People As Kitsch
By Ray Sawhill
Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” doesn’t sit well. Watching it, you may find yourself engrossed in the story Morris is telling, but deadened and revolted by his presentation of it. Why is this film — which concerns an actual murder, and a miscarriage of justice — so fancied-up? As a reporter, Errol Morris shows canniness, sympathy, verve, openness and persistence. He has the gifts of an eccentric journalist, but he isn’t content with them. He wants above all things to make art, and he’s in thrall to his aesthetic thinking.
The film concerns the murder of a Dallas policeman, and its aftermath. Morris makes the case that the man put in prison for the crime, Randall Adams, is innocent. (Thanks in large part to Morris, Adams’ conviction was recently overturned, and Adams was released from jail.) Most of the movie consists of interviews: with policemen and lawyers, with people who claim to have been witnesses, with Adams himself, and with many others.
It’s puzzling that Morris is so often written about as an innovative, groundbreaking filmmaker. His techniques — which rely on “appropriation,” repetition and references to bad popular art — are pretty familiar. In his presentation, Morris uses no narration, and no expository titles; he doesn’t use titles or voice overs to identify who’s speaking. One result is that the story, which could be summarized in a paragraph or two, comes across very indirectly; the information we need to know is made to seem to emerge from Morris’ artistry. We see and hear only the people he’s talking to, not Morris himself; he makes his comments, such as they are, with his general approach and his editing, and with his photography style, which is related to William Eggleston’s visions of American suburbs as science-fiction film-sets, to “Still Life,” Diane Keaton’s collection of movie-studio promotional photographs, and to the radiation-glow cinematography of Ed Lachman.
The phrase “the thin blue line” is spoken in the film by the judge who sentenced Randall Adams; this judge recalls trying to hold back tears when the case’s prosecutor spoke of the “thin blue line” of men and women, i.e., the police, who stand between law-abiding citizens and chaos. Visually, Morris locates nearly all the people he films within “the thin blue line” (which he pretty clearly wants us to take to mean “so-called ‘normal’ American ways of going about determining truth”). He does this very literally: he films almost all his interviewees in blue light, or against blue walls. In one case he color-coordinates a woman interviewee’s blue eyeshadow and blouse with the light.
Morris gussies the film up with re-enactments of events from the night of the crime, which he artificializes with slow motion, “obvious” framing and super-deliberate cutting; he turns camera angles as well as certain images — a flung milkshake, popcorn, an ash tray, a dropped flashlight whose lens shatters — into icons of weirdness. Throughout the film, he scatters inserts of grids, maps, diagrams, photos and excerpts from newspaper reports about the crime and the trial; his point is to suggest the texture of “conventional ways of figuring things out.” (Some viewers may instead find this to be an instance of an aesthete’s fascination with the morbid reaches of tabloid journalism.)
He drops into the film excerpts from old crime movies — cruddy Hollywood junk he seems to want us to regard as what, in America, takes the place of an unconscious. These interludes are also scolding little lectures on “how America imagines crime to be and how it actually is” — Morris and the hip, appreciative audience presumably being those in possession of the true facts.
Morris is putting most of his filmmaking energy into creating a Next Wave-style art object about America the Grotesque. He treats the people he films, as well as the murder and the possible miscarriage of justice, as kitsch objets d’art that are evidence of a psychopathology that dwells within America. He isn’t interested in the people inside the kitsch; he’s interested in people to the extent they can be seen as kitsch. This is a form of snobbery that verges on outright cruelty. Morris uses his self-consciously foursquare framing and lighting (both of which suggest the way products such as dishwashing soap were presented in ’50s ads) to make us wince and giggle at the appearance of a woman lawyer who tried to defend Adams. We have to get over the reaction he has enforced on us to realize how on the ball the woman lawyer is, and how much gumption and brains she put into the case.
As a filmmaker, Morris is an aesthetic dandy with an elaborately-achieved, politically/artistically-correct, distanced/passive pose. He abstracts himself — his physical presence, and his human reactions — right out of the movie. We’re meant to register that he isn’t taken in by — and that he won’t take part in — kitsch culture. It’s clear that we’re meant to feel that Morris is more likely than a “mainstream” documentarian not only to answer the question of Adams’ guilt or innocence, but to be onto something philosophically impressive — like “the nature of truth,” or “how we do/don’t perceive,” or “the myth of objectivity,” or some such. What his film style signals us isn’t just that Morris believes that he recognizes the dangers and limitations of “the thin blue line,” but that he thinks it necessarily produces grotesqueries. He stands outside the thin blue line: his pose is “I’m a Martian lost in mid-America. Isn’t what’s going on around here bizarre?”
In a bit of audio-tape recording that’s included in the film, a hick charmer named David Harris, who spent part of the evening of the murder with Randall Adams and who is now on death row for another crime, all but admits that he, not Adams, killed the cop. (We have to obtain the film’s production notes to find out that that the reason this interview was recorded only on audio-tape was because Morris’ camera broke. And we have to read the production notes to find out that when Morris asked Harris if he acted alone, Harris nodded yes. Morris’ aesthetic — which is meant to question the possibility of directness and spontaneity, as well as the possibility of the existence of a speaking “I” — prevents him from simply telling us anything.) This is the only time during the film we get a sense of Morris’ person, and of his involvement in the case. It comes as a shock to realize that as a reporter he’s so quick on his feet; he’s sparring successfully with a psychopath.
But what Morris shows us during this passage is the minicassette recorder the tape is supposedly playing on. He shows it from all sorts of angles, the images dumbed-up in a “this is how bad photographers once took color photos” way, the editing treated similarly. He ends the sequence with an enormous shot of the tiny reels turning around and around. This turning over and over is of a piece with the rest of the film. For instance, Morris plays, and then replays and replays some more, his deliberately-fake reenactments of the murder, and then he replays them yet more. Only a couple of times do the reenactments serve an explanatory purpose — for instance, when we realize that people in passing cars who later testified against Randall Adams couldn’t possibly have gotten much of a look at the face of the man with the gun.
The rest of the time, what Morris has us watching is a slowly-modulating abstraction, like a musical phrase that’s changing ever so slightly as it moves past us time and again. In these passages, Morris does achieve an effect like those associated with the composer Philip Glass, who composed the film’s soundtrack music. But how will the family of the murdered cop feel when they see an actor playing their relative get blown away what seems like a dozen times for the sake of a rarified aesthetic effect?
Morris wants us to believe that his conclusion, which represents a genuine triumph of reporting, is in fact a consequence of style. In his thinking, style isn’t arrived at, it’s generative. The film, whose material lends itself to hard hitting, fast-moving treatment on “60 Minutes” (get the facts out there and make something happen, now!) is more than a little inhuman. Although he spent a great deal of time helping reopen Adams’ case, Morris-the-filmmaker doesn’t mean — or at least won’t be caught meaning — to inform or protest. His film conveys no urgency and no outrage.
What the film is really about is Errol Morris’ aesthetic responses. His filmmaking emphasis is all on his own way of seeing. Morris seems to believe that he’s an artist because he’s consciously perverse, and what he seems to want us to do is examine his obsessiveness, drive and willfulness as if they were somehow akin to what he would have us take as an insanity at the heart of the nation. But dwelling on your aesthetic responses to material like this is really kind of horrid. An actual murder and a miscarriage of justice aren’t great material to base refined, illusion-and-reality style games on. “I think the film is broader than just the story of a miscarriage of justice,” Morris told the Washington Post. “It’s a film about evidence, about illusion and self-deception, confusion, error. About lying and truth-telling.”
“Just” the story of a miscarriage of justice? Just?
- Errol Morris’ website.
- Morris writes about his use of re-enactments.
- His Twitter feed.
- An interview with him.
©1989 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Anarchy! magazine.