Monday, March 17, 2014

The Mind of God

It occurred to me recently that if you wanted to make a particularly strong case for the auteur theory, you might want to look at documentary filmmakers. Or rather, my thinking went like this: If you wanted to make a strong case for the auteur theory, what about looking at documentary filmmakers? Oh because most of them are stylistically and artistically barren. Because the auteur theory isn't supposed to have anything to do with rhetoric or activism, the pool of documentarians to which you could beneficially -- for you or them -- apply it is a shrinking one. Maybe hasn't always been, but is now. When you think about it, though, documentary filmmakers are hemmed in by facts, if they're honest and ethical (and the pool grows ever smaller) so that the only way they can really distinguish themselves is through a creative, artistic point of view. Still, the great non-fiction (a dicey term, which is another thing, but never mind) filmmakers don't often find themselves roped into that debate, and they should be. Or some should be. Or one should be.

In 1978, Errol Morris released his first film, the documentary Gates of Heaven, about pet cemeteries in Napa Valley. Roger Ebert flipped his damn lid for the movie, and rightly so, and this reaction by the world's most popular film critic no doubt helped this strange, quietly breathtaking piece of work, which could very uncharitably, blindly, and myopically be described as a collection of talking head interviews, not actually fall of the edge of the Earth. I watched Gates of Heaven the other night, having not seen it in years, and among the many things that are striking about it is that even then, even before his major breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line from 1988, and even before Morris's invention of the Interretron, a rough description of which would paint it as a camera attachment that allows Morris and his interview subject to view each other through separate camera lenses so that the speaker, Morris's subject, is talking to Morris but looking directly into the camera, even before all of this, his style was intact. In terms of the kinds of things held within the frame, Gates of Heaven really doesn't offer much; most of it really does consist of a speaker, or speakers, positioned in the middle of the frame. There are very few scenes that even call for cutting from one speaker to another (I can think of one such scene, a partial pet funeral that appears maybe halfway through the film), and with one or two notable exceptions I don't think the camera ever moves. Yet somehow out of this -- and certainly with the help of the unique subjects Morris seems to have an unerring skill for turning up -- and in just over 80 minutes, he created a sort of whispering philosophical epic about pets and pet cemeteries (literally -- Morris is too smart and too curious to use them only as a metaphor), the 1970s, naiveté, insensitivity, sensitivity, mortality, and, frankly, just loads more. Gates of Heaven is a very direct film in some ways -- the way in which it is so very much about the 1970s, and the burgeoning self-help culture, and how the children of the 60s and 70s were not the same kind of people as their parents, comes through very strongly. However as the film fades out, there is a lingering mystery to it, a sense that for all a given audience may have understood, and may have "gotten" about it, there are still depths that have been plumbed by Morris but perhaps not yet by us. And though I'm not here today to talk much more about Gates of Heaven, my own theory is that the source of this exhilarating uncertainty is, in fact, the pets. The silent montage of pet headstones near the end seems to change everything. Why? Because, maybe, it's a reminder that everything else you've now got on your mind because of this film started here.
So that was his first film. How did Morris do it? Well, as implied above, by seemingly doing nothing. But of course that can't be it, can it? I'll tell you, though, the movie that's my ostensible subject here, offers another example of his mysterious genius. That film is A Brief History of Time, Morris's film about Stephen Hawking from 1991, and his follow up to The Thin Blue Line. There are a lot of standard documentary tools that Morris likes to dispense with -- not every time out, but when it suits him, at least -- and one of those tools is chyrons, which are the on-screen graphics that tell you who a speaker is. I'm talking about Harlan Ellison again or how much I hate Bonnie and Clyde again, and under my fat head it says "BILL RYAN, THINKER" or whatever. A useful tool, one must admit, but if Morris can get by without them, he will -- he does in Gates of Heaven, but through context, and because people keep talking about each other, the viewer can figure it out. But in A Brief History of Time there are a whole lot more speakers than there are in Gates of Heaven, and all of them are talking about one of two things, and often both at once: black holes, and Stephen Hawking. So while it might be easy to figure out who Hawking's mother and sister are by what they're saying, his various classmates from Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, are rather harder to place a name to. It doesn't matter a great deal -- again, Hawking is the film's subject, and their's as well -- but you do still kind of wonder. Then the movie ends and the credits roll, and we get a list of the speakers, credited beside -- and this is the kicker -- one of their quotes from the film. Like so:
Now, I don't know what anyone else's experience with this has been, but when I read those quotes I immediately was able to place the words to a face. It could be that this was achieved by the film simply being well edited, by which I mean all the good stuff was left in and the bad stuff was taken out, but it still feels a little bit like a magic trick. "How did he know I'd remember that phrase?" Or maybe because this film is also just about 80 minutes and my memory's not as devastated as I sometimes think it is. Morris is still taking a lot on faith, or putting a lot of it into his audience.

A Brief History of Time, I should probably point out, has been the "lost" Morris film just about since it's release. For whatever reason, while everything else he's made, including more obscure movies like Vernon, Florida, has been more or less readily available, A Brief History of Time never got a standard DVD release, and in this interview with The Dissolve, Morris describes his quest to buy it back and then working with Criterion to have it added to their collection. Which is why we find ourselves here today, with the Criterion release happening tomorrow. Pardon my frank enthusiasm, but this is a wonderful thing in general, and a wonderfully put together release. An adaptation of Stephen Hawking's physics text/memoir (which I confess with much chagrin I've never read) of the same name, in A Brief History of Time Morris juxtaposes biographical material, usually delivered by Hawking's friends, family, and colleagues, with Hawking speaking about his work, his scientific philosophy, as well as the history of black hole theory, in the development of which Hawking played a key role.

Which will have to do for a plot summary. Visually, Morris gets away from the strict talking head aesthetic -- and it is an aesthetic, at least the way he does it -- that he'd already gotten away from anyway with The Thin Blue Line, and, in the way that earlier "true crime" film employed reenactments of the murder of a Dallas police officer to make a case for the innocence of the man who was convicted and against the man who turned out to actually be guilty, sort of "reenacts" classic metaphors (the chicken and the egg) and those original to Hawking (a shattering teacup) to illustrate quite abstract scientific concepts. And when photographing his interview subjects, with the indispensable assistance of cinematographer John Bailey, Morris goes deeply, and perhaps wryly, British. Almost everybody, except Hawking's family and one or two others, is just on the edge, and sometimes partly within, a kind of dim, leathery shadow -- no one is shown smoking a pipe but you can smell one anyway. Even if this is only a depiction of what the environments that housed scientific debates in Cambridge, Oxford, and elsewhere in the UK some fifty years ago might look like only in the current popular imagination, it nevertheless, as aesthetic choices that concern themselves with the past must do, makes it all feel immediate -- the exhilaration of discovery, even one that may later be disproved, somehow comes through the words of these pleasant but reserved men because something about the visuals puts us there. That, and of course the structure of the storytelling, the easily skilled storytelling by both Morris and his subjects, and the fact that this giant is sitting apart, shrunken and rendered immobile by his debilitating disease, his mind so breathtakingly dextrous that his distance from everyone else in the film puts him not just on another street, as one former classmate of Hawking says of him with great reverence, but another planet.
"He liked dancing, you see," Hawking's aunt says at one point, speaking of the scientist as he existed before the effects of ASL changed his life. Morris shows us photographs of this other young man, and while they're plainly the same person it can still be hard to reconcile these pictures with the famous scientist we all know. Morris lets this disconnect and lines like those spoken by his aunt just sit and accumulate so that along with everything else A Brief History of Time is, it's also quite melancholy. Melancholy, though never pitying -- not that it could be expected to be the latter, because what a boneheaded misstep that would have been, but it would be hard to watch the film and not walk away from it feeling both sad and humbled. Stories told about Hawking's early symptoms and eventual diagnosis, not to mention the initial prognosis that he would only live another year and a half -- this being told to him over fifty years ago now -- feel horrifying even todau, the intense focus that his never-weakened mind was finally able to summon still bewildering. But while Hawking's mother does speculate that his ASL allowed him to work harder than he might have had he not had the disease, she is quick to dismiss the notion that it could ever be considered any kind of blessing. This is the strange nature of Stephen Hawking as a public figure, that we might consider and wonder about but never understand. That Morris does not use his film to pretend to find an answer to Hawking's full and deepest thinking about his situation is not only as it should be, but it's in keeping with the rest of his work, and Hawking's. At different times in the film, Hawking points out where Einstein was wrong, as well as where his own theories have been mistaken. Nothing is ever certain, including a healthy life.
A Brief History of Time is the first of Morris's two science documentaries, the other being 1997's Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, which juggles the stories of four disparate men with four disparate jobs -- a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, an expert on naked mole rats, and an MIT scientist who builds robots. That film, which wonders about our relationship to animals (like Gates of Heaven) and the, when you think about it, resemblance of so much in life, including our own bodies, to insects, finds the cosmic here on Earth. Even the topiary gardener, as shot by Morris and DP Robert Richardson, seems to be creating an alien environment that we're as yet incapable of fully understanding. The fact that he's doing this by manipulating flora to look like fauna, and that this is juxtaposed with images of artificial life in the form of the MIT scientist's (insect-like, it should be noted) robots, with mammals that behave like insects, and with lions who have been trained to entertain us and thereby actually resemble us, well, it's a lot to take in. And this is Morris actually scaling back from A Brief History of Time, at least in terms of scope. But going earthbound only serves to show how little we understand about what we do and see every day, and by the way at this point in his career Morris's Interrotron was in full working order, so this new tweak to his style adds a shot of surrealism -- these people on screen are looking right at me -- that is somehow both a gimmick and yet wholly unfeigned. It's an honest gimmick that makes the way a person looks at you when they're talking to you appear off-kilter. So basically Morris drags us back down to Earth and suddenly that's when things go crazy. That film seems to ask the question "What the hell are we, anyway?" Meanwhile, in A Brief History of Time, so much is unsolvable, or anyway unsolved, the questions and goals of Hawking and his fellow scientists so overwhelmingly massive, but it's all rooted in Hawking's life and humanity, that the result is a kind of drifting, general feeling that we're all in this together -- we don't know what this is about, but one day we will. The last shot of the film is of the back of Hawking's wheelchair, which is superimposed over a field of stars, the idea being that Hawking is facing and moving towards those stars. As an image in an Errol Morris film it's perhaps a little bit on the nose, but so little else in his career has been that just one can't hurt.


John said...

A friend of mine's father was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease at one point and told he'd be dead within about a year or so. Then after all the necessary arrangements were made, friends and loved ones here and there notified and preparatory goodbyes said, a subsequent checkup resulted in a freak, totally unexpected discovery of some small growth or abnormality on or in the brain stem or something, which being removed, eventually led to a complete recovery on the dad's part--almost by accident, in essence. I'm not saying this turn of events necessarily has any relevance to Hawking's condition, but we did speculate a little as to how unfortunate it would be if that kind of drawn-out physical collapse could likewise have been avoided by just such a seemingly random stroke of luck.

It's been a while since I saw this, and maybe because Hawking was already a fairly familiar figure to me, I don't recall it leaving a huge impression on me at the time. Certainly not on the same level as The Thin Blue Line, but then again not much else since has, either.

bill r. said...

That's an amazing story. I don't know how your friend's dad, or his wife and kids, could process that kind of reversal.

And have you seen GATES OF HEAVEN?

John said...

Yeah, it was quite a story, but all related in retrospect, so it almost had the air of a cruel joke when I heard it. That would have been not long after this film appeared, too.

I did see GOH some time ago, and most of Morris's other documentaries as I could get my hands on them. Probably should watch them all again at some stage. Thin Blue Line is the only one I've seen more than once, and a few times at that. It always amazes me as much as the first time I saw it, every time.