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Interview with Errol Morris + Visible Evidence 18

By Øyvind Vågnes on 17.08.2011 (07:00).

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I had been talking with Errol Morris for an hour or so about the philosophy and the poetics of documentary reenactment, his most recent feature Tabloid, and his energetic investagations into the circumstances surrounding Roger Fenton’s two photographs from the Valley of the Shadow of Death in his fresh off the press bookBelieving is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, based on his blog entries for the New York Times, when he lit up at my passing mention of my new bookZaprudered (which is also just out). “You have to know that I know Josiah Thompson?” Morris said, enthusiastically. This I did not anticipate. “Really?” “Yes!” Morris said, and led me out of his office and into the editing room of his spacious studios at Cambridge Street.

It turned out that Morris had known Thompson for decades; in fact, they had both worked briefly as private detectives for the same Berkeley company in the seventies. I know Thompson’s 1967 book Six Seconds in Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination well. It’s sort of a classic in the extensive library of the assassination, and it was one of the first books I checked out when I began my research on the Zapruder film, some ten years ago at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where I found a copy of the original publication.

When we entered the editing room, Morris instructed his editor to look for a specific segment, and I had a seat. Soon enough Thompson appeared on the screen, talking about what in the assassination lexicon is known as the Umbrella Man – the man captured in photographs and footage who can be seen holding an open umbrella in a sun-bathed Dealey Plaza, and thus came to play a central role in conspiracy theories, notably in Jim Marr’sCrossfire (which informed Oliver Stone’s JFK).

According to Thompson, the Umbrella Man had come forward with an explanation for his mysterious appearance. I won’t spoil the surprise here, since Morris might include the segment in future work, but I suspect I’m not revealing much when I say that the reason the Umbrella Man gave for opening the umbrella had nothing to do with any conspiracy, and furthermore, that it is more hilarious than anything anyone might have made up – perfect Morris material, in other words.

"Are you doing work on the Kennedy assassination?" I asked Morris when we returned to his office, admitting that the thought had struck me over the years, that I have speculated whether he would not address some aspect of the event at some point. “Therein lies madness,” the filmmaker sighed; “I’m not going down that rabbit hole.” And yet there it was, the segment, and Morris had to admit he was toying with a few ideas, with the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination looming in the not too distant future.

Perhaps his greatest challenge would be to fit such a project into his unbelievably hectic calendar. Two new books will follow soon, one on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case (Penguin), a blog entry for the New York Times that grew so extensive that they wouldn’t publish it; another book, The Ashtray (University of Chicago Press), is based on yet another essay for the New York Times (in which Morris describes his contested relationship with Thomas Kuhn). Several film projects are under way; when we burst into the editing room, work was being done on a film that originates from Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer, on the anthrax threat. Morris is also working on a fiction feature, We Froze the First Man, an adaptation of Robert F. Nelson's memoir (Nelson is the man who invented the cryogenics technology).
    An eclectic mix to be sure, and Morris described himself as very, very overworked, but yet he did not show any sign of stress, generously allowing me to spend two hours in his company. His working environment is uniquely relaxed; when we walked over to his office, his companionable two dogs followed in tow. As we sat down one of them crawled onto my lap, and in the end they were so companionable that Morris had to throw them out. ”Guys! We can’t do this with you in here! You have to get out!” he said, and called assistant Karen Skinner to escort them out of the room. 

In the days preceeding my visit with Morris I attended theVisible Evidence conference in New York City with Henrik. The Nomadikon delegation had the great pleasure to present in a panel we shared with Matthew Flintham titled ”Picturing the Invisible: The New Landscapes of Global Conflict and Defense." The conference was fantastically well-organized, with a range of fascinating panels, workshops, and screenings, and I’ll only be able to mention a couple of the highlights here: the opening workshop ”The Future of Documentary Studies,” which gathered several of the leading scholars to reflect upon the pressing issues of the field; a panel, ”Arts of Surveillance,” the central topics of which interplayed fascinatingly with our own presentations; and the screening of Klaus vom Bruch’s compilation of 1977-78 German television and news footage regarding the Baader-Meinhof gang. Being held in New York City, there was also a range of possibilities outside the program, and Henrik and I found time to visit two exhibitions that tapped into several of the questions raised in various panels (including our own): After the Gold Rush, at the Met, and Images of War, the Harun Farocki exhibition at MOMA. Before I went to Massachussetts to meet Morris I had the chance to attend the first public screening of Charles Musser’s fresh documentary on Morris, which was on the conference program. I would certainly recommend the engaging film both to those who are familiar and to those that are new to Morris’s work.

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