. I remember reading an article in the /National Enquirer/ on ‘How to Look Smart When You’re Really Very Stupid.’ I’ve tried to follow several of their recommendations: drink a lot of coffee, carry around a book with you wherever you go, and smile and nod as often as possible. These suggestions have been invaluable.” (208)

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