Friday, October 22, 2010

"My Advisor said, 'Go to Wisconsin, they'll take anyone,' and so I did"

"My Mom Said, 'Go to Wisconsin, They'll Take Anyone,' and So I Did"
Filmmaker and UW alum Errol Morris appeared Thursday night at the Wisconsin Union Theater as part of A Year of the Arts Marquee Event, "Elusive Truths: The Cinema of Errol Morris," which celebrates the work and ideas of this great American documentary filmmaker with screenings, lectures, panel discussions and personal appearances by the filmmaker.

Morris began by explaining how he ended up at the UW. He had mediocre grades in high school and was rejected by all the schools he applied to. His advisor was right. The UW accepted him. He majored in history, at what he said was the best history department in the world at the time, where he was fortunate enough to be able to take courses with George Mosse and Harvey Goldberg. He was eloquent in his praise for both men, whom he cited as major influences.

Last night's talk was billed as "Elusive Truths: Filmmaking and Politics," a Wisconsin Union Directorate Distinguished Lecture, but it was no more a conventional lecture than a Morris film is a conventional, linear documentary. The talk, structured around questions from the audience, was more like spending an evening with an old friend who happened to be a brilliant, digressive storyteller, wise and humorous. He was an animated speaker, gesturing broadly and often with his hands. While trying to capture the motion of his hands, I was reminded of this shaky, amateur video interview by Roger Ebert.

The video is one of a series of video interviews with Morris that Ebert presented in his blog. Just being around Morris apparently stunned Ebert into silence as a writer. I've never seen him blocked before, but in this case he seems to have just given up and whipped out a camcorder.
Luckily, I made a video record of our conversation, because how in the world would you reduce it to 1,200 words of quotations separated by "he said" and "he added" and "he explained?"
What reminded me of this video while I was concentrating on the hand gestures of Morris is the way that Ebert lets the camera drift away from Morris's face to his hands near the end.

In this clip Morris begins by talking about the far-ranging, prolific series of blog posts he has been writing for the New York Times (the link connects to all his blog posts in somewhat confusing fashion; note the "older entries" link at bottom left). Turns out, he had always wanted to write, and if he had not felt blocked as a writer many years ago, he might never have become a filmmaker. When the NYT asked him to write for them, it seemed to unlock something, and the words have been pouring out ever since. If you've never read any of the posts, check them out. He has a lot to say about media, how we perceive visual reality and related topics.

In this and the other Ebert videos, Morris also talks about his new documentary, Tabloid, which was a big hit at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals. Morris will introduce the film and answer questions afterward at MMoCA this afternoon, Friday, Oct. 22. The screening is free, with tickets available at the door. The scheduled showtime is 4:00 p.m., but when I called MMoCA, they said to be there at 3:00 to be sure to get a ticket, as they're expecting a lot of people. Judging from the size of the audience at the Union last night, they're probably right.

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