Errol Morris

I’ve long admired Errol Morris as a documentary maker. Only in the past couple of years did I discover his writing—in part because he hasn’t been writing all that long, since 2007 or so.

Lately I’ve been on a bit of a Morris kick. I re-read his piece on anosognicia, which is how I discovered his writing. And then I read The Ashtray, where I discovered to my delight that as a graduate student Morris had studied the history of science (so had I, as an undergraduate, but only in a couple of courses for a philosophy minor). And I’ve just watched The Fog of War (free to watch on crackle), his interviews with Robert McNamara.

What I especially like about Morris is that he is entranced by the matter of truth, but in an agenda-free fashion. Sometimes this gets him in trouble with his fans, who tend to be agenda-driven. I liked this quote about his own interviewing style, from an interview about The Fog of War.

I sometimes describe my school of interviewing as the shut-up-and-listen school, which frustrates some viewers, perhaps because they’ve become accustomed to that adversarial style of questioning where the journalist tries to back his subject into a corner or force him into contradiction, or force him into obvious lies that can be exposed. I’ve always felt that there’s much more to be learned by allowing people to express themselves, to reveal themselves.

Part of my enterprise, of course, is to learn about people, to try to enter their mental landscape, to learn how they see the world, how they imagine themselves in the world, and, in the case of McNamara, how they imagine themselves in history.

I’m completely on Morris’s side here. In one’s ongoing effort to align oneself with the grain of the universe, not much is more valuable than a different perspective—after all, we spend a lot of time and effort shaping our own perspective, why not benefit from the work others have done, and bless them with the benefit of ours?

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