City Paper is not for tourists
Errol Morris lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has come to make documentariesadmittedly, unconventional onesabout science. So, before entering his room at the Hay-Adams Hotel, an interviewer might assume that Morris is a quiet, bookish intellectual. In fact, the filmmaker is a large man who looks a bit like director and occasional actor Garry Marshall and speaks very emphatically, with dramatic pauses and stressed words. Indeed, he seems almost deliriously animated by many issues raised by his new film, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
The movie loosely interweaves interviews with four men: big-cat trainer Dave Hoover, topiary gardener George Mendonça, naked mole-rat expert Ray Mendez, and robot inventor Rodney Brooks. “It’s hard in hindsight to remember exactly the order that everything came together,” admits Morris. “But the idea of putting these four characters, or four characters like these four characters, into a movie, preceded the interviews. I knew about Dave Hoover before [1988’s] The Thin Blue Line. My initial interview with [him] was in the mid-1980s.
“The lion acts that you seewhich are not part of the circus, they’re really set in their own separate arenathat material was shot in the 1980s,” Morris explains. “In fact, it was shot by [Men in Black director] Barry Sonnenfeld. That sat in a closet for a long, long, long time. Dave Hoover had been on my mind.
“At one time I thought, ‘I’ll put this in some short film,’ but that didn’t seem right. Then I had this crazy idea of four animal stories, kind of starting in the past and going to the future. In fact, I interviewed those four characters roughly in that order: gardener, lion tamer, mole-rat photographer, robot scientist. George was the first; Rodney was the last.
“And the idea was to try and weave them together. To create some kind of tapestry from this material. Easier said than done, in terms of editing.”
As in The Thin Blue Line, Morris sets the mood with clips from old movies. The film’s developments are paralleled by scenes from King of the Jungleland, which starred animal trainer Clyde Beatty, Hoover’s mentor. “When I first interviewed Dave, I knew nothing about Clyde Beatty,” says the director. “I knew it was the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus; I knew that the circus was experiencing financial difficulties. In fact, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how they were feeding the circus horses to the circus lions because of cash-flow difficulties. This was initially what attracted my attention.
“When I went down to meet Dave Hoover,” Morris recalls, “Dave’s son was on the couch watching some Clyde Beatty serial. And I asked them, ‘What is that?’ And then subsequently I saw much of the Clyde Beatty film oeuvre: King of the Jungleland, Lost Jungle, Big Cage. He even made a movie with Mickey Spillane, Ring of Fear.
“One of the things we talked about,” the director says, “I guess it was one of the jokes at that time, was ‘What if we could base a whole movie on one of the worst movies of all time?’namely King of the Jungleland. And in fact it is a kind of theme running through [Fast, Cheap], from the very beginning, when they talk about Joba, the legendary city beyond the Mountains of Despair, through to the end, where we see Joba crumbling.
“The conceit of the movie is that you can go into it thinking, ‘What do these four characters have to do with each other? Why are they in this movie? What motivated this?’ and by the end of the movie that there are themes that emerge that link all four characters. They become, I like to think, almost one story, a universal story. This bid of creating some kind of perfect world…that fails, in some very important respect.”
The connection, Morris admits, was not entirely planned. “Part of my style of filmmaking is to allow people to talk at length. And so, whereas many of the things they talked about were not unexpected, there were certain things which I couldn’t have anticipated at all. For example, the mole-rat guy talking about ‘the other.’ Connection with ‘the other.’ His speechwhich I like very much, because I find it so strange and interestingwhen he says it’s a form
of self-knowledge. It’s a connection with something that has nothing whatsoever to do with ourselves, but it’s a form of self-knowledge. It seems to grab at something that is part of the whole movie, namely that the world as we see it is almost a mirror that we hold up to ourselves.”
Because of its open-endedness, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control seems the antithesis of The Thin Blue Line. “I’ve read this repeatedly,” responds Morris warily, “and of course it’s true. In The Thin Blue Line, there was an argument that needed making. That was the reason that the film was made, to argue that there was a miscarriage of justice. To argue that and at the same time to allow you into the minds of the people who populated this story. In many cases, the completely whacked-out people who populated this story.”
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control “was a different kind of enterprise, certainly. I’m not arguing for some case or some thesis. I guess maybe my fear is that when I hear this remark, it’s a way of saying that I should have done so, I could have done so, and I failed to do so. I think that the movie is left open because it has to be. The alternatives would be grim even to contemplate. A movie that’s really addressing questions like”he laughs”What’s the purpose of human existence? Why are we here? What does it mean? What does any life mean? Why do we continue with it at all, given the uncertain or grim outcome of human enterprise? I don’t think there’s an answer, really, that you could lay out on a tray.”
The assumption about his work, Morris says, is that “it’s a documentary. It’s going to look a certain way, and it’s going to be journalistic in content. And by journalistic I mean it’s going to be a description of something Out There. Whereas I like to think my films have one foot in the real world and one footmaybe the larger of the two feetin a world of fantasy. The world inside the head.
“I’m surprised that the movie is getting as much attention as it’s getting,” he muses. “I like this movie, but I think it’s my most personal film, my most idiosyncratic film. And I like to think there’s an emotional element to it. There’s a kind of sad quality at the end of the movie, an elegiac quality. About these characters, about life in general. It was dedicated to my mother and stepfather, who died during the course of making this movie. And it was conceived in part as an elegy for them.”
The film is also, perhaps, an elegy for “carbon-based” life, which Brooks seems happy to replace with his “silicon-based” robots. “It’s true that the robot scientist speaks of the end of things in a grandiose sense,” says Morris. “But to me there’s always the feeling in each one of these four stories of how tenuous our hold is on life and the world.
“I call it the apocalypse with a smile, because when he’s talking about the end of carbon-based lifelife as we know it on the planetRodney says it with a kind of…joy. ‘I am creating something; I am creating a more perfect world. Ah yes, it may be at the expense of all of us. But! Notwithstanding, isn’t that terrific?’
“Years ago, when I was making A Brief History of Time,” the director adds, “[Stephen] Hawking had this somewhat pessimistic view of the future. His explanation for why we don’t hear signals from intelligent life in outer space: Well, because…look at us. We’re running around with the same DNA we had basically 100,000 years ago, jungle DNA. Our destructive capacities in the last 100 years have increased exponentially. Why don’t we hear from intelligent life in outer space? Because once life reaches a certain point, it just snuffs itself out.
“Then I saw him in January, and he had modified this. The new version was that we don’t snuff ourselves out, we modify our DNA. So there’s a struggle. Another set of futuristic fantasies, but there’s this struggle between those people in favor of modifying our DNA and those against it. And people in favor win out. And change us in ways necessary to preserve life on the planet.”
Morris is working on a new film he hopes will be released next year. He has also made several half-hour episodes of a TV series, Interrotron Stories. “The way I’ve described it is [that it’s] a nonfiction version of The Twilight Zone. First-person storytelling, one person in each program.”
Although the director got pilot money from ABC and Fox TV, so far the shows have been broadcast only in Britain. “Working for the networks is a strange thing,” Morris shrugs. “People think that the kind of filmmaking I do is strange. Well, working for the networks is far stranger than anything that I do.”
Interrotron Stories is named for the “interviewing machine” Morris used for the first time on Fast, Cheap. “It comes out of this interest in direct eye contact,” he says. “There is dramatic valueundeniable dramatic valuein direct eye contact. Which for the most part is never captured in film interviews.
“Interviews fascinate me,” he continues. “I guess it’s the model of human interaction, in some kind of weird,
controlled setting. In a filmed interview, you have this triangle:
You have the camera, you have the interviewer, you have the subject. If I look directly at you, I’m not looking directly at the
camera, and vice versa.
“In my earlier films,”
he notes, “I put my head against the lens of the camera to create the feeling that the person talking was talking directly to lens, even though in fact he was talking a little to the left of the lens or little to the right of the lens.
“I talked about doing this sort of thing for years. It’s very simple. It’s just that no one else has done it, as far as I know. It’s just teleprompters. Except that teleprompters always have text on them, [so] a politician or a newscaster can read copy and talk to an audience at the same time. My simple idea was, instead of copy on the teleprompter, put someone’s face, a live image. Of course, you need two of them, when you think about it. There’s two cameras, an A camera and a B camera. So we’re looking at each other’s live video images. We’re not necessarily even in the same room. I can be on Mars. It’s kind of like Wizard of Oz.”
I suggest that this is a dialogue between two silicon-based life forms. “Well, two electronic-based life forms,” he replies. “There’s the virtual interviewer and the virtual interviewee. And the fear was this isn’t going to work, that people will run out of the studio screaming. ‘Not me! I just won’t do it,’” he laughs. “But in fact it worked. Better than anticipated. My production designer said that the beauty of this is that it allows people to do what they do bestnamely, watch television,” he giggles.
“I think it goes beyond that,” Morris mock-rhapsodizes. “I think it’s the answer to one of our deepest hopes: the television set that cares. The television set that really is involved in your life. That wants to know you better. That wants to find out what you really do think about things. The TV set that doesn’t want to use you. That really likes you.”Mark Jenkins