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Errol Morris Gets Inside People's Heads


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
August 22, 2005

Errol Morris is not the world's most popular maker of documentaries. That honor belongs to someone else who is unworthy of being plugged by me. Errol Morris is, on the other hand, arguably the best documentarian and I have never seen anyone willing to argue that the other guy is the best. Morris does not rant, he does not rave, he interviews.

In the early part of this century, Errol Morris did a series for the cable network Bravo (now part of GE) called First Person. The show lasted for just two seasons, with the second season being noticeably shorter than the first. The show then dropped out of sight until coming out on DVD a few weeks ago. Well, it didn't drop out of sight entirely. One of the subjects for the series, Robert McNamara, did so many hours of interviews that they could not be condensed into a form that would fit in the cable series. Instead, his interviews were turned into a feature film, The Fog of War. That film won the most recent Oscar for best documentary—an award that had already been devalued by the other guy.

Robert McNamara, former head of Ford Motors and the alleged architect of the Viet Nam War in his days as U.S. Defense Secretary, lies at the intersection of genius and death. These two topics are the parallel themes that run throughout First Person. This makes sense because Errol Morris is one of the few certified geniuses running around—he is a recipient of the McArthur Foundation's five-year genius grants—and he harbors a morbid (is there any other kind?) obsession with death. Most of his feature-length documentaries involve death front-and-center: murder, euthanasia, pet cemeteries, etc. The notable exception is Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, a series of intertwining interviews that clearly contains the embryo of First Person.

I first ran into First Person on IFC, the abandoned cable sibling of Bravo at the start of the series' second season. IFC would later rerun the first season, so I saw most of the interviews before their recent reincarnation on DVD. I even taped a few of the better ones. The show was hard to ignore because it was so visually arresting.

Morris specializes in creating two kinds of images. The first kind is that of the subject being interviewed. These images are as "in your face" as you can get. Morris does the interviewing, but rarely appears on-screen and when he does he is on a television monitor. Being a genius, Morris has invented an interviewing machine called an Interrotron in which he conducts the interview as an image on a monitor that is placed adjacent to the camera that is filming the subject. This creates the illusion that as the subject is talking to Morris that he is really talking directly to the audience. It is an effect that works, possibly too well. Morris uses a second kind of image to illustrate the points being made by the subject. These images generally have a mid-twentieth-century army instructional film flavor to them, though there is enough variety in them that they wear only a bit on the viewer (at least this viewer).

As for the content of the interviews themselves, I would say "disturbing" is an adequate one-word description. More than adequate. Picking the most disturbing of the seventeen interviews makes for good cocktail-party conversation and I would give the nod to "Smiling in a Jar," an illustrated chat with the curator of a museum of medical oddities. It is the only episode that I stopped in the middle of and have no intention of returning to. Ever. And I don't consider myself squeamish.

The best interview in the sense that people would actually enjoy it and find it interesting is "Leaving the Earth," which features airline pilot Denny Fitch. He tells the story of finding himself as a passenger on a DC-10 whose center engines explodes and takes the plane's navigation system with it. Fitch goes to the cockpit and manages to crash-land the uncontrollable aircraft in a cornfield purely through seat-of-the-pants improvisation. Fitch manages to save over half the lives on the plane, but continues to feel guilty about those who perished. This is the perfect interview to watch after a "hard day at the office."

Another tale of impressive human accomplishment is "The Little Gray Man," the story of the CIA's master of disguise, Antonio Mendez (assuming that we can believe anything he says). His stories of how to avoid detection in exotic foreign surroundings would seem to have direct application to the financial markets.

Two interviews that have a lot to do with genius and little to do with death involve two men, Rick Rosner ("One is a Million Trillion") and Chris Langon ("The Smartest Man in the World"), who are geniuses as measured by standardized tests. While one might expect such smart guys to be professors or hedge fund management, both spent much of their working lives as bouncers. Apparently, bar bouncing is a career that, between fights, gives one a lot of time to think.

Rick Rosner is by far the more interesting of the two geniuses. Just as Cameron Crowe did to write the book (better known as the movie) Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Rosner went back to high school as a young adult. Unlike Crowe, however, Rosner did not obtain the permission of the school officials and also unlike Crowe he did it not once, but several times. Apparently, Rosner did not enjoy his first excursion through high school and wanted what he calls a "do over" (in golf, this is known as a mulligan). This is the central theme of his interview because when he lost as a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" he also wanted a do over because the question that he was eliminated on was "flawed."

I found Rosner's desire to return to high school as long as he could get away with it to be rather curious because I have long subscribed to the popular theory that "real life" is nothing more than an endless recapitulation of high school. Rosner also subscribed to this theory and refers to high school as "abridged real life," a form of living that goes on in a controlled setting. Rosner seemingly prefers the abridgement to the genuine article and so continued his secondary schooling until he could no longer fool the authorities.

Both Langon and Rosner are amateur physics. Rosner's take on physics, which he calls "lazy voodoo physics," is particularly enchanting. He posits an absurdly long age for the universe by the standards of contemporary science, presumably because the extra time is required to provide each particle with the requisite number of do overs.

The magic of Morris' interviews is that one really gets the feeling of looking inside people's heads and what is in there is, like in real life, not always attractive. It makes sense that the subjects are more narcissistic than the average person is; however, these subjects also come off as a rather pathological bunch. If psychology classes are anything like they were in my student days, it is easy to see this DVD collection being used as instructional material. (I sat in on a psych class at Cornell in 1972 where tapes of famous alum Allen Funt's Candid Camera TV shows were used to illustrate several points.)

Next time, I get back to serious stuff. The beginning of my summer was spent finishing up the first round of research that I was doing on mutual fund expenses and writing the results up as a working paper. My next piece looks at how some basic financial engineering tricks can be used to gain new insights into what mutual funds really cost their investors.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to