Sunday, 18 February 2018

Wormwood

Here follow my thoughts on the latest Errol Morris creation, Wormwood.

Wormwood is a six-part series that Morris created for Netflix. If you have not watched it, you should. You should certainly watch it before you read what I have written; you should watch it in the most complete state of blissful ignorance that you can achieve.

“Goddammit!” you curse. “I clicked here because I have five minutes to waste reading a superficially amusing pseudo-intelligent article — not six hours to watch a documentary! I’ll watch the damn film later, but right now I want something to read!”

Fine: go and read the other stuff I wrote about Errol Morris. You will find my review of his Stephen Hawking documentary, “A Brief History of Time”, both entertaining and thoughtful. If you prefer scathing reviews, I recommend my review of the more recent (non-Morris) Hawking drama, “The Theory of Everything”, which was such a forgettable mediocrity that spoilers can hardly make it worse; its only redeeming feature is that it started me on my Errol Morris kick in the first place. You may be irritated that my article on Morris’s career is framed as a faux-profound insight into life choices, but I guarantee that the gems of his biography will make up for it. And finally, we get down to what I consider the most fascinating aspect of Errol Morris, his dogged devotion to Truth. I also wrote about that, and, Yes indeed, there were more profound insights.

For all those who have watched Wormwood, let us continue.


Did I enjoy Wormwood? If I was asked that question in an Errol Morris interview, I would answer that I most certainly did. My explanations would be long, detailed, and only partially coherent. My response would last one or two whole minutes, which is a long time on film. But after this bloated rationalisation of my profound pleasure, there would be one of those subtle but noticeable cuts in the film, like a nervous tick, followed by a two-second-long shot of me pondering in silence. Then another slight jolt of a cut, to me meekly admitting, “Ok, no, I didn’t enjoy it very much.” If it was an interview in the style of Wormwood, filmed with ten cameras and with my interviewer sitting across from me, the next cut would show me staring off into space and asking, apparently entirely to myself, “What does `enjoyment’ mean?”

That is the genius of Errol Morris. His work is often richly satisfying, but it can be at its most rewarding when it is unsatisfying. Wormwood is long. It is slow. It is repetitive. And I am sure he would not want it any other way. Not only are you likely to ask, “Couldn’t it have been shorter?”, you are probably meant to ask that, just as you are meant to imagine Morris’s distinctive gruff voice barking back at you, off camera, “No!”

After all, Eric Olson has had to put up with this story for 65 years. In 1953 his government-scientist father died, having “fell, or jumped” out of a hotel window. Eric was nine years old at the time. He was tormented for the next 22 years by the jarring ambiguity of “fell, or jumped”, until in 1975 the US government revealed that his father was also the subject of secret experiments with LSD. This was hardly a solution to the puzzle, more like an avalanche of new pieces, and Eric has been buried beneath them for the last forty-three years. Add forty-three and twenty-two to nine, and you not only get a number, you get a complete lifetime. This obsession took over his entire life. By contrast, we are treated to the abridged version, with a bonus of lush dramatisations.


Eric is what holds the film together. He is the ideal interview subject. His voice, his tone, and sentence after sentence of erudite, logical, considered explication of a man obsessed, and perhaps mad. He compares his situation to Hamlet’s. In case you are unaware of the highest achievement of Western literature: Hamlet’s father dies. Hamlet later learns that it was murder, although from a dubious source. Then Hamlet goes mad. No, I am mis-remembering. Hamlet claims to pretend to go mad, and his true state of mind is left in some doubt. It is his girlfriend, Ophelia, who undoubtedly goes mad, after Hamlet kills her father; we know she is not pretending, unless she fakes her own death. Why one father’s death leads to moody introspection and another’s to suicide is the sort of question that had to wait centuries for a proper feminist critique. Which makes me wonder if anyone has ever bothered to stage the play with the roles of Hamlet and Ophelia reversed? Ophelia becomes preoccupied with a means to nab her father’s killer (very well aware of how difficult it can be to have your accusations taken seriously), while her dopey boyfriend first turns petulant when she stops returning his calls, and then, when she bumps off his father, he literally goes off the deep end and drowns himself. If someone has done it that way, please direct me to the recording on YouTube. But perhaps that would be too much a 20th-century interpretation? A more modern take would leave Hamlet and Ophelia in place, and the question would be: does Ophelia kill herself because of how cruelly Hamlet has abused her, or because her father is played by Woody Allen?

Eric Olson and Errol Morris take the antiquated approach of naively allowing the play’s title to suggest its real subject, and focus on Hamlet himself. Eric lays out the parallels for us. Not only does his father die. Not only is there strong but incomplete evidence of murder. Not only does the son fear he is losing his mind. But we also have the political background: something is rotten in the State.

Denmark merely had a murderous leader — as if that were anything special! Wormwood has the post-war CIA, dabbling in warfare through drugs, chemicals and germs. Were they experimenting on their own scientists with LSD? Were biological weapons used in the Korean War? Did they have a systematic “procedure” to kill off anyone who found the work distasteful? We receive no conclusive answers to any of these questions, but compared to the stage where these scenes are set, Elsinore may as well be in Disneyland. The stench of rotten politics is everywhere. There are youthful cameos from Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. There is an interview with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose great scoops range from the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, through to Abu Ghraib.

Let’s face it: this is a better story than Hamlet. Hamlet ponces around worrying about his dead father for a few months, then Laertes puts him out of his misery. Eric is not so lucky. He lives with uncertainty over his father’s death for twenty-two years before the craziness even starts. When Morris’s ten cameras finally catch up with him, sixty-some years later, we are presented not with a gibbering cabbage, but an extremely intelligent, calm, rational human being. We spend six hours with him, and he is never a bore, never tiresome, but endlessly fascinating. He also looks, in his early seventies, to have a decade or two more obsession left in him.

Eric is easy to appreciate. I would gladly re-watch him again and again. Morris’s dramatisations of Eric’s father’s last days were a bigger challenge. All of the scenes are richly atmospheric, in low light and subdued colours, full of those fifties cars and coats and hats and cocktails, which made me think of that description of Miller’s Crossing: “A handsome film about men in hats.” It was very well done. It was also kind of a drag. Fellow Errol Morris fans might defenestrate me for saying that, so I will qualify: a thought-provoking drag.

If you have learned your lesson from “The Thin Blue Line”, Errol Morris “re-enactments”, as they were called back then, are a trap. You are shown a past that may not be real. It could be a false memory. It could be a lie. In “The Thin Blue Line” the purpose seemed clear. We can be easily lured into a fake story, but necessary internal consistency of the facts will lead us to the Truth.

I had not realised what a comforting little tale “The Thin Blue Line” was.

In Wormwood, the purpose is far from clear. The very first scenes are Frank Olson’s apocalyptic nightmare visions before he dies, so we know from the outset that these scenes are not meant to be taken as fact. So what are they? Are at least some of them meant to be as-faithful-as-possible recreations from known facts? If so, which ones? Are they all just visions, either the feverish visions that have haunted Eric for the last sixty years, or the visions that came to Errol Morris after so many hours of listening to him?

Or is the purpose to teach us to mistrust what we see? Morris has written a wonderful book on photography, “Believing is Seeing”, but he may have felt that Netflix could get his message to a larger audience. We are not sure if this is a documentary or a drama, but why should we ever be sure? A documentary purports to tell a story as if it is fact. Isn’t that more deceptive than a piece of fiction?

It is as if every choice Morris made was designed to prod our brains into activity. He has a unique talent to fill his films with careful artifice — the precise setting of the interview locations, with very particular positions of a table, a chair, a door (open or shut), a window, or a clock on the wall set to the likely time of Frank Olson’s death — and yet all of it pushing us to try to find the Truth.

Do we find the Truth?

No. That is our lesson. Morris generously allows Hersh, his grouchiest interview subject, to teach it to us.

Hersh provides the twist in the tale — but it is not like any twist you have seen before. “Guess what?”  he says, with no relish at all. “I probably know the answer. But I can’t tell you.” This is a murder mystery where the answer is known, but withheld. No, not quite: we get the answer, but certainty is withheld.  The whole murder mystery playbook is, ahem, thrown out the window. Instead of those luscious shots of Frank Olson in free fall, we could have had Agatha Christie writhing to her doom. (Now that I would watch over and over again!)

Hersh explains to us, “It’s wonderful not to have an ending. It is!” Is Morris unhappy that he cannot solve the mystery? As a detective, he must be. As a filmmaker, he should be overjoyed. Once more he illuminates new features on the craggy face of Truth. You can say, “Sometimes there is an answer, and sometimes there is not.” That is a dull platitude. Sometimes there is a very definite answer, but you cannot reach it. Sometimes someone else has the answer, but will not give it to you — and for excellent reasons. Sometimes you have the answer, but you do not have certainty. The 99% of the answer that you have should be enough, but it is not. The missing 1% drives you mad.

A few years ago the Errol Morris loyalty to Truth got me thinking about how Truth and uncertainty interact in science. Although we must admit that, in the strictest sense, we do not have absolute certainly about anything, there are many things in science about which our uncertainty is so small that it is insignificant; to extrapolate from infinitesimal uncertainties to the credo that “nothing is certain” is not only extreme, but stupid.

I thought that was all very interesting, but now Morris has found something much more interesting. There are times when the uncertainty can ruin your life. Morris asks Eric, “Do you feel that you could ever let this go?”

Eric answers, “I feel like I have already let it go, but it hasn’t let me go.”

In the context of a murder mystery, he asks the blasphemous question: is trying to solve the crime really worth it? Even if he did have certainty, would that actually help? After he asks the last question in the film, “Is that better than not knowing?” he pulls a wonderful, quizzical, ironic face, and then repeats, “Is it?” before ending with the image from the Bible, and from Hamlet, that infects this whole enterprise: “Wormwood. It’s all bitter.” After that there is a great long shot of his face, which looks for some time as if the camera has frozen, until Eric moves his bottom lip and you realise that, No, it is only him who was frozen.


Related:

Review: The Theory of Everything

A Brief History of Time (the Book)

A Brief History of Time (the Film)

Career Advice I Gleaned From Errol Morris, For What It's Worth

On Knowledge, Truth, Electric Chairs, And Quasi-Local Mass


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