By Mark Singer
The New Yorker- February 6, 1989
Among the nonfiction movies that Errol Morris has at one time or another been eager to make but has temporarily abandoned for lack of investor enthusiasm are "Ablaze!" (or "Fire from Heaven"), an examination of the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion; "Whatever Happened to Einstein's Brain?" (portions of the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex are thought to be in the possession of a doctor in North Carolina, other parts are floating around here and there); "Road," the story of one
man's attempt to build across northern Minnesota an interstate highway that no
one else wanted; "Insanity Inside Out," based on the book of the same tide,
by Kenneth Donaldson, a man who, in his forties, was wrongly committed by his parents to a mental hospital and got stuck there for fifteen years; "Weirdo," about the breeding of a giant chicken; "The Wizard of Wendover," about Robert K. Golka and his laser-induced fireball experiments in Utah; and a perusal of Yap, a South Pacific island where stone money is the traditional currency.
Some months ago, Morris attended a meeting with executives of Home Box Office, his primary motive being, as they say in the movie business, to pitch an idea - in that case, the one involving Einstein's brain. The meeting did not go particularly well. An HBO person at one point said admonishingly, "You know, your movies are
ironic. Our viewers just don't like irony."
Groping for a more tactful evasion, another HBO person said, "We're already doing a transplant movie."
"But wait a second, Morris replied. "This brain hasn't been transplanted - yet."
Unapologetically, Morris draws his films fresh from the substance of the real world, where irony has a way of running riot. Describing his work, he goes to some lengths to avoid using the term "documentary" ("the 'D' word," he will say, in a pinch), but he has not yet coined an alternative label that a Hollywood publicist might use to characterize a generic Errol Morris movie. During the past twelve years, he has directed and released three films: "Gates of Heaven," about two pet cemeteries in Northern California; "Vernon, Florida," a series of interviews with several residents of a swamp town in Florida; and "The Thin Blue Line," which arrived in theatres around the country last summer and fall, and which Morris has described, not immodestly, as "the first murder mystery that actually solves a murder." An Errol Morris movie features real people talking uninterrupted, mainly about literal objects or events, only occasionally about feelings or ideas: trafficking in entertaining truths as well as in equally entertaining transparent prevarications; free-associating, it often seems, as if the camera were a psychotherapist whose expensive time it would be a pity to squander on silence.
Near the midpoint of "Gates of Heaven," which was completed in 1978, a
woman with a pinched mouth whose age might be anywhere from seventy to
eighty-five sits in a chair before an open doorway. She is never identified, but, it
happens, her name is Florence Rasmussen. In a manner that alternates between
passive and bold, accented by facial expressions that range from beatific to sinister, Florence Rasmussen soliloquizes elegiacally:
"I'm raised on a farm, we had chickens and pigs and cows and sheep and
everything. But down here I've been lost. Now they've taken them all away from
here up to that - What's the name of that place? Up above here a little ways? That town?
Commences with a 'B.' Blue. It's - Blue Hill Cemetery, I think the name
of it is. Not too far, I guess, about maybe twenty miles from here.
A little town there, a little place. You know where it's at.
But I was really surprised when I heard they were
getting rid of the cemetery over here. Gonna put in
buildings or something over there. Ah well, I know people been very
good to me, you know. Well, they see my condition, I
guess, must of felt sorry for me. But it's real, my condition
is. It's not put on. That's for sure! Boy, if I
could only walk. If I could only get out. Drive my car. I'd get another car. Ya... and
my son, if he was only better to
me. After I bought him that car. He's got a nice car. I bought it myself
just a short time ago. I don't know. These kids - the more you do for them... He'
s my grandson, but I raised him from two years old... I don't see him
very often. And he just got the car. I didn't pay for all of it. I
gave him four hundred dollars. Pretty good! His boss knows it. Well, he's not
working for that outfit now. He's changed. He's gone back on his old job - hauling sand. No, not hauling sand; he's working in the office. That's right. He took over the office job. His boss told me that on the phone. But, you know, he should help me more. He's all I got. He's the one who brought me up here. And then put me here by myself among strangers. It's terrible, you stop and think of it. I've been without so much, when I first come up here. Ya. It's what half of my trouble is from - him not being home with me. Didn't cost him nothing to stay here. Every time he need money, he'd always come, 'Mom, can I have this? Can I have that?' But he never pays back. Too good, too easy - that's what everybody tells me. I quit now. I quit. Now he's
got the office job, I'm going after him. I'm going after him good, too - if I have to go in... in a different
way. He's going to pay that money. He's got the office
job now. And he makes good money anyway. And he has no
kids. He has not married. Never get married, he says.
He was married once - they're divorced. Well, she tried to
take him for the kid, but she didn't. They went to
court. It was somebody else's kid. She was nothing but a tramp
in the first place. I told him
that. He wouldn't listen to me. I says, 'I know
what she is.' I said, 'Richard, please, listen to me.'
He wouldn't listen. He knew all, he knew everything. Big shot!
But he soon found out. Now that's all over with. I've
been through so much I don't know how I'm staying alive. Really, for my age... if you're young, it's different. But I've always said I'm never going to grow old. I've always had that, and the people that I tell how old I am, they don't believe me, because people my age as a rule don't get around like I do."
With an arresting instinct for symmetry, Florence Rasmussen manages to contradict most of what she has to say. It seems that she knows certain things, but then, in the next moment, she trots out contrary information: I have roots with the earth; I'm lost in this world. People have been very good to me; I'm all alone, surrounded by strangers, my own flesh and blood treats me badly. I have a health problem that's real; I protest too much. I'd like to drive my car; but I might not
even have a car any longer, might have to buy a new one. I bought my son - O.K., he's not my son, he's my grandson - a new car; well, I didn't pay for the whole thing, I gave him four hundred dollars, but anyway I want my money back. His boss - Hold on, he has a different boss. He hauls sand for a living; nope, he's got that office job
now. He's not the marrying kind; he was married once. He has no children; he's been involved in a paternity suit. I'll never grow old; I'm so old people can't believe it. Even though I can't walk, people my age as a rule don't get around like I do.
"Gates of Heaven" gives an account of a pet cemetery that fails and one that
succeeds; Mrs. Rasmussen refers to each in only a glancing manner. The first day that Morris
set out as a bona-fide film director with an actual film
crew was the day the residents of the
failed pet cemetery were being exhumed, so that they could
be transferred to the other cemetery. The cinematographer Morris had engaged to
shoot "Gates of Heaven" he fired that same day - a consequence of serious
philosophical differences that culminated in a physical struggle for the camera. ("It's mine!" "No, it's mine!") Day Two, Morris met Florence Rasmussen, and she became the first person with whom he ever filmed an interview. The footage from that interview didn't make it into the final cut, however, because the replacement camera
operator, a woman, felt compelled to engage the interviewee in a dialogue. When Mrs. Rasmussen mused "Well, here today, gone tomorrow. Right?" the camerawoman said "No. Wrong." Morris couldn't decide which made him angrier - that the camerawoman had interfered with the interview or that her notions about death and the hereafter were so misguided. In any event, he fired her on the spot and hired
a replacement, who lasted three or four days.
One of Morris's techniques is to situate his interview subject in a chair
(when possible, a specific chair: a lightweight canvas-and-metal-frame low-back Regista) that is a precise distance (forty-nine inches) from the camera, which is equipped with a 25-mm. Zeiss high-speed prime lens - a lens of fixed focal length, which is one that cannot zoom - and is secured to a tripod, so that the camera cannot pan. When Morris went back to reshoot Mrs. Rasmussen - accompanied by Ned Burgess, his fourth, and final, cinematographer - she rewarded him with what has become the emblem of the Morris style: a seamless monologue from someone who has been allowed to talk until the truth naturally sorts itself out. Quotidian lies, the little fabrications that make the commerce of daily life possible, if not always palatable, are laid on the surface by the speaker. A muted strain of implicit skepticism - the silent voice of the filmmaker - bubbles along just beneath that. Peripheral stuff turns out to matter. "I like the idea of making films about ostensibly absolutely nothing," Morris says. "I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory. That's what all my movies are about. That and the idea that we're in possession of certainty, truth, infallible knowledge, when actually we're just a bunch of apes running around. My films are about people who think they're connected to something, although they're really not."
"Gates of Heaven" is the only one of Morris's films that can be said to have
emerged with its original subject matter intact. "The Thin Blue Line," which at its inception was to have been a study of Dr. James Grigson, a Texas psychiatrist who regularly testifies for the prosecution in death-penalty cases, instead became a horrifyingly satiric examination of the wrongful murder conviction and near-execution of an innocent man. "Vernon, Florida," which is essentially plotless - a pastiche of interviews with a turkey hunter, a policeman, a retired couple who are convinced that a glass jar in their possession contains radioactive sand that grows, a wild-animal collector, a Holy Roller preacher, a worm farmer, and others - evolved haphazardly, almost desperately, from an unwieldy idea Morris had of making a
fiction film based upon a bizarre insurance scam. A loquacious man named Albert Bitterling, who appears intermittently throughout "Vernon, Florida," has held a pair of opera glasses against the lens of a camera and photographed the night sky. In one scene, displaying the opaque result, he says, "Of course, as you can see is that picture ain't too good, it's a cheap camera, you get a cheap picture." Then, speaking literally and in metaphor, he encapsulates the filmmaker's dilemma: "Well, of course, you see,
when you have a camera... You have a camera and you point it at a certain - Just like if you had a gun. You don't shoot, do you? Well, if you had a gun and you pointed it at something, you're liable to hit what you're pointing at, and then again you might
"Vernon, Florida" has been, as a practical matter, the least accessible of
Morris's films; it was completed in 1981, but a commercial videocassette
version of it has just been released. Videocassettes of "Gates of Heaven" became available only a few months ago. "The Thin Blue Line" is the first of Morris's films to be widely distributed in theatres. A word that regularly comes up when Morris discusses the until quite recent low-orbit trajectory of his career is "disturbing." The frustration of making movies that only modest numbers of people have seen, or even heard of, has encouraged Morris to cultivate a melodramatic haplessness. In a less ironically disposed person, this tendency might be taken for neurotic self-indulgence. When Morris consents to be the interviewee - when it becomes his turn to sort the
truth out - he ends up quoting Shakespeare ("But since the affairs of men rest still uncertain, let's reason with the worst that may befall") or himself ("The fact that the world is, like, utterly insane makes it tolerable"). Once, when I made the mistake of
asking, in an offhand manner, how he'd been feeling lately, he said, "I've been horribly depressed, which, as you know, can be terribly time-consuming. I mean, if you're going to do it right, that is." Another time, en route to a preview screening of "The Thin Blue Line," he said, "I hope this won't be terribly embarrassing." A pause, then: "No, actually, I remember, when I was a teen-ager, thinking there was no point in going on, but then I realized that life is just an endless series of embarrassments and I'd hate to miss out on all that."
The first time I met Morris was in an airport, on a day in early 1987, when he was still working on "The Thin Blue Line" and was flying to Dallas to attend a federal-court hearing. He wore a navy pin-striped suit, carried a briefcase, and could easily have masqueraded as a typical travelling litigator except that he was not flying first class. Days when he doesn't wear a suit, he dresses like a permanent graduate student - khakis, Black Watch blazer or tweed jacket, button-down shirt, dark-framed dark Kent-ish eyeglasses. He has short dark-brown hair, which often looks as if it had been slept on the wrong way, and a rueful, asymmetrical smile. Although he is six-one, imperfect posture renders his presence less than imposing. Photographs make him appear either darkly handsome or dolefully goofy. Morris is now forty-one years old. He grew up in Hewlett, on the South Shore of Long Island. His father, a doctor, died when he was two, and his mother, a Juilliard graduate, who did not remarry for more than twenty years, supported him and an older brother by teaching music in a public school. Errol studied cello, read with a passion the forty-odd "Oz" books, watched a lot of television, and on a regular basis went with a doting but not quite right maiden aunt ("I guess you'd have to say that Aunt Roz was somewhat demented") to Saturday matinees, where he saw stuff like "This Island Earth" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon" - horror movies that, viewed again thirty years later, still seem scary to him. "I don't really understand how Errol got drawn to these gothic themes that interest him - maybe that he lost his father," his mother, Cinnabelle Esterman, told me not long ago. "I remember the first time we went on a trip out West. We had to take a flight to Chicago, and a friend drove us to the airport. And I noticed that along the way, in the car, Errol was reading the World Almanac, studying about air crashes." In the tenth grade, he was enrolled in the Putney School, in Vermont. Part of what had drawn him to Putney was its highly regarded music program. Morris's most vivid
memories, however, include having a forbidden radio confiscated because one
evening he made the mistake of loudly
singing along while listening to Birgit Nilsson perform the
immolation scene from "Götterdammerung." On another occasion, for
an offense that he cannot recall, a dormitory proctor deprived him of his cello.
Next came the University of Wisconsin, where he excelled academically
("the first time I did really well at anything, except elementary school") and, in 1969, received a degree in history. For a couple of years, he drifted about, earning money as a cable-television salesman in Wisconsin and as a term-paper writer in Massachusetts and "trying to get accepted at different graduate schools just by showing up on their doorstep." This strategy, which did not succeed at Oxford and Harvard, finally worked at Princeton, but graduate school soon proved to have been not such a hot idea. Morris's mistake was in pursuing academic disciplines - at Princeton, the
history of science - in which he had "absolutely no background."
"I did enter Princeton actually thinking I was going to get a doctorate," he says. "I was wrong. I had big fights with my adviser. I was supposed to be concentrating on the history of physics. And, naturally, my adviser expected me to take all these courses in physics. But the classes were always full of fourteen-year-old Chinese prodigies, with their hands in the air - 'Call on me! Call on me!' I couldn't do it. I reneged on some of my commitments. At the end, my adviser actually assaulted me. He was on sabbatical and had an office at the Institute for Advanced Study. I remember thinking, This is the Institute for Advanced Study, and he's assaulting me. I'd written a thirty-page double-spaced paper, and he produced thirty single-spaced pages of his own criticizing it. The bile just flowed out of him. I accused him of not even finishing reading what I'd written. It turns out I was a problem, but at least I wasn't a drudge, and that school was filled with drudges. I remember saying to my adviser, 'You won't even look through my telescope.' And his response was 'Errol, it's not a telescope, it's a kaleidoscope.'"
In 1972, Morris moved to Berkeley, where he had been accepted as a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of California. His recollections of that experience also lack a warm glow, but something fundamentally positive did take place, which was that he discovered the Pacific Film Archive, a cinemathèque/library /revival house/symposium center, and the only place in the Bay Area with the ability to devote several days to a retrospective of, say, the cinema of Senegal. Tom Luddy, a film producer, who was then the director of the Archive, recently said, "There were a bunch of regulars and a bunch of eccentric regulars, and Errol was one of the eccentrics. I often had to defend him to my staff. What made him eccentric? Well, for one thing, he dressed strangely. Remember, this is Berkeley in the early seventies.
And Errol was wearing dark suits with pants that were too short, white dress shirts, and heavy shoes. He looked like a New York person gone to seed. Then, I let him use our library for research, and he was always getting into little frictions with the staff. He felt he could both use the Archive and put it down. He would leave messes. He
never bothered to reshelve books. I found myself defending him, which was often difficult, because
he would attack me for the programming. He was a film-noir nut.
He claimed we weren't showing the real film noir. So I challenged him to write the program notes. Then, there was his habit of sneaking into the films and denying
that he was sneaking in. I told him if he was sneaking in he should at least
admit he was doing it."
The Archive opened each afternoon at five-thirty. Among the other eccentric were a superannuated Berkeley professor who had a habit of showing up at 5:30 A.M.; the narcoleptic who used to come for the first show, immediately fall asleep, and remain that way through the final feature; a disconcertingly loud laugher, known
as the Cackler; and a misanthropic woman who, with her dog, lived in a van outside the Archive.
Meanwhile, Morris's academic career failed to thrive. "Berkeley was just
a world of pedants," he says. "It was truly shocking. I spent two or three
years in the philosophy program. I have very bad feelings about it."
His own flaw, he believes, was that he was "an
odd combination of the academic and the prurient." While he
was supposed to be concentrating on the philosophy of science, his attention became diverted by an extracurricular interest in the insanity plea. A quotation from "The Black Cat" - a story in which Edgar Allan Poe writes of "the spirit of perverseness& this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself... to do wrong for the wrong's sake only" - had become resonant for him, and he began to ponder the metaphysics of mass murder. In 1975, he returned to Wisconsin long enough to have several interviews with Ed Gein, the real-life prototype for the Norman Bates character in "Psycho" and a Midwestern legend. "You couldn't spend long in Wisconsin, especially with my predilection, without hearing a lot about Ed Gein," Morris says. Gein was then confined to Central State Hospital, in Waupun, a maximum-security institution for the criminally insane. Evidently, Morris was the first person in quite a while to make a special effort to talk with him. What perhaps discouraged other potential visitors was that Gein not only murdered people but also was a cannibal, a grave robber, and an amateur taxidermist. Morris found his way to Dr. George Arndt, a Geinologist and the author of a study - a catalogue of Ed Gein jokes, basically - titled "Community Reaction to a Horrifying Event."
"I go and meet Dr. Arndt," Morris says. "Almost from the beginning, I entertain serious doubts about the wholesomeness of Dr. Arndt's interest in the Gein case. Dr. Arndt seems real excited that there's this kindred spirit interested in the Ed Gein story. I tell him I've been spending a lot of time in Plainfield, Wisconsin, where Ed Gein lived and committed his crimes. I tell him I've been to the Plainfield cemetery to look at graves. I had the names of the graves whose occupants Ed had exhumed. I noticed that those graves made a circle around his mother's grave. Dr. Arndt looks at me and says, 'You know what that means, don't you?' I say, 'No, sir.' He says, 'It's a kind of sublimation. Transference. He couldn't go down directly after his mother. He had to go down through the other graves.' He says, 'There may be underground tunnels leading to his mother's grave.' So we go in his Cadillac to the Plainfield cemetery. When we're almost there, he pulls over and starts looking around in the brush for something, and he comes up with a big thick stick. We get to the cemetery, we find the graves where the exhumations took place, and he has me put my ear to the ground near Mrs. Gein's grave. While I do that, Dr. Arndt walks around beating the ground, searching for hollow sounds. I hear nothing. Finally, I ask, 'Dr. Arndt, why didn't he just dig straight into Mrs. Gein's grave?' And Dr. Arndt gives me this look and says, 'Too devious.'"
During his research, Morris stumbled across the provocative fact that Plainfield, with a population of seven hundred, had within a ten-year period been home to several multiple killers, and that Gein's depredations had antedated the others', almost as if he had driven the town mad.
"One of the things that have always fascinated me about abnormal behavior is that we can't really explain it to our satisfaction," Morris says. "Almost everything I do now in my work is about epistemic concerns: how do we come by certain kinds of knowledge? Take the insanity plea - we talk about insane acts and insane people. When we talk about insane acts, we're saying we don't understand something about the act itself. When we say someone is insane, we're either saying, one, 'That person could be mentally ill,' or, two, 'I don't know why that person does what he does.' Rather than expressing a knowledge, we're expressing a lack of knowledge. I wrote an essay on the insanity plea and movie monsters and certain mechanistic fantasies we have about criminal behavior. I very much wanted to write a doctoral thesis on this stuff, and it hurt my feelings when Berkeley just sort of kicked my ass out of there."
The demise of Morris's academic career was a protracted matter, and he stayed at the university long enough to get a master's degree in philosophy. All the while, he was a devotee of the Pacific Film Archive. Tom Luddy introduced him to Werner Herzog, the German director, whose fascination with fanatics, losers, Nazi supermen, and dwarfs dovetailed with Morris's outside-the-mainstream preoccupations. Once, making the film "Even Dwarfs Started Small," Herzog inadvertenly set a dwarf afire; the dwarf survived, and Herzog did penance by throwing himself onto a cactus. At the time he and Morris met, Morris's reading diet included, in addition to his academic texts, the National Enquirer and Weekly World News. For listeners whom he deemed worthy, he had assembled an endlessly aggressive repertoire that included eyewitness tales of Geinology and other vignettes of American dementia.
"Werner was very taken with Errol," Luddy recalls, adding that, despite Morris's never having shot a single foot of film, "Werner treated him as an equal."
Morris and Herzog discussed the question that Morris and Dr. Arndt had left unanswered - whether or not Gein had disinterred his mother - and they set a date for a rendezvous in Plainfield in the summer of 1975. The idea was that, with shovels, in the moonlight, they would satisfy their curiosity. When Herzog arrived in Plainfield, however - he had been working on a film in Alaska and was now driving toward New York - no familiar face was there to greet him. He made a phone call to California and learned that Morris had had second thoughts. A few months later, Morris did return to Plainfield, alone, and rented a room from Ed Gein's next-door neighbors. This time, he stayed almost a year, during which he conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with some of the other homicidally inclined local talent. He had no focussed idea of what to do with the material. Maybe he would make a film about Ed Gein called "Digging Up the Past," or maybe he would write a book. Although he still had a fellowship at the University of California, he didn't have enough money to transcribe all his interview tapes. Some supplementary financial support came from his family, but it was not unqualified support. "My mother was worried about what I was doing," he says. "She has this wonderfully euphemistic way of talking to me. At one point, she said, 'Errol, can't you spend more time with people your own age?' And I said, 'But, Mom, some of these mass murderers are my own age.'"
It didn't do Morris any good when, in order to talk to one of the Plainfield murderers, he made his way illegally into a state mental hospital, got caught, and was reported to his academic supervisors at Berkeley. In the fall of 1976, while Morris was still in Plainfield, Herzog unexpectedly returned. During Herzog's visit the previous year, his car had broken down, and he had discovered an automobile-repair shop - a grim place set against a grim, flat natural backdrop - that struck him as an excellent movie location. So now he had come to finish a film, "Stroszek," most of which had been shot in Berlin. He asked Morris to work with him, but Morris felt that he had been abused. "Stealing a landscape," he complained. "The worst kind of plagiarism." On the other hand, he had never made a film himself, and here was a chance to observe a master. So he stuck around, and, when the shooting was completed Herzog, afflicted with some measure of guilt, handed him an envelope stuffed with cash. They were in a motel room. Morris went to a window and tossed the envelope into a parking lot. After retrieving the money, Herzog offered it once more, saying, "Please don't do that again."
The envelope contained about two thousand dollars - more than enough
to finance a two-week trip Morris had been planning. Recently, he had read a
newspaper article about an insurance investigator which mentioned, in passing, how several people in an unidentified Southern town had tried to collect benefits after "accidentally" losing limbs. Morris had tracked down the insurance investigator and learned that the town was Vernon (pop. 883), in the Florida panhandle. Vernon's unofficial nickname was now Nub City. In the hierarchy of nubbiedom, the supremely rewarding self-sacrifice was the loss of a right leg and a left arm, because, so the theory went, "afterward, you could still write your name and still have a foot to press the gas pedal of your Cadillac." Morris stayed in Vernon long enough to read some files at the courthouse, talk to an insurance broker and several nubbies, and receive at least one unambiguous death threat. At the Cat's Eye Tavern one night, a citizen twice Morris's size smiled as he extinguished a cigarette on the lapel of Morris's blazer. Morris remembers thinking that perhaps he had packed the wrong clothes. Also, "I remember it hurt my feelings, because it seemed that, you know, maybe the people in Vernon didn't like me." Rarely did murders take place in Vernon, because, someone explained, "down here, people don't get murdered - they just disappear."
Back in Berkeley, Morris tried to write a script for a fiction feature to be called "Nub City." Mainly, he had a pitch line - "Nub City" would be "about people who in order to achieve the American dream literally become a fraction of themselves" - but the plot elements were still gestating. Months went by and he made only slight progress. One afternoon while waiting for inspiration to descend, he was eating lunch in the Swallow, a restaurant in the same building as the Pacific Film Archive, and he saw a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle that said, "450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY." Suddenly, he had an altogether different idea for a film; "Nub City" would have to wait.
It was enough that in deciding to make "Gates of Heaven" Morris selected a subject that, on its surface, seemed highly likely to repel. He also insisted on making a documentary film "the opposite of how you were supposed to." That meant being static and obtrusive - using artificial light and heavy, earthbound equipment rather than the standard hand-held, mobile tools of cinema verité. After Morris hooked up with Ned Burgess, a compliant cinematographer, the making of "Gates of Heaven" progressed in a straightforward fashion. The film was shot in the spring and summer of 1977 and cost a hundred and twenty thousand dollars to make; the money came from a wealthy graduate-school classmate and from Morris's family.
Getting to know mass murderers and their relatives in Wisconsin, Morris had developed an interview technique that, reduced to basics, amounted to: Shut up and let people talk. "Listening to what people were saying wasn't even important," he says. "But it was important to look as if you were listening to what people were saying. Actually, listening to what people are saying, to me, interferes with looking as if you were listening to what people are saying."
The first half of "Gates of Heaven" explores the broken dream of a man named Floyd McClure, who lives in Los Altos, a peninsula town thirty miles south of San Francisco. In the opening frames, McClure describes, in a sincere but unmaudlin manner, how the accidental death of a beloved collie in his childhood inspired his vision of a pet cemetery. Choosing a site, he settled on what he calls "the most beautiful piece of land, as far as I was concerned, in the whole valley." (Never mind that the land was situated right next to a freeway; it also happened to be across the street from his house.) "A pet-cemetery business is not a fast-buck scheme, it's not a suede-shoe game," McClure says. "It's a good, solid business enterprise. And in
order to have this concept it has to be in your heart, not in your billfold. And these are the type of people I wanted in business with me, in the pet-cemetery concept." His co-investors in the by now failed enterprise allow themselves to be interviewed, the owner of a rendering plant talks, families of departed pets have their say, Florence Rasmussen appears. Monologues tend not to parse. At one point, McClure says, "And this is the part of the inspiration of getting our little pets... into a cemetery. Something that we could be proud of, of saying, 'My little pet did his chore here - that God has sent him to us to do a chore - love and be loved and serve his master.' And, boy, these little pets that did that... Like I said before - death is for the living and not for the dead."
The second half of "Gates of Heaven" focusses on the Harberts family - Cal and his wife, Scottie, and their sons, Dan and Phil - who are the proprietors of Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, the final final resting place of the displaced tenants of Floyd McClure's doomed pet-cemetery concept. Dan, the younger son, has been employed in the family business for a few years. Phil has recently given up selling insurance in Utah (his idol is W. Clement Stone, the Chicago insurance tycoon and an avatar of the Positive Mental Attitude) and has repatriated to the Napa Valley.
Cal Harberts says, "We created the Garden of Honor. And in this garden we will bury a Seeing Eye dog or a police dog killed in the line of duty at no cost - if it's killed in the line of duty. And for anybody else who wants to share this garden then we created a price which amounts to more than any other garden that we have."
Phil, who manifests what might or might not be symptoms of an incipient existential crisis - possibly a consequence of having listened to and delivered too many motivational lectures - says, "I have to say to myself: What does it mean to me? What does this mean to me? What is it going to mean to me? I recognize this and - A couple of things when I was instructing motivation back in Salt Lake City is that if we don't stop and ask ourselves a question once in a while to probe our subconscious or to probe our conscious... I used to teach it. It's a plain, simple formula. We reduced everything to a formula, memorized it, and therefore we were able to repeat it constantly. I used to call it the R2-A2 formula: Recognize, Relate, Assimilate, and
put into Action! Like, I could be driving down the freeway and see a 450 SL. I could say, 'Hey, I like that. What does that mean to me? What would I have to do to get it? How can I do it?' And then go to work for it. And strive for it. It kind of makes life easy. I think that's why a lot of people don't - They get frustrated. They have emotional problems, it's that they don't know how to cope with their - mind. There are three things that I've got to do and that if anybody wants to do to be successful, to have the desire, the want-to. Why do you go to work in the morning? Gee, why am I here? Because you want to. But that's obvious. And then the next very important ingredient is something that a lot of people and a lot of businesses fail to delge into.
It's the activity knowledge. It would be the equation to a mathematical problem. It would be equal to the chemist's ability to emulsify chemicals - you know, properly, the valences. But the knowledge of it, the whole scope. Everything in detail. And then the third element would be, of course, the know-how or the experience. I have the inspiration to action. I don't have the activity knowledge, but I'm getting the know-how before I'm getting the activity knowledge. As a matter of fact, I'm getting more know-how than I'm getting activity knowledge. But they can be correlated together. They can be overlapped."
Dan Harberts says, "As far as preparation - a hole has to be dug, prepared.
We have to make sure that the hole is going to fit the size of the casket. Because you don't want to make it too large, because you're going to waste space. And you don't want to make it too small, because you can't get the thing in there."
"Gates of Heaven" was first shown during the 1978 New York Film Festival, which happened to coincide with a newspaper strike. In other words, "Gates of Heaven" sprang into a void. When the film opened in Berkeley, that same year, a glowing review by Michael Covino appeared in the East Bay Express. (Covino later retooled the essay, and it was published in Film Quarterly.) More than two years
elapsed before "Gates of Heaven" was seen again, in New York or anywhere
else - before anyone paid significant attention. In the spring of 1981, New Yorker Films arranged a limited national distribution. The notices were favorable - in several instances, extravagantly so. Perhaps the most ardent champion of "Gates of Heaven" across the years has been Roger Ebert, who includes it in his list of the ten best films of all time and calls it "compulsively watchable, a film that has engaged me as no other movie has in my twenty-one years as a movie critic." When Ebert is invited to give a speech and is told that he can screen a film of his choosing, he selects "Gates of
Heaven," which he regards as "a film about hope - hope held by the loneliest people who have ever been on film." Ebert estimates that he has seen it at least fifty times - often enough to have memorized long passages. "Every time I show this, it plays differently," he says. "Some people think it's about animals. Some people think it's about life and death. I've shown it to a group of bankers, who believe it raises all
kinds of questions about success, about starting a small business. People think it's funny or sad or deadpan or satirical. They think that Errol Morris loved the people in the film, or that he was being very cruel to them. I've never yet had a person tell me that it's a bad film or a film that doesn't interest them."
Werner Herzog commemorated the Berkeley premiere of "Gates of Heaven" by eating one of his shoes - a poached desert boot - in a public ceremony. Though less spectacular than flinging oneself upon a cactus, this event was sufficiently momentous for the documentary filmmaker Les Blank to record it in a twenty-minute short titled "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe." A haze of myth enshrouds the genesis of the shoe-eating. Tom Luddy's version has Herzog, while one day arguing with Morris in a hallway of the Pacific Film Archive, saying, "You'll never make a film, but if you do I'll come and eat my shoe at the premiere." Herzog maintains that it happened in a more encouraging manner, as in "You are going to make a film. And the day I am going to see the film in a theatre I will eat the shoes I am wearing." Morris, who claims not to recall any of the above, says the entire stunt was concocted by Luddy.
"I didn't make "Gates of Heaven" so that Werner Herzog would have to eat
his shoe," he says. "It's not as if I decided to realize my potential as a human being in order to get somebody to ingest something distasteful. I specifically asked Werner not to eat his shoe." Morris was supposed to fly from New York to Berkeley to attend the
screening and to appear in Les Blank's film. At Kennedy Airport, he boarded a plane, but when a mechanical problem forced all the passengers to get off he decided not to go. "As a result, I don't appear in 'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe,'" he says. "I suppose I regret that reticence. Why be so prissy? Why try so hard to control things? I'm not even sure what that's all about. Probably, as a result of my petulant behavior, fewer people have seen 'Gates of Heaven' than otherwise would have. In fact, I'm still surprised when anyone tells me he's seen it."
In the winter of 1979, Morris went back to Vernon, Florida, and for very little money he was able to rent one of the biggest houses in the county. Vernon was no less xenophobic than any other small Southern town. When the locals asked Morris why he had come there and he gave vague, misleading answers, the typical response
was "No, you're here because of the Nub City stuff." He spent much of his time attending revival meetings and driving around to places that had interesting names - Blackhead, Lizard Lake, the Ebro Dog Track. Although he was still enamored of the Nub City idea, he had not yet written a workable screenplay. If he were to try to make a nonfiction film about the Nub City episode, "it would turn into one of those bad investigative documentaries where people are slamming doors in your face." Finally, after several months of insisting "I'm not here about Nub City, I'm not making a film
about Nub City," guilt overwhelmed him, he indeed became incapable of making a film about Nub City, and he left town.
A year later, he returned, rented the same big house, and spun his wheels
some more. Now, however, vacillation carried a steeper price tag, because he had financial help from German television and from WNET, the public-television affiliate in New York. A crew of recent graduates from the New York University film school drove to Vernon in a rented van, bringing with them equipment so heavy that the van
blew out two sets of tires on the drive south. When they arrived, Morris had still not decided what the film would be about. A controversy had arisen involving the firing and rehiring of one of the local police officers. Morris felt that the officer's travails were connected with "the Napoleonic ambitions of the king of the nubbies." The king
of the nubbies had advised Morris to leave town within twenty-four hours or leave in a casket. When Morris failed to oblige, the king made what seemed a sincere effort to run down Ned Burgess, the cinematographer, with a truck. More or less in desperation - to get the king of the nubbies off his back, to give the public-television people something, anything, for their money - Morris began to film interviews with various interesting citizens of Vernon, among them Roscoe Collins, the cop; Joe Payne, the collector of wild animals (opossum, gopher, tortoise, rattlesnake); Albert Bitterling,
the cosmologist with the opera glasses ("Reality - you mean, this is the real world? Ha, ha, ha. I never thought of that"); George Harris and Claude Register, two geezers who discuss how an acquaintance put a shotgun to his forehead and pulled the trigger with his big toe ("And he said, that day, he says, 'That'll be the last thing I ever do
is to shoot myself.' Which it was"), "Vernon, Florida" contains not a single reference to Nub City. Rather, as with "Gates of Heaven," the film's subjects are the American vernacular and the malleability of truth. Morris presents Vernon, Florida, as is - no
special effects, what you see is what you get - as if he had stumbled across, and without editorial intrusion had agreed to share, an unexplored settlement full of Florence Rasmussens.
Howard Pettis, the worm farmer, says, "I've never studied no book on
these wigglers. What I know about 'em is just self-experience. They got books on 'em, but them books is wrong. They don't teach you right. They don't teach you right on 'em. Teach you what kind of feed to feed 'em. How to do 'em and all, there. And it's all wrong, in my book."
Henry Shipes, the turkey hunter ("I can't tell you how it feel. It's just a hell
of a sport, that's all"), sits in a chair in his living room and, with
enormous relish, recounts the gut-stirring thrills of each of
a series of trophy kills. While the viewer is not
prohibited from imputing deep meanings to the images or
the monologues of Henry Shipes, one ultimately gets the feeling that
if turkey hunting stands as a metaphor for anything
it is probably turkey hunting. In the film's final
scene, Henry Shipes, on a hunt, surveys
a crowd of buzzards roosting on a cypress tree
and counts them aloud - thirty-five. "Listen to that sound," he says. "That fwoop fwoop. Hear that
sound? Getting in and out of the trees? That flop-flop sound? Mmm-hmm. That sound'll sure mistake y
ou for turkeys. Listen! Hear that flop-flop? Limbs breaking.
Hear that good flop then? Listening to that gives me the turkey fever. Mmm-hmm. I wish there's as many turkeys as there are buzzards."
Like "Gates of Heaven," "Vernon" had its premiere at the New York Film
Festival - the 1981 edition. Werner Herzog called it "an invention of cinema,
a discovery of one side of cinema that all of us have not known yet." A review in Newsweek said it was "a film as odd and mysterious as its subjects, and quite unforgettable - unforgettable, that is, for those who laid eyes on it. Because it had a running time of only sixty minutes, no national distributor materialized, and not until the summer of 1982, when it was shown on public television, did significant
numbers of viewers or critics take notice. Meanwhile, Morris was, as usual,
low on funds. He was living in Manhattan, occupying rooms in a series of not quite elegant hotels - the Carter, the Bryant, the Edison, the Wellington - before finally settling in a building in the West Fifties, where he still keeps an apartment. The more dire his fiscal circumstances grew, the better he got to know a Mr. Montori, an employee of a collection agency. Mr. Montori seemed to derive pleasure from gracing Morris's telephone-answering machine with one-a-day rhetorical questions like "Mr. Morris, have you no sense of shame?" and "Mr. Morris, were you really brought
up to act this way?" Then the calls abruptly ceased. After several months had passed, Morris phoned the collection agency, asked "Is Mr. Montori O.K.?," and learned that his tormentor had moved on to a more rewarding position elsewhere.
In earnest, Morris sought backing for what turned out to be some of his most resistible film projects: "Road," the story of the northern Minnesota interstate-highway folly; Robert K. Golka, the laser-induced-fireball wizard in Utah; Centralia, Pennsylvania, the coal town where an inextinguishable subterranean fire began burning in 1962. Morris concluded that "people who tend to be interested in documentary filmmaking weren't interested in my films, because they didn't look like
documentary films." The theme of "Road," in particular - a man wants to create a complicated and expensive thing for which absolutely no need exists - was, he says, "disturbingly self-reflective."
As his debts accumulated, his stepfather advised him that the time had come to "turn yourself in to the phone company." Instead, Morris permitted himself a brief Hollywood interlude. In 1983, Edward Pressman, a producer whose credits include films by Brian De Palma, Terrence Malick, and Oliver Stone, agreed to finance the development of a screenplay about the exploits of John and Jim Pardue, brothers
from Missouri who, fifteen years earlier, had killed their father, their grandmother, and two accomplices and robbed five banks, in two instances using dynamite. Pitching the film, Morris would say, "The great bank-robbery sprees always take place at a time when something is going wrong in the country. Bonnie and Clyde were
apolitical, but it's impossible to imagine them without the Depression as a back-drop. The Pardue brothers were apolitical, but it's impossible to imagine them without Vietnam." Pressman underwrote a sojourn at the Chateau Marmont, a Hollywood hotel that is famous in part because John Belushi died there (not because Errol Morris
wrote anything memorable while in residence). Morris enlisted Tom Waits and Mickey Rourke to portray the Pardue brothers, and got as far as writing a treatment before the project derailed.
Next, Morris was set to direct a Pressman film called "The King Lives," about an Elvis Presley impersonator; this venture proceeded not very far before Morris was fired. For Dino De Laurentiis, Morris agreed to work on an adaptation of a Stephen
King short story. Then De Laurentiis changed his mind and asked him to adapt a different King short story. Then he changed his mind again and gave Morris two and a half weeks to write a screenplay based on King's "Cycle of the Werewolf." Around the time that De Laurentiis rejected the script - because it "wasn't frightening enough" - Morris's brother and only sibling, Noel, died suddenly of a heart attack, at age forty. "I was very depressed," Morris says. His apartment in Manhattan was a couple of blocks from the Ed Sullivan Theatre, from whose studios fund-raising telethons were often broadcast. He found himself dropping in. "My favorite was the Stop Arthritis Telethon," he says. "When I would go to these things, I would
always see the same people in the audience, and I'd look upon them with some pity, and then I realized that I was one of them."
In 1984, Morris married Julia Sheehan, an art historian, whom he had met in Wisconsin in the mid-seventies, during his Ed Gein phase. Julia had tried to get a friend to introduce them, but the friend "made such a mess of it I actually approached Errol to apologize," she says. "I wanted to meet him because I'd heard he had been
interviewing murderers. I didn't know anyone else who knew any murderers. It was quiet in Wisconsin - the sixties were over, not much was going on - so somebody who had met murderers sounded good." Morris recalls saying to her, early in their relationship, "I was talking to a mass murderer but I was thinking of you," and immediately fearing that this might not have sounded affectionate. Julia, however,
was flattered: "I thought, really, that was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me. It was hard to go out with other guys after that." They share a vivid and fond memory of their wedding, which took place in the Criminal Court Building in Brooklyn.
"They frisked us on the way in, which was very romantic," Julia says.
"We got married between two prostitution cases," Morris says. "And we
celebrated with a whale-shaped cake from Carvel."
They have since become the parents of Nathaniel Hamilton Morris, and
Julia has come to understand her husband well. Some time ago, she stopped
in at the Strand Bookstore to pick up an order for him. The clerk who was helping her couldn't find the books and asked whether she knew the subject matter. "I don't know any of the titles," she said. "But they're probably about either insanity or murder or Nazis." Indeed, there was one of each.
"The Nazis, of course, are interesting to me," Morris once told me. "I just finished reading Joseph Goebbels' diary. You know a movie director Goebbels really liked? Frank Capra. I have this heartwarming image of Goebbels sneaking away from the office in midafternoon to go watch 'Meet John Doe' or 'Mr. Deeds Goes to
What Morris likes to call his "predilections" led him, in early 1985, to Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist. Under Texas law, a jury cannot impose the death penalty unless it is confident that a convicted person will commit future violent crimes. To encourage juries to arrive at that conclusion, Dr. Grigson for more than
fifteen years regularly appeared as a prosecution witness in capital cases. In almost every instance, Dr. Grigson would, after examining a defendant, testify that he had found the individual in question to be an incurable sociopath, who it was "one hundred per cent certain" would kill again. When Morris first went to see Dr. Grigson, it was with the idea of making a film titled "Dr. Death." Grigson proved to be as obliging to Morris as he had been to the prosecutors he served, and encouraged him to interview several men who, helped along by Dr. Grigson's testimony, had received the death penalty. Don't be surprised if these fellows profess their innocence, Dr. Grigson warned; that, after all, is how sociopaths behave.
A number of the twenty-five or so inmates with whom Morris spoke made such a claim. One was a thirty-six-year-old man named Randall Dale Adams, who was an inmate of the Eastham Unit, a maximum-security prison in southeast Texas. In the spring of 1977, Adams had been convicted of and sentenced to die for the
murder, the previous fall, of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer. Wood had been shot five times by the driver of a car that he and his partner, Teresa Turko, had stopped in west Dallas for a minor traffic violation. Nearly a month elapsed between the murder of Wood and Adams' arrest. Adams told Morris that he had been framed, and that the actual killer was David Harris - "the kid," he kept calling him during that first conversation - who had been the principal prosecution witness at Adams' trial. Morris had not gone to Texas with the purpose of finding and becoming an advocate for innocent incarcerated men; he had gone there because of his fascination with Dr.
Grigson. He didn't really believe the story Adams told him, because he had no particular reason to believe it. Nevertheless, he went to Austin three weeks later and read the transcripts of several trials. A number of passages in the Adams transcript aroused the possibility that Adams was telling the truth. After Morris met David Harris, two weeks later, in a bar outside Beaumont, his doubts about Adams' guilt and his curiosity about the case deepened.
This came at a time when Morris's film career was in another lull. Suzanne Weil, then the head of programming for the Public Broadcasting System and a generous believer in Morris and his work, had arranged a grant sufficient for him to begin his research on "Dr. Death." (She once told me, "Errol is the one person in the world who, if he now came to me and said, 'I want to make a documentary tided
"My Grandmother Remembers" or "So-and-So: Potter of the South-west,"' I would tell, 'Go ahead.'") Morris's main source of income at that point was free-lance employment with a private detective agency that specialized in Wall Street securities and commodities cases. Most of the agency's referrals came from law firms.
"When I worked as a detective, I felt like this well-paid conceptual cleaning lady for lawyers," he has said. "It's like - There seems to be hair clogging the drain. My job was to clean it out and find out if it was really hair. I had one particular problem: people would start talking to me and when I'd leave I often couldn't remember what they had said. I wanted to use a tape recorder, but my employer was
totally opposed. So I worried about whether I was getting valuable information. I also worried about getting stains on my clothes - I had to wear suits all the time. Because I couldn't use a tape recorder, my most important piece of equipment was my can of K2r spot remover."
The owner of the detective agency, who prefers annonymity, told me that what he valued most about Morris was his talent as a listener - the talent that has served him so effectively as a filmmaker. What happened next was that Morris began to employ in his film work certain skills he was honing as a detective. As a "director-detective" - a phrase Morris used to describe himself when he was promoting "The Thin Blue Line" - not the least of his accomplishments was cultivating Henry Wade, for thirty-six years the District Attorney of Dallas County. Instead of handling the Adams prosecution himself, Wade assigned it to Douglas Mulder, one of his most experienced assistants. After gaining access to the files in Wade's office, Morris became convinced that Mulder had seriously tampered with the truth and that Adams had received anything but a fair trial.
Randall Adams and David Harris met by chance the morning before Officer Wood was killed. Adams had run out of gas and was walking along a road in west Dallas when Harris, a sixteen-year-old with an extensive criminal record, driving a car that he had stolen in his home town of Vidor, Texas, pulled over and offered to help him refill the tank. They spent the rest of the day, a Saturday, together - bumming around a shopping mall, drinking beer, visiting pawnshops, shooting pool, smoking marijuana. That evening, they ended up at a drive-in theatre that featured two soft-core-porn movies. Officer Wood was shot at twelve-thirty Sunday morning - almost three hours after Harris, according to Adams' testimony, had dropped him off at the motel where he was living. That became Adams' alibi: he was home asleep when the crime was committed.
Teresa Turko proved to be a poor eyewitness to the slaying of her patrol
partner, and gave an inaccurate description of the car that the killer had been driving. The first break in the case came because David Harris, back in Vidor, told several friends that he had killed a policeman in Dallas. After being arrested and leading the Vidor police to the murder weapon, a .22-calibre handgun that belonged to his father, Harris was turned over to the Dallas police. At this point, he changed his story and said that he had only been bragging - that the real killer was a hitchhiker he had picked up and spent the day with. Which is how Adams, who had no prior criminal record, came to be charged with murder.
Initially, Adams was represented by Edith James, a lawyer whose criminal-trial experience included no homicide-defense work. She brought in as co-counsel a general practitioner named Dennis White. In one of White's previous head-to-heads with Doug Mulder, things had ended badly for his clients - two brothers named Ransonette who had made the mistake of kidnapping the daughter-in-law of a Dallas newspaper publisher. At the sentencing hearing in that case, White argued that the victim had not been harmed by her captors, and suggested a lenient prison term of five years. The prosecution mentioned a term of five thousand years. The jury, aspiring to Solomonic wisdom, said, in effect, "O.K. Let's compromise," and sentenced each defendant to five thousand and five years. Dennis White was simply no match for Doug Mulder, who is said to have once boasted, "Anybody can convict a guilty man. It takes talent to convict an innocent man."
Testifying during Adams' trial, David Harris offered a chronology of the events surrounding the murder that varied from Adams' version by approximately two and a half hours. Adams and Harris agreed that they had left the drive-in theatre during a movie called "Swinging Cheerleaders." Mulder elicited from Harris testimony that their departure had occurred shortly after midnight; Adams said they left around nine-thirty. In the D.A.'s files, Morris discovered a memorandum from Mulder's own chief investigator stating that there had been no late showing of "Swinging Cheerleaders" that night and that the final feature had ended shortly after ten o'clock.
This was the sort of serious defect in Harris's version of the facts that Mulder apparently had no intention of allowing to interfere with his prosecution of Adams - who, at twenty-eight, was eligible for capital punishment, whereas Harris, at sixteen, was not. It was also, unfortunately, the sort of discrepancy that Adams' attorneys failed to make clear to the jury. Nor were Edith James and Dennis White prepared when Mulder produced three mysterious witnesses, all of whom testified that they had driven past the scene of the crime moments before Officer Wood was murdered and that Randall Adams was in the driver's seat - the position from which the shots were fired. The three witnesses, Emily Miller, Robert Miller, and Michael Randell, all of whom were aware of a five-figure reward for information leading to the conviction of the killer, appeared in court on a Friday and impressed the jury. White, outmaneuvered by Mulder's strategy of presenting his "eyewitnesses" during the rebuttal phase rather than as part of his case-in-chief, conducted an ineffectual cross-examination. That weekend, White received a call from a woman named Elba Carr, who knew Emily and Robert Miller and expressed the opinion that "Emily Miller had never told the truth, in her life." When, back in court the following Monday, White asked to question the Millers and Michael Randell further, Mulder told the judge that all three had left town or were otherwise unreachable. Actually, all three witnesses were still in Dallas. The Millers, in fact, were ensconced in the Alamo Plaza Motel as guests of Dallas County. Not until nine years later, when Morris came along and found in the District Attorney's files bills for phone calls that the Millers had made from the Alamo Plaza, did Mulder's role in this apparent deception become evident.
Toward the end of "The Thin Blue Line," Errol Morris asks David Harris, "Would you say that Adams is a pretty unlucky fellow?" and Harris responds, "Definitely - if it wasn't for bad luck, he wouldn't have had none." Ironically, of course, Harris's reply is accurate only up to the moment when Morris met Adams. Not only did Morris discover important evidence in the prosecution's files; he discovered the absence of some important documents - specifically, the official record of a police lineup at which, according to Emily Miller's trial testimony, she had positively identified Randall Adams. Most significantly, Morris tracked down the three rebuttal witnesses themselves and persuaded them to appear on film. Emily Miller, a bleached blonde, whose childhood ambition was to be a detective or the wife of a detective, told Morris that she had failed to identify Adams in the lineup but that a policeman had told her the correct suspect, "so that I wouldn't make that mistake again." Robert Miller told him, "I really didn't see anything." Michael Randell, who had testified in 1977 that he was on his way home from playing basketball when he drove past the murder scene, told Morris that in fact he had spent that evening in an adulterous endeavor and that he was drunk "out of my mind." Each of the state's rebuttal witnesses, it therefore appeared, had committed damaging perjury. Putting David Harris on film posed a significant challenge. The first interview appointment, Morris says, Harris missed "because he was off killing somebody" - Mark Walter Mays, a Beaumont citizen, whose apartment Harris had broken into, and whose girlfriend he had abducted. Another interview had to be postponed when Harris tried to use Morris in an escape attempt from the jail where he was awaiting trial for these crimes. The climactic interview finally took place in the Lou Sterret Jail, in Dallas, by which time Harris had been convicted and sentenced to death for the Mays murder, and it included this exchange:
MORRIS: Is he [Adams] innocent?
HARRIS: Did you ask him?
MORRIS: Well, he's always said he's been innocent.
HARRIS: There you go. Didn't believe him, huh? Criminals always lie. MORRIS: Well, what do you think about whether or not he's innocent?
HARRIS: I'm sure he is.
MORRIS: How can you be sure?
HARRIS: Because I'm the one that knows.
On a straightforward, realistic level, "The Thin Blue Line" is the story of how Adams got railroaded, the story of an innocent man wrongly accused. Its aura, however, is that of a dreadful fantasy, a mixture of the ghastly and the absurd. By any standard, it breaches the conventional definition of "documentary." Tom Luddy has said that "The Thin Blue Line" illustrates Morris's belief that cinema verité is "too mundane - that there is a way to heighten the structure of the facts." To accomplish this, Morris
combines straight interviews - his unblinking talking-heads technique, from "Gates of Heaven" and "Vernon, Florida" - with artful restagings of certain incidents. The restaged episodes correspond to conflicting versions of "the facts" proposed by
the people who appear in the interviews. Also, inserted throughout the film are closeups - of a gun, a mouth and a straw, a milkshake spilling, popcorn popping - that have a fetishistic quality, an exaggerated objectivity (evidence of Morris's passion for film noir). The "Rashomon"-like result is something considerably creepier than the cold-blooded murder that "The Thin Blue Line" explores.
The day before the interview with Harris, which took place December 5, 1986, Morris appeared in the courtroom of John Tolle, a federal magistrate in Dallas, who was presiding over a habeas-corpus hearing - an effort by Adams to win a new trial. In addition to Morris's oral testimony, unedited footage from his interviews with the
prosecution witnesses became part of the court record. Watching these interviews - either unedited or as they appear in the final cut of "The Thin Blue Line" - one marvels at Morris's ability to win the confidence of so many people so prone to self-incrimination. On film, the witnesses against Adams seem to suffer collectively from the actor's nightmare - an instinctive fear of silence, terror at the thought of forgetting one's lines. Talking to Morris, they manage to discredit themselves thoroughly.
Under oath in Magistrate Tolle's courtroom, however, Emily Miller and Michael Randell tried to recant their statements to the filmmaker. Among the questions raised by Adams' habeas-corpus motion were: Had Adams been denied due process because he had not been effectively represented by his attorneys during his original trial, because of certain evidence that was illegally withheld from the jury during that trial, and because in 1980, when the United States Supreme Court overturned his death sentence (on a technical point involving jury selection), he
received from the governor of Texas a commutation of the death sentence to
life imprisonment rather than a new trial?
Morris returned to Magistrate Tolle's courtroom a month later, for the second, and last, day of the habeas-corpus hearing. Doug Mulder, by now a highly successful defense attorney, testified, responding to unwelcome questions from Adams' appellate lawyer, Randy Schaffer, with mumbled replies and lapses of memory. As the hearing ended, reason dictated that the magistrate would rule on Adams' petition within a few weeks. Tolle, however, turned out to be an even more, gifted procrastinator than Morris. The New York Film Festival committee had expressed interest in showing "The Thin Blue Line" in September of 1987, but Morris failed to meet the deadline. Finally, on March 18, 1988, "The Thin Blue Line" had its premiere, at the San Francisco Film Festival. Morris appeared to be in buoyant spirits that day, and I asked him what he expected to do after the screening. "Oh, I imagine the usual lithium treatments," he said. "Followed by a period of hospitalization." A month later, "The Thin Blue Line" led off the USA Film Festival, in Dallas. Magistrate Tolle had yet to be heard from. Two more weeks passed - sixteen months had elapsed since the conclusion of the habeas-corpus hearing - and Tolle at last rendered his judgment: "All relief requested& denied." As far as Morris's role in the case was concerned, Tolle wrote, "much could be said about those videotape interviews, but nothing that would have any bearing on the matter before this court."
A week later, Randy Schaffer filed a motion asking that Tolle's opinion be set aside, because an astonishing fact had come to light: In the spring of 1977, on the heels of Adams' conviction for the murder of Officer Wood, Dennis White had filed a five-million-dollar lawsuit against Doug Mulder and Henry Wade, alleging that the District Attorney's conduct during the trial had violated the defendant's civil rights. John Tolle then worked in the civil division of the Dallas County District Attorney's office. White's suit had been briskly dismissed by a federal judge. After the screening at the USA Film Festival, Dennis White mentioned to Morris that he recalled Tolle's having been involved in the 1977 civil suit. The records of that litigation were dredged from a file, and, sure enough, John Tolle's name was all over them: John Tolle had triumphantly represented Mulder and Wade. Somehow, not quite ten years later, Magistrate Tolle had decided that this coincidence did not disqualify him from rendering an opinion on Adams' habeas-corpus petition. Rather, he had chosen to hear the case, and had then sat on it for seventeen months before eventually ruling, in effect, in favor of his former client. The embarrassing revelation of Tolle's conflict of interest forced him to withdraw his recommendation; thus, an additional year and a half of Adams' life had been consumed by a proceeding
that ultimately yielded irrelevance. Rather than start all over again in federal court, before a different magistrate, Schaffer decided to formally withdraw the writ and refile it in state court, citing new evidence that Adams had never received a fair trial.
Officer Robert Wood was murdered Thanksgiving weekend in 1976. Twelve years later almost to the day, Adams and his attorneys returned to the room where he had been convicted of the murder and handed a death sentence - Criminal District Court No. 2, on the fourth floor of the Dallas County Courthouse. By Texas statute, the judge who presides at a trial - in this instance, District Judge Don Metcalfe, whose evidentiary rulings against Adams formed part of the basis for the writ - also presides at any subsequent appellate-writ hearing. Adams' bad luck, while consistent, was not absolute, however, and Metcalfe had since left the bench. In 1984, he was succeeded by Larry W. Baraka, a respected former prosecutor and defense attorney, whose special distinction is that he is the only member of the Texas judiciary who is black, a Muslim, and a Republican.
On the eve of the hearing, I had a phone conversation with Morris. In New York the previous day, he told me, his secretary had taken a call from a stranger who said, "An important message for Errol Morris: Stay away from the hearing in Dallas on Wednesday. You might disappear" - a forewarning that brought to mind his experience in Vernon, Florida, a decade earlier, where, he had been informed, unfortunate people had a tendency to "just disappear."
"My stepfather told my wife I should wear two bulletproof vests, so that one covers the seams of the other," he continued. "I don't mind a death threat, as such, but I do mind the idea of disappearing. That's like the 'delete' button on your personal computer - 'We deleted that character.' Disappearing suggests a whole set of unsavory possibilities."
As it turned out, I couldn't be in Dallas the opening day of the
writ hearing, and thereby missed a memorable striptease by David
Harris. Testifying for three hours, Harris said that he
had been alone in a stolen car and in possession
of a stolen gun when Wood pulled him over. In a
videotaped interiew that was introduced as evidence, he said that
he had had his finger on the trigger as
Wood approached him. Judge Baraka, no quibbler, announced, "As far as the court is concerned, he's in fact telling me he did it." Randy Schaffer read aloud a letter from Harris to his mother, written in September, 1988 - just two months earlier - that said, "It seems like my
whole life is surrounded by 'wrongs' of some kind and it seems like I've never done the right thing when I could and should have. Absolving Randall Dale Adams of any guilt is a difficult thing for me to do, but I must try to do so because he is innocent. That is the I truth."
Next, Schaffer called Teresa Turko, Robert Wood's patrol partner, as a witness. He wanted to make plain to the judge that Turko's initial description of the killer, recorded immediately after the shooting, differed measurably from the one she had offered at Adams' trial. Dennis White had not cross-examined Turko about the first statement, because, in violation of a cardinal principle of criminal-trial procedure, Mulder had not given him a copy. Nor would the document have come to light, of course, if Morris had not insinuated himself into the Dallas District Attorney's good graces and scrutinized Mulder's old files.
When I caught up with Morris, at the end of the first day of the hearing, his mood was upbeat but not entirely sanguine. The drama of Harris's confession notwithstanding, it did not, in a technical sense, really help Adams. In Texas, evidence of innocence is insufficient to win a new trial. What Schaffer had to prove was that Adams' original trial had been "unfair" on constitutional grounds. Even if Baraka were to grant Adams' writ, his ruling would have the effect only of a recommendation to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, a nine-judge panel, which in 1977 had unanimously upheld Adams' conviction. Harris's testimony was useful, however, in bolstering some of the other claims in the writ - most significantly, that Harris and Mulder had an understanding in 1977 whereby in exchange for testimony against Adams unresolved criminal charges against Harris in another county would be dropped. (Under cross-examination at the original trial, Harris had insisted that no quid pro quo existed - an avowal that Mulder has always maintained. Further harm to Adams was done when Judge Metcalfe refused even to allow into evidence the fact that Harris had such charges pending.)
Randall Adams wore the same outfit to court all three days of the hearing - a bright-orange jumpsuit with "DALLAS COUNTY JAIL" in black block letters stencilled on the back; leg irons; and handcuffs, which were attached to a chain around his waist. When Adams was escorted into the courtroom on Day Two, Morris had already arrived and taken a seat in the front row of the spectator section, between Adams' mother, Mildred, and his two sisters, Nancy Bapst and Mary Baugess. Two of Mildred Adams' sisters and their husbands had also come to Dallas for the hearing. George Preston, a lawyer who was assisting Randy Schaffer, leaned across a low partition that separated the spectators from the business end of the courtroom and showed Morris a printed sheet of paper, portions of which had been highlighted in yellow.
"This is from the Bar Association code," he said. "It regards tampering with witnesses and suppression of evidence."
"I'd like a copy of that," Morris said.
"Our Xerox machine broke, so I had to tear this page out of the book," Preston said.
"That page must have been missing from Doug Mulder's copy, too," Morris said.
The first witness on Day Two was Emily Miller. Randy Schaffer expected to score several points while she was on the stand: her failure to identify Adams in a lineup; the intervention of the Dallas policeman, who then pointed out to her the "right" suspect; her subsequent perjury regarding her performance at the lineup; and evidence that, like David Harris, she had struck an implicit deal with Mulder - specifically, her testimony against Adams in exchange for the dismissal of an outstanding robbery charge against her daughter.
A week after the murder of Robert Wood, at which time a twenty-thousand-dollar reward was being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer, Emily Miller had given a formal statement to the Dallas police. According to what she saw while driving the crime scene moments before the shooting, the suspect was "either a Mexican or a very light-skinned black man." That this description would divert suspicion from Adams, an auburn-haired Caucasian, perhaps explains why Mulder never showed the statement to Adams' attorneys. By the time of Adams' trial, Emily Miller's description of the killer had metamorphosed so that it matched the defendant. In Judge Baraka's courtroom, when Schaffer presented Emily Miller with a copy of her original statement she said that she had left her eyeglasses at home and couldn't read it. When Schaffer then read it to her and proceeded through a barbed interrogation, she said, "I don't remember nothing that happened back then. Specifics, I don't remember who asked me what or who said what or who did what. That was twelve years ago."
As far as the officer who had coached her at the police lineup was concerned, she said, "I didn't base nothing I said on anything anybody told me. It was what I seen. And I'm sorry I ever seen it."
"You're not the only one, I'm sure," Schaffer replied.
The subject of Errol Morris and his filmed interview with Emily Miller arose.
The witness turned to the judge and said, "May I get this clear on this videotape? This man [Morris] came to my house and told me that he was going to make a movie& They were kicking it around in their heads about making a movie about the police shooting in Dallas. So I said O.K. He said, well, it would be interesting because, he said, 'In the first place, you're married to a black man.' This was his exact words. And I said, 'Well.' And he said, 'Do you mind? We're not sure we're going to film or anything. We're just going to kick it around.' And I said, 'Well, I don't exactly remember how everything went down back then.' And he said, 'Well, what the heck, it's just a movie, you know?' He said, 'Anything you don't remember& I'll remember for you.' Well, this went on& The movie wasn't accurate. It wasn't, you know& I went along because he said what the heck, it's a movie& He tried to make me look like trash."
During a recess, several reporters approached Morris - the cour
troom was filled to capacity most of
the three days of the hearing -
and asked about Emily Miller's accusations. He pointed out
that she had described the precise antithesis of his well-established interviewing
style - his let-'em-talk-until-the-truth-flows technique - and he offered
to roll the tape of the
full interview for anyone who was interested. "She
spoke extemporaneously, at length, without coaching, prodding, or
interruption by me," he said. "It's quite clear
that Emily Miller has no credibility."
Nevertheless, Emily Miller had accomplished something
oddly significant: she had introduced
the idea that "The Thin Blue Line" was a corrupt document.
Months earlier, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News had said to Morris, "You know, Errol, there are two sides to every story," and he had replied, "Yeah, the truth and falsehood." Much as he still believed that about the Adams case, he also understood the mythology that attaches to movies, and he understood that in the iconography of this courtroom proceeding "The Thin Blue Line" had acquired a taint, as if it were some soiled version of the truth. Errol Morris, seated in the front row of the spectator section, wearing a blue plaid jacket, chinos, a white shirt, and a red paisley necktie, repeatedly heard himself referred to as "a filmmaker from New York" - a phrase chock-full of unflattering connotations. The word "movie" was chock-full of connotations. Robert Wood was dead, and Randall Adams had spent twelve years behind bars - those were virtually the only remaining unassailable truths. Almost every intervening fact had been tampered with by the police or lawyers or mysteriously motivated witnesses. In the immediate context, Randall Adams, in his jumpsuit, handcuffs, and leg irons, seated mutely with his back to the spectators, seemed more relevant to the proceeding than Robert Wood but less relevant than Errol Morris.
Other witnesses went out of their way to impugn Morris - most notably
Gus Rose, a former homicide detective, whom Adams described in "The Thin
Blue Line" as having pulled a gun on him during
one interrogation session. Rose had come to
court as the District Attorney's witness. During the
direct examination by Leslie McFarlane, the appellate
lawyer assigned to represent the Dallas
County District Attorney, he made several statements
that had Morris squirming in his seat
and, whispering to me things like "
Don't these people get embarrassed lying? After
all, this is only a man who
was sentenced to death." Rose complained that Morris had
misrepresented his intentions in soliciting an interview and then had
been argumentative during the interview. "You should hear
this interview," Morris said to me. "I'm barely present."
When Rose testified that Adams had never denied murdering
Robert Wood, Morris seethed, "That's a lie.
He told me on film that Adams had denied it. This is all lies, lies, lies."
During cross-examination, Schaffer gave Rose reason to regret
this particular portion of his testimony. Holding a transcript of "The
Thin Blue Line" - proof of Rose's failure to keep
his own story straight - Schaffer stood at the
detective's side and read a passage in which Rose recalled that Adams,
shortly after his arrest, "almost over-acted his innocence." A hubbub
arose in the spectator section, not unlike the inevitable moment
when Perry Mason's assistant, Paul Drake, shows up with
a previously elusive piece of physical evidence. A bearded
man seated two rows behind Morris suddenly produced a
videocassette of "The Thin Blue Line," and Morris relayed
it to George Preston, who passed it to Schaffer,
who was able to taunt Rose with
it, asking whether he wanted to see a moving picture
of himself uttering words directly at odds with the testimony he had just given.
Trapped, Rose turned to Judge Baraka and said, "Your Honor, if the question is do I want to see the film the answer is no, I do not want to see the film or anything Errol Morris has anything to do with."
Baraka called a recess for lunch. In the hallway, I passed Mildred Adams, Randall's mother. A tall, broad-shouldered woman with light-blue eyes, blue-gray hair, and a beauty-shop permanent, Mrs. Adams was standing in a bath of bright light, being interviewed by a television reporter, saying not for the first or the last time, "If Dallas County will just admit that they made a mistake and let that boy come home..."
One evening, I went to the Dallas County jail to have a conversation with Randall Adams. I rode an elevator to the eighth floor of the courthouse building, signed in, presented a guard with a letter from Randy Schaffer authorizing my visit, and was directed to a pinkish-beige room about twice the size of a prison cell, along one wall of which was a row of telephone receivers and thick six-by-twelve-inch windows. Adams, standing on the opposite side of the wall and holding two adjacent receivers - one to each ear - was concluding a conversation with Nancy Bapst and Mary Baugess, his sisters. A black woman who had three children with her was talking on one of the other phones. When Nancy Bapst handed me her receiver, a wall clock said eight-forty-five - which meant that we didn't have long before the visiting hour would expire.
Adams and I discussed Randy Schaffer's aggressive style ("I need somebody who can intimidate. That's what you need") and Doug Mulder, who was scheduled to testify the next morning ("I know what those people did to me, but I have no personal animosity toward them"), and then I turned the subject to Errol Morris.
"If it wasn't for him... I sat down there in Huntsville and this man listened to me - I was pleading for somebody and this man listened," Adams began, in a flat voice, which, although it originated only a couple of feet away, sounded distant and disembodied, as if it had travelled through water. "Errol Morris, when I talked to him, I talked to him for one purpose and one purpose only: for the investigation of my case, whether good or bad. I told him, 'Whatever you want to do - you can dig into my closet if you will allow me to look at whatever you turn up.' I knew what these people had done to me, but I couldn't prove it. Randy Schaffer and Mel Bruder [another appellate lawyer], they didn't know. The only one who knew was Dennis White, but he was shook up entirely and he was devastated. I agreed to talk to Errol Morris on the condition that he would share with me what he found out. I like to call Errol the Easter Bunny. I needed somebody to gather up all these facts and put them in one basket. He went and did his investigative work, and everything we're doing
now is because of what he did with his investigation of the facts. That is what "The Thin Blue Line" did for me."
The next morning, Doug Mulder gave a poised and self-assured courtroom performance. As Leslie McFarlane lobbed him across-the-letters questions, Mulder, a handsome man in his late forties with a squarish face, not much of a neck, and a stocky, athletic build, effortlessly swatted them out of the ballpark.
McFarlane: "Everything that you discovered and everything that you reviewed in preparation for this case indicates Adams' guilt, is that correct?... Did you find anything inconsistent with that?"
Mulder: "Nothing that comes to mind, no."
Schaffer, when his turn arrived, proved somewhat less ingratiating. His gambit, for instance, went "Well, I guess today you've returned to the scene of one of your greatest triumphs." Leslie McFarlane objected to the argumentative tone, and the judge agreed with her, telling Schaffer, "That's not the way to start." From there on, Schaffer and Mulder duelled for more than an hour - until it was apparent that the judge had had enough and that Mulder was not going to throw up his hands and declare, "O.K., ya got me, my legal career's a shambles, I'm finished in this town." The judge's impatience with Schaffer belied the fact that he had already made up his mind on the basic question. After a masterly summation by Schaffer - sufficient in its eloquence for McFarlane, when her turn came, to apologize, accurately, that her closing argument would be notably devoid of eloquence - Baraka said he was ready with his decision.
Of the thirteen grounds for relief cited in Adams' writ, Baraka agreed on six: that Metcalfe, the original trial judge, had erroneously denied the admissibility of David Harris's prior criminal record; that Teresa Turko's initial statement describing the killer had been illegally suppressed; that, similarly, Emily Miller's initial statement describing the killer had been illegally suppressed; that evidence of Emily Miller's failure to identify Adams in the police lineup and subsequent coaching by a police officer had been suppressed; that Emily Miller had later committed perjury regarding her performance at the lineup; and that Adams had been denied effective assistance of counsel.
It seemed that, because Baraka had rejected seven of the contentions cited
in the writ, a final observation he made was designed to eliminate any remaining ambiguity: "I think over all, when we look at this trial, all the nuances that are involved, I think there's no question that the defendant did not get a fair opportunity to a trial. I would not go so far as to say that the defendant is innocent of this. I would go so far as to say that if the defendant were to be retried, considering all the testimony elicited and what would be presented to the jury or a court, that more likely than not the defendant would be found not guilty."
The ruling did not mean that Adams was now at liberty to walk out of the courtroom; it meant that one judge officially believed that Adams had yet to receive a fair trial. As a I practical matter, Baraka's recommendation could languish with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for months before a final ruling came down. And the court could, of course, reject Baraka's recommendation. Imminent freedom for Adams, in other words, was by no means a foregone conclusion. Knowing that Baraka lacked the authority to grant Adams bail in the meantime, Schaffer asked for it anyway, and the motion was denied. On that note, the hearing ended. There was applause, and a call for order from the court officers, and then the television and newspaper people were ready with their questions.
Adams, seated in a wooden armchair
and still wearing handcuffs and leg irons, said
he felt "numb" - the same word he had
used in "The Thin Blue Line" to describe his
frame of mind when, twelve years earlier, he heard
himself sentenced to death.
A woman with a
microphone asked Adams if he had anything
to say to David Harris. No, he did not.
A reporter from Newsday asked, "Do you think you'd be here today if it hadn't been for Errol Morris?"
"Without the facts that came from
the movie, no, I wouldn't be here in
this courtroom today. We needed the facts,
and the film helped. It helped immensely."
Roughly the same question was directed to Schaffer, who was standing nearby: "Do you consider that if the file that Errol Morris got out of Mr. Wade's office had not been found, we'd be here?"
In his summation, Schaffer had belittled the Dallas District Attorney, saying, "They'll give their file to a moviemaker, because he'll go out and make a movie and they'll be famous, but they won't give it to a defense attorney." Elaborating, he now said, "No, if Errol had not decided on his own that this was a story worth telling,
Randall Adams would have been buried forever. Yes, that was the linchpin."
Mildred Adams, between bouts of crying for joy and kissing Morris and
Schaffer and any willing members of the press, said she hoped people would
remember Robert Wood and his family in their prayers. When the excitement had lasted close to half an hour, Morris suggested to Mrs. Adams that she and her daughters and sisters and brothers-in-law should join him for champagne at the Adolphus Hotel.
"Did I tell you what Randall Adams said to me about my movie?" Morris
asked me as we headed for the hotel, a few blocks east of the courthouse. "He told me another inmate asked him, 'How come your case is being argued in the entertainment section of the newspaper?' And you know what Randall's response was? He said, 'I'll argue my case anywhere I can, any way I can.'"
"The Thin Blue Line" made dozens of critics' lists of the ten best films of 1988; according to a survey by the Washington Post, in fact, it turned up on more fen-best lists than any other film. Both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National
Society of Film Critics chose it as best documentary of 1988. An Academy Award nomination is highly likely. Although its box-office receipts have not extended into the "Roger Rabbit" or "Crocodile Dundee II" vicinity - at the end of the year, it was playing in fifteen theatres around the country - Morris no longer faces the prospect
that he will soon again be working as a private detective or dodging collection agencies. Immediately before the writ hearing in Dallas, he was in Italy, where "The Thin Blue Line" was shown at a festival in Florence. On the same trip, he made stops in London - where he screened it for some people from the London Film Festival - and in Munich, where he met with Reinhold Messner, the legendary Alpine climber and the first man to have scaled all fourteen eight-thousand-metre peaks on earth (including Mt. Everest without oxygen). Messner was planning an ascent of Cerro del Toro, in Chile, and he wanted Morris - who happens to be an experienced rock
climber - to accompany him and make a film. "I'm thinking of doing it," Morris said, in Dallas. "Messner's a terrifically interesting person. He told me he's been doing a lot of walking recently. You or I might assume he meant he was taking long strolls in his
neighborhood. What he actually meant was that he had just walked across Tibet. And he's planning to walk across Antarctica. He told me some interesting stuff about meeting the yeti - know, the abominable snowman. He's seen two - the red yeti and
the black yeti. Messner was very reassuring. He said, 'The only thing you really have to be scared of is when you hear the black yeti whistling - whistling through his nose.'"
Heading off to South America with Messner would mean delaying a couple
of other projects that Morris was eager to carry forward. He still had plans to complete "Dr. Death" - the movie he had intended to make before the Randall Adams case sidetracked him. He also hoped to direct "The Trial of King Boots," a feature-length examination of how an Old English sheepdog named King Boots - the most
highly decorated performer in the annals of show-dog competition - became the only canine in Michigan history to be prosecuted, in effect, for homicide. Morris already had a vision of what the film's publicity posters would say: "Only Two People Know
What Happened. One Is Dead. The Other Is a Dog."
If Morris could find the time to finish "Dr. Death," he might at last tie together an odd melange of material: interviews with Dr. Grigson himself; action shots of a lion tamer; scenes from lab research on a mammal called the African naked mole rat; archival footage from an Edison silent film called "Electrocuting an Elephant"; and a meditation on Zoar, an extinct Utopian community in Ohio. After a previous trip to Europe, Morris had told me with satisfaction about finding the right music to accompany the Zoar material. "It's called 'Yodeler Messen,'" he said. "I'd been hearing this stuff on the radio in Zurich, and then I went into a record store and asked
whether they had any liturgical yodelling. They came up with 'Yodeler Messen.' It's, like, based on the idea that God might be hard of hearing."
One afternoon, in his office near Times Square, Morris patiently tried to walk me through the connections between the elements that would compose "Dr. Death," an exercise that struck me as analogous to a journey along the scenic route from the right side of his brain to the left. He told me that his fascination with Dr. Grigson's
disturbing theories of sociopathy and recidivism had aroused an interest in lion taming, and that in 1985 this led him to the eponymous ringleader of a circus act called Dave Hoover's Wild Animals. Of the three basic schools of lion taming - what Morris delineated as "the persuasive, mutual-respect school, the behaviorist school, and the chairs-whips-guns school" - Hoover subscribed to the third. Having filmed
Hoover at work for several hours - the soundtrack consists mainly of scary roaring noises and the determined voice of Hoover saying, again and again, "Bongo! Come! Come to Daddy! Bad girl! Caesar! Get home, Caesar! Good boy!" - Morris was uncertain what to do with the footage.
"After I'd looked at this stuff awhile, I decided, Oh, no, I can't use this. It's too goofy," Morris said. "Then I got interested in the mole rats. What's the connection between the lion tamer and the mole rats? I don't know if there even is one. Mole rats spend their entire lives digging tunnels. They have a rigid social system. They're like wasps or bees - there's a queen and workers. Mole rats dig at random, looking for tubers. Maybe they find a tuber, or maybe they don't. They just dig away. At one point I had thought the mole rats addressed the Utopian ideal of what it would be like if there were no crime or criminals, if you could say hello to your neighbor and your neighbor would say hello in return and we'd all be assured that no one would attack us with an axe. Is aggression innate in mammals? Well, supposedly not in mole rats. The mole rat was thought to be the only mammal that lives in harmony with its fellow-mammals, its fellow mole rats. The only. But it turns out that mole rats are nonviolent only under certain circumstances - that, in fact, they can be really nasty critters after all, who at times really do seem to hate one another. When one colony of mole rats meets another, they can be extremely vicious. Anyway, that was my original idea - Dr. Grigson, lion tamers, mole rats. I then decided to add to this compote 'Electrocuting an Elephant' - which was, if anything, a miscarriage-of-justice story."
When it became clear that I was unfamiliar with the once popular habit - practiced during the first half of this century - of systematically executing "bad" elephants, Morris eagerly took a book from a shelf next to his desk and handed it to me. It was a prolifically illustrated memoir titled "I Loved Rogues," by George (Slim) Lewis and Byron Fish. Lewis was a passionate lover of elephants who spent most of his working life in the employ of zoos and circuses, and Fish was a newspaperman whose interest in elephants was that of an involved amateur. The book had chapter titles like "They Are Not House Pets" and "Ziggy Tries to Kill Me" and "How to Feed and Water Your Elephant." The foreword included a reproduction of a painting labelled "George Lewis and Tusko" - Tusko being a vast bull elephant who came close to being executed for doing something deemed bad. A photograph on the facing page, captioned "Byron Fish painting Wide Awake," showed Fish perched on an elephant's shoulder, giving the animal a cosmetic treatment with a bucket of oil made from horse fat. The phone rang. While Morris took the call, I wrote down some more interesting captions and passages:
"Occasionally the victim of an elephant's attack is a man who was hated for reasons of the elephant's own" (p.29).
"Black Diamond seemed to know that he was taking his last walk" (p.47).
"After 170 shots by the firing squad, Diamond finally goes down" (p. 48).
"Joe Metcalf was another man Slim often met in his travels. The man with
his head in the elephant's mouth was Alonzo Dever" (p. 62).
"Isn't that a wonderful book?" Morris said after he hung up. "I'd very
much like to show you 'Electrocuting an Elephant.' This elephant, Topsy, was, if anything, a good elephant rather than a bad elephant. Topsy was being electrocuted because, as I understand it, some guy was smoking a cigarette and gave the cigarette to Topsy, burning the tip of her trunk. Now, the tip of an elephant's trunk is the most sensitive part of an elephant. Topsy picked this guy up, tossed him in the air a couple of times, and hurled him onto concrete. I ask you: Does Topsy deserve the juice for this? The film of Topsy's electrocution is a 1903 Edison short - one of the first
times electricity was used in capital punishment. And, coincidentally, the equipment malfunctioned and the person who pulled the switch almost electrocuted himself while he was electrocuting Topsy."
Morris paused. We could hear the traffic on Broadway, two floors below,
and from the editing room, ten feet away, we could hear a litany of "Come, Bongo!"s and "Home, Caesar!"s.
"My favorite line in 'Dr. Death,' I think, will be when the last living Zoarite is quoted as saying, 'Think of it - all those religions. They can't all be right. But they could all be wrong,'" Morris said. He looked down at his hands, massaged the tips of
his little fingers - a characteristic tic - and then looked up, smiling his asymmetrical smile. "My two remaining ambitions are to have my picture hung up in my local Chinese restaurant and to have a sandwich named after me at the Stage Deli. And I guess I'll still keep making films. I always felt film was a good medium for me to work in, because if you don't finish, the level of embarrassment is so high."