Why haven't you seen an Errol Morris film? One of the beautiful things about film is that it can inform and educate, as well as entertain. Many documentaries accomplish the first two, but Errol Morris consistently does all three. Morris is the man behind some of the best documentaries ever made. These are not the boring talking head documentaries your parents used to see. Morris uses a combination of interviews, archival footage, footage his team creates to illustrate points and clips from old television and movies to tell compelling, unusual, informative stories. Morris' films are all the more compelling and watch able because of the subject matter; he finds strange people and gets them to reveal their interesting lives. Morris' films have rejuvenated the documentary much like Ken Burns' films have rejuvenated PBS. Get out there and start renting them.
In 2000, Bravo began airing "Errol Morris' First Person", a series of shorter documentaries very much like his films, just shorter. The entire series was recently released on DVD and is definitely worth watching.
Morris invented a device called the "Interrotron", which I believe he used later in his film "The Fog of War", about Robert McNamara. Basically, the subject can only see Morris by looking into a small monitor which is situated in the camera, in turn, recording the subject as they speak. This means that the subject is always looking directly at the camera, and the viewer. It is a bit unsettling at first, but it also provides a bizarre voyeuristic slant to the stories. Morris moves the camera a little, canting the frame. Brief shots of Morris on the monitor are inserted, to establish his presence, but he isn't even in the same room. Occasionally, he interjects a question.
The three disc set features all 17 episodes of the series, most of which are half hour interviews with some truly strange, interesting and bizarre people. A couple of the later episodes are a full hour.
There are too many to list in detail, but a few of the more memorable are:
"Leaving The Earth" features Denny Fitch, a Check Pilot for a large airline. A Check Pilot is the person who makes sure the regular pilots are up to snuff, know all of their instruments, learn of new developments and procedures and are still capable of flying huge jets with hundreds of passengers. One day, after leading a class in Denver, he had the choice of two planes for his trip back to Chicago. A Boeing 747 and a DC-10 Jet leaving 10 minutes later. For some reason, he took the later flight. During the flight, all of the plane's hydraulics broke down and an engine went out. Because this had never happened before, and no one believed it ever would, the pilots don't know what to do and struggle to keep the plane afloat. Denny offered to help the pilots. But he doesn't know what to do either.After some brainstorming, they come up with an idea. Denny helps the pilots as much as possible.
This episode is easily the most compelling because of the subject matter. Denny is a humble guy. He simply explains the situation and clearly notes all of the various problems he faced. As he tells the story and the situation becomes more and more dire, your attention will be riveted to the screen. The very fact that he is here, in front of the camera, to tell the story, should give you an indication of the outcome. But it doesn't reveal everything. And the last few minutes of his story are the most memorable and gut-wrenching.
One of the more `Errol Morris-like' subjects can be found in "Eyeball to Eyeball". This is the story of Clyde Roper, a Giant Squid hunter. Yes, you read it correctly. Clyde is obsessed with finding a Giant Squid and has devoted his life to the pursuit.
In "Smiling In A Jar", Morris lets Gretchen Worden, director of the Mutter Museum talk about her job and her museum's strange collection. The museum, started by Doctor Mutter, has collected samples of strange human conditions and displays them either in their preserved state or as a skeleton. The museum displays the skeleton of the first Siamese Twins to live in America, cojoined twins, many abnormalities preserved in jars and the like. Many of the subjects on display were approached when they were alive and they granted the museum their remains as a means of scientific education. She relates the story of how the tallest man ever recorded was approached by Mutter and many others. When he died, he was buried and concrete was poured over the casket to prevent grave robbers from stealing his skeleton.
"You're Soaking in It" tells the story of Joan Dougherty, a woman who felt a calling to open a Crime Scene Cleaning service. She talks about many of the crime scenes she has visited and how they dealt with the various problems associated with finding bodies many days after they died.
"The Stalker" is another example of how a person simply telling a story can really move you. In this case, Bill Kinsley relates the events of how he became the Postmaster of a large post office. He had dreams of becoming the Postmaster General and then one day, an employee by the name of Thomas McIlvane returned to the post office and began shooting many, many employees. Kinsley's management style came under scrutiny and he was partially blamed for the events. This is, I think, the first such event and certainly the most deadly, and would eventually become the fodder of many comedians. But Kinsley relates the events in a way that make them come to life.
In "One in a Million Trillion", the subject, Rick Rosner, a former contestant on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", tells the story of his childhood and his obsession with getting on the game show. What makes Rosner interesting is his strange life before appearing on the show. A man with a very high IQ, in his late teens and early twenties, he moved around on his own, doctored his high school records, and attended his Senior year, the entire year, of high school at more than one location because he felt he could do it better. Once he got on the show, he missed a question he deemed vague and explains why.
These interviews merely reinforce the power of storytelling. Each of the people sits in front of the camera and tells their story. In some cases, Morris interjects very little, allowing the story to unfold and the images to build in our mind. When the subject is a little less forthcoming, or to direct them a little, he asks more questions. Morris uses little additional material to fill out the stories. Again, some of the subjects need more, some less. The additional material is a blend of images shot specifically for the story, archival and news footage, and images from old movies and television.
"First Person" is a unique, interesting and highly watch able series of interviews with unique, interesting and sometimes strange people. It is definitely worth a rental.