Sunday, December 19, 2010

How Errol Morris Influenced Reality TV. . .for the best and worst

Every week, I feel like I survive I Survived.

Although it’s one of the top shows on my DVR now that’s its third season has started, every time it pops up on my queue I hesitate. Do I really want an intense emotional hangover? Do I really want my blood to freeze like it does when I’m reading a Cormac McCarthy novel? Do I really want to contemplate evil and danger in all its forms and how it can converge on me in without warning or pity?

Although I Survived covers natural disasters, animal attacks and freak accidents, it’s the experience of human-on-human violence that predictably sears the memory: An 11 year old girl awakes on a chartered boat to find her entire family massacred by the vessel’s captain; a tween is rescued from sexual slavery, only to face the vicious verbal assaults of her classmates and members of her community; two friends are attacked by a stalker and the survivor endures his threatening phone calls and even his desecration of her friend’s gravesite; a pregnant woman is invited over to a neighbor’s house only to have the unbalanced woman try to kill her and cut out her baby; a Texas lawman endures several attempts on his life that he later discovers were all masterminded by his girlfriend. These and other such survival stories are told by the victims themselves, although it seems unfair to call them “victims." In one incredible tale, a middle-aged lady is attacked in her home by a knife-wielding maniac and proceeds to turn the tables on the intruder, killing him slowly with her bare hands. Wow.

Surviving death is an evergreen topic. Just look at the last four weeks: the remarkable footage of a shooting at a public school meeting; the startling-to-the-point-of-peeing-yourself tsunami sequence in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter; James Franco’s Carlos Castaneda-meets-MTV hallucinations in that forlorn slot canyon in 127 Hours. But what makes I Survived so effective is not just its harrowing subject matter but because of how understated and spare the show is. Its visual hallmarks are perhaps the most beguiling feature and are endemic of the series creators’ rare respect for their subject matter and for the suffering of others. It might as well be a radio broadcast because any images would be paltry competition for the hideous and vivid stories told by the survivors, whose faces are displayed in a direct but not harsh lighting with a simple black background a la the “witnesses” in Warren Beatty’s Reds. The subjects do not look directly at us but ever-so-slightly off-camera. There is no narration (save for haiku-like subtitles) and no voice of the interviewer. Any questions are edited with quick fades and blackouts that add to the unnerving quality of these stories. Not that they need that much help.

I Survived is almost alone in the TV universe – surrounded by shows with shrill or patronizing voiceovers, intrusively dramatic music, and worse of all, the “dramatic re-enactment.” That last one has been tackled from all different angles and varying levels of success. Mostly they’ve become comical Mack Sennett reels where hired Central Casting extras (of which I was one once – read my experience here) gesticulate wildly and play up the dumb show like it was a Monty Python sketch. The effect immediately takes one out of the dramatic action like a cold splash of water and trivializes the real-life struggles it supposedly is trying to enhance. (What’s worse is when the actors’ voices are audible: “I am going to kill you now.”) But I Survived cagily goes the other way. When it cuts away from the interviews, there are no re-enactments but Edward Hopperesque friezes of neutral, empty settings – a lonely country road, a forest clearing, the corner of a dark kitchen, a looming apartment building – that relate in some way to the story being told. These shots are so effective and atmospheric – giving a sinister tinge to familiar places we all feel safe in – that they approach gothic horror territory, like Ambrose Bierce mixed with, well, Errol Morris.

"SURVIVORS": A Film by Errol Morris

Morris’ most recent film is Tabloid about the bizarre true tale of a Wyoming beauty queen turned “Mormon sex-in-chains kidnapper.” Ironically, it probably the most exploitative and salacious topic that the 62-year-old documentarian has released. In recent years, Morris has turned out somber films about American foreign policy (The Oscar-winning The Fog of War, the muddled but painstaking Abu Ghraib exhumation Standard Operating Procedure), but his most well-known film, The Thin Blue Line (1988), about the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer, was released right around the time the Tabloid News golem -- in the form of shows like A Current Affair and later Hard Copy -- was climbing out of the ooze. The Kafkaesque Line was a strange anomaly that on the surface seemed to share DNA with those shows: it did have re-enactments and broke down the wall between documentarian and participant. What’s more, TBL mirrored the show America’s Most Wanted, which debuted the same year as Morris’ film, in that it led to the release of the falsely accused drifter Randall Dale Adams from Texas' Death Row. Arguably, no other documentary in history had such a direct impact on the real life of its subject. It stands alone on that ground.

When The Thin Blue Line was released, staging dramatic re-enactments in documentary features was considered verboten territory. Initially, I remember being put off a bit by Morris’ restagings until repeated viewings showed that he was using them in a subtle, off-center way: obscuring the faces of the re-enactors, repeating the same scenes from different participants’ perspectives (Morris’ persnickety examination of a dropped milkshake is a fascinating example) and the elimination of sound or dialogue save for the hypnotic minimalist pulses of composer Phillip Glass’ score. Film critic Danny Peary, writing about Morris’ weird and wonderful feature debut Gates of Heaven, noted that in his interviews, Morris positions his subjects “so precisely within the frame that they might as well be lamps.” All of this combines to make Morris’ films almost Zen tone poems, which may account for why they've been criticized as “slow” and even “boring.” (I can second that: I fell asleep – in a movie theatre, no less – in the middle of Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., and that’s my favorite film of his.) Vernon, Florida, about a small town of mutilated eccentrics in the Sunshine State’s panhandle, is only an hour long yet feels much longer. That’s not a bad thing: like the beaten up old truck spewing exhaust as it putters its way through the center of the town, the film dips you so deep in mood and atmosphere that its almost jarring to re-enter the world after its over. You have been taken to a different place and have emerged feeling changed as a result.

It's not always pleasant. But it works. And because his techniques have filtered so deeply into reality TV (I Survived is practically a smeared carbon copy of Morris' short -lived TV series First Person) and because they've been warped and dumbed-down by people without a modicum of his talent or restraint, we have Errol to both thank and admonish.


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