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Errol Morris Is A Cheap Huckster, Not A Documentarian

The following was written at the request of Patrick Ripoll for the Director’s Club Podcast.

When The Thin Blue Line was not nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 1989, supporters of the film were outraged. The Academy’s reasoning, reportedly, was that the extensive use of re-enacted scenes made the film something other than a documentary. Rather than getting bogged down in a sophistic discussion of the semantic shortcomings of that particular word, I’d like simply to make the point that our definition of the term has shifted in the last twenty-two years–thanks partly to (or perhaps partly because of) none other than Errol Morris, the director of The Thin Blue Line

The film employs the aforementioned re-enactments to look at a crime from various perspectives, thus seeking to challenge the commonly accepted interpretation of that crime. This thread of epistemological deconstruction will sew Morris’ oeuvre together. In Vernon, Florida and Mr. Death, to give a few quick examples, we are asked to doubt our most basic capacity to apprehend truth: self-awareness (Look at these stupid, silly rednecks! Look at this oblivious holocaust-denier!). Morris decides that since his subjects can’t know themselves, neither can we know them. And why would we want to, anyway? What a bunch of laughable morons, Morris seems to say. But is he laughing at the silly rednecks, or at his audience?

Obviously, it is disturbing to think that there is no such thing as a perfectly understood, ideal Truth. However, to make a life’s work of impugning the search for truth is an appallingly misanthropic project. Even if perception and truth are often at odds, isn’t it more healthy to pursue truth than merely to mock it? Do we want films which respect their subjects and try to get at who they are, or do we want films which mock and belittle their subjects before giving up on the idea of knowing anything at all? What do we want to value, when all is said and done? A thorough and thoughtful seeking of something which is difficult to attain? Or a lazy, cynical attitude which not only turns back at the first appearance of difficulty, but also smirkingly derides the value of effort? Do we really want to reward “documentarians” with cash and accolades in exchange for their concessions to the relative ease of nihilism and utter moral relativity?
Clearly, given Morris’ box-office returns and the Academy Award he received for the Unsolved Mysteries-grade re-enactments in The Fog of War, that’s exactly what we want. Morris may be to documentary film what P.T. Barnum was to the theater, but he’s definitely the “documentarian” our cowardly, lost generation deserves.