Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Thin Blue Line

Stuck at home with a cold has its advantages, and I’m catching up on some DVDs that I’ve purchased and not seen yet (there must be over 30 of them). I was inspired to purchase and watch The Thin Blue Line after watching the documentary about Errol Morris I posted a short while back.

Errol Morris' ground-breaking film, The Thin Blue Line, brought tears to my eyes at its ending and after digesting it for some time, it filled me anger. First, the tears. Stories like this (be it on film, TV, newspaper, wherever) always have this effect.

The name Lindy Chamberlain comes to mind, and the destruction that was wrongly wrought upon that poor woman and those close to her. Nearly a decade ago, I saw Peter Button's similarly tragic story on the ABC's Australian Story, which prompted me to contact him to offer my support and empathy, and we remain in occasional touch, though we have never met. More recently, the stories of Mambdouh Habib and David Hicks have also touched me. Indeed the plight of these two has prompted me to do something I hadn't done since I was a teenager - attending political rallies protesting Hicks' inhumane and unlawful treatment.

What can I say about The Thin Blue Line? This is a much-discussed film (that I have only just discovered ) and engendered a whole new look at the role of film-maker, documentarian and the nature of the medium. It resulted in an innocent man being released after many years’ incarceration, for a crime another man had confessed to (just like John Button). I'm not going to mull over the details of the film or the case it covers - check out the links at the bottom of this post for that kind of information.

Errol Morris didn’t just document a situation, he participated in the situation and was a champion for his subject. Yet, throughout all but the final sequence of the film (when we hear a tape recorded conversation between Morris and the actual killer on Death Row) Morris’ involvement is invisible. We neither see nor hear him, and we see that trademark Morris style where he lets the talking head do the talking.

The film is itself like a mystery and stylistically fashioned on film noir. Morris does not identify the talking heads with sub-titles. We gradually ascertain who each participant is by the nature of their conversations, and only during the final credits do we actually see the names of the participants.

I found a major strength of the documentary was the minimalist hands-off approach by Morris. He doesn’t ram a message home á la Michael Moore. He merely presents the facts as simply and rationally as possible. He lets his subjects do the talking and in doing so, we get to judge for ourselves the various merits or othewise of their words. The body language evident is profound. When a defence lawyer says that he never practised law again, that he couldn't confront another jury, after a man was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair on such unsound evidence, the silence is deafening. Morris' understated approach shows expertise and confidence in conveying a story, trusting his audience.

What we get a clear picture of is a comedy of errors, incompetence, production of false witnesses, corruption, self-interest and disregard for the facts. This is where the anger comes from, that I alluded to before. That one person’s life should mean so little, with so little concern for whether he is innocent or guilty is appalling. What is depicted is not isolated, but rather an example of what law enforcement engages in the world over. While the circumstances are superficially different, the processes and outcome were virtually identical for John Button. I have seen the same type of scenario up close; these are universal themes.

The noir like re-enactments are a stylistic triumph. This aspect is visually and aesthetically stunning and makes the medium much more accessible and appreciable. As one of the subjects points out, “everyone likes a good crime story”. The music was used to great effect; it was understated and added ambiance to the story without overwhelming it.

My first exposure to Errol Morris was when I was in the US a few years ago when The Fog of War was released. That film remains my favourite documentary, and The Thin Blue Line pretty much equals it. Both these films are profound, but in different ways. Contextually, The Thin Blue Line is probably the more important, milestone film. As for documentary film-makers, there may be better ones out there but I have yet to see his or her work.

For anyone interested in the subject of this film, I highly recommend the link to the outline of the facts of the case, below.


(I recommend you don't read this section until you've seen the film)

Excerpt from the film (source: IMDB):

Errol Morris: Were you surprised when the police blamed him?

David Harris: They didn't blame him. I did. A scared sixteen year old kid. He would sure like to get out of it if he can.

Errol Morris: Do you think they believed you?

David Harris: No doubt. Must have. They didn't have nothing else until I give them something, so... I guess they get something, they run with it, you know.

Errol Morris: Were you surprised they believed you?

David Harris: I might have been. I don't know. I was hoping they'd believe me, you know. After all was said and done it was kind of unbelievable. But there it is. I've always thought if you could say why there's a reason Randall Adams is in jail, it might be because the fact that he didn't have no place for somebody to stay that helped him that night... landed him where's he's at... That might be the reason. That might be the only, total reason why he's where he's at today.




Stephen Rowley said...

It's an amazing film, and thanks for the link to my review; obviously we have fairly similar views on it. It's one of the most influential documentaries ever made, and its influence is all over non-documentary features like Oliver Stone's JFK as well.

One little gripe - I'd perhaps give some warning about (or remove) that final clip of dialogue from the tail of your review. That exchange is one of the most nailbiting moments in the film; it's the climax of Morris' slow build. Seeing it reproduced there I can't help but feel it might kill it for those who haven't seen it before.

Paul Martin said...

Fair comment, Stephen. I'll include a spoiler alert. After seeing the film, I thought that quote was a nice rumination for those that have seen it.

I was reading somewhere today that Morris doesn't see himself as a documentary film-maker but as a film-maker. It reminds me of comments attributed to Werner Herzog.

Stephen Rowley said...

Well - and I believe I'm making comments you're well aware of here because I think it's covered in the video you posted - Herzog and Morris have a long association, and have an awful lot in common as filmmakers. Herzog's Stroszek, for example, reminds me a lot of Morris' early films in its take on grotesque Americana. Morris tried to do as Herzog still does and switch between fiction and non-fiction, but his first experience was something of a disaster and he never went back to it.

Paul Martin said...

Stephen, I'm a little bit aware, just as much as was revealed in that YouTube clip. I have the bulk of both Herzog's and Morris' back catalogues yet to discover.

Stephen Rowley said...

I wouldn't want to claim to be an expert on Herzog in particular - I've seen only a small fraction of his (extensive) filmography. But it's certainly good stuff. His "Grizzly Man" is one of the few documentaries I've seen which is up there with Morris' best work (although it is a lot less like Morris' films than some of Herzog's fictional features).

Paul Martin said...

Ah well, Stephen, speak your mind and if you fuck up, someone will put you straight quick smart. It happens to me all the time - that's how I learn. ;)

Grizzly Man was my intro to Herzog and then Rescue Dawn a few months ago (I'll probably see it again with the missus when it gets a release). When I saw Grizzly Man I found it compelling yet didn't even know the name Werner Herzog, so I think I need another viewing to appreciate it in the context of a Herzog film. I've got a lot more to learn, ey?