Who do we normally see interviewed on television? Actors, pop singers, politicians, and other famous figures, many of whom have undergone rigorous media training, few of whom have especially interesting personalties in the first place, and none of whom could stand up to Errol Morris’ Interrotron. Essentially a teleprompter modified to display Morris’ face on its screen, the Interrotron made a new kind of filmed interview possible: “For the first time,” Morris has said, “I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person.”
Hence First Person, the Interrotron-centered television series Morris produced and directed in the early 2000s. By that time Morris had already become well known for his interview-based documentaries, which went deep into unusual subjects like the pet cemetery business (Gates of Heaven), a dubious murder trial in Texas (The Thin Blue Line), and the mind of Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time). In 1997’s Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control Morris invited into the Interrotron a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a roboticist and a hairless mole-rat expert, weaving the four interviews together into threads to do with themes of emergence and control. But what could tie together conversations with a true-crime author, a cryonics promoter, a lawyer to the mob, and an authority on giant squids?
Those are just four of First Person’s seventeen subjects, each of whom has their uncommon knowledge, distinctive ability, harrowing experience, or dirty job — or some combination thereof — probed by Morris for an entire episode. Some of them, such as animal-behavior expert and autism spokeswoman Temple Grandin, have become much more well-known since appearing on the show. Others have been sentenced to serve 15 years in prison. And given the two decades that have passed since the show first aired, some of them have since shuffled off this mortal coil: Dennis Fitch, for instance, the pilot who assisted in the “impossible” crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232 after its sudden and complete loss of control — and whose story is the most gripping hour in First Person’s entire run.
Morris’ fans will sense in First Person themes the director explored before and has explored further since. Take the nature of intelligence, at the forefront of First Person’s two episodes on men with some of the highest IQ-test scores on record. Morris finds Chris Langan thinking his way toward something called a “Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe” and an intellectual priesthood meant to govern the world to come. Richard Rosner, despite his equally formidable brain, divides his time between nude modeling and obsessively re-litigating a failed Who Wants to Be a Millonaire? appearance. (At the time Morris got them into the Interrotron, both men also worked as bar bouncers.) You may well come away from these episodes wondering just what a high IQ gets a person. But if you watch the complete First Person, broken into playlists of its first and second season, on Errol Morris’ Youtube channel, that will be just one of the fascinating and troubling questions running through your mind for years to come.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.