Writing, Filmmaking, Scholarship: Working with Errol Morris

A funny thing happened on my way to SCMS.  The day before I left—indeed Dudley Andrew was already here—the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) called a meeting of Yale’s Film Studies Graduate Committee to go over the course offerings for coming academic year.   The DGS wanted to remove Documentary Workshop, which I happen to teach, from the course of study since we are not in the business of teaching filmmaking to graduate students. The logic: our students are to become academics, not filmmakers.  As if filmmaking could not be a scholarly endeavour in a different mode.  I felt sandbagged and somewhere along the way, I got quite upset.  Later I wrote an email to my colleagues at the meeting.  It began:

Why do I get angry at Film Studies Committee meetings?
Why am I the departmental pariah?  Errol Morris understands himself as a pariah (see my documentary Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch), and this is one reason he makes the documentaries he makes.  Maybe this is why I made a documentary about Errol Morris. Morris and Musser: Pariahs.

I had profiled the course in one of my blog posts, outlining student projects—including those of the Film Studies Ph.D. students, one of whom (TSUNODO Takuya) is making a documentary about the documentary filmmaker MORI Tatsuya—a project not unlike my own on Morris. This encounter has unavoidably provoked a back story to my presentation today.

Beginning with my Sophomore year as an undergraduate, I began to make films and write papers.  Initially these were not very integrated but I was beginning to explore the relationship between theory and practice.  I began to think of myself as a dialectical thinker—or to be truly dialectical—as a practitioner of dialectics.  On one hand writing and on the other filmmaking.  If this was the period when I was first and foremost a student, my best teachers as a Yale undergraduate were Standish Lawder and Jay Leyda—both filmmaker scholars. Perhaps the place I learned the most about film, the pursuit of sustained intellectual thinking on a particular topic, and the creative act of producing work of any kind –was working as an assistant editor for two years on Oscar-winning Hearts and Minds.  Here is one thing I learned: we looked at every documentary on Vietnam that had been made –from Why Vietnam to The Anderson Platoon to In the Year of the Pig and Winter Solider. Hearts and Minds can be seen as an engagement with those films as much as a response to the war itself. After that experience, I stopped doing student work, at least as a filmmaker.

My first non-student work was the film An American Potter (1976)–a biographical treatment of potter Gerry Williams to whom I had apprenticed in my pre-film life.  I watched all of the mostly terrible pottery films in the world and wrote an article about the genre, which was published in The Studio Potter.  My documentary sought to reconceptualize the genre and won a variety of festival awards in the Fine Arts field.  I made my living as a film editor and became interested in the problem of editing –where and when did it begin.  Meanwhile I was a part time graduate student—following Jay Leyda to NYU where he would eventually become my dissertation advisor.  In his Griffith course, we watched every Griffith film from The Adventures of Dollie onward, in chronological order—a process not unrelated to our film research on Hearts and Minds.

With Tom Gunning and others already working on Griffith in a sustained way, and curious about earlier editing patterns, I began to do for Edwin S. Porter what Leyda and his students were doing for Griffith and wrote an essay –“The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter”—recently republished in the Wiley-Blackwell four-volume History of American Cinema.  When it won the SCS Student Award for Scholarly Writing, it both 1) got me accepted into NYU’s Ph.D. program and 2) led to my getting a grant from the New York Sate Council of the Arts to make Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter.  What I am trying to do is describe an organic process involving writing and filmmaking, scholarship and what might be called public history.  The essay became the blueprint for my film and the centerpiece of my dissertation Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company, which would serve as the companion volume for my film.  The film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival, led to three book contracts and some seven or eight years of sustained research and writing on early cinema.  Essentially I stopped being a filmmaker.

Finding my way to Yale as an assistant professor, I was a dutiful academic but also supervised senior projects in documentary and organized these groups of student filmmakers into an informal seminar and then a course, Documentary Film Workshop, which I taught as an overload.  When I went on leave, the Provost Office kindly offered some very minimal funding to support the course.  D.A. Pennebaker—and then Penny with his partner and co-filmmaker Chris Hegedus––took over the course for eight years.  And when they stepped down, Laura Poitras—known for such films as the Academy nominated My Country, My Country––took over. I always took great pride in the fact that I originated the course that was taken over by three of the outstanding documentary filmmakers of the last 60 years.

Then the university defunded the course.  This was supposedly due to the budget crisis.  However, the real goal, never quite made explicit, was to separate theory and practice—critical studies from creative work––and put all filmmaking courses in the School of Art.  It was part of the “shared services” mentality being applied to other staff members—of breaking tasks down into discrete, disconnected units.  Students don’t understand this.  And I don’t buy it.  We had a group of rising seniors planning to make documentaries as senior projects.  They were going to need curricular supervision and that supervisor was going to be me.  Of course, larger pedagogical issues involving the integration of theory and practice were at stake—as well as years of developing a curriculum. In a way I returned to my roots—to first principles but there was clearly a need to embed filmmaking more deeply into the Film Studies Program—to use the momentum of the university against itself, which was possible in part because its administrators never openly acknowledged what they were doing.

If one is going to teach filmmaking one has to make films.  Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch was the documentary I ended up making in my return to filmmaking after a hiatus of almost 25 years. It was well suited to perform this function, given its simple production process.  Errol Morris was also, in some ways, a perfect subject for me in that my earlier films had been about artists of various kinds and Morris was a subject ideally conforming to the narrow idea of pursuing audio-visual scholarship within the confines of my academic identity.

I had gotten to know Errol back when he made The Thin Blue Line.  I had published an article on the documentary and later gave a number of presentations on his film work.  Then too, I had recently taught the first university course devoted solely to Morris and had worked closely with him on that project.  I drove up to his offices in Cambridge and we hammered out a syllabus together. My class attended his last public screening of Standard Operating Procedure as a work in progress, and he met with my students for an hour and a half to talk about the work in progress, which he passionately believed was going to be his most accomplished achievement—the capstone of his career.  Obviously critics and academics did not choose to see it that way.  Errol was upset and above all depressed.  I felt there was an almost willful misunderstanding of the film, which I found distressing.  It just seemed an effort to cut him down to size, which a certain group of critics were dying to do ever since he made his Oscar winning The Fog of War.

Full disclosure.  I was probably specially invested in Standard Operating Procedure.  Amanda Gill had taken my course on Documentary Film and Photography, which I co-taught with Laura Wexler and wrote about the Abu Ghraib photographs.  She took that paper to Errol Morris and it became the starting point for Standard Operating Procedure.  She in fact served as a key go-between for Errol and me since she stayed on as the film’s co-producer.

So my goal was to create a platform for Morris to respond to his critics.  We were going to build an event around his films at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas where I program a weekend of films around a particular theme or individual. Errol would do Q & As, a panel and there would be scholars such as Jane Gaines and Jonathan Kahana who would talk about his work.  The goal was to rehabilitate a guy who was being attacked for such terrible things as paying his subjects for their interviews––something I had always done as a filmmaker and think is ethically important.  Errol would also spend a little time with these documentary scholars and we’d start to turn the thing around.  My unspoken idea was also to film these events from the moment he stepped out of his car until he returned to Cambridge and see if we might not have a film of some kind on our hands—at least a record of the weekend.

Errol liked the idea of the weekend events but was concerned that he might have to be in LA to make commercials–-and felt he had to decline.  How to rescue this programming idea?  I proposed that he would commit to doing one of three things.  First, he would come to New Haven for the weekend—and we would pay him $5,000.  Or 2) he would participate in a live interview on Skype from Los Angeles or 3) we would travel to his offices and a film an interview––in the latter two cases paying him $1,000.  The last of these options was the one that materialized.  By this time I had been to his studio and knew his staff a little bit.  I drove up with a filmmaker/cinematographer—Carina Tautu—who had audited my Errol Morris course.  My instructions were to film from the moment we got out of the car until we left.  We appeared at the psychologically perfect moment since Errol––and his staff—just felt terribly guilty.  I think he tried to provide a particularly thoughtful interview as a result.  And he could not say “no” to our requests.  Perhaps it was only under such circumstances that we were allowed to film him conducting an interview with V.S. Ramachandran for his New York Times series on Anosognosia. One thing I truly admire about Errol is that he is just as ready to place himself in front of the camera—to be interviewed—as he is to subject his subjects to the interview ordeal.

We also talked to his staff—something that these kinds of documentaries almost never do—see A Brief History of Errol Morris.  And we made a point of making the documentary in our style—a style that actually Errol had lambasted in the past but is in fact fairly close to the filmmaking style of Hamilton Morris—his son.  In any case we left Fourth Floor Productions at the Globe Department Store with enough material for what was the chore of what I am calling a backdoor documentary.

The experience of making Errol Morris: A Lightning Sketch has certainly given me new insights into Morris and his work—something I hope will someday be realized in a book that will accompany this film.  A Lightning Sketch is a film about–-among other things––the lifting of depression through the creative act—not just Errol’s depression but my own.  And I think it is also a little story about the dynamic between self-reflection and action.  Finally it has provided me the basis for teaching documentary production—or audio-visual scholarship–as a practicing filmmaker.

Where to go from here?  My wife Threese Serana and I just started making a documentary about some of our friends who are illegal immigrants in this country.  Its working title is The Immigration Project.  She has actually been filming while I am up here.  One thing for sure, I am learning a lot about American life—after all I am a professor of American Studies—and this new project has definitely proved instrumental in lifting her depression.  As a journalist who taught political science full-time at University of the Philippines-Cebu, she has found it difficult to use those skills in the United States.  Certainly documentary is a form of audio-visual scholarship––and in this regard it is part of the discourse of sobriety a la Bill Nichols.  But it can also be something more—it can be, I believe, a redemptive act for all concerned—those in front of and behind the camera.

One comment on “Writing, Filmmaking, Scholarship: Working with Errol Morris

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