Notice: register_sidebar was called incorrectly. No id was set in the arguments array for the "Sidebar 1" sidebar. Defaulting to "sidebar-1". Manually set the id to "sidebar-1" to silence this notice and keep existing sidebar content. Please see Debugging in WordPress for more information. (This message was added in version 4.2.0.) in /home/elsweb/subdomains/blogs/wp-includes/functions.php on line 4147
And why not? It worked in Blazing Saddles! » Blog Archive » A Fog of Fastness and Cheapness: An Out of Control Look at Two Errol Morris Films

A Fog of Fastness and Cheapness: An Out of Control Look at Two Errol Morris Films

Since my first glance at the syllabus I was quite certain of what my final paper would analyze: something Errol Morris. Last semester in a Geopolitics course I had the pleasure of viewing The Fog of War, though it was through much different eyes than how I view it today. This class has given me a new lens (pun slightly intended) through which I am can view films, with more awareness and respect for elements other than solely the plot. Needless to say I was quite excited to see other Errol Morris films—and they did not disappoint.
I have chosen to analyze Fast, Cheap and Out of Control along with cognate film The Fog of War. My discussion will start with the films relations to an article in Film Theory and Criticism, before I proceed into a deeper analysis of particular scenes in each film and their relations to each other.
There are two specific parts of Film Theory and Criticism, in the article Film and Reality that stick out in my mind as relating to Morris’ films. During class we talked often about the claims made by Kracauer in relation to German film and Hitler during his study of German cinema from 1919-1933. Kracauer contends that during this era German film was diverting attention away from the dangerously “haphazard, incalculable and uncontrollable” reality of German society at this time.
In The Fog of War, I believe that Morris’ aim was exactly the opposite of German cinema during the aforementioned era. The purpose of its narrative is to reexamine events that took place and reevaluate them with the benefit of hindsight, as to shed new light on possible mistakes. The film brings these events to the forefront without presenting them in an untrue manner—it doesn’t put a positive spin on negative aspects of history. The article points out that the German cinema during that time aided in the “damnation, not the redemption, of German life” (Page 136).
The Fog of War was made many years after the events that are retraced, so in that way it is different from the claims made by Kracauer about the 1919-1933 German films. The Fog of War did not carry the weight of altering the society it portrayed in its films, something that German cinema did have; so in that way the two are fundamentally different. But I believe that Morris is able to achieve what Kracauer said is necessary in film, a more truthful portrayal of reality.
That being said, however, I do not think that the reality portrayed in The Fog of War was necessarily something that the die-hard realists would welcome into their inner circle. In many ways I believe the film achieves elements of anti-realist filmmaking. It does not travel to the extreme of that pole, however, on page 136 the article states that anti-realist cinema “must offer an interpretation of the world or, by the manipulation of the camera, create an alternative world” (pg. 136).
My interpretation of the realist thinking has been along the lines of something discussed in a pervious class meeting, about a security camera. The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control do not adhere to this form of realist filmmaking, I think that is why I place them more within the anti-realist boundaries. Neither film simply places a camera on a street and records, providing what Kracauer explains as a mirror-like image of the physical world. The films each bring together different elements, in which Morris fits together to create somewhat separate narratives from the literal picture on the screen.
In Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, much of its important aspects of its plot come from the way in which the different shots are pieced together; where Morris uses repetition of images, in addition to what the actual frames portray. The way in which the shots are pieced together brings additional meaning to the film other than the literal story being told. From what I can gather through the theory readings this seems to be a much more common anti-realist strategy.
As I stated before, I’m not sure if the films create an “alternate world,” but they do present alternate views of situations that are not simply a mirror image of physical reality. I do not plan on getting into the which approach is “art” argument, however I can say that the way in which Morris portrays reality in the manner I touched on before, by carefully sewing together meaningful shots and aspects to create a narrative on many different levels, is a brilliant approach—one that I find captivating. (I will, however, refer you to a post by my classmate Dan entitled The Purpose of Art. I think it questions the meaning of art in relation to its practicality in a very interesting and effective manner.)
Onward with the next portion of my entry. Instead of attempting to tackle each movie in their entirety, I thought it wise to pick certain aspects and scenes to discuss in detail. The first I will go for are the opening scenes and beginning credits of each respective film.
Since there are so many parts to each film I could pick, I think my decision to analyze the beginning of each deserves a bit of explanation. I do not necessarily believe that the opening sequences can make or break a film, so to speak, however I do think that it has the potential to play a large part in setting up what is to come. A miniature version of the film you’re about to embark on—not a summary, but a quick cinematic appetizer. In each film I am discussing, I believe that the opening and credit sequences, although different, play equally as important roles in their respective films.
Morris combines a multitude of different shots from various sources to begin Fast, Cheap (AN: I will most likely abbreviate the title in this way for the rest of the post). By doing this he simultaneously introduces us to the passions each of the four characters will be talking about literally in the film, but the shots also serve to show us some of the overarching less obvious thematic focuses of the film.
The film truly begins with music. The screen is blank, however the music begins. I am not a film critic, so I have no idea if my thoughts on this technique touch on the real reason for its use, but for me I feel as though the significance of playing the music on a black screen is kind of to tell the audience “hey, the film is starting – pay attention or you’ll miss it!” Whether or not that’s what it’s trying to do, that’s the purpose it seems to serve for me, and I find it beneficial.
The first thing we see is close black and white shot of a robot moving along a glossy, rocky surface. Very literally this foreshadows what Rodney Brooks, the robot scientist, will be talking about. It also introduces the audience for the first time to a “non-living” object imitating a defining characteristic of something that has life; in this case, walking. Movement. This is a huge theme throughout the movie, and I feel as though Morris placing this shot as the first thing the audience sees signifies its importance as a theme in the movie. I feel as though I should make a distinction, however—I don’t think his use of a robot scene necessarily places more emphasis on Rodney Brooks’ contribution to the film. I believe the movie distributes importance equally to each of the four stories for the most part.
This, of course, is purely my speculation, and so is my next observation. The shot of this robot, at first glance, puts certain questions into the heads of the audience that I think are important themes in relation to the imitation of life. When you first look at the shot, consciously or subconsciously, you probably ask yourself something like “is that real? What is that?” Although it is clearly not a bug, it looks very much like one—and at first glance it could easily be mistaken for one. Similar shots as this appear throughout the film, and to me that signifies that Morris wants us to keep asking this question—each time digging a little bit deeper: What is the thing we are seeing? Does it have life, or is it an imitation? What does it mean to have life, and what does it mean to be life-like? What makes something more life-like than something else? What does it mean to be alive? And ultimately, what does it mean to be human? The question you asked yourself when you saw the image of that robot, I feel, is the jumping off point for the rest of the questions I asked above—and more.
The next shot we see is another overarching thematic aspect of the film, the shot of the clown running from the skeleton that he will never be able to escape, because it is attached to his back. Very literally this clown ties into what we will learn about Dave Hoover, the wild animal trainer, because he works with the circus. It has other meaning, though. Skeletons exist in that pure form (meaning without muscle, skin, etc.) due to one distinct process: death. Morris has now shown life, the imitation of life, and death, right in a row. I think this is highly deliberate. A defining characteristic of life is that it ends—death inevitably will conquer life no matter what the circumstances. It’s a heavy idea that is ever present, but not normally consciously considered.
It goes even more in depth than that. The shot I have described above is plagued by static, much like one would see on a television. This gives the feeling that the audience is watching a television that is showing the shot of the clown running from the skeleton. This skillfully brings the imitation of life aspect back into play. Or, to put it more confusingly, we are watching a film imitating life by watching a television portraying a scene that imitates life. This is a constant tactic throughout the film that brings us back to the questions I mentioned before. It deals with the perception of reality, and how we understand life by making something lifelike.
That shot is followed by what looks to be more like a live shot of the clown running from the skeleton, because it does not possess the same static the previous shot had—however, it is in slow motion. The slowing and clarification of the shot, to me, puts more emphasis on it. Now we are forced to watch this clown run from the skeleton, and be fully aware of what we are seeing—in case we missed it that first time. It also seems to be somewhat symbolic, we can slow the frame down, in other words, slow the idea of death down, but the outcome will still be the same. The clown will still end up in the same place, it will just take him longer to get there.
The point that I hope is becoming clear is that Morris dives into fundamental thematic questions within the first few seconds of the film, while simultaneously showing us things that tie directly into the literal story shown on the screen. He is not just arbitrarily showing images that force us to ask these questions—the scenes he present tie perfectly to the four characters that drive the progression of the film’s plot.
In The Fog of War, Morris begins differently. The opening scene is footage of Robert S. McNamara, essentially the film’s subject, in a press conference. The black and white scene, however, shows him prior to giving the action press conference. Instead, he is preparing for one. He asks individuals in the room if the height of the chart is acceptable or if they want it lower. The shot then cuts to him standing at the podium and he beings his speech, but he stops partway into the introduction and says: “Let me first ask the T.V., are you ready? All set?” With that, the first credits begin to roll.
This opening sequence does introduce us to the film’s subject, McNamara, however to me it does not carry the symbolic weight that the opening sequence in Fast, Cheap does. It is an ironic and somewhat humorous start to the film, since it begins after he asks if the television crew is ready—almost as though he was asking this film’s crew if they were ready. Although I think that aspect of the scene was deliberate by Morris, (meaning the humor) I also think there is another element to it that is deliberate. The first time we see McNamara he is in a press conference. It immediately gives us the impression that press conferences and television cameras were part of his daily life—a presence that is constantly felt. I think it serves to remind the viewers that with his position as Secretary of Defense, not only did he have to make vital decisions, but he had to present them to the world. The media plays a fairly significant role in this film, it reminds us how every choice McNamara makes is instantly known worldwide and effects countless individuals. It is a pressure that is ever-present and the opening shot shows that. It also shows his human side, something that will also be shown throughout the film—as if to say yes, he is just like you and I, he has to adjust his own materials for the presentation, he even appears a bit nervous, just like the rest of us.
Following this scene come the credits, a bit earlier than they are given in Fast, Cheap. Each grouping of credits after that opening scene is preceded by a scene that looks to be footage from a combat ship. First, it shows sailors on the lookout, scanning the horizon, almost counting something. It shows the face of a sailor quietly speaking to himself, pointing out toward the ocean. Some credits roll. The next scene after that grouping of credits is three sailors in succession looking into different binocular devices. More credits then roll, including the title. The next scene shows a hand drawing on a map, then a military individual on a radio speaking into it. Credits roll again. Next comes a sailor watching over a sonar machine, then a group of sailors that appear to be graphing something intensely. Following that (no credits have rolled again quite yet) we see the sailors quickly getting into positions on the ship. They occupy positions next to guns and begin moving them—there is a close up of one sailor moving the gun and then stopping. Now more credits roll. After those credits we see sailors running through a hatch at a quick pace, clearly preparing for something. The hatch is shut, and then more credits come across the screen. After those credits we see more footage of these similar sailors putting together a missile. More credits roll. Finally, we see an individual sailor rolling a final missile into an open door before we hear McNamara’s voice asking if Morris will speak so that he can ensure Morris’ voice level is adequate.
I have gone into such depth with this because I think the progression of these scenes is important not only to the opening, but to the film. Each move is systematic, calculated—each sailor is doing a certain job without reservation. There is a logical progression—the lookout, the mapping, the sonar, the preparation, the guns aimed, the missiles ready—and then the movie starts. Literally speaking, this ties into the movie because it is showing the military clearly preparing for action, and the movie is about that. The military, war, etc. What do we associate with the military? Order, planning, continuity. The steps are logical, they make sense—however later in the movie we will come to find out that missions carried out logically at the time come out later to not make much sense. Even when things seem to be carried out smoothly, but the outcome is not always necessarily favorable.
These two openings struck me because they are so different but yet say so much about the respective films they introduce. Morris has, in my opinion, a brilliant way in which he can simultaneously literally show you something on the screen that makes sense there within the context of the plot, but at the same time tells you something completely symbolic that digs at an overarching question that presents itself throughout the movie without blatantly asking it on the screen. (Meaning he doesn’t have the words spelled out—he shows it on the screen but in a way that makes one look for it.) He accomplishes this throughout the movie, and the reason I chose to focus on the opening scenes before and during the credit in these two films was essentially because I found it so interesting that from the onset he was able to present all of this to the audience.
The next scenes in which I wanted to look at I have touched on before in a previous blog—but it just is so moving to me that I had to look into it more deeply. It’s the way in which Morris uses eye contact during pivotal parts of the movie. This time I’m going to begin with The Fog of War.
I am speaking about the scene that deals with the death of President Kennedy. During my first viewing in my geopolitics class, I remember being moved by the scene where McNamara talks about the death of President Kennedy. With my second viewing, I am even more moved by it, and I was able to notice the many ways in which eye contact was used during this part of the film.
McNamara finishes making a point about a different subject (the military coup of Ziem), and the camera fades to black. There is silence during the black screen, and it slowly fades in to footage of President Kennedy sitting at a desk, the American flag placed prominently behind him, microphone to his left. Clearly he is preparing for a press conference. As the shot of Kennedy begins to materialize slowly, the music immediately begins again—a louder, somber tone. The shot continues in slow motion with the music. Kennedy looks camera left, and then slowly makes eye contact with the camera in front of him, giving us the feeling as though we are making eye contact with him. Many sources have contended that this is a very personal action, eye contact; as we have discussed in class, it is about the closest one can get to another person’s soul—to what another individual is thinking. This makes the connection taking place between the screen and the audience even more personal. It is at this point that McNamara begins speaking, with this same shot of Kennedy still remaining on the screen.
The moment of eye contact is made more pronounced by the beginning of McNamara speaking. He explains that he was in his office in the pentagon when the phone rang, it was Bobby Kennedy—the president had been shot in Dallas. As soon as McNamara speaks these words, “…the President had been shot in Dallas,” Kennedy on the screen looks down, breaking eye contact. We no longer are looking into his eyes, that momentary connection we felt has been taken away—it coincides perfectly with the story being told by McNamara. In the story, Kennedy has been taken away, shot. Kennedy has been taken away from us, too, as the viewers, by the cessation of eye contact. It will not return. I think it is an extremely powerful thing to do, and I find it extremely difficult and moving to watch.
The portion of the film about Kennedy’s death goes on, McNamara tells a very personal story about how Jackie Kennedy called him and asked him to go to the cemetery to find a plot for the President. He travels there at four o’clock in the morning to find the most suitable spot for the President. As he is speaking, the shot is very tight to his face. The welling tears in his eyes are clearly visible, as is the slight quivering of his chin as he tries to hold back his emotion to finish the story. (The close, almost personal shot mirrors the close and personal nature of McNamara’s story.) He makes eye contact during this story—that, coupled with the closeness and personal nature of the story as well as the shot make it an intensely moving scene. (Somewhat of a side note: Morris also lingers after the conclusion of McNamara’s story, that long take continuing to show the raw emotion in McNamara. The long take in this case was very effective in making the audience aware of the weight and gravity of the story and the situation.)
Morris uses this similar focus on eye contact during a scene in Fast, Cheap as well. There are more instances that the one I am about to mention, however I believe this is one of the most memorable. It comes when Ray Mendez, the naked mole rat specialist, is speaking about “the other.” A being—something outside of yourself that exists independently from you. This alone is a heavy thematic aspect of the film so the fact that the point of eye contact happens while Mendez is addressing this topic is even more important. Mendez is talking about the point at which you and the other make contact, you are both aware of each others existence. He states “I know you are, you know I am.”
The layers to this scene seem to be endless. Mendez makes eye contact with the camera—although we know that he is not making eye contact with us personally, it still gives the same effect that we felt during the scene I mentioned before with McNamara. It’s personal, it’s a stronger connection than you feel looking at, for instance, the shots that precede this part, of the elephants marching in a line. That shot does coincide with the concept of “the other,” but I think it is the eye contact that makes this scene especially poignant.
Mendez is essentially a form of “the other,” a person that exists outside of ourselves. We then make eye contact with him, just as he explains in the scene. However the ironic and paradoxical element of this is that he is just an image on the screen—he is a life-like portrayal of a person—within the film he is not actually living. But we feel this living connection when he makes this statement. This brings the questions I talked about before screaming back to our minds, what does it mean to be living? We feel this connection with something that is not actually a living being in front of us, we see that it is a perception of reality, but what does that mean? Why it the eye contact so meaningful if he is just on the screen? Does it even matter that he is on film, not live in person making this statement?
The points of eye contact I have just mentioned are vastly different but they both appear at pivotal moments in the movies. In The Fog of War it is an emotional pinnacle that McNamara will not reach again on film; and in Fast, Cheap it is a ingenious paradoxical connection that relates major thematic elements and questions to what the audience is feeling at that very moment viewing the film.
With everything I have talked about in this post there is so much more detail I could go into, and would like to go into, however I will begin to bring my ramblings to a close at this point. First, however, I wanted to add two more of my classmates blogs to my final post. I mentioned Dan’s already, but I thought these two had very interesting points as well.
Kate’s post entitled Fast, Cheap and Out of Control I think is a shot but very true summary of the mass of thoughts that follow viewing this film. I agree with her so much when she talks about the ending scene, it is beyond explanation. The way in which she also points out how well Morris is able to tie seemingly different things together with such ease and such meaning is perfectly true.
Charlie’s blog Das Bolt, in the entry entitled Misplaced Compassion, doesn’t exactly coincide perfectly with the things I talked about in my blog, but I found it to be very interesting. It talks about the use of a new mine-clearing robot for the Department of Defense, and I found the article and his take on it to be very interesting in relation to what was shown about robots in Fast, Cheap with Rodney Brooks.

Notice: link_pages is deprecated since version 2.1.0! Use wp_link_pages() instead. in /home/elsweb/subdomains/blogs/wp-includes/functions.php on line 3839