|Errol Morris (and his subject) in The Unknown Known|
Film director Errol Morris once worked as a private investigator and his best part is his investigative-journalist side – the muckraking detective. While planning a documentary about a forensic psychiatrist who became notorious for his “expert witness” testimony in capital punishment cases, he happened to come across a death row conviction that didn't smell right and made a film (The Thin Red Line) that ended up getting an innocent man released from prison. But Morris’ reputation as one of the greatest living filmmakers, and very likely the greatest living specialist in documentary feature filmmaking, isn't based mainly on 25-year-old headlines generated by his breakthrough movie. It’s based on his being a “stylist” – on his artistic pretensions and the easily recognizable visual and aural tics that make up his style.
Morris has been known to reject the term “documentary” in favor of “nonfiction film,” because he feels that having his movies called documentaries lumps them in with films shown in classrooms and on public television. Frederick Wiseman may well be the most important documentary filmmaker of the past fifty years, but if you happened to walk past a TV set while High School or Basic Training was showing, you could take a glance for a few random seconds and mistake them for a clip from any old TV news show. Morris’ movies look and sound like Errol Morris movies. How impressed you are by the fact that, more and more, they all look and sound like the same Errol Morris movie may depend on whether you use the word “auteur” in casual conversation.