"I've always been a person who thinks about stuff," says director Errol Morris. "I think that's probably the best way to describe me."
It's a good thing that Morris is describing himself, because no one else can. What sets Morris apart is not that he thinks about stuff--although that in itself is a rarity--but the stuff he thinks about: Serial killers, pet cemeteries, the murder trial of a show dog, the electrocution of an elephant, the musings of an incapacitated cosmologist, the denizens of a Florida town who lop off their limbs for profit--these and many more true stories, some of which have made it to film, some still whirling around in his fevered brain.
The latest to come out of Morris' laboratory is "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control," about a lion trainer, a man obsessed with hairless mole rats, a topiary gardener and a scientist who builds robots.
"Part of the whole shtick of the movie is what does topiary have to do with us, what do mole rats have to do with us, what do robots have to do with us," says Morris. "If these are mental landscapes, if I'm really documenting not just a news story but the state of people's brains or the state of these four brains, part of it is a collage taking you into their world."
This seems clear enough. In his two previous acclaimed documentaries, "The Thin Blue Line" (1988) and "A Brief History of Time" (1992), Morris used old movie footage, stills, reenactments, found objects and traditional interviews to illustrate mental landscapes. It's what he does. It's also what distinguishes him from the sort of people who traffic in kitsch for its own sake. People in his movies are weird, but he never condescends to them.
"If they're off the wall, then we're off the wall," he says of the four subjects of "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control."
"The eccentric becomes commonplace," he says. "The eccentric becomes an everyman's story."
The question then is not so much what these people have to do with us as what they have to do with each other. Certainly obsolescence is an issue.
The survival of mankind is another. Sometimes the connections are not so clear. In one instance, the mole rat expert talks while we view audiences watching the lion tamer.
"Bring an analgesic," Morris advises when apprised of how disorienting this is. "Someone wrote recently [about the movie], 'Not for the faint of brain.' "
Such a description could probably describe all of Morris' work, although "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" is the most extreme example. At 49, Morris has been making documentaries, albeit slowly, for the last 20 years. It's a career he sort of stumbled on while pursuing the stuff that interests him. Born on Long Island, he studied the cello, took up rock climbing, worked as a private investigator and tried the academic world (he majored in history at the University of Wisconsin and did graduate work in the history of science at Princeton and in philosophy at Berkeley).
Frustrated with academia, Morris turned to other pursuits, indulging in his fascination with serial killers by interviewing, among others, the notorious Ed Gein, the model for Norman Bates in "Psycho." These interviewing skills stood him in good stead when, after adding filmmaking to the stuff that interests him, he decided to make a documentary inspired by the headline "450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley." The result, "Gates of Heaven" (1978), was hailed by critic Roger Ebert as one of the 10 best films of all time. In it Morris displayed his gift for coaxing people into revealing their mental landscapes--and letting the camera run on and on as they do so.
"I think that one of my virtues is taking the inconsequential and finding something consequential in it," Morris says.
(The release of the film also prompted an incredulous friend, director Werner Herzog, to eat his shoe, a feat memorialized in a 20-minute documentary by Les Blank called "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.")
Morris followed up "Gates" with "Vernon, Florida" (1981), which featured the citizens of a swamp town discussing such topics as turkey hunting and worm farming. Easily Morris' most celebrated work, however, was his next film, "The Thin Blue Line," in which he uncovered evidence that a drifter named Randall Adams, convicted of murdering a Dallas police officer, did not commit the crime and that a teenager named David Harris, who gave him a lift, probably did. In large part because of the film, Adams was set free.
For Morris, the victory was bittersweet. Inexplicably, the film was overlooked at Oscar time. Asked if that bothered him, he gets testy: "It's like asking you, 'When that bus hit you, were you bothered by that fact?'
"Yes, I was somewhat disheartened. But I think that they have the right to nominate whoever they want. One nice thing is that several academy members said they wanted me to be a member. They felt that it was such an oversight that they wanted me to be in the academy anyway."