cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

FILM ERROL MORRIS The Unknown Known






RUMSFELD Time Magazine cover






Errol Morris’ Five Golden Rules of Movie-making drew my eye. I’ve watched his films and wondered what exactly he was offering.

Well, there are 5 rules, succinct as they are, but the post is really a mention of his new documentary on Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known plus a short YouTube clip of the film – The Unknown Known. Look forward to watching it.

For those who have never heard of him, Errol Morris is the film-maker who did the impressive series The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Riveting talking heads – when they can often be dull as ditch water – where in stages we see the Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations examine his role in the Vietnam war. (“Some things work out, some thing don’t.”)

Morris made his name with The Thin Blue Line [1988]. wiki: Errol Morris.

I was recently drawn further into Errol Morris’ world by reading some of his NYT Opinionator series, the latest of which can be found on errolmorris.com. If you’ve never read any of his pieces, I recommend his 2007 Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? [a two-parter] It’s a load on balls: canon balls: a detective story on the photographer Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photograph, The Valley of the Shadow of Death.

But back to the knowns and unknowns. A film about a man who can remember

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.

and say it without stumbling, hesitating or an er must be interesting, even if he is a a right-wing elitist. Should be interesting. Interesting doesn’t mean you like the subject Rumsfeld didn’t forget his knowing/not knowing half through and say, “Well, ah, [shucks..] got my knowns and unknowns jumbled up there.”

Brings to mind the well-known gnomic pronouncements of Eric Cantona. Coming in at #5 in a top 10 of Cantona quotes: “My best moment? I have a lot of good moments but the one I prefer is when I kicked the hooligan.” But of course #1 is:

“When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. Thank you very much.” (1995)

I saw that! His English was so French, most listening probably didn’t get it at all.

I’m not saying we can bracket Donald Rumsfeld and Eric Cantona, but they have both come up with the sort of thing that’s sure to make journalists at press conferences look sideways at each other, curl an eyebrows, slap laptops shut and suggest an immediate pint or three at the nearest local hostelry.

Yet, somehow, I feel certain that among the journo throng when Rumsfeld made the now well-known known and unknown remarks, there were a few high-brow hacks who felt in their bones this was a quote from someone else, or based on someone else’s ideas and not made up by him personally. (In 2006, when I visited the British Library just after they hacked out the reading room, I spied inside a glass bookcase just inside the door on the right the by then famous quote. Might even have been framed.)

There was a bit more after the famous knowing and yet not knowing :

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things
we know we know. We also know there are known
unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things
we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns –
– the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

I would not say that the future is necessarily less
predictable than the past. I think the past was not
predictable when it started.

There is a transcript of the 2002 briefing in which Rummy let it be know what one knows, doesn’t, can’t, ought to, etc.

Everyone’s discussed it.

But why not let DR himself run through it first. An abstract from the intro of his memoire Knowns and Unknowns, shows where he got the knowns and unknowns from, which is easy to find out from other sources.

The quote became a subject of much interest and derision and not a little thought. Even Zizek had his say, suggesting a further unknown, the unknown known.

” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns”,
things we don’t know that we know – which is precisely the Freudian
unconscious. If Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation
with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns”, the threats from Saddam we did not
even suspect, the Abu Ghraib scandal shows where the main dangers actually
are in the “unknown knowns”, the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene
practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background
of our public values. To unearth these “unknown knowns” is the task of an
intellectual.”

Unknown knowns and Zizek: why are the Americans fighting this war? written in 2004, explains and develops.

If Morris’s documentary doesn’t deal with the quote at length there’ll be much surprise all round amongst Errol Morris fans.

Xan Brooks in The Unknown Known: Venice 2013 – first look review, Guardian 4 September 2013 confirms the quote is in.


Two from The Hollywood Reporter:


Toronto: Errol Morris on Facing Off Against Donald Rumsfeld in ‘Unknown Known’ (Q&A)


♦ where he got the idea from [Rumsfelds own autobiography] and why he wanted to make a film on Rumsfeld
♦ How he got Rumsfeld to talk [write to Penguin who had published the Rumsfeld autobiography]
♦ How the film was made [Rumsfeld reading out his own memos – a long history of memos, apparently, going way back into the mists of his career]


Morris thinks Rumsfeld is obsessed by the meaning of words – (“…Words become for Rumsfeld his own way to regain control over reality and history as he feels it slipping away.” / “…If somehow he gets the right word or the right definition of words, everything will be OK. America will win the war in Iraq, the insurgents will vanish. It’s all a problem of vocabulary.”)


This words and reality thing fascinates me. Generally. A paper by Simon Biggs, Between zero and one: on the unknown knowns, mention of Hallam, E & Ingold, T (2007), Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. They claim according to Biggs that “life is unscriptable” and “cannot be codified”, for the world is not a fixed but fluid phenomenon.

The context in the whole section:

Quoting Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold (2007) on Pye, “In the workmanship of risk the quality of the outcome depends at every moment on the exercise of care, judgment and dexterity. The practitioner has continually to make fine adjustments to keep on course, in response to the sensitive monitoring of the conditions of the task as it unfolds”. By contrast the workmanship of certainty “proceeds by the way of a pre-planned series of operations, each of which is mechanically constrained to the extent that the result is predetermined and outside the operative’s control”. However, Hallam and Ingold problematise this duality, noting earlier in the same text that “life is unscriptable” and “cannot be codified”, for the world is not a fixed but fluid phenomenon. Thus, in practice, the workmanship of certainty is never fully realised as no system or set of phenomena is so predetermined and known that we can complete a task in respect of it whilst on auto-pilot. All of our activities are, to some degree, creative and engage the real-time evaluative processes inherent to tacit knowledge. In this sense tacit knowledge and the creative impulse are not the preserve of those engaged in the creative arts but are aspects of life, both extraordinary and quotidian…



The Unknown Known: Telluride Review


♦ A not uncritical intro to a fairly long review (“… film just seems to tread water, both because Morris tediously recycles points he already made in his 2008 look at the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Standard Operating Procedure and even more because Rumsfeld gives away virtually nothing”)


Having not seen the film yet, I’m in no position to disagree or agree. You’re a cut and dried result type of person – in fiction or non-fiction – or you’re happy to see something incomplete or unresolved. Unfinished, inconclusive, disorganised, fragmented is o.k. by me, as long there is something in there, a little nugget that sparks interest or curiosity. Even just a style of doing something which ultimately fails to deliver. If in a book, a painting, a music composition, a film, something doesn’t quite come off, witnessing the attempt might be worth it alone – that we have learnt something anyway. An scientific experiment never fails – a positive or negative result is still a result – it just doesn’t agree with the hypothesis.

I’m looking forward to the old warmonger reading out his own notes and commenting on them. Will he start picking out words and re-examining them?

Errol Morris Working On Donald Rumsfeld Documentary is the site I lifted the image of Rumsfeld from – a Time cover.


Idling my time till The Unknown Known comes out on DVD, I did a bit of reading on Rumsfeld and came out of it with a deep re-affirmation of a prejudice about the U.S., which was so vehemently expressed by Harold Pinter. At the top it’s a venal, corrupt and amoral society. So top-down, the grasping spreads to the lower stratas. There are sure to be thousands of honest, decent capitalist sausage-makers in the land of the free, who hopefully don’t cheat their workers out of the value of their labour [but don’t bank on it], or their customers either by what they put in their bangers or in over-pricing them, but at the top of this society [in any society perhaps but notably America], as it is easy to see, are a lot of rum Rummy-like people who lie and cheat their way to great riches and have a vicious, nasty un-sympathy for the underdog.


Scott A. Gray’s review, The Unknown Known Directed by Errol Morris, is my core review for now. Looks as it might pretty much cover it. I’ll be on the look out for more as the film is seen more widely.



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September 14, 2013 - Posted by | Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris |

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