The truth is in there

When we realize everyone might be lying, most of us just give up. For Errol Morris, that’s just the beginning.

Celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris uses a camera called the Interrotron, that makes direct 'eye contact' between the subject and audience possible. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff) Celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris uses a camera called the Interrotron, that makes direct "eye contact" between the subject and audience possible.
By Leon Neyfakh
June 12, 2011

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IT USED TO BE that Errol Morris would come into his office in Inman Square every morning knowing more or less what he and his staff were going to do that day. The scheme back then was simple: Morris’s job was to make documentary films, and he worked on them one at a time.

Things have been different at the office lately. At the age of 63, and with an Academy Award in his pocket for “The Fog of War,” America’s most obsessive nonfiction filmmaker could be forgiven for slowing down and enjoying something that approaches fame. Instead, he has found himself at a peak of activity, with a new documentary coming out next month, a feature film in the works, and a TV series in mind. And most notably — after 40 long years of writer’s block — Morris has suddenly become a prolific writer, with no fewer than three books under contract with publishers and a series of long investigative essays that appear regularly on the website of The New York Times.

“I’m having this Indian summer thing,” the longtime Cambridge resident said recently, sitting in his office after an intense editing session with two of his researchers, while his two French bulldogs snorted around at his feet. “I’m suddenly really productive, in a different way than before.”

Over the past three decades, Morris has established himself as a master of the ironic documentary: He will train his camera on someone strange, like an eccentric turkey hunter from Florida, or someone important, like former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, and get them to talk until they reveal not only who they are, but also the upside-down way in which they see their place in the world. Often the results are funny, so much so that Morris occasionally gets compared to “Waiting For Guffman” director Christopher Guest. Though in the case of his breakout film, “The Thin Blue Line,” Morris’s work also led to the exoneration of an innocent man on death row who’d been wrongly convicted of murder.

In his writing, a seemingly different side of Morris is now on display. Since 2007, he has been writing a blog for The New York Times, but to call

it a blog doesn’t quite capture what he’s doing: Each essay takes the form of a multipart investigation, extensively footnoted and painstakingly researched. In one, he tries to answer the question of whether Walker Evans manipulated a photograph he took during the Great Depression; in another, scheduled to go up next week, he explores the possibility that his late brother, Noel, invented e-mail while working at MIT in the 1960s.

His essays tend to focus less on people than on objects, documents, and historical events. But as with his films, you can detect something unmistakable at work: a mind wrestling with what looks like intractable uncertainty — with questions others thought too hopelessly ambiguous to ever resolve, or too open-and-shut to bother with. Morris is preparing for the September publication of a collection of his essays called “Believing Is Seeing,” in which he makes an argument about the unreliable nature of photography. In addition, Morris is putting the finishing touches on two other books: one to be released next year about the famous murder case at the center of Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” — essentially, reexamining Malcolm’s reexamination of the case — and the other, scheduled for 2013, about his contentious relationship with the philosopher Thomas Kuhn.

Morris tends to be promiscuous with his enthusiasms — two of his latest preoccupations, according to his very funny Twitter stream, are Abraham Lincoln and levitating frogs — but beneath them lies a consistent philosophy, a way of looking at the world that amounts to an endlessly versatile operating system. Taken as a whole, Morris’s work amounts to a deeply serious argument about human nature and the possibility of knowledge: that all of us, including Morris himself, may go through life inventing fictions and maintaining delusions, but that these delusions, if properly examined, can lead us to truth.

“It’s my belief that the secret always is in the details,” he said. “That if you focus on some piece of minutia and work on it, something will pop out.”

For Morris, the quest for truth is a moral imperative, but it’s also what makes life worth living. “That’s the wonderful thing about the world,” he said. “Reality is infinitely richer than any of the schemes that we have ever described to try to capture it.”

Sitting in his office during a nighttime storm earlier this month, Morris jumped almost helplessly between the stories and fables he has collected in his brain over the years, looking for ways to illustrate one knotty philosophical point after another. Morris’s career, in fact, began with philosophy — or, more specifically, with getting kicked out of two graduate programs (first Princeton, then Berkeley) where he was supposed to be studying it.

“I had all these ideas,” he said, speaking slowly and searchingly, like someone looking back on life and trying to figure out where it all went wrong. “I don’t know what happened to me.”

What happened, strictly speaking, was that Morris fought with the head of his program, Thomas Kuhn, a decorated philosopher specializing in the history of science at Princeton. Kuhn believed it was fundamentally impossible for someone in the present to understand the past — that what was considered “true” in one era might be thought false in another, and therefore “objective reality” as such could not be said to exist.

Young Errol Morris was horrified by this view, and was not particularly shy about making Kuhn aware of it. Things came to a breaking point in 1972 when, during a particularly heated conversation, Kuhn threw a heavy glass ashtray at Morris’s head. He missed, but drove his point home by having Morris ejected from the program.

“I felt that he had destroyed my life,” said Morris. It left him reeling for years to come: He still remembers sitting in a coffee shop at Berkeley with Daniel Friedan, a fellow Princeton exile and the son of feminist icon Betty, and commiserating over the frustrating time they’d had out East.

“I’m talking about all these problems that I had with Kuhn, which was a constant refrain, and he’s telling me about all the problems he’d had in the physics department,” Morris recalls. “He said, you know, ‘They just could not appreciate me. I had discovered a new kind of physics!’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no. This looks bad. This looks very, very, very bad. This is not going to turn out well. We’re both going to the nuthouse.’ ”

Of course, they didn’t. Friedan would go on to win a Macarthur Fellowship, and be recognized for his pioneering work on string theory. Morris, meanwhile, left academia behind once and for all to make a movie about a pet cemetery, called “Gates of Heaven,” which became a cult classic, and which Roger Ebert described as one of the 10 greatest films ever made.

Morris’s career as a filmmaker didn’t take off right away — he briefly had to earn a living as a private detective in New York — but his path was nevertheless set. In 1988, he released “The Thin Blue Line,” an inquiry into the murder of a Dallas police officer that established Morris as an imaginative and unorthodox documentarian. Instead of offering a purportedly unmediated version of reality, Morris told his story with dramatic, speculative reenactments of what might have happened on the night of the murder, used an imposing soundtrack composed by Philip Glass, and filmed his subjects talking directly into the camera using a device of his own design called the Interrotron.

By the time he won an Oscar in 2003 for “The Fog of War,” in which the hyper-confident Vietnam-era defense secretary Robert McNamara is shown as deeply conflicted but defiant on the subject of the war he helped run, Morris had long outgrown his status as a mere cult figure, and had become widely recognized as one of the most original and successfully idiosyncratic filmmakers of his time.

Even so, Morris continued to be haunted by Kuhn — and the graduate experience in general — in the form of a long and frustrating period of writer’s block which set in after he left Berkeley. And while it didn’t affect his ability to make documentaries, it did prevent him from realizing scores of ideas that for one reason or another did not lend themselves to that format. Every time Morris started something, an “insane critical element” would enter his head and prevent him from finishing.

“I used to joke — and it’s not really a joke, I think it’s true — that filmmaking, at least my brand of filmmaking, was a way of finishing stuff, because you took money and you had to actually deliver something, no matter how difficult that might be,” Morris said.

One day in 2007, Morris got a phone call from an editor at The New York Times op-ed page, who asked if he’d be interested in writing a column on the Times’s website about photography. Bracing himself for failure, Morris holed up in the music library at Harvard for an entire weekend, and emerged with the nub of what would become an essay called “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire,” about what it means for photographs to be true or false, and how they should not be regarded as objective records of reality.

After that, he was off to the races. One essay became two, two became three, until suddenly Morris realized he was no longer just a filmmaker, but a writer, too. (Disclosure: As an undergraduate, I did library research for one of Morris’s early essays.)

“It’s been a real renaissance for him,” said Morris’s longtime friend, the journalist Ron Rosenbaum. “He’s always had five things, at least, going on in his mind. And I think it’s better now that he has an opportunity to get three or four of them into print and have people want to follow his arcane trains of thought.”

Since the logjam broke, Morris has written essays about a dizzying array of topics — the identity of the “hooded man” at Abu Ghraib, the story of a Dutch Vermeer forger who stood trial for selling his work to the Nazis, a controversy over photographs taken during the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006 — and he has done so in a way that is uniquely his. To follow one of his essays is to sit on Morris’s shoulder as he questions evidence, questions his own conclusions about that evidence, and eventually leverages seemingly mundane details into mystery-solving breakthroughs. Like his movies, they are innovative on a formal level, incorporating illustrations and extended transcripts of his conversations with interview subjects in a way that distinguishes them from anyone else’s work. They have won him a loyal following of readers attracted to the notion that, if we watch someone press hard enough, the world will yield a truth.

“It’s all about investigating something that you don’t know about for certain with the conviction that you can know about it,” said the filmmaker Alfred Guzzetti, a friend of Morris’s who often reads drafts of his written work before it’s published. “He always has the conviction, with any factual or intellectual or historical problem, that you can get to the bottom of it.”

Morris’s embrace of writing started to gather steam at a time when he was at a low point in his relationship with moviemaking. He had followed his 2003 Academy Award with a documentary about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal — a film Morris was moved to make the film after seeing the horrifying photos of American soldiers standing with Iraqi prisoners, and wondering what had actually happened there.

“What bothered me about it was that no one had bothered to find out what these photographs were photographs of,” Morris said. “No one bothered to say, ‘I’m looking at a photograph. But, excuse me, what is this a photograph of?’ No one bothered, on any level, to investigate that question.”

Morris interviewed most of the American soldiers who had been implicated in the scandal. The resulting film, “Standard Operating Procedure,” got him some of the worst reviews of his career. Some critics, detecting empathy for the soldiers, called Morris an apologist for torture. The reaction dismayed him. He decided privately — not for the first time — never to make another documentary film again, and threw himself instead into writing.

But soon enough, Morris found himself with material for a new film. While looking for subjects to explore in a possible TV series for Showtime, he came across a newspaper story in The Boston Globe about a woman named Joyce McKinney who had traveled to South Korea in order to clone her dead dog. The clipping intrigued Morris, and he looked into the woman’s story further. It didn’t take him long to establish that McKinney’s adventure with dog-cloning was only the tip of the iceberg: She had enjoyed an earlier, even stranger brush with fame as a tabloid sensation during the 1970s after being accused of kidnapping and raping the man she planned to marry. When McKinney told Morris her story in a marathon interview, and it emerged that she saw herself as a lovesick girl who had tried to save her sweetheart from the Mormon church, Morris knew that he had a new movie on his hands.

The result, “Tabloid,” will open in theaters on July 15. Morris considers it the best movie he’s ever made — but of course, that doesn’t include his next documentary, which he has already started thinking about, or the feature film about cryonics that he’s making with “This American Life” host Ira Glass and the screenwriter Steve Zaillian.

As reluctant as Morris is to speak in detail about those projects, he sounds extra apprehensive when discussing another idea he has in the works: a TV series on the Kennedy assassination. It’s a topic that he has long sworn he’d never come near — one that has consumed the minds of many people less obsessive than Morris. He calls it the “rabbit hole of all rabbit holes.”

He’s working with Rosenbaum, a journalist with similarly obsessive tendencies, and what he has in mind is a typically oblique approach: Instead of confronting the assassination directly, he wants to interview all the people who have been driven mad trying to unravel the conspiracies they detect there.

Their stories are also cautionary tales, of course — “The end result is that they all disappear,” Morris said — and Morris knows that he’s at risk for the same fate if he’s not careful. Sometimes finding the truth means losing yourself to the quest. “There are rabbit holes around every corner waiting to engulf me,” he says, not unhappily.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail