Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Documentary: Early Films by Errol Morris

The documentary section of Netflix Watch Instantly is clearly the strongest section in terms of the breadth and depth of the titles.  So instead of digging in to the vaults to find some of the more obscure titles, I thought I'd start with some better known films that some people might not have seen yet, or others might want to re-visit knowing that it is easily available.

Errol Morris is one of most interesting filmmakers working today, in any category.  If you haven't done so already, you should check out his New York Times blog (his is one of the Opinionator blogs) which often covers the ethics of photography and image making.  In particular, I would encourage you to read his entries entitled It Was All Started by a Mouse, which discusses the presence of toys in war photographs, and the decision making process for news photographers and photo editors.

Morris finally won a Best Documentary Oscar for The Fog of War, his feature-length interview with Robert S. McNamara, in 2004.  But it is easy to forget that The Thin Blue Line, generally considered one of the best films of the 1980s in any category, was not even nominated for Best Documentary for 1988.  Many of the stylistic techniques that many documentary traditionalists objected to in 1988 have now been absorbed into contemporary documentary practice.  For an interesting discussion of Morris's view on documentary or non-fiction filmmaking, look at his lecture entitled The Anti-Post-Modernist Post-Modernist on his website.

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, USA, 1988, 101 minutes)
Netflix: Filmmaker Errol Morris's gripping investigation into the murder of a Dallas police officer was responsible for freeing the man who was originally -- and erroneously -- charged with and convicted of the crime. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments, Morris skillfully makes a case for the innocence of a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Widely acclaimed, this breakthrough documentary won numerous awards. Netflix link.

This film hasn't dated a bit, and it seems as fresh and innovative as it did in 1988 (perhaps because it was well ahead of its time).  Philip Glass's score has also had a lasting influence on documentary filmmaking, and I frequently think about this score when listening to imitators in more recent documentaries.  If you haven't seen this, you really need to put it in your queue, or better yet just press play right now.  If you haven't seen it in a while, it is well worth a repeat viewing. 

Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, USA, 1978, 82 minutes)
Netflix: Iconoclastic indie documentarian Errol Morris trains his lens on obsessive pet owners and the zeitgeist that supports them, including pet cemetery owners and embalmers. Pet owners talk quite candidly about their deep, deep affection for their dear, departed pets and the challenges they must face dealing with feelings of bereavement. It's Morris (who brought us The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control) at his most entertaining. Netflix link.

Roger Ebert has described Gates of Heaven of one of the greatest films of all time. It certainly is a deceptively simple film, as what might at first appear to be a quirky film about quirky people ends up being a philosophical meditation on death and making meaning in one's life. 

Vernon, Florida (Errol Morris, USA, 1981, 55 minutes)
Netflix: Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris (famed for his quirky subject matter) stays true to form with this series of interviews with denizens of a small backwoods town. Morris mixes it up with such unique citizens as a die-hard wild-turkey hunter, an elderly couple who vacationed at a nuclear test site and returned with sand they insist is growing, a worm farmer, a 93-year-old man who thinks his pet turtle is a gopher and others. Netflix link.

I've seen the other two films more recently, so I'm putting Vernon, Florida in my cue to re-visit it in the near future.  While not as acclaimed as the other two films on this list, it still demonstrates Morris's unique talents and world view.

I look forward to responses and feedback in the comments section.  --JLK

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