Errol Morris is one of America’s premiere documentarians—but he became so almost by happenstance. A student at Berkley, he worked in the film department, making friends with leading underground, independent filmmakers of the day. He always belied an interest, but he never considered himself as the film-making type. Through the encouragement of his friends—including an infamous challenge from his friend Warner Herzog that he would eat his shoe if Morris completed a film—he took on the task of making a documentary, and while his first two films did moderately well, it was his third, The Thin Blue Line, that would change his life and bring him into the limelight as a major talent. (Note The incident in question—which Morris insists he never even remembered—is included here in Les Blank’s wonderful short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.)
Gates of Heaven, his debut film, was released in 1978 and was a project that he stated came out of a desire to make a documentary. He’d formulated ideas—ones that he would follow-up on later in his career—but at this time, he simply saw a headline that interested him—a pet cemetery had gone bankrupt, and the graves were being exhumed—and went out and started filming, not particularly sure what the film was going to be about. He quickly found it, though—the pet cemetery business and culture of what was then seen as extreme pet owners, but who now, in our pet-obsessed climate, seem oddly quaint and simple.
Gates of Heaven is charming, even if it is flawed. The subject matter is interesting, but the film feels a bit too heavy, and at eighty-eight minutes, the premise isn’t thick enough to sustain it for that length of time. It feels exactly like what it is: the first work of a young man who has yet to find his voice. But it was an important film for Morris, one that opened the doors for him—and one that critic Roger Ebert proclaimed as one of his favorite films of all time.
Vernon, Florida, followed in 1981, and it is a much more satisfying film. Initially intended as a documentary about one of the country’s leading insurance fraud locations—known affectionately as “Nub City,” due to the high number of amputees who committed insurance fraud to get paid—he discovered the area was rife with unique individuals who exist on the fringes of society, but for whom their weirdness is simply day-to-day living. The characters are most certainly unique—the elderly man with his possum, the turkey hunter who is obsessed with the hunt, even though he can’t seem to find a single turkey, and the bearded old man who makes utterly zen-like statements, such as the introductory “You mean to tell me, this is it, this is the real world?” Morris’ peeks into these people’s lives is straightforward, non-judgmental, and ultimately quite captivating.
Though still harboring a desire to make documentaries, Morris had little luck in actually getting anything made, and spent several years doing other things, most notably working as a detective. During this era, he learned of a Texas psychiatrist who worked with the penal system, and was known as “Doctor Death” due to his insistence that all death-row worthy criminals deserved to die as they were too dangerous for society. It was during his research that he met Randall Dale Adams, whose story of wrongful imprisonment fascinated Morris, so much so that he abandoned his original documentary and began what would become his watershed creation, The Thin Blue Line.
During his research, he met David Harris, a teenage delinquent who had met up with Adams shortly before the murder of police officer Robert Wood. Not only did Morris believe Adams was innocent, he quickly felt that Harris had been the real killer. Investigating further, he met with the three key witnesses against Adams. All three of these witnesses had credibility issues. During his interview with Emily Miller, she practically gives herself away as having lied on the stand, as well as demonstrating herself to be mentally unstable, as she rants about how murders took place around her house and she was always solving them before the police would.
Enhancing the fascinating facts of the story and the testimony, Morris cleverly interspersed the standard documentary techniques with reenactments—all done cleverly enough so as to not give away or make any judgments as to guilt or innocence. Add in Phillip Glass’ fantastic score, and The Thin Blue Line becomes a fine example of narrative documentary. Not only would the film establish Morris as a first-rate documentarian, it would also serve to help Randall Adams achieve his freedom. Furthermore, the film’s unique style–reenactments interspersed throughout to help illustrate the mystery and details of the case–would shortly become ubiquitous. In the interview included in the series, Morris felt the film justified the years of failure and rejection, and declares—somewhat proudly—that there are entire cable channels devoted to making the types of documentaries that studios and producers rejected. It’s easy to understand why; The Thin Blue Line is simply one of the finest true-crime documentaries ever produced.
These three films wonderfully document the growth of one of the finest American documentarians, and even if his first two works are shaky and tentative, they set the standard for what Morris would do, and has done so ever since: alternate between true crime investigations and quirky, interesting documentaries about odd, interesting, fascinating people. He is an American treasure.