FLM magazine - Summer 2005
I am overjoyed that my first three films (Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line) are coming out on DVD. Plus the two seasons of my series First Person. Although I didn't like any of them at the time they came out, I have since come to change my original opinion.
Each of them challenges certain assumptions about documentary filmmaking.
Gates of Heaven was conceived as a reaction to then prevailing tradition of cinema verite. I believe in truth, but I don't believe that truth is guaranteed by style. Look at it this way. The practitioners of this art-form often claimed that if you hand-hold a camera, use available light and observe the world like a fly-on-the-wall then what emerges is truth. The view has as much credibility as a guarantee that you could arrive at truth by standing on your head.
What these were really saying is that they wanted to observe the people in the world as if they were alive and the observer dead. I put it the other way around. I like to observe the world as though the people in it are dead and I'm alive. Maybe I awakened them for a long slumber. A thanatopsis.
Gates of Heaven is my extended essay on hope, hopelessness. My friend Ron Rosenbaum has kindly called Gates of Heaven an Ovidian essay on love. But I'm not sure that I know what love is - at least in this context. Everybody is in love with something in the movie, but it's pretty clear it's not other people. (Samuel Beckett came close to a working definition when he described love as a form of lethal glue.)
When I appeared with Gates of Heaven in the years following its release in 1978, I often explained that it was about relationships - relationships with other people are tenuous at best, relationships with the dead even more tenuous, and relationships with dead dogs...? Who knows? And then I had to fend off all those who saw something deeply sad in the possibility that people are forced to have relationships with their pets because they can't have effective relationships with other people. I tried to counter with the more reasonable thesis that people have relationships with other people because they can't have effective relationships with their pets. It makes more sense to me.
Maybe it's my version of the human condition. A Waring-blender mix of philosophy, self-help, gluey romanticism, sinister self-promotion and the sensation of being lost in the the fun house. Roger Ebert has been its strongest supporter, claiming to have viewed it over a hundred times. Detractors have attacked it for "making fun of people". I'm not sure I know what to say in my defense. It seemed to me that they felt guilty because they found the people in the movie amusing or absurd. Someone once told me that the lowest kind of humor is the kind of humor that makes fun of other people. But what other kind of humor is there? Humor that makes fun of rocks?
Vernon, Florida happened not by accident but by mistake. I had gone to Vernon, Florida, a small town in the Florida panhandle, because of my infatuation with insurance fraud and self-mutilation. I never made the movie I had intended to make. (But I still may do so.) Instead I found myself in a seemingly parallel universe which just happened to be our universe. Albert Bittlerling, my Cartesian-philosopher-in-the-swamp, starts the movie with a voice-over line that still is one of my favorites on film: Reality. You mean this is the real world? I never thought of that.
Every scene is a perverse inversion of the expected. Coy Brock, a preacher floating past Cyprus stumps in the swamp, proclaims: God is that just happened. But what kind of God is that. A God of caprice? Where there's no reason for anything? No reason for good? No reason for evil? No reason for nothing? The turkey-hunters looking to kill turkeys that they know aren't there? The sermon on "therefore". And, of course, the sand-that-grows. Mr. and Mrs. Martin took one, single vacation in their entire lives. They went to the White Sands Proving Ground, scooped up some of the white sand, put it into a jar with a red lid and took it back to Vernon, Florida. They explain that it's sand that grows. It's growing-sand. When they first put it in the jar, there was very little. Now it almost fills up the jar.
I had been using this an an example of self-deception. Here me out. The Martins think the sand is growing, but sand - correct me if I'm wrong - doesn't grow. They are deceiving themselves. They are convincing themselves that something that is untrue is true.
Well, as the say, the joke was on me. I was giving a lecture at Brandeis University. I was in the middle of my spiel. Sand doesn't grow, but they think it does. Someone in the audience - a professor of geology or something like that - said that sand from the White Sands Proving Grounds is not beach-sand. It's gypsum, and gypsum absorbs moisture. When the Martins took the sand from New Mexico to Florida, they took the sand from an extremely arid climate to a climate with high humidity. Maybe the sand was growing.
This is the one film I can point to to convince people that I'm a decent human being. After all, I spent three financially unremunerative years investigating a story I stumbled on - a miscarriage of justice.
I had interviewed this infamous forensic psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, known as "Dr. Death". He got the name because of predictions of future behavior he made at in the penalty phase of capital murder trials. He always said that the defendant was a dangerous psychopath or sociopath, that had killed and would kill and kill again unless he was killed by the state. You might think of it as "preventitive" capital punishment. (And, of course, it's hard to argue with this kind of theory. If you kill everybody, then it's extremely unlikely that any future crimes will be committed.) I don't believe that you can predict human behavior except in one instance - what Dr. Grigson would say in the penalty phase of a capital murder trial.
At his insistence I interviewed a number of inmates who had ended up on Death Row in part because of his testimony at their trials. Randall Adams was one of those inmates. It just happened that he was innocent. And I was able to prove it.
I use this case as an example of how you can be 200 per cent wrong in one instance. Dr. Grigson predicted that Randall Adams would kill and kill again. He has now been out of prison for over fifteen years with no misdemeanors or felonies - including murder. David Harris, the chief prosecution witness against Adams was also interviewed by Dr. Grigson around the same time. Dr. Grigson said he was not involved in the murder and was a sweet, innocent 16 year-old kid incapable of violence. He was executed this last year for a murder he committed ten years later. You can hear his confession to the 1976 murder of Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood at the end of The Thin Blue Line.
Some people have criticized this movie for breaking-the-no-reenactment rule in documentaries. If there is such a thing. Ask them how many people they've gotten out of prison.
This is the culmination of ideas that I have been exploring in all of my films. Mental landscapes. The world explored from inside-out rather than the other way around. It all comes from a simple premise - if you let people talk, they will reveal to you how they see the world, who they really are and how they would like to be perceived. It's hard for me to pick a favorite among them, but I really like One in a Million Trillion. It addresses the most fundamental philosophical distinction: the distinction between "which of these" and "what is the..." And provides an exposition of the idea of being trapped inside onself.
First Person thumbs its nose at the balance principle. I'm sure you're familiar with balance. If you interview a Nazi, then you have to interview a Holocaust survivor in order to achieve balance. Some people think it's nice to have balance. But then it gets really crazy when people confuse balance with objectivity or even with truth.
Well, First Person eschews balance. No balance. It provides raw subjectivity unleavened by helpful nariation. (As such, it is a warm up for The Fog of War.) Wander around in it if you dare.