In honor of Errol Morris’ 67th birthday, which just passed on February 9, Grantland.com is celebrating with a full week of new documentaries shot for ESPN by the filmmaker. Frequently named one of the most important documentary filmmakers of our times, he rose to fame with 1978’s pet cemetery doc Gates of Heaven, then cemented it with The Thin Blue Line, which helped save a man from the electric chair. (It also started his long collaboration with composer Philip Glass.) Morris has been a private investigator, a journalist, and a maker of commercials, all of which provide the mental fuel (and funding) for his filmmaking. He invented the “Interrotron” a variation on the teleprompter, which allowed his subjects to talk straight into the camera while he interviewed them. It added an unsettling jolt to his two conversations with the men voted most likely to be war criminals, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. But as Morris says in a Grantland interview, he is not here to accuse or prosecute.
When I was interviewing killers years ago, I enjoyed talking to them. I enjoyed being with them. I wasn’t there to moralize with them or temporize with them, I was there to talk to them. And I think that’s still true. Rumsfeld pushed it, I have to say.
It’s been two years since his last film, the Rumsfeld interview The Unknown Known, and, while we wait for his next feature and possibly a third book, Morris has given us six short docs that range between 10 and 20 minutes. The Subterranean Stadium (at the top of this post) delves into the sub-culture of tabletop electronic football games that have been around since the 1940s, and the grown-ups who still play them.
The Heist examines, with diagrams and suspenseful music, the four college students who stole Michael Jordan’s jersey from the vaulted heights of a stadium.
The Streaker profiles Mark Roberts, the affable Liverpudlian who has streaked at “every major sporting event in the world.”
There are three more videos waiting to be doled out. (Find them here.) One is on A.J. Mass, a writer for ESPN; another about sports collectibles; and the other about horse racing. The constant theme is the particular madness of sports fans, obsession being a major theme of Morris' work.
The other link in all these films is the sound of Morris, who chooses not to edit out his offscreen voice. It’s the sound of a man clearly having a good time. However:
“I’m sick of interviewing,” he says. “I am really sick of it. I’m not gonna say I do it better than anybody else, but I do it differently than anybody else. I am good at it, for whatever reason. There are a lot of different reasons, but if that’s all I’m going to do for the rest of my life is stick a camera in front of people and say to them, “I don’t have a first question, what’s your first answer?” I think I would be very sad.”
So let’s celebrate Morris before he changes his mind.