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kottke.org posts about Errol Morris

Errol Morris & Bob Odenkirk Team Up for Climate Change Spots

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2019

In partnership with the Institute for the Future, Errol Morris has produced a series of 30-second spots about climate change that star Bob Odenkirk as Admiral Horatio Horntower.

Here’s what Morris had to say about the ads:

I have never had any trouble believing in climate change, global warming, or whatever you want to call it. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. Galileo famously replied to Archbishop Piccolomini (or some other Vatican prelate), “And yet it moves.” Today we could just as well say, “And yet it changes.” But what to do about it? Logic rarely convinces anybody of anything. Climate change has become yet another vehicle for political polarization. If Al Gore said the Earth was round there would be political opposition insisting that the Earth was flat. It’s all so preposterous, so contemptible.

I’ve created nineteen thirty-second spots that profile a character I created: Admiral Horatio Horntower. He’s an admiral of a fleet of one and perhaps the last man on Earth. Hopefully it captures the absurdity and the desperation of our current situation. No pie graphs, no PowerPoint — just a blithering idiot played by one of my favorite actors, Bob Odenkirk.

You can watch all nine of the current spots here.

The Making of an Iconic Photograph: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 31, 2019

At the end of a long day in March 1936, Dorothea Lange stopped in a migrant workers camp in California for just 10 minutes and took six photos of a woman and her children. The final photo, known as Migrant Mother, became one of the most iconic photographs of the Great Depression.

Migrant Mother

In this video, Evan Puschak details not only the context the photo was created under (FDR’s administration wanted photos that would shift public support towards providing government aid) but also how Lange stage-managed the scene to get the shot she wanted.

As Puschak notes, the photo we are all familiar with was retouched three years after its initial publication to remove what Lange saw as a detriment to the balance of the scene: the thumb of the woman’s hand holding the tent post in the lower right-hand corner.

It is easy to tell whether a print of “Migrant Mother” was made before 1939, because that year Ms. Lange had an assistant retouch the negative and remove Ms. Thompson’s thumb from the bottom right corner, much to the chagrin of Roy Stryker, her boss at the Farm Security Administration. While that was a fairly common practice at the time, Mr. Stryker thought it compromised the authenticity not just of the photo but also of his whole F.S.A. documentary project, Ms. Meister said. But Ms. Lange considered the thumb to be such a glaring defect that she apparently didn’t have a second thought about removing it.

Here’s what it looked like before the alteration:

Migrant Mother Unretouched

There are some other things about the photo that may prompt us to think about the objectivity of documentary photography. The cultural story of Migrant Mother is that this is a white woman who came west during the Great Depression for migrant work. The real story is more complicated. The woman was identified in the late 1970s as Florence Owens Thompson, and as she told her story, we learned some things that Lange didn’t have time to discover during her fleeting time at the camp:

1. Thompson was a full-blooded Cherokee born in Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma). As this NY Times review of Sarah Meister’s book on the photograph says, if people had known the woman wasn’t white, the photo may not have had the impact it did.

“We have never been a race-blind country, frankly,” Ms. Meister said. “I wish that I could say that the response would have been the same if everyone had been aware that she was Cherokee, but I don’t think that you can.”

2. The family were not recent migrants to California and had actually moved from Oklahoma in 1926, well before the Depression started. The family briefly moved back to Oklahoma because Thompson was pregnant and afraid the father’s family would take the baby from her, but returned to California in 1934.

3. Thompson’s first husband died in 1931 of tuberculosis while she was pregnant with her sixth child. A seventh child resulted from a brief relationship with the father mentioned above. An eighth child followed by a new husband in 1935. But it was Thompson who provided for the family while taking care of 8 kids:

By all accounts, Jim Hill was a nice guy from a respectable family who never could seem to get his act together. “I loved my dad dearly,” Norma Rydlewski said, “but he had little ambition. He was never was able to hold down a job.” The burden of supporting the family, and of keeping it together, fell on Florence.

4. The ultimate goal of Lange taking Thompson’s photo for the FSA was to stimulate public support for government aid to people who were out of work because of the Depression. But Thompson herself didn’t want any aid:

“Her biggest fear,” recalled son Troy Owens, “was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life.”

5. Thompson and her family weren’t actually living at the pea pickers camp when Lange photographed them there. They had just stopped temporarily to fix their car and were only there for a day or two.

In the field notes that she filed with her Nipomo photographs, Lange included the following description: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.”

Owens scoffed at the description. “There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell,” he told this writer. “The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.”

“Mother always said that Lange never asked her name or any questions, so what she [Lange] wrote she must have got from the older kids or other people in the camp,” speculates daughter Katherine McIntosh, who appears in the Migrant Mother photo with her head turned away behind her mother’s right shoulder. “She also told mother the negatives would never be published — that she was only going to use the photos to help out the people in the camp.”

So what are we to make of what we thought we knew about this photograph and what we know now? In 2009, Errol Morris wrote of the FSA photos:

Rothstein, Lange and Evans have been accused of posing their photographs, in short, of manipulating them to some end. And yet all photographs are posed. There is no such thing as pure documentary photography. The problem is not in what any of them have done, but in our misunderstanding of photography. No crimes were committed by the F.S.A. photographers. They labored as employees of an organization dedicated to providing propaganda for the Roosevelt administration. And they created some of the greatest photographs in American history. Photographs can be works of art, bearers of evidence, and a connection with the past for individuals, families and society as a whole. It should not be lost on any of us that these controversies are still with us. The Photoshop alteration of a photograph “documenting” the launching of Iranian missiles, the cropping of a Christmas get-together at the Cheney ranch. These are just the latest iterations. In 1936, Roosevelt was reelected in a contentious election. Photography played a controversial role, reminding us that wherever there are intense disagreements, particularly political disagreements, there will be disagreements about photography, as well.

The stories we tell about photographs change as we change and as our culture changes. Yes, Migrant Mother is a symbol of the hardship endured by many during the Great Depression. But Migrant Mother is also the portrait of a fiercely independent Native American single mother who fought to provide for her family and keep them together during the most difficult time in our nation. That’s a story worth hearing today.

Both prints above are courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division: with thumb and without. You can also explore the rest of the LOC’s FSA collection.

American Dharma, Errol Morris’ upcoming documentary about Steve Bannon

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 27, 2018

Errol Morris has made a documentary film about Steve Bannon called American Dharma that he refers to as “a kind of horror movie” for folks uneasy in Trump’s America. There’s no trailer yet but a pair of recent interviews with Morris shed light on the film, the third installment of the director’s American Political Monsters trilogy (along with The Fog of War and The Unknown Known).

Both interviews are quite good. Here’s a bit from Frank Bruni’s chat with Morris in the NY Times:

Bruni: Is Steve Bannon an earnest ideologue or is he a cynical and grandiose opportunist?

Morris: It’s the big question. And everybody, including myself, wants a pie graph. They want to be able to say what percentage is ideologue, what percentage is snake-oil salesman. And I’m not sure I can answer the question. We all know that being an effective salesman is coming to believe in what you’re selling. You know, I like to think that the human capacity for credulity is unlimited, unfettered. But the human capacity for self-deception — the ultimate self-credulity — is also unfettered, unlimited. I look at him and I think to myself: You can’t really believe this stuff. And yet, for all intents and purposes, he does.

Bruni: Which stuff do you find it hardest to believe he believes?

Morris: I find it hardest to believe that he thinks that Donald Trump is an honest man. I find it hard to believe that he thinks that Donald Trump is enabling populist programs. How is this tax cut or the attempt to roll back capital gains taxes — how does that benefit the people? Is allowing all kinds of industrial pollution populism? I could go on and on.

I try making fun of him. You know, he was reading a book about tariffs and China and the Great Wall. And I said to him, “You know, the wall really worked in China.” He said, “How’s that?” I said, “No Mexicans.”

And from Deborah Chasman’s conversation for the Boston Review:

DC: It’s clear that he’s good at giving voice to a legitimate grievance, at least in some contexts. In the United States there’s the legitimate grievance that a corrupt political machine has left a bunch of people behind. But I’m unclear what he is actually delivering to these people, or even just thinks he is giving them, other than this permission to hate.

EM: I think that’s certainly part of it. He told the French National Front, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

I also think you see it in his reaction to Charlottesville. He basically says, “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The neo-Nazis have no currency in our culture.” In my movie he even says that the neo-Nazis are a creation of the liberal press. Which, of course, is absurd. Yes, the liberal press gets upset by neo-Nazis being coddled by the president, and why shouldn’t they? But that’s not to say that journalists parked them in Charlottesville and caused them to run over people.

Bannon also called Macron “a little Rothschild’s banker.” He said, “The French are realizing how much Macron has become an embarrassment. He’s a Rothschild banker who never made any money, the ultimate definition of a loser. He would sell his soul for nothing.” I did not like that. He doubtlessly would say that his remarks were not anti-Semitic, but I would respectfully disagree. He knew what he was doing. He knows who he’s appealing to.

DC: So why talk to Bannon at all? What’s to be gained?

EM: I think there’s a lot to be gained. I consider myself a journalist, proudly so, and the job of journalism is not to have five pundits sitting around a table on Fox News or CNN. The job of journalists is to report-to go out, look at stuff, and report on it. I went out in the field and this is what I saw, and I would like to present it to you for your consideration.

I find Morris’ constant interrogation of the truth — in politics, in photography, in storytelling, in people’s own minds — endlessly fascinating. I’m looking forward to this one, despite the subject matter, and will share the trailer when it arrives.

From Errol Morris, a list of 10 things you should know about truth & photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 08, 2018

In 2011, writer and filmmaker Errol Morris summarized the main points in Believing Is Seeing, his book on the nature of truth, belief, and reality in photography with a series of tweets.

1. All photographs are posed.

2. The intentions of the photographer are not recorded in a photographic image. (You can imagine what they are, but it’s pure speculation.)

3. Photographs are neither true nor false. (They have no truth-value.)

4. False beliefs adhere to photographs like flies to flypaper.

5. There is a causal connection between a photograph and what it is a photograph of. (Even photoshopped images.)

6. Uncovering the relationship between a photograph and reality is no easy matter.

7. Most people don’t care about this and prefer to speculate about what they believe about a photograph.

8. The more famous a photograph is, the more likely it is that people will claim it has been posed or faked.

9. All photographs are posed but never in the same way.

10. Photographs provide evidence. (The question is of what?)

Morris expanded on the third item in his list in a 2007 NY Times piece.

In discussing truth and photography, we are asking whether a caption or a belief — whether a statement about a photograph — is true or false about (the things depicted in) the photograph. A caption is like a statement. It trumpets the claim, “This is the Lusitania.” And when we wonder “Is this a photograph of the Lusitania?” we are wondering whether the claim is true or false. The issue of the truth or falsity of a photograph is only meaningful with respect to statements about the photograph. Truth or falsity “adheres” not to the photograph itself but to the statements we make about a photograph. Depending on the statements, our answers change. All alone — shorn of context, without captions — a photograph is neither true nor false.

(via austin kleon)

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: we are all confident idiots

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 27, 2018

In a lesson for TED-Ed, David Dunning explains the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias in which people with lesser abilities tend to rate themselves as more proficient than they are.

Interestingly, this effect not only applies to those with lower abilities thinking they are better but also to experts who think they’re not exceptional. That is, the least & most skilled groups are both deficient in their ability to evaluate their skills.

Dunning also wrote a longer piece for Pacific Standard on the phenomenon.

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

Confidence feels like knowledge. I feel like that simple statement explains so much about the world.

See also Errol Morris’ series for the NY Times about humanity’s unknown unknowns.

In closing, I’ll just note that thinking you’re impervious to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is itself an example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. (via open culture)

The Face of Distracted Driving

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 26, 2018

Filmmaker Errol Morris has made a pair of videos for AT&T’s It Can Wait campaign against distracted driving, which “kills an average of 8 people every day in the US”. Each video features the friends and family of someone who was killed in a car accident as a result of texting while driving.

Fair warning: do not watch that second video unless you want your coworkers to see you sobbing at your desk. I very rarely look at my phone while driving and let me tell you, even that little bit stops today.

Morris joins his friend and fellow filmmaker Werner Herzog in the campaign against distracted driving. Herzog made a 35-minute documentary about texting while driving back in 2013.

Errol Morris on Stephen Hawking, “a king of infinite space”

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 19, 2018

From an interview with Errol Morris on his friend Stephen Hawking (about whom he made a documentary), Morris shares why Hawking’s A Brief History of Time resonated with so many people beyond the scientific community.

I read the book on the plane on the way over. I was surprised, because I had been told that it was a book about theoretical physics and cosmology. But it was something much more than that. It was a work of literature.

He had done something strange and unusual and powerful. He had described himself and his own situation in terms of his science. Hawking’s greatest discovery — Hawking Radiation — was, in its own way, a tour de force. He was combining elements from general relativity, from quantum mechanics, and from thermodynamics in a new way. There’s something extraordinary about it, but what was most extraordinary about it is that here you have this entity, a black hole, from which nothing can escape. The gravitational field is so strong, surrounded by an event horizon. Nothing can escape from the black hole. Nothing inside that event horizon can get out.

What did Hawking show? Hawking showed that black holes are not entirely black. Radiation can escape from a black hole. He showed the mechanism through which this could occur.

At the same time, he’s telling you that he’s been condemned to this chair, to motor neuron disease, to ALS, and is really unable to talk. He’s lost his ability to speak, and now has to use a computer device, a clicker, a screen with a built-in dictionary and cursor. Despite the disease, he’s not trapped inside of himself. He’s able to communicate. He would always cite the famous line from Hamlet, “Bounded …”

“… in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

The whole thing is well worth a read. Like this bit about Hawking’s voice double:

Q: What was the process of working on the film with him like? Not all of those passages are from the book. Were you sending him questions?

A: Yes. He was writing answers, and some of the material was taken from lectures that he had given. Some of it was written for the film. I called him the first nontalking talking head. It became pretty clear that you had to assemble a dictionary of Hawking shots, but there’s no point in interviewing him for those, because it’s not synced. It’s a voice synthesizer. He gave us the voice synthesizer so we could just assemble his voice in the office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he insisted on calling “the pseudo-Cambridge.” There’s nothing like this project.

Q: Wait. He sent you the synthesizer so he could send you an answer and then you could feed it through the synthesizer to get the sound of his voice delivering the answer?

A: That’s correct.

Physics giant Stephen Hawking dead at age 76

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 14, 2018

Lego Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking, who uncovered the mysteries of black holes and with A Brief History of Time did more than anyone to popularize science since the late Carl Sagan, has died at his home in Cambridge at age 76. From an obituary in The Guardian:

Hawking once estimated he worked only 1,000 hours during his three undergraduate years at Oxford. In his finals, he came borderline between a first- and second-class degree. Convinced that he was seen as a difficult student, he told his viva examiners that if they gave him a first he would move to Cambridge to pursue his PhD. Award a second and he threatened to stay. They opted for a first.

Those who live in the shadow of death are often those who live most. For Hawking, the early diagnosis of his terminal disease, and witnessing the death from leukaemia of a boy he knew in hospital, ignited a fresh sense of purpose. “Although there was a cloud hanging over my future, I found, to my surprise, that I was enjoying life in the present more than before. I began to make progress with my research,” he once said. Embarking on his career in earnest, he declared: “My goal is simple. It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”

From Dennis Overbye’s obit in the NY Times:

He went on to become his generation’s leader in exploring gravity and the properties of black holes, the bottomless gravitational pits so deep and dense that not even light can escape them.

That work led to a turning point in modern physics, playing itself out in the closing months of 1973 on the walls of his brain when Dr. Hawking set out to apply quantum theory, the weird laws that govern subatomic reality, to black holes. In a long and daunting calculation, Dr. Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes — those mythological avatars of cosmic doom — were not really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons.

Nobody, including Dr. Hawking, believed it at first — that particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.”

That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title “Black Hole Explosions?,” is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature — to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought.

The discovery of Hawking radiation, as it is known, turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators — or at least to recyclers — and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange, new direction.

“You can ask what will happen to someone who jumps into a black hole,” Dr. Hawking said in an interview in 1978. “I certainly don’t think he will survive it.

“On the other hand,” he added, “if we send someone off to jump into a black hole, neither he nor his constituent atoms will come back, but his mass energy will come back. Maybe that applies to the whole universe.”

Dennis W. Sciama, a cosmologist and Dr. Hawking’s thesis adviser at Cambridge, called Hawking’s thesis in Nature “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.”

Roger Penrose, the eminent mathematician and physicist who collaborated with Hawking on discoveries related to black holes and the genesis of the universe, wrote a lengthy scientific obituary for Hawking in The Guardian.

Following his work in this area, Hawking established a number of important results about black holes, such as an argument for its event horizon (its bounding surface) having to have the topology of a sphere. In collaboration with Carter and James Bardeen, in work published in 1973, he established some remarkable analogies between the behaviour of black holes and the basic laws of thermodynamics, where the horizon’s surface area and its surface gravity were shown to be analogous, respectively, to the thermodynamic quantities of entropy and temperature. It would be fair to say that in his highly active period leading up to this work, Hawking’s research in classical general relativity was the best anywhere in the world at that time.

And then there was that time Hawking threw a party for time travellers but didn’t advertise it until after the party was over (to ensure only visitors from the future would show up).

Tonight is perhaps a good night to watch Errol Morris’ superb documentary on Hawking (with a wonderful Philip Glass soundtrack) or build a version of Hawking out of Lego.

Errol Morris’ new Netflix series, Wormwood

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 30, 2017

True crime OG Errol Morris has teamed up with Netflix for a 6-part series called Wormwood. The series is an exploration of the CIA experiments with LSD in the 1950s and the death of CIA employee Frank Olson, who was covertly given LSD more than a week before he died. Olson’s death was ruled a suicide, but many years later, the US government settled a potential wrongful death lawsuit out-of-court with a $750,000 payment to the family.

The show itself is a mixture of documentary and historical reenactment (starring Peter Sarsgaard & Bob Balaban) that is now somewhat standard in the true crime genre, having been pioneered by Morris in The Thin Blue Line. Of the show, Morris writes:

Isn’t journalism the pursuit of truth? But what if the truth proves to be elusive, hard to get at? How far does one go? Where does one stop? Are there limits, emotional and otherwise, to the pursuit of truth? Can it be injurious to one’s health? Here we have the story of one man’s sixty-year quest to identify the circumstances of his father’s death. Did he jump from a hotel window? Or was he pushed? And if he was pushed, why? What for? A shadowy world of hidden and imagined intentions coupled with dark and horrifying revelations. In many ways, a personal family story, but in many other ways, a story of America’s decline in the period following World War II. It asks the question: To what extent can a democracy lie to its citizens and still, in the end, remain a democracy?

On Netflix on December 15.

Update: Here’s the full trailer for Wormwood:

Trailer for Errol Morris’ new documentary, The B-Side

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 24, 2017

Errol Morris’ documentary about portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman is coming out in early June and the first trailer was just released.

Errol Morris’s surprising new film is simplicity itself: a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts studio of his friend, the 20x24 Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, who specifies on her website that she likes her subjects “to wear clothes (and to bring toys, skis, books, tennis racquets, musical instruments, and particularly pets…).” As this charming, articulate, and calmly uncompromising woman takes us through her fifty-plus years of remarkable but fragile images of paying customers, commissioned subjects, family, and close friends (including the poet Allen Ginsberg), the sense of time passing grows more and more acute.

Donald Trump is modeling his life after Charles Foster Kane

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 26, 2016

Last year, back when he was only one of more than a dozen GOP candidates, I discovered Citizen Kane was one of Donald Trump’s favorite movies via a video filmed by Errol Morris.

Trump acquits himself pretty well on Kane and its lessons — although I would not characterize Kane’s fall as “modest” — and his commentary about the film is probably the first actually interesting thing I have ever heard him say. But I watched all the way to the end and he shoots himself in the foot in the most Trumpian & misogynistic way — it’s actually perfect.

Spurred by a recent re-watch of Citizen Kane, Anthony Audi digs deeper into Trump’s misunderstanding of the film and finds that the course of Trump’s life has followed that of Charles Foster Kane.

He understands instinctively that by controlling the press, he can shape opinions on a mass scale — bending the truth as he sees fit. Over time, and through his marketing savvy, he develops a powerful media empire. Because that’s not enough, he then turns his sights to politics, running for New York governor as a stepping-stone to the White House. At campaign rallies, Kane gleefully brags about his poll numbers, and vows to lock up his opponent Jim Gettys, whom he condemns as an establishment tool. “Here’s one promise I’ll make,” he finally thunders. “My first official act as governor of the state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution, and conviction of “Boss” Jim W. Gettys!”

Kane never gets to fulfill that pledge. Instead, he loses the election-his campaign derailed by a last minute sex scandal. His editors know what to do, and the following day their headlines scream: “FRAUD AT POLLS!”

The piece is entitled Donald Trump Modeled His Life on Cinematic Loser Charles Foster Kane. Consciously or not, Trump does seem to be following Kane’s playbook here, right down to the fascism.

Specifically, Citizen Kane was a vision of what fascism might resemble in America. Both men knew better than to expect Hitler or Mussolini on our shores. They knew that our demagogue would be glossier, more entertaining-more American; and the man they conjured, inspired by real-life plutocrats like William Randolph Hearst, happened to look an awful lot like Donald Trump.

Read the whole thing…this is right up there with the best explainers of why Trump is the way he is. And part 2 is coming soon, an interview with Morris about Trump’s love of Kane.

Update: Audi’s interview with Morris was posted a couple of weeks before the election. Morris says Trump suffers from Irony Deficit Disorder.

Somehow he identifies clearly with Kane. Kane is Trump. And it’s not the kind of identification that I would make if I were Trump. Of course that issue — if I were Trump, what would I do, what would I think, what would I say? — it’s one of those counterfactuals I’m probably not equipped to address. But, if I were Donald Trump, I would not want to emphasize that connection with Kane. You know, a megalomaniac in love with power and crushing everything in his path. The inability to have friends, the inability to find love. The moral that Trump takes from Kane — I mean, it’s one of the great lines that I recorded. I ask, “Do you have any advice for Charles Foster Kane, sir?” You know, let’s get down to the psychiatric intervention. How can we help this poor man? He’s obviously troubled. How can we help him? Donald, help me out here!

And Donald says, “My advice to Charles Foster Kane is find another woman!” And you know, I thought, is that really the message that Welles was trying to convey? That Kane had made poor sexual choices, poor marriage choices?

New Errol Morris film: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 25, 2016

Dorfman Ginsberg

I had heard months ago that Errol Morris was releasing a new documentary called The B-Side but couldn’t really find any information about it (it’s not even listed on Wikipedia). But the film is being screened soon at both the Toronto and New York film festivals, so some information is filtering out there. The film is about photographer Elsa Dorfman, who is known for her use of the large-format Polaroid 20” x 24” camera. From the description of the film on the New York film festival site:

Errol Morris’s surprising new film is simplicity itself: a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts studio of his friend, the 20x24 Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, who specifies on her website that she likes her subjects “to wear clothes (and to bring toys, skis, books, tennis racquets, musical instruments, and particularly pets…).” As this charming, articulate, and calmly uncompromising woman takes us through her fifty-plus years of remarkable but fragile images of paying customers, commissioned subjects, family, and close friends (including the poet Allen Ginsberg), the sense of time passing grows more and more acute. This is a masterful film.

And from the Toronto festival:

“My style of photography is very literary,” she says, “influenced by Ginsberg’s poetry in the acceptance of detail, everydayness. What you’re wearing is okay and who you are is okay. You don’t have to be cosmeticized.” For her portrait clients, she took two pictures. The client got one and she kept “the B-side.” For music fans, the B-sides of vinyl singles had a reputation for being unpredictable and extra precious. The same can be said for Morris’ touching portrait of Dorfman.

Sounds great…I’m definitely keeping an eye out for a trailer and release dates.

The Demon in the Freezer

posted by Jason Kottke   May 17, 2016

Errol Morris has made a short film about the world’s remaining stocks of smallpox virus 1 and the debate between those who want to eliminate the virus forever and those who want to keep it around.

In the story from classical Greece, Pandora was warned: Don’t open the box. She opens it anyway. The various pestilences are unleashed on the world but Hope remains at the very bottom of the box. Today there are microbiologists who want to continue to research smallpox. If they are given a free hand, what might they unleash?

There are those who insist that these residual stocks of smallpox should not be destroyed because some ruthless super-criminal or rogue government might be working on a new smallpox, even more virulent than existing strains of the virus. We may need existing stocks to produce new vaccines to counteract the new viruses. New viruses, new vaccines. New vaccines, new viruses. An escalating arms race with germs.

Keep this video in mind when you read about the latest advances with CRISPR.

  1. I’m going to embed the video here, even though it seems like every time I embed a video from anywhere but YouTube or Vimeo, it either autoplays or, even worse, autoplays with the sound on. Also, while I was watching on the Times’ site, the video was glitchy and stopped twice, prompting two reloads. I get why the Times (and other media outlets) want to develop their own embeddable media, but until they get it right, they should leave it to Vimeo and YouTube, the only two sites who have actually gotten it right.

What Errol Morris thinks about Making a Murderer

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2016

Oh, this interview with Errol Morris where he talks about Making a Murderer is so so spot on.

To me, it’s a very powerful story, ultimately, not about whether these guys are guilty or innocent — but it’s a very powerful story about a miscarriage of justice.

Yes! If you came out of watching all ten episodes convinced one way or the other whether Avery was innocent, I humbly suggest that you missed the point. And further that you can’t actually know…it’s a TV show! The tip of the iceberg.

Another thing that I was struck by watching Making a Murderer was the feeling of the inexorable grinding of a machine that is producing, potentially, error.

This was my favorite aspect of the show. A lot of people complained about them showing huge chunks of Avery’s and Dassey’s trials, saying that it was too boring, but that’s the whole thing! The crushing boredom of the justice system just grinds those two men and their whole families into the result that the state wanted all along. It was fascinating and horrifying to watch, like a traffic accident in super slow motion.

If you’re asking me, would I sign a petition stating that I believe that Steven Avery is innocent? Well, I don’t know. I really don’t know from watching Making a Murderer, but there’s one thing I do know from watching Making a Murderer — that neither Brendan Dassey nor Steven Avery received a fair trial, and that that trial should be overturned.

My thoughts exactly. If I had to guess, Dassey is entirely innocent and Avery is maybe guilty, but neither of them should have been convicted on the evidence presented or the procedure followed.

Anyway, read the whole thing…his stories about making The Thin Blue Line are great. And he’s making a six-episode true crime show for Netflix? YES!

Donald Trump on Citizen Kane

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 07, 2015

Many years ago, Errol Morris interviewed Donald Trump about Citizen Kane as part of a project called The Movie Movie.

The table getting larger and larger and larger with he and his wife getting further and further apart as he got wealthier and wealthier, perhaps I can understand that.

Trump acquits himself pretty well on Kane and its lessons — although I would not characterize Kane’s fall as “modest” — and his commentary about the film is probably the first actually interesting thing I have ever heard him say. But I watched all the way to the end and he shoots himself in the foot in the most Trumpian & misogynistic way — it’s actually perfect.

The Movie Movie, according to Morris’ web site, was based on the idea of putting modern day figures like Trump and Mikhail Gorbachev into the movies that they most admire. So Trump would star as Kane in Citizen Kane and Gorby would be in Dr. Strangelove as who, Strangelove himself? Man, what a fantastic idea. Joshua Oppenheimer used a variant of this idea to powerful effect in The Act of Killing, a film executive produced by Morris.

Morris himself turned a bit of the original The Movie Movie idea into a 4-minute clip for the 2002 Oscars of people — some of them famous: Trump, Gorbachev, Tom Brady, Christie Turlington, Keith Richards, Philip Glass, Al Sharpton — talking about their favorite movies.

Errol Morris interviewed

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 03, 2015

As part of Errol Morris Week on Grantland1, Alex Pappademas did a great interview with Morris about his work. Morris has interviewed serial killers, Holocaust deniers, rapists, and the architect of the Vietnam War but said that the person that most challenged his capacity for empathy was Donald Rumsfeld.

He’s confident right now! He doesn’t have to wait 100 or 500 years. He doesn’t care. I really care whether I’m right or wrong. I really do care. And probably for lots of reasons. I don’t want to be seen as a dumbass, I don’t want to be seen as someone who believes in something that’s absolutely false, untrue, something that can’t be substantiated, checked. I believe that there’s some deep virtue in pursuing truth. Maybe it’s the highest virtue. I believe that. Whether you can attain it or not, you can pursue it. It can be a goal. It can be a destination. I don’t believe that’s Donald Rumsfeld’s goal. I believe that Robert S. McNamara really wanted to understand what he had done and why he had done it. You know, we remain a mystery to ourselves, among the many, many, many other mysteries there are. And McNamara’s struggle with his own past — I was deeply moved by it. I think he’s a war criminal, I think he sees himself as a war criminal, but I like him.

Update: Another recent interview, by Brin-Jonathan Butler, is being offered as a 99¢ Kindle Single.

  1. Yeah cool guys, but it’s always Errol Morris Week here at kottke.org.

Errol Morris’ short films for ESPN

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2015

Director Errol Morris has directed six short films for ESPN collective titled “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports.” The films will air on March 1 and then be released online during the following week. The trailer:

The films’ subjects include Mr. Met, streakers, sports memorabilia fanatics, an electric football league, and Michael Jordan’s stolen jersey. I’ll post the films here as they’re released online. Morris previously did a film for ESPN about the sports-themed funerals of die-hard fans.

Update: Grantland has posted the first short film in the series about an electric football league that’s been running in a NY basement for over 30 years.

Update: All of the Morris’ shorts have now been posted on Grantland. Go. Watch.

Philip Glass’ soundtrack for Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 23, 2015

Brief History Of Time Soundtrack

Philip Glass did the soundtrack for A Brief History of Time, Errol Morris’ documentary on Stephen Hawking, but it was never released as an album. Until earlier this month. Huzzah! Appears to only be available on iTunes — couldn’t find it on Amazon, Rdio, or Spotify — and I wish they’d done more with that cover. Bleh.

Three Short Films about Peace

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2014

From Errol Morris and the NY Times, Three Short Films about Peace. Morris interviewed Nobel Prize winners and nominees Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, the former Polish president Lech Walesa and rock star Bob Geldof.

I interviewed five of the world’s greatest peacemakers, and chose to feature the three who told the most compelling stories on camera. But it was a privilege to meet and to interview every one of them. David Trimble, whose participation in the Good Friday Agreement helped bring an end to Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and Oscar Arias Sanchez, who brokered the Esquipulas peace agreement that ended decades of internecine strife in Central America, were no less inspiring than the three included here.

It’s the easiest thing to say: that each of these stories is inspiring. They are. I was inspired by them. Can one person make a difference? In most cases, no. But every now and again something seemingly miraculous happens. And one person changes the world. Or as Bob Geldof puts it, tilts the world on its axis.

Football and Peace

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 23, 2014

For a Visa commercial, Errol Morris gathers a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners and nominees (including Lech Walesa) to talk about how important it is for their countries to beat the crap out of the other countries in the World Cup.

Two quotes in the video caught my ear:

Sport is a continuation of war by other means.

Look, football isn’t life or death. It’s much more important than that.

The first is a riff on Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism “War is the continuation of Politik by other means”. Clausewitz also devised the concept of “the fog of war”, which Morris used for the title of a film. The second is a paraphrase of a quote by legendary football coach Bill Shankly:

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

Soundtrack for The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2014

Your Monday morning needs a soundtrack and Danny Elfman’s score for Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known is just the thing. Available at Amazon or on iTunes.

Watch The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 06, 2014

Errol Morris’s latest documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, just came out in theaters. But it’s also available right now to rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes. Here’s a trailer if you need convincing.

Taco Bell’s new spokesman: Ronald McDonald

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2014

Errol Morris has directed a new series of Taco Bell commercials where a bunch of ordinary men named Ronald McDonald review Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu. Here’s one of the spots:

Donald Rumsfeld: The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2014

Errol Morris’ documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, comes out next month. The trailer:

In the first of a four-part companion series to the movie for the NY Times, Morris explores The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.

When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?

The Unknown Known has been referred to as a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War, but from this it seems more like its opposite. Morris got some substantive and honest answers to important questions from McNamara, whereas it sounds like he got bupkiss from Rumsfeld.

Update: Here’s part 2.

A Brief History of Time

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 25, 2014

Huzzah! Long unavailable (or at least not widely available), Errol Morris’ documentary film on Stephen Hawking and his work, A Brief History of Time, is now available for rent or purchase on iTunes. Or if you can wait a little bit, there’s a Criterion Blu-ray edition coming out in mid-March. Bonus: score by Philip Glass!

Honest Abe’s photographs

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 03, 2013

Lincoln Crack

Errol Morris is at it again, publishing book-length blog posts for the NY Times. This time, he’s examining the photograph evidence of Abraham Lincoln and, I think, what those photos might tell us about Lincoln’s death. Here’s the prologue and part one (of an eventual four).

My fascination with the dating and interpretation of photographs is really a fascination with the push-pull of history. Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the origins of things vs. our desire to rework, to reconfigure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than two radically different predispositions to objects — the storyteller vs. the collector.

For the collector the image with the crack [in one of Lincoln’s photographs] is a damaged piece of goods — the crack potentially undermining the value of the photograph as an artifact, a link to the past. The storyteller doesn’t care about the photograph’s condition, or its provenance, but about its thematic connections with events. To the storyteller, the crack is the beginning of a legend — the legend of a death foretold. The crack seems to anticipate the bullet fired into the back of Lincoln’s head at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.

It should have a name. I call it “the proleptic crack.”

November 22, 1963, a short film by Errol Morris

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2013

Errol Morris and Tink Thompson share an obsession about the nature of photographic evidence. In a short film for the NY Times, Morris talks to Thompson about the photographic and filmic evidence of the JFK assassination, which Thompson has been investigating on and off since 1963.

Interesting that 1) there exists much more photographic evidence of the assassination than is commonly shown/known, and 2) Thompson very much has a theory of what the evidence shows but Morris doesn’t spill those particular beans:

Is there a lesson to be learned? Yes, to never give up trying to uncover the truth. Despite all the difficulties, what happened in Dallas happened in one way rather than another. It may have been hopelessly obscured, but it was not obliterated. Tink still believes in answers, and in this instance, an answer. He is completing a sequel to “Six Seconds” called “Last Second in Dallas.” Like its predecessor, this book is clearly reasoned and convincing. Of course, there will be people who will be unmoved by his or any other account.

See also Morris’ previous short film featuring Thompson & the assassination, The Umbrella Man.

Short Errol Morris film on Benoit Mandelbrot

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2013

A short time before his death, Benoît B. Mandelbrot filmed an interview with Errol Morris. Morris charmingly starts off my asking Mandelbrot where “the fractal stuff” came from.

Note: as always, the “B.” in “Benoît B. Mandelbrot” stands for “Benoît B. Mandelbrot”. (via @sampotts)

The Unknown Known

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 03, 2013

Vice has a sneak peak at Errol Morris’ new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, in what looks like a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War.

Morris has Rumsfeld perform and explain his “snowflakes,” the enormous archive of memos he wrote across almost 50 years in Congress, the White House, in business, and twice at the Pentagon. The memos provide a window into history — not as it actually happened, but as Rumsfeld wants us to see it.

Jesus, that little smile at the end. The Daily Beast has an interview with Morris about the film.

THE DAILY BEAST: How the hell did you get Rumsfeld to agree to do this? Were you chasing him down?

ERROL MORRIS: No, not at all. I wrote him a letter, enclosed a copy of The Fog of War, heard back from him very quickly, went to Washington, and spent a good part of the day with him. We started it under the premise that he would do two days of interviews, I would edit it, and if he liked it, we’d sign a contract and continue. If he didn’t, I’d put the footage in a closet and it would never see the light of day.

The name of the film, The Unknown Known, is a reference to a statement Rumsfeld made at a press briefing about WMDs, terrorism, and Iraq:

There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns — there are things we do not know we don’t know.

The life and death of sports fans

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 15, 2012

Team Spirit is a wonderful short film for ESPN by Errol Morris about the funerals of die-hard sports fans.

I love the Steelers fan laid out in a recliner under a Steelers blanket in front of a television with a Steelers game on as if “he just fell asleep watching the game”.