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Errol Morris’ First Person

Errol Morris’ First Person

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Feature by: Rumsey Taylor

Posted on: 13 September 2005

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Errol Morris: Television

Errol Morris isn’t a film director by more conventional descriptions. His earliest and, with little dispute, best films are bereft of any conventionalized style and feature much less camera movement: they’re a compendium of static, rigidly composed talking heads, edited together so that each individual monologue (or rambling, in more than a few legendary instances) is compiled into a weighted, if not cohesive rumination on inherent human tendencies, flaws, and needs. These films are, additionally, absent of any narration, location placards, or captions. Of course, this absence of stylistic hallmarks amounts to Morris’ filmmaking signature, and supplies the essence of most every film he’s made—even if, as evidenced abundantly in his short-lived television series First Person, this essence has become overwhelmed by a style thoughtfully excluded in his early films.

Ensuing with The Thin Blue Line and increasing in pronunciation in his subsequent films, Morris’ talking heads are compiled along with stock footage (usually, I presume, public domain footage from old films) and the sort of deliberately contrived re-enactments otherwise unique to Unsolved Mysteries. These are sometimes crucial to the film — Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, for one, is immensely decorated by such variety — but in First Person the tactic is frenzied and obtrusive, though fortunately it does little to diminish the interest in the person Morris is interviewing.

The series debuted on Bravo in 2000, and ran for two seasons. Each half-hour episode chiefly concerns one person, none of whom shares a single common trait with the next, save for some overt idiosyncrasy or obsession that has become the foremost persuasion to Morris’ work. The first episode, Mr. Debt, concerns Andrew Capoccia, a Boston-based lawyer in staunch opposition to credit card companies. He’s a self-made millionaire, has been fined for nearly two million in court, and yet continues to defend the everyman with his breed of justice. Deservingly, he is analogized as a contemporary Robin Hood in the footage that punctuates his episode. This and the remaining interviews (which boast a robust variety of topics and interests) qualify Morris’ paramount filmmaking strength: finding interesting people and telling their stories.

The variety of First Person is second service to its unintended star: Morris’ interviewing device, the Interrotron. It’s a setup involving two cameras, each appended with a teleprompter on which the view from the remaining camera is displayed. The subject is interviewed via this mechanism, with Morris’ face superimposed over the camera’s lens. The result engages the viewer, as the subject is looking directly toward you, and responding as though you may have asked him or her a question. Until this point, the Interrotron has remained the acknowledged, unseen, but crucial tool in Morris’ armory. Here, the device is onscreen, and more activated than it should be; it will pivot around or frame its subjects askew—at any instant, you’re aware of the device’s utility, not because of the face looking back and speaking to you, but because said face is filmed with obvious and blatant embellishment. At other points, we even see the subject’s view: Morris’ monochromatic, inquisitive face on the teleprompter screen. The strength of Morris’ films is here, only beneath this unnecessary and burdening stylistic conceit.

For me to contrast any film to Errol Morris’ first two is to relay some criticism to the compared title. The contrast is necessary in this case, as First Person displays the extent of the degradation of Morris’ work (I say this having not seen his sole fiction film, The Dark Wind): impeded by its flashy camerawork, but supported by its family of interviewees. First Person is lessened by this comparison, but still better than anything I watch regularly on television.

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