There is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignoring it or outright denying it.
— Errol Morris, “There Is Such a Thing as Truth,” NPR (2 May 2005)
Errol Morris’ documentaries are strange, perfect journeys. You may not recognize their perfection as they’re in process, for they can seem meandering, slow, and delicate, their startling precision occasionally obscured by the pecularities of storytelling. His subjects are singular, whether open or guarded, and they are fascinating, whether by chance or by selection. Morris has a sense of people, and perhaps more important, a sense of stories.
Newly released by MGM, the long awaited The Errol Morris DVD Collection includes three films — Gates of Heaven (1978), Vernon, Florida (1981), The Thin Blue Line (1988) — establish and explore a methodology Morris goes on to use throughout his career. The two early films feature folks telling stories, constructing selves out of memories and desires. Morris’ offbeat, provocative strategy — essentially letting his subjects explain themselves — turns eerily poetic in The Thin Blue Line, a documentary about a murder case in Texas that by the end is a frankly stunning mediation on legal and moral delusions.
The first two films take up uncommon subjects, the first being the business and beliefs of pet burial. When financial difficulties force California’s Foothill Pet Cemetery to close, its clients must relocate their pets to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. The move is stressful for some, and elicits unexpected cogitation on loss, loyalty, and loneliness. Morris plants his camera in front of his interviewees and lets them go on, each offering his or her own version of devotion, to pets, ideals, each other. So awkwardly and yet so delicately posed, they sit on sofas, before portraits of their dearly departed (“I believe that we’ll all be reunited”), plump and side by side or lost-and-lonely-looking. They all have stories.
At least one has to do with why. In an effort to explain his own relationship with pet cemeteries, one of the owners asserts, “To be a success in this world, find a need and fulfill it.” And so he has: the need is emotional and spiritual, the fulfillment surprisingly lucrative and rewarding. A couple of these businessmen situate their work in history, in relation to rendering (the reduction of dead animal bodies to useful forms, like fat or glue): “It could be the oldest industry in the world. It could be,” observes one speaker. “It’s possible.” Preserving memories and links between dead and living creatures, however, is another matter, and this is what Bubbling Well offers. Remembering a dead Corgi, one client says, “He doesn’t talk like a human being, but much he’s much more so than just an inanimate object.” And so, you have a responsibility to “dispose of him with a sort of reverence.”
Some of the speakers take Morris’ questions as the occasion for confession or self-reflection. “I think a broken heart is something that everyone should experience,” says the son of one cemetery owner, now learning the business after his father “offered to take me on,” and not incidentally, after a romantic breakup. “Because it makes you appreciate any future experiences that you have, you’ve felt the hurt, so you can enjoy the positive aspects.” The business involves learning details of the cemetery and local area layout (“I have to learn to put this knowledge into reality”). It also involves faith, or a practical appreciation of its tenets. Owner Cal Harberts recalls, “It occurred to me that any god any supreme being that was compassionate about people would certainly be compassionate about any living being.”
Also concerned with compassion for living beings, Vernon, Florida, shot in Super 16, lines up a wide array of subjects, all living in Vernon, none quite like he other. A turkey hunter (“I can’t tell you how I feel, it’s just a hell of a sport, that’s all”) and a “pet collector,” a carpenter-preacher (“You sometimes wish you were back in a secular position, making more money”), and a couple who keeps a jar of sand they believe increases by the day (“In two more years, it will fill up this jar”). Again, the camera and filmmaker seem to wait for revelations, or at least curious observations. “You ever seen a man’s brains?” asks one old man before he launches into a singular instruction on bodily mechanics. “I’ve seen ’em, I’ve picked ’em up, scoop ’em up. If all four balls or brains are functioning, you are not a one-track mind, you’re a four-track mind.” If only we might all be working those four tracks.
This series of portraits fits together into a motley fabric, leading to bits of insight, none precisely connected. Morris’ next film takes on a whole new sort of rhythm. His first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, the film builds (and pauses and rebuilds) to a climax of astonishing power, as his interviews with various parties to a Dallas police officer’s murder case leads to a prison cell confession by young, plainly damaged sociopath David Harris. He’s incarcerated for another crime, while another man, Randall Dale Adams, whom Harris knew for only one night, is in prison (his death sentence commuted after an appeal) for the murder he committed.
The barebones of the story are simple. On the night of 28 November 1976, the teenaged Harris picks up Adams, rolling through town with his brother, who remains in their motel room while Adams goes out for air. Adams and Harris (“This all started the day I was running away from home”) and a number of interiewees — including detectives, DA Douglas Mulder, Adams’ defense lawyer Edith James (here assigned her first capital murder case), a couple of “witnesses” who sound unreliable right upfront (“I’m always looking because I never know what might come up or how I can help”) — reconstruct the crime and surrounding events.
The film tracks each line of memory, even as they diverge: was Harris or Adams driving? What did dead officer Robert Wood’s partner, “one of the first female officers” on the force, do that night, in response to his shooting by a driver? Did he have “bushy hair” or a “fur lined collar” on his parka? Her story changed, following a meeting with Internal Affairs. (“She was just so tore down,” says one detective, by way of explaining, “How do we hold her responsible for not following procedure?”) For his part, Adams recalls his first interview with Detective Gus Rose as contentious (“He said I would sign [a statement]. I told him I couldn’t”), while Rose says, “I had what I call a casual, friendly conversation with him to start with, to try to size him up… I found almost immediately that he didn’t have much of a conscience, that what, anything he had done, it never really bothered him.”
But it is Harris who has no conscience, and the police who are apparently so eager to believe his story about Adams’ committing the murder that they don’t take facts into account. Instead, they shape and gather stories that make that first story work.
The film’s very structure underscores this surrealish lack of sense and logic. It steps forward, it circles back, it combines multiple registers, visual and audio, diagrams and reenactments, close-ups and slow motion. None of these tricks was typical of documentary then (America’s Most Wanted was only just coming to tv in 1988), and Morris used them explicitly to illustrate subjectivity, artifice, and uncertainty, making visible the film’s themes. The “thin blue line,” the term for cops’ function as protectors of citizens from chaos, is here revealed as tenuous and unreliable, even systemically flawed. The cops in this case meant to solve the case, without regard for contrary evidence. And it’s not only the police force that missteps. Dennis White, the lawyer who helps James appeal Adams’ original conviction, is so appalled at the workings of the legal system that he gives up his practice. “I just feel like I’ll let other people handle these problems for a while,” he sighs. “Because if justice can miscarry so badly, I’d rather do something else.”
The Thin Blue Line closes with one of the most chilling scenes ever put to film. As an epigraph notes that the camera was not working during a last interview with Harris, the frame shows the cassette recorder, tape turning, as Harris’ flat, slow voice sounds. Acknowledging his deception of the police, their coaching and carelessness, he agrees with Morris that Adams has been “unlucky.” “You’ve heard of the proverbial scapegoat?” Harris asks. When Morris presses him to explain how he knows that Adams is innocent, Harris is cryptic but clear. “Criminals always lie,” he says at last. It’s an apt summation of this case, of the stories so many have told Morris for the film. And it makes a broader point too: it’s not only criminals who lie.