Dear Errol Morris, Your Work Is Boring & I Don’t Understand It

A note before commencing reading: Usually, my blog posts are only focussed on films that I think are awesome. This week, I’m changing tack quite dramatically by writing about films that I really dislike. I’m hoping that it may inspire some debate amongst readers, maybe someone can prove me wrong or convince me to embrace what I currently cannot bare…

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I love documentary film: shorts or features, political or personal, professional or budget, there’s nothing I won’t watch… with one exception… anything by Errol Morris.

This is a painful confession for me to make, considering that Morris is one of the so-called ‘masters’ of documentary film, with a pile of critically acclaimed ‘classics’ under his belt such as The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time and, most recently, Tabloid.

Granted, I must also confess I haven’t watched them all, but after trying to sit through three of them (The Thin Blue Line, Vernon Florida and Tabloid) and failing miserably (I got about 35 mins into The Thin Blue Line, 10 mins into Vernon, Florida and 60 mins into Tabloid) I just thought it wasn’t worth going on.

An actor doing some re-enacting

The first Morris film I watched was The Thin Blue Line, which was made in 1988. It was an extremely important film because it helped to free a man from prison by exposing corruption within the American justice system. Despite its undeniably significant impact, in my opinion the film itself is a tedious watch, relying on dead-pan interviews with bland, monotone characters and dependent on poorly made reconstructions of actual events. However, wider audiences clearly don’t agree with me, the film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a metascore of 79 on Metacritic… this all leaves me thinking, what is it I’m not getting?

Old man from Vernon, Florida

I powered on, convinced that I would not judge Morris by one film alone. I decided to watch Vernon, Florida, thinking that it would be quite a different film to Thin Blue Line, being described by one IMDB contributer as a documentary that ‘intersplices random chatter [Morris] captured on film of the genuinely eccentric residents of Vernon, Florida.’ Upon beginning the film, I found the audio alone to be severely grating, with the noises of trucks storming through the one-horse town dominating and intruding into the storytelling of Morris’ first bizarre interviewee. Perhaps this is some artistic point that Morris is trying to make, but I found it highly irritating. As I mentioned above, I barely got into the film before I turned it off.

I realize I should have persevered, but I just couldn’t hack it. Despite my two failed attempts to see a Morris film through, I decided to give it one last shot. Thinking that perhaps the last two films were a bit dated, I chose to watch Morris’ newest offering, Tabloid, which was released late last year.

Joyce McKinney in all her glory

On paper Tabloid has everything you could want from a good documentary, a scandalous, long-forgotten story (of an American beauty queen who travels to England and allegedly kidnaps and rapes a Mormon missionary), a totally bonkers central character (the beauty queen, Joyce McKinney), and a few reasonably charismatic contributors to the story (some newspaper guys).

However, in true Morris style, he drags out this peculiar, complicated story into a tedious monolith of a film. He brings out the true ugliness and shallowness of all the individuals who participate in the interviews, which I suppose is a skill in itself, but personally, it led me to feel uninterested in their lives and unresponsive to them.

I made it further into this film than any of my previous attempts, making it past the half–way point, but giving up after an hour of listening to a variety of different accounts, opinions and claims without having any sense of what was true and what was false.

I tired of Joyce and her over-the-top, delusional testimony. I couldn’t be bothered to find out how the story ended. I just didn’t care, it didn’t matter, it wasn’t important in my mind; I felt no guilt in abandoning the film and never looking back.

So, Errol, I’m sorry, I’ve tried, I just don’t like your films. Luckily for you, there seem to be lots of people out there who do not share my views (well except for this guy who seems to agree with me).

I would invite anyone who has an opinion to please comment, I’d love to know what others think… can anyone convince me of Errol Morris’ greatness?

If you haven’t seen an Errol Morris documentary before, please do not take my opinion as law, I encourage that you watch for yourself before you make any judgements.

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3 comments

  1. Interesting reading. From what you write here, good old Errol appears to epitomise everything that has previously discouraged me from exploring the documentary genre. However, I’ll check them out and report back!

  2. As a staunch diehard for the venerable Mr. Morris, I suppose one might expect me to step in on his defense here. Well… I won’t. Because you aren’t really “wrong,” at least not in any way that I can really debate you on.

    I mean, if you find him boring, who am I to say otherwise. What is there to say? “No, he’s not boring?” I can say that I don’t find him boring at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s somehow objectively wrong that you can’t connect to his work.

    I will say, though, that I can’t get behind not watching movies the whole way through. If you don’t finish a work, then can you honestly say that you are fully engaging with it? But I don’t want to lecture.

    If ever you wish to give Morris another chance, go with The Fog of War or Standard Operating Procedure. Both of those are VERY different in subject matter from the docs you name here.

    1. Some very fair points there! I know it is really very bad form to not watch the films in their entirety, I can quite understand why people would think I am in no position to judge Errol Morris’ work in any capacity because of this!

      This post was born out of my own personal frustration with being unable to engage with Morris’ films, perhaps one day I will build up the courage to watch another one- certainly Fog of War is on my list, will also have a look at Standard Operating Procedure.

      Thanks for your comment!

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