cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

FILM DIRECTOR Errol Morris who writes too






ART vermeer_van_meegeren

Han van Meegeren Woman Reading Music 1935-1936, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam



As well as a well known documentary film-maker and even one-time private dick, Errol Morris does a mean blog at Opinionator, NYT, which I’ve mentioned before. Small beginnings, then he became a regular popular slot.

It’s NYT so you’ll have to figure what you can read for free. One of Morris’ pieces takes forever to read. I like to think of these diversions as part of The Slow Movement. Sipping a good wine in the shade with a cool breeze, the rustling of newspaper, reading out funny bits to someone: e-reading is not quite the same, but when it’s pages and pages, it’s almost there.

A long Morris divertissimo might be compared to the long take in film. The camera runs slowly along a track. Men in a queue in the rain. The camera picks out the detail of the crumbling wall. Tarkovsky. Tarr. Are we interested in the faces of the men as the camera passes them or the patterns on the wall? Is this line of men the camera is filming in a very slow track leading us anywhere? is it perhaps the rain as it dips of faces and hats? Or is the track just for the pleasure of being able to film like that – pushing firmly against a tide of classic Hollywood?

Pick a Morris. Say,

Bamboozling Ourselves (Part 1)

Don’t stop till you get to the end of part 7. You won’t regret the time and effort.

Then try a few others another day. I’ve got my eye on The Ashtray, about Morris’ time at Princeton under Kuhn, he of Paradigm Shift fame. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I won’t spoil the story by saying anything more. And I haven’t even read it. But there is that thing about knowing enough about something to piece together quite a lot before you’ve even started reading! Recognising the cartoon from a few strokes of the pencil. Or more formally, your prior knowledge is your guide to what you want to know about next. And in the age of the surf, this an important thing to get straight. Just as we can’t read every book in the world in print, or see every film ever made, we have to be selective in what we investigate. I’m not talking scholar here: they fix themselves on a single subject and become experts on it. it’s us other folks who are curious and want to know about things but have to be reasonably disciplined so we don’t drift into superficial knowledge which could not sustain a detailed discussion of it.

There is a reason for this cocky assertion about knowing what The Astray is going to be looking at. Roughly. And so having the motivation and desire to read it.

10-15 years or more ago a relative was lightening her bookshelves after her husband died. A lot of his she didn’t want to keep: she wasn’t going to read them. In any case it was a new house with less room for bookshelves. I was allowed to go down to the garage and select some of his books. The handful I came away with included Who Got Einstein’s Office: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study, by Ed Regis. 1987.

With my little hoard home, I noticed in the first blank page of Who Got Einstein’s office? my cousin-in-law had written a note when he sent the book on to his elderly father who was a lawyer in the Roosevelt New Deal administration. He said he hadn’t managed to get beyond Chapter 3, not because it was boring, but through pressure of work. He asked his dad if he would have a look – he felt sure he would recognise a lot of people mentioned in the book.

And so as you skip through the book looking for the names he remembered before reading it – the book came back to son in order that son could see who dad knew – underlinings appear in blue and red biro, with the odd footnote (Dyson, as in Freeman, famous physicist “Yes, I knew him”; Lewis L Strauss, “Terrible man.”), this person started to come to life a little bit. (And this is just a few people who write things in a book you haven’t even read yet..)

His son was very proud of his dad: I do recall a few conversations where he was mentioned.
Though he had himself been a successful engineer in the aircraft industry in California, his father was the star of the family. BecomesNRA lawyer, ends up part of the government’s post-Depression plan to get people back to work.

I really enjoyed the book. But somehow it came to life more because of the three degrees of separation. A while before he died (only a few years after his father), well before I came across the book on the Institute of Advanced Studies in the cardboard boxes, my cousin’s husband [the son] had mentioned his father’s life in outline and that he had been part of the NRA. There was a personal memoir he said. And that he was still going strong at about 90. If I remember correctly he was still driving!

Is there such a thing as a diversion by way of a diversion? Anyway, the most cursory checking of this period of American history shows many things which might make perfect sense in our current economic climate. Controlling capitalism. And how not to do it. An Anatomy of a Cartel: The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Compliance Crisis of 1934.

So what’s with my fascination with Erroll Morris’s essays? He’s a documentary film-maker: The Thin Blue Line; that one on McNamara [ The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)]; that one about Au Ghraib [Standard Operating Procedure (2008)]. Just as he likes to whittle away at a subject in film, Morris likes to tease out a story on the page too. If you like to revel in the slow meandering through the oxbows of a mature river of investigation and ideas, he’s your man.

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December 10, 2013 - Posted by | Errol Morris | , , , , , ,

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