HOMI BHABHA: Welcome to the third and final History and Literature public lecture for this year. We are most grateful to have your full attention. We've had wonderful audiences, very appreciative evenings, great questions. I hope you will be true to form again this evening.
Growing up as I did in Bombay, some miles south of the gaudy and glitzy world of Bollywood, you may well imagine that my relation to the topic of truth in cinema is somewhat skewed, perhaps even a little bit dubious.
Song and dance routines aside, Bombay was also the home of a pioneering documentary film tradition, rather like Errol Morris' non-fiction features, committed to an invigorating aesthetic of social inquiry. These documentarians distrusted the information that was liberally disseminated in the public sphere. They tirelessly sought an aesthetic form in the film that initiated an interlocutory relationship with the topics or themes of their films and their audiences.
The investigative genre assumes a more unidirectional search for truth. What I'm calling the interlocutory form, however, reveals what appears to be true, only when the subject, good, bad or indifferent, talks back. And the viewer, like the director, is empowered to read between the lines.
It gives me the greatest pleasure to introduce Errol Morris in the company of Bombay's interlocutory filmmakers, because he belongs to a public sphere of cultural citizenship, in which the truth of historical events, is not luminous. It emerges from the murky shadows, the twilight terrain, from which we come to learn what really happened or not, or what was truly done or what was said to be done in truth.
When The Thin Blue Line was released in 1988, a review at this time, Errol Morris' film has built an investigation of a murder and a nightmarish meditation on the difference between truth and fiction. When Randall Adams was released after more than 12 years in prison, first on death row, the Dallas assistant district attorney complained that the mind of the judge who ordered Adams release, had been warped by the New York underground cult movie maker who was down here. The truth about Morris' film set Randall Adams free.
Morris, himself, described The Thin Blue Line as a nonfiction feature instead of a documentary. Because like Truman Capote In Cold Blood, he was trying to call attention to the tension between reporting and trying to create a work of art. As Morris brought out one kind of truth from the human subjects of historical events, that he records, his aesthetic balance sketches out the aesthetic sensorium, color, light, sound, shapes, music and metaphors - the universe through which, unconsciously and figuratively, both the subjects and his audiences live through a fog of vanity, habit and circumstance even as they strive towards a kind of clarity.
In The Fog of War, we see and hear Robert McNamara try or not try to come to grips with his managerial arrogance and the hyper- rationality that led to a tragically clouded judgment about Vietnam.
Writing in The New York Times, in response to the videotape of a U.S. Marine shooting an Iraqi prisoner in Fallujah, Morris suggested, and I quote, "that if you want to believe some things, then we often find a way to do so, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Believing is seeing and not the other way around."
In the best sense, Errol Morris' films are disturbing works of truth, history and art. They renew our hope that new ways of seeing can unsettle old ways of believing. It is by entering the intrepid interlocutory spaces that opened up what we might be able to negotiate in this difficult transition, that gives this remarkable filmmaker and his films the importance and following that they have so rightly deserved. It gives me the greatest pleasure to welcome you.
ERROL MORRIS: This is very kind. I should point out that the use of the term "nonfiction feature" so kindly described a moment ago, was really a marketing tool. Probably the same could be said for Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel," as well - the desire to get your work before a larger audience, which is at least part of the motivation for making movies. You want people to see them.
I picked this subject because ever since I started work as a filmmaker and probably long before, I was concerned, still am concerned, with issues of truth and self-deception. I've never liked the idea expressed by Godard that film is truth 24 times a second. I have a slightly different version. Film is lies 24 times a second. Almost the same, slightly different.
The first film I made, Gates of Heaven, was very much in reaction to a prevailing idea about how documentaries should be made. Namely, the idea of cinema verite, truth cinema. There was this idea that if you follow certain rules, if you shoot things in a certain way, then out pops the truth. The rules, themselves, are fairly straightforward. Shoot with a hand-held camera. Shoot with available light, become a fly-on-the-wall, observing but not observed in turn. And of course, try to be as unobtrusive as possible. It's one of those meat-grinder ideas. You put in the appropriate ingredients, and magically, truth results.
To me, it's utter nonsense. Who could have ever made such a claim? On the basis of what? Does the font you use to print a sentence guarantee its truth or falsity? I think not. All of us get comfort - I can't speak for all of us, but my guess is the preponderant number of people in this room get a certain comfort from reading The New York Times. It's that familiar set of fonts that we're used to seeing every day, fonts which give us a certain level of comfort, a belief that what we're reading is true. I would submit that style doesn't guarantee truth. How could it possibly ever do such a thing? We may feel that the fonts are truth-telling fonts, but it's our uncritical reliance on a whole constellation of beliefs.
It's a purported solution to the Cartesian riddle of what's out there: you just pick the appropriate style and somehow the riddle vanishes? Again, I think not.
So from the very first film I made, Gates of Heaven, I decided to break all of the rules. Instead of using lightweight equipment, we tried to use the heaviest equipment that we could afford. Fortunately, my budget was limited in those days, or I would have used even heavier equipment. I tried to be always as obtrusive as possible. One of the great no-no's in making films, you're told, "People are not supposed to look at the camera." They're supposed to look, I suppose, anywhere but at the camera. Face the other way, face to the left or the right or whatever, but never, never, never, never look at the camera. Pretend that the camera isn't there. Well, I had people looking directly at the camera, talking directly to the camera.
Don't change things. We changed almost everything. Don’t light things. Use available light. Everything was lit. I can probably think of a couple of other things, but I think you get the idea.
Now, was what I did, any less, any more truthful than cinema verite? I would say no more, no less truthful. Very shortly after that, I made a film in northwest Florida, named after the town in which it was shot, Vernon, Florida. A town that I can honestly say is in the middle of nowhere, equidistant from Tallahassee and Pensacola. A place where no one in his right mind would go, let alone spend a great deal of time there.
I went down there because of a story that I read in The New York Times about an insurance investigator who was chronicling the worst cases he had encountered in his 30-year career of insurance investigations. It was just a couple of lines in the article, it was mentioned in passing, a town called "Nub City," so named because of this extraordinary history of self-mutilation, people taking out insurance policies on themselves and then cutting off their arms and legs in order to collect the insurance.
It's hard to know what I was thinking, or if in fact I was thinking at all. It was impossible to make this film. It's not as if you can actually walk up to somebody who's an amputee and ask them to start explaining in great detail how they lost a leg or an arm or, in some instances, both an arm and a leg, after taking out insurance policies on themselves. They have committed a crime. They're not going to talk about it.
So the movie never got made. Although I did get beaten up by the son of a nubbie in Quincy, Florida. This is the only time that I was really beaten up, and I have to say it was unpleasant. It hurt.
So I ended up making a vastly different film. Someone described it as "philosophy in the swamp," and that might be more or less true. I discovered all of this unexpected material from the people that I found down there, and one of the themes that fascinated me was - I am now getting around to the subject of what we're supposed to be talking about here tonight - truth or, more specifically, the avoidance of truth and self-deception. My view is that the truth is knowable, but often that we have a vested interest in not knowing, not seeing it, disregarding it, avoiding it. Consequently, my interest in truth had two parts - an interest in the pursuit of truth and an interest in examining how people manage to avoid the truth in one way or another.
Now, here is a clip from my second film, Vernon, Florida, and I included it because I believe it is relevant to the issue of self-deception.
I was giving a lecture at Brandeis a while ago. I was showing clips from many of my films. This was one of them, Vernon, Florida, and I said, "Well, this is my example of self-deception." I said, "What do we know about sand?" We know that sand doesn't grow. [laughter] And yet, the Martins, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, who you see in this clip, are both absolutely convinced the sand is growing. How could that be? And I offered this up as an example of self-deception - willful belief despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Did they really believe the sand was growing? What was going on here?
Someone in the audience took me aside after the lecture, and said, "You know, the sand from White Sands Proving Grounds isn't really beach sand, it's gypsum. And it is enormously sensitive to changes in humidity." Perhaps you see where I'm going here. The sand was taken from the arid climate of New Mexico to the extremely humid climate of northwest Florida. And what was he telling me? That the Martins may not be self-deceived. It might be me - that I was the one who was truly self-deceived with my assumption that the sand was not growing. I don't know this for sure, but there's that real possibility that the sand was growing.
I can say one thing in my defense. If what this man says is true, the sand will grow to a certain point and will stop growing. Which I'm not sure is part of the Martins' plan. But at least there's a different and an entirely plausible explanation of what is going on here.
Who is the one truly self-deceived? This is a question, I think, very difficult to answer. But at least you should always entertain the possibility that it is yourself.
I finished that film and was out of work for, I don't know, a long, long, long time. I couldn't get anybody to give me money to make another movie, and the only job I could get was as a private detective in New York City. A friend of a friend had been looking for a detective, and recommended me. Of course, you need some kind of pretext when you're talking to people. My pretext, which I found really humiliating at the time, was - filmmaking. I pretended to be a filmmaker. Which I was, sort of, and which I also wasn't, sort of. At the time I was very much an unemployed filmmaker.
I finally got money to make another film, The Thin Blue Line - Actually, I got money to make a film that had really nothing whatsoever to do with The Thin Blue Line. I was so desperate that I submitted a proposal that I hoped would interest television executives at public broadcasting, even though it didn't interest me - about future dangerousness, about a Dallas psychiatrist nick-named "Dr. Death". Well, his real name was Dr. James Grigson, but he was given the nickname Dr. Death because of the role he played in capital murder trials in Texas. (It's very nice that we have a governor, as I speak, pursuing a similar course. Thank you, Governor Romney for proposing doubt-free executions.)
But in those days, which of course might have very similar to these days, in order to sentence someone to death, you had to make a prediction about his or her future behavior. The trials were bifurcated. There would be a guilt phase, and then a penalty phase. In some states, they have mitigating circumstances in the penalty phase, but this is Texas, so they have exacerbating circumstances. [laughter] And the exacerbating circumstance that they embraced... The prosecutors in Texas were very enthusiastic about this one, is they bring in a psychiatrist to make a prediction about the defendant. "Doctor, in your opinion. He has killed before. Will he kill again?" And Dr. Grigson would take the stand and would say: "With 100% certainty, I can predict that the defendant will kill and kill and kill and kill again unless he is first killed by the state."
In this scheme, you can think of executions as preventive murder. Like killings in a preventive war. (There, of course, is a similarity between war and the death penalty. You could even think of war as the death penalty writ large.)
I am profoundly skeptical about our abilities to predict the future in general, and human behavior in particular, except - and I have to make an exception here - except what Dr. Death will say in the penalty phase of a capital murder trial. This can be predicted with 100% certainty. The certainty that he will take the stand and say that the defendant should be executed.
I spent a lot of time with Dr. Death. He had a lot of time on his hands. He had lost all his private patients. He explained to me, he said, "You know, after I got that name," Dr. Death, "they just stopped coming." Evidently, it's not so easy to reveal some of your deepest and darkest secrets to someone known as Dr. Death. It's a sad story, but all too believable. It had an inherent plausibility to it, hard to deny.
At his suggestion I went to various Texas prisons and interviewed people Dr. Grigson had helped sentence to die in the Texas electric chair. And I had these prisoner auditions. I must have interviewed some 15, 16, 17 inmates. One of them turned out to be innocent. But he interested me, not because I thought he was innocent. He interested me just because he seemed odd. He had a singsong way of talking, as if he was convinced that no one really was listening to anything he had to say, that he was going through some kind of formal recitation that he felt compelled to go through again and again and again and again. Even though he knew - somehow he knew - that it would fall on deaf ears. And I became obsessed with this case for three years. Three years of investigating a murder with the camera, in part with a camera, and making the film The Thin Blue Line, which resulted in this man's release from prison.
I look at it as a triumph of sorts, for many, many reasons. I thought that it was proof that I was inherently a good person, something that I could trade off of for years. But I also liked the idea that I had done everything wrong, and I actually, in the process of doing everything wrong, had accumulated real evidence. Sections of the movie were submitted as evidence in federal and state court. There are moments in these interviews that made the difference between this man spending the rest of his life in prison and his release from prison.
By the way, no verite, no hand-held camera, no available light, no nothing of that sort. A camera planted on a tripod in front of people speaking. Breaking stylistic conventions but still pursuing truth.
I haven't mentioned it up to this point, but I should tell you, I don't think pictures have any truth-value. I'm always mystified when people talk about the truth and falsity of pictures. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but truth is something that arises out of the relationship between language and the world. If I look at a picture alone, it tells me nothing. In the previous incarnation of this lecture, I was going to put a picture of the Titanic and the Lusitania up on the screen. They look very, very similar - four smokestacks. They look almost identical. You look at either picture, true or false? Neither. Put a caption at the bottom of one of them, that changes everything. If you put in the caption, "This is the Lusitania," and the picture is a picture of the Lusitania, then the caption is true. However, the picture itself is neither true nor false. It's just a picture.
There were five witnesses against this man when he was convicted of capital murder. One of them actually turned out to be the real killer. Always an interesting irony. I think you could describe it that way. Three of them were wacko eyewitnesses that had appeared on the roadway that night and claimed that they had seen everything. And the fifth was a policewoman who was a partner of the police officer who was shot and killed. Forgive me, I could go into excruciating detail about this case, but I think it would be inappropriate in this context.
Yeah. I always think about how I would like to be sentenced to death because of her testimony. [laughter] I mean, probably it doesn't feel very good to be sentenced to death on anybody's testimony, but I think this would be particularly irritating. [laughter]
I can't show you all of this material, but this has become part and parcel of what I do. And certainly a very, very big part of The Fog of War, my most recent film. You could say it's an interest in two really discrepant things. On one hand, an interest in how people reveal themselves through language. A friend of mine has said, "You can never trust someone who doesn't talk a lot, because how else could you know what they're thinking?" This could be true. There's a belief that if you sit people down and you let them talk that they will reveal who they are. And then this also contrary to the whole idea about how you're supposed to investigate stuff, how you're supposed to interview people. After all, you're supposed to ask difficult questions. You're supposed to - particularly if you want to find something out, you're supposed to back the subject against the wall, press them hard and get them to 'fess up in some way or another.
This is part of many of the criticisms that I heard about my film of Robert S. McNamara. That he should have been subjected to much tougher questions.
Now this is all self-serving of me to say, but my silence during the interviews for The Thin Blue Line produced information that led to the conviction being overturned.
At the very beginning of the interviews, some of my very favorite lines that I ever put on film, "Everywhere I go, there's murders. Even around my house." [laughter] You know, this could be another instance of self-deception on my part but I concluded that she is confused, she is confabulating, she is a fantast living in some crazy world of her own devising. In all likelihood, people aren't being bludgeoned to death in the kitchen; they aren't being immolated in the living room; they aren't being stabbed to death in the bedroom. In all likelihood, none of that stuff is going on, even though she might like to think it is. After all, she wants to be a detective or the wife of a detective. (I guess I wanted to be a detective or the husband of a detective.)
In the middle of this interview, and it was not in response to any question, because I'm not that good, quite honestly, she started to talk about how she failed to pick out Randall Adams, who was the defendant sentenced to death, how she's failed to pick out Randall Adams in a police lineup. She'd failed to pick him out. Having forgotten that she testified to the exact opposite in this trial. Again, not in response to any question I asked, she went on and started to justify her failure. She was quite defensive. "I failed to pick him out because he was looking at me funny, and he changed the way he was dressed, his hair was different," blah blah blah blah blah. And I didn't say anything right then.
Near the end of the interview, when the interview was, for all intents and purposes, over, I did ask her, because it - I asked her because I was curious. I said, "Emily, you say you failed to pick out the defendant in the police lineup. How do you know? How do you know you failed?" And she said, "I know!" and I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, but how did you know?" And she said, "I know because the policeman sitting next to me told me I picked out the wrong person, and then pointed out the right person so I wouldn't make that mistake again." It's a good line, particularly when it's presented as evidence in a court of law. And believe it or not, she actually repeated it in a court of law. Go figure.
That, probably more than anything, led to Randall Adams' conviction being overturned. I mean, there was an enormous-- and by enormous, I mean enormous = evidence supporting his innocence. Also at the very end of the movie, The Thin Blue Line, the real murderer confesses to me. There's that as well. But that was a long time coming.
I have one more clip.
At the time that The Thin Blue Line came out, the movie was criticized by many reviewers, "Well, this is not a documentary. This is somehow fake, it's somehow fraudulent." And one of the complaints was that I had used re-enactments in the film. And actually, one reviewer even suggested that I had been remiss, because clearly, I had been out on the roadway that night, and I should have tried to stop the crime. [laughter] That claim is quite remarkable.
The re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line were never used to make you think you were looking at the real world. In fact, they were ironic re-enactments, re-enactments that were in conflict with each other, re-enactments that were demonstrations of falsehood, re-enactments of beliefs, re-enactments of what people claimed that they had seen rather than what I thought they had seen. And the purpose of them was to bring you deeper and deeper and deeper into the mystery of what actually happened. And to heighten the conflict between the claims made by the various witnesses and the reality of that world out there. Because, after all, there is a world out there in which things happen or don't happen.
I like to think of myself as the ultimate anti-postmodernist postmodernist. Notwithstanding the unusual narrative or visual devices that appear in many of the films, what have kept me going for the three years of investigating this story, was the belief that there answers to questions such as, Adams did it, didn't he? Or Harris did it, didn't he? That it's not just up for grabs. Today, I believe there's a kind of frisson of ambiguity. People think that ambiguity is somehow wonderful in its own right, an excuse for failing to investigate. What can I say? I think this view is wrong. At best, misguided. Maybe even reprehensible.
I like this clip. I picked it because it encapsulates a lot of what I do in my films. My obsession with fetish objects, in this instance, a milkshake. I felt that the milkshake provided a way into the question: What did the policewoman see? Is her testimony to be believed? Did she get out of the car?
The normal police procedure in a routine traffic stop - both officers get out of the car, one officer covering the other. One officer at the driver's window; the other officer at the rear taking down the license plate number. This was a very routine traffic stop - a car traveling without headlights. It was a very cold night in Dallas. In all likelihood, she remained in the car. The milkshake-toss was used to underline that fact. Her partner got out; she remained inside. He walked up to the driver's side of this vehicle and was shot five times. The car sped off in the night. As the shooting occurred, his partner threw her milkshake as she was getting out of the car. Belatedly. She didn't get the license plate number; she didn't get the make of the car. She got nothing.
There is a crime scene diagram. It clearly shows where the milkshake landed. If she had been out of the patrol car when the shooting occurred, the milkshake would either been left inside the car or it would have landed somewhere else entirely, somewhere near the rear of the car.
I thought in conclusion, that I would share a clip from The Fog of War, since it seems to be the movie that more people are familiar with. It's lesson can be found in all of these previous movies that I've made. They are all of a piece. And it is one of my favorite lessons - that believing is seeing.
I had a lot of trouble with McNamara in the course of making this movie. Horrible disagreements about stuff I had put in the movie that he did not want in there. One of the major disagreements concerned the lessons in the film. There are 11 lessons. And he repeatedly said, "You know, Errol, those are not my lessons. They are your lessons." And I said, "Yeah, yeah, they are. But they're extracted, of course, from things that you've said," things that McNamara said, which is indeed the case. Perhaps not the lessons that McNamara would have chosen, but then, he was not directing the movie. I think that the lessons are all ironic. It's very odd to me that people talk about the film and they talk about the lessons without pointing out that there might be intended ironies with each and every one of them. But yes, they are for me ironic, particularly the last one in the movie: You can't change human nature. It tells you that all of the other lessons are valueless, that the human situation is indeed hopeless.
So on that cheery note, let me just show you one more clip. This is the longest of them, so please, if you get impatient, just yell out and I'll put a stop to it.
My apologies, I forgot to mention a prediction made by Dr. Grigson in The Thin Blue Line. It is very, very, very hard to be 200% wrong in one situation, but Dr. Grigson managed to achieve that almost-impossible outcome. He predicted with 100% certainty that Randall Adams would kill and kill and kill again unless he was executed by the state of Texas. Randall Adams has been out for 17 years, and has not so much as a single misdemeanor, let alone a felony pressed against him. David Harris, of course, was freed by the state of Texas. Dr. Grigson said that he was a nice boy who would really mend his ways and he would never get into any kind of trouble. David Harris, who was freed after his testimony against Randall Adams. It's a grim joke. Harris enlisted in the military. Tell me if you think that he had problems with authority figures. He enlisted in the military and tried to kill his commanding officer and ended up in Leavenworth. And he was released and stole a car. He drove to California with a buddy. They picked up a hitchhiker. They were surrounded by the police following the robbery of an electronic parts store, and David Harris tried to kill a police officer. His gun jammed, and was taken into custody. He tried to blame the hitchhiker, very much like what he successfully did in this case in Dallas.
And then, when I stumbled on this piece by accident, he had just been paroled from San Quentin to his family in Vidor, Texas, in east Texas. And someone's holding their head just at the thought of Vidor, Texas...
Q: The KKK town.
ERROL MORRIS: Yeah, it was the hometown of the KKK. I stopped wearing glasses in east Texas. I was wearing glasses at the time. And I started to become convinced - I won't go into all the details - but I started to become convinced that the glasses secretly said J-E-W. And that I would do much, much better without them. And in this one bizarre conversation with a police officer in Vidor who asked me if I lived in New York. I said, I was living in New York City at the time. And then he said, "There are a lot of deli restaurants, aren't there, in New York?" I thought, is this going where I think it's going? I said, "There are a lot of deli restaurants in New York." And then he looked at me and he said, "I bet you really like deli food, don't you?"
Anyway, he was paroled from San Quentin to his family in Vidor, Texas, which is a really frightening place, take my word for it. And I kept trying to get him to do an interview with me. Long, long, long story. And the first meeting that I had with him was in the swamp at some lonely bar. And I started to get the feeling almost immediately that he was the real killer. And we're going to have to stop this pretty soon. I'll tell one brief story. If I may. Is that okay? You sure? [applause]
I drove to see him alone at this bar in the middle of nowhere at night between Beaumont and Vidor. And Harris still looked young, even though he was 26, 27 years old. This was ten years after the murder of the Dallas police officer. And I started to think, you know, he could be the killer. I wasn't sure, but I thought, he could be. He asked me whether Adams had been executed for the crime, and I told him he hadn't, which gave him, it seemed to me, pause for thought. And then he said, "Well, did he say anything me?" And I tried to be as tactful as possible. And said, "Well, David, you know, he's upset about a number of things." [laughter] After all, he had come within 72 hours of being electrocuted.
And at one point, I started to get nervous by the fact that I, myself, was thinking he was the killer. I don't know if you've ever had this experience. [laughter] You think someone is thinking you're thinking something, and you don't want him to think that you're thinking something, so you tell him you're not thinking that, and in the process of telling him you're not thinking that, you tell him the exact opposite. (I hope I got that right.)
So I turn to David and said, "I'm really glad I got a chance to meet you, because I can see now that you couldn't possibly have been responsible for the murder of the Dallas police officer." And he gave me this very, very, very disturbing - disturbing to me - look. And as I left, he told me three times to be very careful driving home. When someone says that to you once, they're asking you to be very careful driving home. When they say it to you twice, maybe they're asking you to be very, very careful driving home. When they say it to you three times, it's a threat.
I left the bar, and I was convinced he was following me. I was driving these back roads. I was staying in a motel in Huntsville, Texas.
I was driving these back roads to Huntsville, and I stopped at this gas station and I called my wife in New York, and I said, "You know, I just talked to David Harris and I think he might be the killer and I think he's following me." And she started screaming at me, like, "You idiot! What are you doing?"
Four months after this initial meeting, David Harris broke an appointment for an interview. He was working on some construction crew in Houston, and I had arranged to film him at a motel in Houston. And he stood me up. So I couldn't find him. I couldn't find him for close to a week, and then he appeared in Jefferson County Jail under indictment for capital murder. He had broken into an apartment. There was a couple sleeping - Mark Walter Mays and his girlfriend. He abducted the girl - naked and screaming. Mays came after him with a gun. There was a shoot out. Harris wounded Mays and then finished him off at point blank range.
It's one of my very favorite excuses for missing an appointment. "I'm sorry. I was off killing somebody."
And for that murder, the murder of Mark Walter Mays, he was tried convicted and sentenced to death. And he was executed last year, late last year, for that murder. So these two predictions, the prediction of a man who would endlessly commit murder, who has done nothing, and the prediction of a boy who couldn't possibly hurt a fly, who actually hurt many, many, many, many, many people...
McNamara's batting average seems better - 50% in the Gulf of Tonkin. As he put it in The Fog of War, "We were right once and wrong once." Of course, after he and LBJ took our country to war, and more than 3 million people died, his 50% batting average provides limited consolation.
The Fog of War was based on this belief that I could tell history from the inside out. That I could start with a subjective account, a deeply subjective account - you can't imagine an account being more subjective - and learn something important about history.
There was a reporter at the New York Film Festival - at one of the very first screenings of the movie - who asked me, "Are you aware of the fact you interviewed only one person?" [laughter] Yes, I was aware I had interviewed one person. Again, breaking all of those rules, this time, the rule of balance. You often here that in journalism you're supposed to have balance - whatever that might be. No one has every really described balance to me in any way that makes sense. Balance - it seems to me - is often no more than the appearance of balance, fairness, whatever. You're supposed to give the appearance of balance, whatever that might be.
Well, The Fog of War is a movie that eschews balance. It has no interest in balance, as such. It takes a subjective account of one man and examines it. Often it is set it off against the historical record. Set it off against evidence - documents, presidential recordings - with the hope of creating a kind of tension between how McNamara and the viewer experienced history.
Again, not truth with a capital "T," but an attempt to investigate and to learn about things in some unexpected way. Cinema is no more a vehicle for truth than a magazine or a book. It's just another one of those devices that we use to tell stories. A vehicle. But I think underneath all of it, on the part of the person actually making the films, there can be an interest in truth and in the pursuit of truth that can be captured and talked about in a movie. And I hope that, at least in part, that's what my career has been about.
So thank you. Is this a lecture? This seems to be a lecture, and I would like to thank Homi Bhaba for inviting me and all of you for coming today.
I think we have some time for questions. I like abusive questions, so please be cruel.
Q: What do you say to people who criticize you for making fun of the people who you interview?
ERROL MORRIS: It hasn't come up in the case of The Fog of War, because the criticisms have come from the opposite side - that I've been far, far, far too kind to McNamara. Not from everybody, but from some people.
But in many of my earlier films, I was told that I was setting people up for ridicule. I used to defend myself - usually, by denying it. Now, I am less excited about doing so. Properly considered, filmmakers in general and documentary filmmakers in particular should not be creating ads for humanity. "Wow. Look how great the human race is. I never thought that being human could be so wonderful." Nor should I be protecting my subjects from themselves. If they are ridiculous, why can't I show that? Does it make the other humans nervous? Am I writing ad copy for some kind of television program on Neptune on why the human race should be allowed to continue? Do I have to show us to our best advantage?
I should point out that I make enough commercials without having to turn my movies into them. I make my living from directing television commercials and have probably directed over 1,000 ads in the last ten years.
The important thing is to create complexity and to try to capture the complexity of your characters on film. One of the very kindest things that anyone has said about The Fog of War came from McNamara's son, Craig McNamara. He said: he thought that the movie had been successful in capturing the complexity of his father. And if that's true, then I've done my job.
So my new thought about the fact that people look ridiculous or funny in my movies... First of all, I don't believe in that distinction between laughing at and laughing with. There's just laughing at. Let's get real here. And I suppose my final answer is, "So what!" [laughter]
Q: You said that cinema is no more a vehicle for truth than magazines or books. Isn't it often dangerous to allow people you interview to read what you write, because they could or the editor could change the material. So why would you have McNamara view your film - because potentially he could want you to totally change some thing you've made in the film?
ERROL MORRIS: Because the film was a collaboration. Legally, he could not force me to do anything. But I saw the movie as a collaboration between the two of us. I never saw the movie, as I was making it, and I don't see the movie now, as my attempt to quote-unquote "get," go after, Robert S. McNamara. I saw it as an attempt to try to understand McNamara - to answer questions about McNamara.
To me, McNamara's a mystery. In fact, people, to me, are mysteries, the movie has two endings. There is the ending that McNamara would like to have had where he is quoting T.S. Eliot, he's quoting from the last of the Four Quartets, "Little Gidding." He's talking - through Eliot's poetry - about how at the end of our lives, we can return to the place from where we started and can come to know it for the first time. It's optimistic. Oddly enough, it's not optimistic if you read the whole poem, but in that snippet that McNamara has chosen and often repeated, it is optimistic. It tells you: you can learn from experience. You can review the circumstances of your life and derive lessons, perhaps others can profit from these lessons as well. There's something to be gained, something to be learned. Life has some benefit.
And then the epilogue, my epilogue, when I ask McNamara a series of questions, and the questions are questions that are on my mind and they're on the minds of, I presume, most of the people watching the movie. Questions that linger on: Do you feel responsible? Do you feel guilty? How do you live with the weight of all of this? And the final line, "Do you think you're damned if you do and damned if you"-- and then he interrupted and says, "Yes, and I'd rather be damned if I don't." I like the line. It's the essence of McNamara. I actually feel the line, well, the line can be given many, many, many different readings.
People have asked me, "Aside from the movie, does he feel sorry? You know, more than 3 million people died in southeast Asia. Does he feel sorry? Does he feel guilty? Has he ever said he is sorry?"
I made the movie because I read his book In Retrospect in 1995, and all of the reviews described the book as a mea culpa. I read it in reviews everywhere. McNamara's mea culpa. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. Well, I read the book and it seemed to me the book I was reading was completely different than the book reviewed in various different papers. To me, saying that the war was wrong or the war was a mistake is not a mea culpa. Saying, the war was wrong, I helped cause it and I am sorry is a mea culpa. But that was nowhere to be found in In Retrospect. It just isn't in the book.
But I used to think that it was an infirmity of the book, a weakness of the book. I now actually see it in a crazy way as its strength. Maybe it's one of the reasons the book appeals to me. I asked myself the question: Do I actually want to hear McNamara say he's sorry? And I decided: No. I don't. I think there would be something obscene about an apology. Sorry for the death of 58,000 Americans and 3 million-plus Vietnamese? Is that the kind of thing where you say: Sorry?
This is far afield, but I have my own theory of apologies - that we love apologies because they empower us. You can say, "I'm sorry, will you forgive me?" and then the ball is on our court. We can say, "No, I don't forgive you. Fuck you." Or we could say, "I accept your apology. Apology accepted. You are forgiven."
I don't want the ball to be in my court. I know what I feel about the war in Vietnam. I demonstrated against the war as a young student at the University of Wisconsin and at Princeton. The war was abhorrent to me then, and my feelings about it have not changed one little bit over the years. Yes?
Q: When you were an anti-Vietnam War protester, were you actively rooting for the communists to win and defeat us? Now, recently, I've heard you draw a parallel between Iraq and Vietnam. Are you pulling for us - the United States and our allies - to defeat the bad guys in Iraq or are you pulling for the bad guys to defeat us militarily, just like in the war in Vietnam?
ERROL MORRIS: This seems to be a question of whether I'm on the side of good or evil. I'm maybe on the side of evil in this instance. And no, I was not rooting for anybody in the war in Vietnam. I wasn't rooting for the communists. I wasn't rooting for the U.S. military or for my country either. I don't see international affairs as a football game. I'm terribly sorry. I don't see it as a situation where I am called upon as a citizen to decide whether I belong to the Blue Team or the Red Team or the Green Team or the White Team or any other team for that matter. It seemed to me that people were dying for no good reason in southeast Asia, and that someone should find a way to stop it.
My feelings about Iraq are not terribly dissimilar. No, I don't think that if you were to set up a simple mathematical equation, that Vietnam equals Iraq. I think all historical situations are different. History is like the weather. History never exactly repeats itself. Every historical situation is different. We could have a long discussion about this. But I like to point out that there's only one thing that remains the same in history, and that's human idiocy. That's a constant. Our capacity for self-deception, our capacity for ignoring history, our capacity for turning evidence into a form that's palatable to us, even if it means accepting untruth. That remains constant.
I have my own version of Santayana's line, which I've always disliked. (He taught here, didn't he?) "Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it?" Well, here is the Errol Morris version. Those who are unfamiliar with history are condemned to repeat it without a sense of ironic futility. [laughter] Yes?
Q: It sounds like you would have gotten a different story if you started with different questions. Perhaps he would have clamed up. How do you plan the sequence of questions that you are going to ask?
ERROL MORRIS: I don't. I don't know what questions I'm going to ask. But, of course, there is this psychiatric problem. How do you keep the patient coming back week after week? It's also a problem with an extended interview. Why should McNamara want to talk to me? Curiosity, at first? OK. But why should he want to continue talking to me? Did I avoid asking certain things because I thought he would get up and leave? Absolutely. I wanted him to continue with our conversations.
I like to think that I successfully tread a line between being completely uncritical and being too confrontational. Certainly in the years following the release of the movie, I have continued to talk to him and to press him about various details. It has been an ongoing discussion. (We have had a number of extended discussions on the provocation and the Gulf of Tonkin incidents and, also, on the Cuban Missile Crisis.)
One thing is true about every movie that I've made, and it's certainly true of The Fog of War. There has been an element of caprice, of chance, of happenstance. I set out to do one thing and ended up doing something quite different.
My first interview with Robert McNamara was pre-9/11. It was in May of 2001. It was simply an accident. I don't know how better to describe it. He came on a Tuesday, that Sunday, the Times had published an article on Bob Kerrey, his Congressional Medal of Honor and his possible war crimes in Southeast Asia. It had also been the subject of a report on "60 Minutes." McNamara came into the studio and I started talking to him about that article. It was on my mind. I believe it was on his mind as well. He vigorously defended Bob Kerrey, saying, "How can you hold him responsible for those things that his superiors did?"
And then I mentioned to him I had read an article by Richard Rhodes about Curtis LeMay that had appeared in the New Yorker and that I had read years ago. And in the article LeMay had said, "Our side won, or else I would have been tried as a war criminal." He was referring to World War II, the firebombing of Japan and the use of the two atomic weapons. "Our side won, or I would have been tried as a war criminal." That was an extraordinary comment on LeMay's part. I went and asked McNamara - very, very early in the interview - we had just started to talk about the Lemay quote. And within the first 20 minutes of the interview, McNamara said that he considered himself, as well as LeMay, a possible war criminal with respect to the firebombing of Tokyo and the 66 cities that followed. (This, of course, is separate from the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which followed the firebombing.)
I remember thinking at the time: this is quite extraordinary. This is the kind of thing you want to hear after 20 hours of interviews, not after 20 minutes. In fact, that's what happened. Maybe in response to a question, but yes, those things were on my mind.
What's also interesting to me is that I knew nothing about McNamara's involvement with the firebombing of Tokyo and his service under LeMay in the Mariannas. I knew nothing about it. As far as I know, nothing has been written about it. It's not in any of the books about McNamara. It's not in any of the autobiographical material that McNamara has written. It's not in anything. It's not there. And all of a sudden, he starts talking about the firebombing of Tokyo, and mentions that he had written memos for Gen. Norstad, the chief of staff of the XXth Air Force - about the height of bombing - or, more specifically, about the relationship of the altitude of the B-29s to the accuracy of the bombing. After all, one of his lessons is: maximize efficiency. McNamara pointed out that it's not an arithmetic relationship. Above 20,000 feet the B-29s lacked any real accuracy. His suggestion: bring the bombers much, much, much lower. I believe this was heretical at the time. The B-29s had been designed to fly higher and further than previous bombers in an effort to minimize the terrible losses that the B-17s had suffered over Europe.
We went down to the National Archives and we found a folder of material. It was filled with McNamara's memos from 1945. I don't believe anybody had looked at it since 1945.
It's another instance of what to me is very powerful material coming in ways that were unexpected and could never have been anticipated. I just like to think that I'm alert enough to follow up on that stuff. Yes?
Q: You mentioned that you employ jump cuts in the interview. When I first saw The Fog of War, it seemed like you were manipulating the information?
ERROL MORRIS: Oh, you would like the fonts to be different. So you could feel more comfortable?
Q: It wasn't that? As I watched the film, the jump cuts became less and less jarring. But I wondered why you used them?
ERROL MORRIS: Well, I have always heavily edited my interviews. The tracks have been cut up. Almost as if they were worked over with a Vegematic. Chop, chop, chop, chop. And the idea is - I could be wrong - to clarify what people are saying. McNamara has a way of talking where he endlessly qualifies what he's saying. He says X, and then he stops and he qualifies X. And then he qualifies the qualification. And then often qualifies the qualification of the qualification. And so on in some infinite regress. Not quite infinite. But often confusing. And also long-winded. (Of course, it could be argued that it is precisely these extended qualifications that give us a deeper understanding of McNamara’s personality. Yet, I think that’s there’s enough of them left in the movie to give the general idea.)
I wanted to hear him talk, but I also wanted the essence of what he was saying. In all of my previous films, I have tried to cover my tracks. I've tried to, no pun intended - although, have you noticed when people say, "no pun intended," a pun is almost always intended? [laughter] So that may be a lie. But I always try to cover my tracks. I put images over the cuts in the soundtrack. And I hide all of the cuts.
In this film, for whatever reason, I liked leaving them raw. It's odd that you would say it's manipulative, because I thought it's actually the opposite. But, you know, one man's manipulation is another man's non-manipulation and on and on and on it goes.
Q: At first I didn't like the cuts, but then I started liking them.
ERROL MORRIS: I was on "Charlie Rose" with McNamara. It was a 60-minute program, and McNamara talked for 60 minutes and then he looked at Charlie Rose and said, "You're just going to put this on as it is. You're not going to cut anything! Because I used 60 minutes and the show is 60 minutes and I've timed it out!" [laughter] Now, that's great unless you're making a film and then it's a different thing altogether.
Q: And could you also just say something about working with Philip Glass?
ERROL MORRIS: Yeah. Working with Philip Glass is very difficult. [laughter] We've done three movies together, The Thin Blue Line, Brief History of Time and now The Fog of War. I remember complaining to him while we were working on our first movie collaboration, The Thin Blue Line, I told him, "You know, this music just isn't repetitive enough." [laughter] And he gave me this very strange look and said, "That's a new one." [more laughter] Somehow we have managed to get along. He keeps working with me, and complaining constantly about me at the same time. In one interview, he called me a "benevolent maniac." Which was kind of nice. Music has been essential to these three movies. I can't imagine them without his music. Recently, someone asked me why I used Philip Glass for The Fog of War and I said, quite truthfully, "He does existential dread better than anybody."
One last story. It's a brief story. I've always wanted to make a movie about the Utopian community of Zoar - a failed Utopian community in south central Ohio. I got all of this literature about it. The Zoars fascinated me, because unlike the Shakers, they really had very little going for them. The architecture was execrable, the food bad, the dress appalling. And not too surprisingly, they and their community became extinct. But I found in an archive in Ohio a record of the last words of the last inhabitant of Zoar. It is one of my favorite quotes. She said, on her deathbed, "Think of it. All those religions. They can't all be right? But they can all be wrong."
Thank you very, very much.
* The nineteenth century number theorist Ernst Kummer was reputed to be incredibly bad at arithmetic. Seeking assistance from his students, he asked: “What is the product of 9 and 7?” One student said: “61”. Another said: “69”. Kummer replied somewhat sternly, “Now, gentleman, you know it must be one or the other.”