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Documentary filmmaker’s work celebrated in Year of the Arts events

September 30, 2010 By Gwen Evans

Errol Morris’ Twitter bio lists writer, filmmaker and anthropoid… in that order. It’s curious that an Academy-award winning filmmaker doesn’t lead with that accomplishment. And anthropoid? A little digging into his work and it becomes clear that outsider Morris might feel he has just a toe or two in the human race rather than being all-in.


Visionary artist and groundbreaking storyteller, Morris’ work often deals with eccentrics, pariahs and other outcasts and issues that challenge our notions of identity and humanness. By telling their stories, or rather allowing the subjects to tell their own stories, Morris takes us to places we hadn’t expected to go, and that is the Morris magic. Film critic Roger Ebert has said, “Errol Morris is like a magician, and as great a filmmaker as Hitchcock or Fellini.”

Morris, a University of Wisconsin alumnus (history ’69), will visit campus as part of “Elusive Truths: The Cinema of Errol Morris,” a celebration of the work and ideas of the documentary filmmaker that includes a retrospective of his work in film and television. Morris will present a lecture as part of “Elusive Truths” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 21, in the Wisconsin Union Theater. And at 4 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Morris will present a special preview screening of his latest film, Tabloid.” “Elusive Truths” is a marquee event of the UW–Madison Year of the Arts. His visit is co-sponsored by the UW–Madison departments of Communication Arts and History, along with many other collaborators.

Screenings of his films and commercials have been taking place at the Wisconsin Union, UW–Madison Cinematheque and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and are ongoing.

The seminar is aptly named, especially for a campus committed to “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Morris makes his audiences think, and they probably leave the theater with more questions than answers.

“Errol Morris is one of the most important and innovative American filmmakers of his day. He broadened our understanding of documentaries and what they can do,” says Vance Kepley, who teaches documentary filmmaking in the Department of Communication Arts. “Morris is always on my syllabus.”

Morris’ first documentary, “Gates of Heaven,” is the story of two California pet cemeteries. That may sound like an odd topic, but through it, he examines notions of the American Dream through quirky people and subcultures. Ebert considers it one of the 10 best motion pictures of all time.

“Mr. Death” tells the story of a Massachusetts engineer who became the Florence Nightingale of Death Row — a humanitarian whose mission was to design and repair better execution equipment. The engineer also conducted forensic investigations on the use of poison gas in World War II Nazi concentration camps and concluded that the Holocaust never happened. But instead of emphasizing the obvious bigotry at hand, Morris instead scrapes down past that to wrestle with human wickedness, vanity and self-deception.

And so it goes with Morris. His off-kilter body of film work always goes beyond the surface to unravel expectations to get to the truth. “The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which received an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2003, tells the story of a controversial and influential figure, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. The film gives viewers an insider’s look at American history, but also grapples with the sweep of history and the morality of government leaders who send troops to war.

With no sets, no actors and no scripts, Morris allows his subjects to reveal their truths and themselves, creating compelling, entertaining stories, sometimes with powerful results. “The Thin Blue Line” led to the release and exoneration of a man wrongly convicted of murder.

Morris is also a prolific director of commercials (more than 1,000), directing spots for the likes of Adidas, Apple, Levi’s, Miller, Nike, Target, Volkswagen and many others, as well as for charitable and political organizations. A sampling of his commercial work will be shown in the retrospective. Sadly, Morris has said that he makes very little money from his films and supports his documentary work with commercials. It is also sad to realize, too, that probably many more people have seen his commercials than his films.

Morris has said he values his years spent on campus, and there’s proof. He dedicated “The Fog of War” to two of his history professors, Harvey Goldberg and George Mosse. “Morris is an artist of the first rank and he makes films with an artist’s eye,” says Kepley. “He has taken documentary cinema in new directions and each of his films is fascinating.”

A complete schedule of screenings of Morris’ films and commercials is available at A complete schedule of all the Year of the Arts programming is available at

Tags: arts, events, film