cutting on the action

photography and film – facts, ideas, values

FILM DOCUMENTARIST The Thinking Man’s Detective


Sightly modified from: Tina Berning

Errol Morris: The Thinking Man’s Detective

— The documentary filmmaker has become America’s most surprising and provocative public intellectual

Ron Rosenbaum, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2012

December 14, 2013 Posted by | Errol Morris, film, film documentary | | Leave a comment

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.

December 10, 2013 Posted by | Errol Morris | , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Errol Morris eye-piece camera

Truth Be Told

The form and tools of documentary film-making have changed over the years, but what motivates Errol Morris is the pursuit of truth – however he can find it.

By Rob Feld, DGA Quarterly, Winter Issue.

December 4, 2013 Posted by | Errol Morris | , | Leave a comment

FILM TECHNIQUES Errol Morris’s interrotron

PHOT Errol Morris [handwritten quote]

I like the irrelevant, the tangential, the sidebar excursion to nowhere that suddenly becomes revelatory – Errol Morris

from Film Experience Blog {1}


Click to enlarge

From: Errol Morris’s Secret Weapon for Unsettling Interviews: The Interrotron

–The ingenious design behind Errol Morris’s indelible trademark of showing people making eye contact with the camera.

↑ That’s it explained

But as you know a picture is worth a thousand words, so if you aren’t into explantions here’s a photograph showing how it works:


Well, it looks rather like a picture won’t always do – just to say the Erroll in front of the interrotron is where the interviewee sits looking at Erroll. And Errol wouldn’t be looking through the camera eye-piece -that’d be the cameraman – but off to the side looking into video camera as per the nice colour diag.

September 27, 2013 Posted by | Errol Morris, film production, film technique, interrotron | , | Leave a comment


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 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

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.

September 14, 2013 Posted by | Donald Rumsfeld, Errol Morris | | Leave a comment

PHOTOGRAPHY ESSAY ERROL MORRIS On Roger Fenton’s 2 Crimean War photographs titled ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death’ taken 0n 23 April 1855


Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? (Part One)

Errol Morris, NYT, 25 September 2007.

Starts with Susan Sontag on Fenton. Canvasses expert opinion. Gets down to the question of ordering the photographs without considering Fenton’s ‘intentions or beliefs’. Morris mentions there is an archive of Roger Fenton’s letters from the Crimea

Part 2

Errol arrives in Sebastopol to look for himself. We get to see maps at last.

Part 3

blog posts on

Who’s Zooming Who?
–Errol Morris’ obsessive investigation of a Roger Fenton photograph.

But Which Thousand Words is the Picture Worth?

Jim Lewis in Slate, 1 November 2007. Notable mainly for working out that the three-part essay plus comment stream is slightly longer than Moby Dick. Guess he would hate Bela Tarr’s Satantango.

Béla Tarr’s Long Takes (an education in film)

FILM Satantango (Sátántangó) by Béla Tarr {2}


wiki: Roger Fenton

N.B. mentions that Fenton’s equipment limited him to posed photos and landscapes because of the long exposures needed.

Roger Fenton – the first war photographer

Post in Slugger O’Toole blog • Gives background of Fenton himself • His photographic techniques • Crimean adventure, which lasted for 3 months from mid-march 1855 to mid-June 1855 • Under what auspices he went there • Limitations he was under

Crimean War Photographs by Roger Fenton March-June 1855

First photo is canon balls on road [ON]

My comments

The two photos above are not Fenton’s. But in one you can clearly see men standing amongst canon balls in a road not dissimilar to The valley of the Shadow of Death. Difficult to see but looks like one man has a big canon ball on his shoulder.

The fun of Errol’s story is he’s determined to solve it all from the photos. That’s all you’ve allowed. (He then can’t resit popping over to walk up and down dusty Crimean tracks himself with his girlfriend in tow…and who can blame him. I’d’ve been there before the developing fluid had dried).

Of course, in real life the wider context – things beyond one set of evidence – is always examined – what usually goes on in an area to make the specific event in time and space different or similar. Here, there are 2 photos known to have been taken within an hour or two of each other according to the photographer. As Morris says, its the first movie.

Let’s talk movies for a moment for light relief from 25 lb canon balls. Godard in his long interview, Fragments of Conversations with Jean-Luc Godard, talks about the famous footage of a little Palestinian girl standing in the ruins of Carmel near Haifa declaiming a famous poem, I will Resist, by Mahmoud Darwish, that Godard uses in his film Ici et Ailleurs. They are discussing authentic or inauthentic. It’s given the thumps up even if it’s staged.

There is no story without the two canon ball photos, OFF and ON. If ON had been the only one (maybe Fenton destroys OFF), who’d then or now be discussing canon balls in the Crimea? I wonder if the strength of the message was destroyed (whether or not it was staged) by seeing OFF as well as ON. Very few keen eyes would be questioning whether the balls on the road in ON where not randomly enough distributed.

Erroll did another essay on photography Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire (NYT 10 July 2007). This one on Fenton’s Crimean canon balls is fun because there were two photos. The main challenge for Errol: to decide which was the before and which the after. (Kids of a certain age could have great fun with this. 7-8 years old would be perfect. They love those cartoon before and after pictures.)

Not surprisingly, in the end the story strays into the realms of conjecture based on such unreliable things as what humans would be expected to do. Well, despite high-tech tools, the analyst he has asked to look at the photographs inevitably strays into this territory because there isn’t really enough to work on. Errol is keener to stick the the original premise: What can can be deduced from the photographs alone. He wants to avoid:

…arguing that to interpret a picture we need more than the picture itself..

Commenter crazymonk way down in the comments has posted links to enlargements of OFF and ON photos, with the idea to open them in adjoining tabs and flick between the two to see the rock movement:


I don’t find it very easy to see the rocks moving, but very easy to see balls moving. One ball in the centre foreground disappears in ON. Three balls in the left foreground move. In enlarge (clicking the plus sign on your cursor over pic) it’s very easy to see one ball on the right of the track at 2 O’clock – just in front of a small rock outcrop – appear on the track no more that 1 metre or so SW of it’s original position. The more you click the more you see displacements. Right in the centre of the photograph in the ditch full of balls, three more appear in ON. In OFF there are a bunch of 9 in the mid- foreground

which are joined by by two more, here, for example, next to the little rock

one carefully placed to its right between two others, above and below it, in OFF. So they are not only going on the road itself, but more have been added to the ditch! The more you look the more you see. Above this group three balls appear in ON that weren’t there in OFF.

Has the man posting these photos in the comments been up to no good, moving balls digitally to pass away long lonely evenings when there was noting worth watching on t.v.? Few of us reading Errol on Crimean Canon Balls are looking at the original prints but digital copies! There is no certainty the digital versions are exactly the same as the real prints. Even the one in the Fenton digital archives might not be identical to the original. Even more important, will people in the future ever be able to tell what was going on in photographs with any certainty as more digital copies are produced?

This is another one of Fenton’s. No, no, no don’t start counting those. Maybe there is only one of these.

Oh, by the way, yes that’s Roger Fenton the man himself posing at the top. I deliberately didn’t put his name there, so that you’d see the posed shot, read the long essay, then see canon ball photos, and – like in clever films which use a technique of inserting a shot which is only explained much further on (My favourite, mentioned more than once in my posts is the bird of prey swooping on the white chickens at the beginning of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff) – think about the posing Fenton when thinking about his Crimean balls.

Surely this self-portrait is the sort of evidence we also need to decide whether the canon balls were moved ON to create a more artsy shot. For me there no need for rock movement analysis really. If there are 9 balls in one cluster in the OFF ditch and 11 in the ON ditch, that says they were moved there as well as those onto the road itself. Simply because another fusillade from the Russian batteries would probably have sent dozens of new balls into the area. It does say somewhere that they regularly shot up on to the road whether there were troop movements or not, just to act as discouragement to try.

As is apparent from the Morris essay and other sources, Fenton’s stock in trade was posed photos of the military personnel and landscapes, both suited to long exposures needed.

It’s still a great war photograph even if it was posed.

March 7, 2012 Posted by | Errol Morris, photographic analysis, photography, Richard Pare, Roger Fenton, Susan Sontag, Ulrich Keller | , , , , | Leave a comment

PHOTOGRAPHY Errol Morris: Two Essential Truths About Photography

Errol Morris: Two Essential Truths About Photography

post from Open Culture 29 Dec 2011, includes video from Guardian’s Comment is free series. Written by photographer Eugene Buchko

A text of a lecture given by Errol Morris from his website which covers the same ground in more detail, both dealing with elements of his book Believing is Seeing.

January 5, 2012 Posted by | Errol Morris, photography | Leave a comment


source: {1}

► My theory is that deceit does not require language. To lie, you have to make a statement. You have to say something in words for it to be a lie. But deceit only requires misdirection. All it requires is the intent to have someone think something that is different from what you believe. ◄

► One of the nice things about Cambridge, Massachusetts is that ‘Baudrillard’ isn’t in the phone book. ◄

Errol Morris: Biography from his website

Wiki : Errol Morris

Famous for documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988) and

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

He’s written a 5-part article:

Did My Brother Invent E-Mail With Tom Van Vleck? (Part One)

Errol Morris, New York Times, 19 June 2011

If the link doesn’t work, you may have to register with NYT.

“Believing Is Seeing”: Truth, lies and photographs

–The director of “The Thin Blue Line” investigates five famous accusations of photographic fraud

Laura Miller, Salon 29 August 2011

Errol has written a book Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)

Book review: ‘Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography)’
–Enigmatic filmmaker Errol Morris doesn’t arrive at comforting conclusions in his six essays on visual art and artifice.

Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times, 28August 2011


Believing Is Seeing

Errol Morris, NYT 13 July 2008 [short]

Seven Lies About Lying (Part 1)

Errol Morris, NYT, 5 August 2009

Photography as a Weapon

Errol Morris, NYT, 11 August 2008

Cartesian Blogging, Part Three

Errol Morris, NYT, 12 November 2008 [replies to comments in Photography as a Weapon]

Recovering Reality: A Conversation with Errol Morris for the Columbia Journalism Review.

YouTube: 8 mins

Werner Herzog and Errol Morris (1 of 4)

A very shaky home video which you’d be best to treat as a radio prog. No close-ups. Just a recording of two men on a platform, wobbling and gyrating and mostly out of focus. Which I love, because here’s a person in an Audience With (so far unknown..) who admires these two men and wants to record what they say on video, but fails to live up to the two directors film skills both, while admiring their film and book talk.

Mirabile dictu, the sound quality is quite good, if a bit hissy at times. Both are clear. Two different sources, probably. The guy with the little video camera -we joke- didn’t go on to be a film-maker (in his epilogue…) and use a tripod, or chuck it and buy an anti-shake DVC. Or just learn that thing of relaxing and letting the camera float at the end of the arm.

Errol Morris #8

Describes on video an opportunity to write for The New York Times, when thought he was permanently blocked – for 40 years ! – which allowed him, in the process of writing, to develop projects that were unfinished or he thought might not come to fruition.

October 5, 2011 Posted by | Errol Morris, film directors, film documentary, photography | , | Leave a comment