Nationality: American. Born: Hewlett, New York, 5 February 1948. Education: Graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1969; graduate work at Princeton University and the University of California-Berkeley. Family: Married Julia Sheehan, an art historian;
one son. Career: After leaving graduate school, held several jobs before beginning work on Gates of Heaven.Awards: Golden Horse award for Best Foreign Film, Taiwan International Film Festival, for The Thin Blue Line, 1988; Grand Jury Prize and Filmmaker's Prize, Sundance Film Festival, for A Brief History of Time, 1992; Gotham Awards Filmmaker Award, 1997; Independent Spirit Truer than Fiction Award, for Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, 1997; Double Take Documentary Film Festival Career Award, 1999. Agent: ICM, 8942 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211, U.S.A. Address: Fourth Floor Productions, 678 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139, U.S.A.
Films as Director:
Gates of Heaven
The Thin Blue Line
A Brief History of Time; The Dark Wind
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control
Stairway to Heaven (short—for TV)
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
The Killer Inside Me (short—for TV); I Dismember Mama (short—for TV)
On MORRIS: articles—
Hoberman, J., "Errol Morris: Ordinary Weirdos," in Village Voice, 30 June 1987.
Hopkins, E., "Cameos: Director Errol Morris," in Premiere, December 1987.
Dieckmann, K., "Private Eye," in American Film, January-February 1988.
Hoberman, J., "Off-screen: Errol Morris Deep in the Heart. . . ," in Village Voice, 30 August 1988.
Kelleher, E., "Director Morris Goes Private Eye for Miramax's TheThin Blue Line," in Film Journal, September-October 1988.
Bates, P., "Truth Not Guaranteed," in Cineaste, no. 1, 1989.
Algar, N., "Errol Morris, Believe It or Not," in Monthly FilmBulletin, April 1989.
Lack, R., "The Shape of Time," in Sight and Sound, May 1992.
Chua, L., "Truth and Consequences," in Village Voice, 22 September 1992.
Chang, Chris, "Errol Morris," in Film Comment (New York), 1997.
Williams, Linda, "Mirrors without Memories: Truth, History, and The Thin Blue Line," in Documenting the Documentary: CloseReadings of Documentary Film and Video, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, Detroit, 1998.
Kirtz, Bill, "Looking through the Eyes of a Groundbreaking Director," in The Christian Science Monitor (Boston), 31 December 1999.
Epstein, Leslie, "Monster and Man," in The American Prospect (Washington, D.C.), 28 February 2000.
Gates, Anita, "What Life May Deal to Beast and Man," in The NewYork Times, 1 March 2000.
Fisher, Marc, "Trial and Errol: In Mr. Death and Other Works, Filmmaker Errol Morris Explores Where the Truth Lies," in TheWashington Post, 5 March 2000.
Aufderheide, Pat, "The Interrogator," in In These Times (Chicago), 1 May 2000.
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Errol Morris's provocative work challenges documentary conventions. His unique style surfaces in his first film, Gates of Heaven, where he examines two California pet cemeteries: one a failure, and the other a successful enterprise run by a man and his two adult sons. Rather than employing an objective reportorial style in which information is presented and opposing sides are given an opportunity to present their positions, Morris allows the narrative to unfold slowly through the interwoven testimony of the participants. Quite unlike the typical, tightly controlled, interview-based documentary in which participants respond to direct questioning, in Gates of Heaven participants ramble on about issues both related and unrelated to the topic. As the interviews progress, the distinctive personalities of the participants emerge. The viewer is required to piece the narrative together, as the film's point of view remains ambiguous. Are the pet cemetery entrepreneurs, both successful and unsuccessful, compassionate individuals trying to help bereaved pet owners, or are they curious oddities, pandering to a few marginal individuals obsessed with their departed pets? The audience is left to decide.
Vernon, Florida, Morris's subsequent film, focuses on the residents of a small Florida community. It is a simple film which again employs the unstructured interview, the personal narrative, introduced in Gates of Heaven. The town's residents reflect on many facets of their lives. By conventional standards, their vivid personalities and their rural lifestyle appear quirky and eccentric. What emerges is a film that attempts neither to judge its subjects nor to tell the audience what to think.
The Thin Blue Line, dealing with the arrest and conviction of Randall Adams for the murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976, is Morris's best known and most distinctive film. The film created quite a stir when it was released, for several reasons. For example, although the film leaves the viewer with a clear sense that Randall Adams is innocent, it does not present that information directly. In a conventional documentary film, the most plausible scenario is represented and supported. Different opinions are introduced, but one clear position is taken. Morris defies that convention by illustrating conflicting interpretations, and in so doing he calls into question the very nature of the construction of truth. The audience is forced to confront the ambiguity caused by conflicting accounts. This confrontation disrupts the seamlessness of the conventional documentary and is disquieting to many viewers.
Morris also drew attention by using a series of highly stylized reenactments to illustrate the narratives told by various individuals. Reenactments have fallen out of favor as a documentary convention, and some critics feel Morris's use of reenactments detracts from the film's objectivity. Documentary has a long history of using reenactments, although they usually serve to represent typical rather than specific actions or activities. Today, viewers of documentary films expect to see evidence recorded on the scene from the historical world rather than reenacted scenarios. The introduction of cinema verite in the 1960s and the ubiquitous presence of on-the-scene reporting in the evening news has given rise to these expectations. Reenactments nowadays appear unfamiliar, unrealistic, even manipulative to many viewers. Morris takes reenactments an additional step by illustrating conflicting points of view instead of a typical or most plausible perspective.
Morris was hired to direct A Brief History of Time, but the film retains many characteristics of his earlier personal work. The film is based on scientist Stephen Hawking's book of the same title, and Hawking's computer-synthesized voice provides the structuring voice-over narration for the film. Hawking is presented as an ordinary man with extraordinary characteristics, including extreme physical limitations and a soaring intellect. As with the subjects in Morris's earlier work, Hawking represents himself, and his personal narrative is embellished by the recollections of friends, family, and colleagues. Hawking's synthesized voice on the soundtrack coupled with images of Hawking confined to a wheelchair, lips immobile, eyes animated, reveal powerful elements of character, personality, and intellect resulting in a complex, multifaceted portrait of the man and the scientist.
In 1999, Morris premiered Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. The film's focus is on an unprepossessing man who builds and repairs electric chairs in the basement of his home. Fred Leuchter's macabre occupation might not, in itself, make the man a fitting subject for an Errol Morris documentary—but there is more to his story. A group of Holocaust deniers sent Leuchter to visit Auschwitz (the most notorious of the Nazi death camps), instructing him to steal and analyze some bits of concrete from the ruins of the camp's gas chambers. Although lacking in scientific credentials, Leuchter claimed that he had found no trace of cyanide in the samples of concrete, and concluded that, therefore, no one had been gassed to death at Auschwitz. Leuchter immediately became the star "expert" cited by neo-Nazis and Klansmen everywhere.
Morris had originally planned to let Leuchter's own specious arguments condemn him. But, upon screening a rough cut of the film for some students at Harvard University, Morris found that some in the audience found Leuchter's claims reasonable. Thus, the final version of Mr. Death contains scenes of noted Holocaust experts, who refute Leuchter thoroughly and convincingly. Even so, some Jewish groups condemned the film on the grounds that it gives too much exposure to the cause of "Holocaust revisionism."
Morris' next project involved a series of short (30 minute) documentary films for a program called "First Person," broadcast over the pay-cable channel Bravo. His subjects included a woman who designed the first "humane" slaughterhouse, a man who attempted to cryogenically "freeze" his mother, and a woman who falls in love with serial killers.
Morris's work is unfettered by slavish adherence to current documentary conventions. He does not appear in his films, but his presence is felt in their structure and style. Morris allows the individuals represented to recount their own, often equivocal narratives, which are then carefully woven into the finished product through editing. The result is not a typical "objective" or journalistic documentary with an easily accessible perspective. The viewer is made aware of the process of documentary construction through interviews that last a little too long or through the presentation of conflicting points of view without obvious resolution. The viewer is challenged and required to participate in crafting the narrative and forming an opinion about the individuals and issues presented. Morris brings a new vigor and a new insight to documentary filmmaking by playing with conventions and experimenting with new forms of representation.
—Elizabeth Cline, updated by Justin Gustainis