Playback: Errol Morris' 'The Thin Blue Line'
There are countless ways to use the camera and the editing room to get at the truth. But I like best the nonfiction movies that open up the possibilities—movies that provoke the audience to find their own feelings on the subject.
Take Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line.
Possibilities start as soon as the "Blue" in the title card is red. The opening credits name a production designer. You can't have that in a documentary! Then, a few minutes into a sincere interview with accused killer Randall Adams, there's a cut to a staged shot of a look-alike gun. Wait—that's not even the gun! Then there's a stiff cut to a stylized reenactment in the middle of another interview. What is this?
What it is, is what pay-for-hire commercial directors did for years. They found ways to break up talking heads with things outside of the room or context. Set-up shots, onscreen text, product shots: you can't do that in a documentary movie. Wrong again. Morris does. And well.
He succeeds because The Thin Blue Line has but three visual elements: interviews, set-up recreations and clippings (print and news clips). All are repetitive, with Philip Glass' score drumming home that repetition. Any good communicator will tell you that repetition, not originality, is the key to persuasion, and so the clips repeat, the set-ups repeat, the interview scenes repeat. And as they do, the case is built. I even half expect to see the words "Never allowed a call," followed by—slam—"Never allowed an attorney" superimposed on the screen when Adams makes these claims.
But Morris lets you, the viewer, make the case yourself. With incredible restraint, he lays out his story. The late Bob Squier, a political image-maker, once said that the key to a successful negative spot was fairness. And Morris succeeds in this brilliantly, in style and content. Not only does he let the prosecution make its case uninterrupted at the outset, but every interview in the film is shot identically, head to chest. No zooms to heighten the moment. No field size changes for cutting. No identifications. Only context tells you each witness' role.
Watch. He's repeating a clip yet again. He can't do that. The flashlight falls in a sexy, commercial-quality, slow-motion shot. How can he do that? Isn't this a documentary?
No. Well, yes. It's an unscripted film. And it's full of possibilities.
Motion pictures are supposed to be about movement, yet little moves in The Thin Blue Line, except the cop and the getaway car, the killer and the victim. What the film uses best is what movies are really about: time. While nothing moves forward—not the scenes, not the camera—Morris gives us the time to use our imaginations, making the story happen in our minds.
Watch: Something's happening. The shots get tighter. But they are of a tape recorder. The truth is closer. Suddenly there are words on the screen. He can't do that. He can't end on the tape recorder with words superimposed. Yes, he can. There are no rules. Communication is what rules.
The Thin Blue Line is a movie that makes you want to make movies. It's about the possibilities that come before and after. And anything seems possible after watching it.
Mark Moskowitz's film Stone Reader plays in theaters this spring. He can be reached at email@example.com.