FRUSTRATING FILMOGRAPHIES #5
errol morris' THE DARK WIND
This is an experiment I've been mulling over for some time. It's dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable, wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.
The subject: Errol Morris
The movie: The Dark Wind
"All documentaries have an element of feature films to them, but all feature films contain elements of documentaries. What ultimately engages us about a film? I think it might be different than what most people think. But what the fuck do I know?" - Errol Morris
This Frustrating Filmographies is going to open with me talking about a comic book, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you're not up for hearing about all that junk. I haven't been quite as active within the comic reading loop as I was in the days when I could name at least two members of Rob Liefeld's Youngblood, but I still try and pick up some of the more promising trades when my library stocks 'em. My favorite current series is Jason Aaron's SCALPED, yet another homerun in the legacy of the DC Vertigo line. Vertigo is chiefly known for importing notable UK creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison, but Aaron, like Y the Last Man scribe Brian K Vaughan, is a homegrown Vertigo find - he's as American as Obama.* Always good to know there actually is domestic talent to pool from, and SCALPED is a very American story. It deals with organized crime in a South Dakota Indian reservation and a fuck-up named Dashiell Bad Horse of Oglala Lakota origin who returns as an undercover federal agent to bring it down (more out of a personal tendency to destroy everything he touches than any actual sense of justice.) Illustrated by R. M. Guéra (most of the time), the panels of SCALPED seem imbued with its characters' intrinsic depravity; the toll which poverty and hopelessness from conditions living on the "rez" has had on them absolutely drips from its painterly illustrations. It's the best series I'm reading right now**, mainly because it does such a great job relating personal mistakes and regrets to where history has determined you're going to end up - just a really smart examination of how people deal with the cards they're dealt. Usually, it's very badly and very violently: there has yet to be a SCALPED trade (I've read six of the current seven so far) that I haven't thought to myself in the last few pages "There's no way every character isn't going to end up murdered by the end of this book!"
Intrigue set on a reservation, Tribal Police and racial in-fighting, rising tensions between locals and outsiders, corpses left out in the desert...after a few issues Aaron and Guéra's comic started to remind me of a movie I'd heard of a long time ago but never actually seen. Thunderheart? No, I remember watching a taped TV-edited version of that one in high school during class for some reason.*** I was thinking of a film from the early 90's that was supposed to be a big deal, then just kind of went away after reports of "creative differences" or somesuch. And somebody I deeply cared about was involved. Of course, it was 1991's The Dark Wind, a film dumped onto home video and largely ignored by critics that would have disappeared a long time ago were it not obligated to appear on the complete list of movies directed by one Mr. Errol Morris. In comics, they are constantly "ret-conning" previous details of the stories in order to update aspects to modern times or change the origin of pre-existing characters to make them seem cooler, what have you. As a result, entire decades of continuity are swept under the rug and never mentioned again. I wonder how many films would be lost to time if directors were allowed to ret-con titles from their own filmographies. If that were a possibility, I have a strong feeling Morris wouldn't hesitate to permanently redact The Dark Wind.**** Although he doesn't like to talk about the experience much at all, the general consensus of the production's history is that Morris felt artistically limited from the git-go, was unable to shoot where he wanted, had producers looking over his shoulder the entire time on set, and was ultimately fired or simply walked away from the film...at what exact time is uncertain, either around the latter stage of production or - at the latest - early in post.
At the point in his career when he was hired to direct Dark Wind, Morris was coming off the release of what was and arguably still is his most famous work, The Thin Blue Line, and production of his highest-profile project, the Stephen Hawking documentary A Brief History of Time (high profile in that it featured his only straight-up celebrity subject, and served as a companion to Hawking's hugely popular book of the same name.) He had really come into his own with Thin Blue Line: not only had he basically created the "crime scene re-enactment" technique, he'd proven himself to be an enthusiastic pursuant of The Truth, avoiding the label of Bill Owens-type collector of eccentrics and weirdos like the colorful subjects of his first two films, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. To naysayers who believed those early works were nothing but colorful freak shows, there now seemed to be a method driving Morris' madness. He had also created a movie that undeniably made a difference in the real world, since it helped free a man who was wrongfully imprisoned for over 12 years for the murder of a police officer. But the triumph wasn't cut and run: in truth, Thin Blue Line was more of a critical hit than a financial one and Morris saw very little money from it (the film made a little over a million dollars in the US and Canada.) Thus he was not unshackled from his "day job" of making commercials for car and beer companies - in other words, he still needed to pay rent. On top of that, three months after being released from what only a year before was a life sentence, Randall Adams sued Morris for what he saw as the director capitalizing on his story (even though the movie was hardly raking in the green.) Even the movie's game-changing innovation had its critics: people who completely missed the point of the re-enactments claimed they were there to manipulate the facts to support Morris' view of the murder. This is just conjecture on my part, but the success of Thin Blue Line - not only in winning over critics but in playing a major part in overturning Adams' conviction - must have felt somewhat tainted in Morris' mind by these unfair criticisms and by his subject's subsequent lawsuit. And I know he's recently had good things to say about Brief History, but I can't help wonder whether at the time it felt, to him, more like a Stephen Hawking movie than an Errol Morris movie. So entering the 90's, Morris was still looking for ways to get paid, and may or may not have been suffering from some artistic frustrations, that led him to seek out a job that would both support him financially and make for a change of pace, even if it was just to dip his foot in the water of the Hollywood Game.
Well, the water was filled with Indians. This was the early 90's, and Native American culture was "in" at the cinema. Dances with Wolves swept up at the Oscars, granting a greenlight to other period epics such as Bruce Beresford's Black Robe, Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans and Walter Hill & John Milius' Geronimo, as well as contemporary takes on the "white man learns about the suffering of the Native American people" like the aforementioned Thunderheart. Sherman Alexie's short stories were getting notice and would eventually be adapted into the film Smoke Signals. "Northern Exposure" was a hit on TV, Disney made Pocahontas for the kids, Steven Seagal fans saw him get the Kevin Costner treatment in On Deadly Ground...and let's not forget the hallucinatory naked Indians turning up in every movie Oliver Stone made during that time.***** It was during this revisionist-friendly era that the studios turned their eye on the work of Tony Hillerman, one of those best-selling authors whose books nobody has actually read (maybe your dad's read some of his book; I checked, mine hasn't.) Hillerman was a prolific writer - Sherman Alexie famously demanded that he "stop writing for ten years to let us Indians catch up" - publishing seven books between 1980 and 1990. Most of them featured Navajo tribal police officer and aspiring shaman Jim Chee, who Hillerman had dealing with prejudice and corruption on a regular basis as he patrolled the ill-defined, smuggler-happy line between Navajo and Hopi territory. Former cowboy Robert Redford had been bitten by the Native American bug, and was already producing and narrating Michael Apted's documentary Incident at Oglala, based on the 1975 shooting of two federal agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and subsequent prosecution of allegedly innocent activist Leonard Peltier.****** That doc shared superficial similarities to Thin Blue Line - law enforcement agent(s) murdered just outside their own car, a supposedly falsely accused man wasting away in prison, dodgy political factors impeding a retrial - but Apted was less successful than Morris: Peltier remains in prison to this day, his projected release date (October 11, 2040) just four years shy of his 100th birthday.
Redford, who flirted throughout the 90's with success stories from his Sundance Film Festival (Brief History would premiere there in January of '92) like Steven Soderbergh and Ed Burns, arranged with producing partner Patrick Markey to hire Morris to helm The Dark Wind, the second of Hillerman's Chee books, for his Wildwood Enterprises. The script was by UCLA film grad Neal Jimenez, who had gained notice for writing 1986's macabre River's Edge and for later co-directing his own script for the paraplegic melodrama The Waterdance. Jimenez was on a hot streak until his career apparently petered out after adapting the Dean R. Koontz novel Hideaway (co-written by Andrew Kevin Walker) for Brett Leonard (Jimenez was planning to adapt and direct The Sweet Hereafter, which of course ended up being made by Atom Egoyan.) Elephant Man co-writer Eric Bergren was brought in later to re-work Jiminez's script. Redford's plan was for Dark Wind to be the first part of a proposed series; he would follow it up with a second film from Hillerman's Jim Chee series - A Thief in Time - which he would direct (eventually this and another Chee movie were produced by Redford and Markey for PBS.) Carolco Pictures, fresh off Terminator 2, the company's all-time biggest hit, would put up the $10 million or so budget and distribute the film through their Seven Arts division. With Morris on board, the project seemed prestiguous - overflowing with Big Names and Hot Talent - but pre-production had barely begun when the film fell under the critical eye of American Indian watchdog groups. Complaints ranged from the casting of Lou Diamond Phillips, who of is one-quarter Cherokee descent, to play full-blooded Navajo Jim Chee******* to the plot's detailing of Hopis involved with drug dealing and murder. Things got worse during filming, as members of the Hopi tribe refused to allow cameras onto locations in and around Tuba City, Arizona and threatened to sue Redford for defamation. Although concessions were allegedly made to appease the offended groups, such as generalized Indian rites filmed in place of sacred Hopi rituals, the script's inclusion of them (and other scenes depicting a religious leader being knocked out and a ceremonial mask being disrespectfully thrown on the ground) caused such controversy among the Hopi community that the ultimate decision not to release the film theatrically has often been attributed to these reactions.
But was it really negative publicity that caused Dark Wind to disappear, or the fact that it just isn't a very good movie? Producer Patrick Markey, who cited Carolco's financial problems (they were sinking all their money onto a ship called Cutthroat Island) as reason for the film's production difficulties and the failure of its original distribution plan, said Redford was "not entirely pleased with the picture." But Redford must have supported Morris initially at least since original producing team Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury - the duo behind River's Edge - were the first to be relieved of duty ("We didn't get along with the director," Pillsbury has stated.) In an article about the troubled production, the L.A. Times blamed Morris, "a director who was new to feature films (sic) and who clashed with the film's original producers" as well as "snowy conditions inappropriate to a story that partially revolves around a conflict over water; and a frustrating inability to photograph the breathtaking Hopi mesas because of objections from some tribal members." Indeed, Morris quickly found out that trying to direct a movie about tensions between the Hopi and Navajo on location was, in his words, like making "a film about the Palestinians and the Israelis and shooting it on the West Bank." On set, he confided in DP Stefan Czapsky: "The good news is, this is the most spectacular landscape you've ever seen. The bad news is, you can't shoot here." He summed up the experience overall by saying "For me, it was devastating and, for a while, I even thought about giving up filmmaking altogether."
Morris transitioning from making the kind of documentaries he was known for to helming a straight narrative film isn't quite the giant leap it might initially seem to be. Like his contemporary Werner Herzog, Morris' big claim to fame at the beginning of his career was creating documentaries with, as he stated, "an element of feature films in them." The Thin Blue Line was even deemed ineligible for consideration as a contender for the Best Documentary Oscar due to its scripted content; it was officially considered "fiction." Aside from its very stylistic lighting (also by Czapsky), elaborately staged, recurring re-enactments that offer varied accounts of the night of the murder and tense score by Philip Glass, Line makes several specific references to narrative films, specifically B-movies and noir. Morris plays long sections from the two cheesy drive-in films Adams and David Harris saw the night of the murder to establish a banality that counters the sensational homicide that's to follow. Later on, in what would become a trademark, he uses footage from old detective serials to mock the mindset of a budding sleuth who'd go on to become the prosecution's star witness against Adams. In a recent interview, Morris said that we all think we're the protagonist of our own life story, a funny truism that also perfectly sums up what it is Morris gives his subjects - the chance to truly be the lead character of their own narrative film. The unreliable witness wanted to be the main character at Adams' trial, condemning a man to death for the simple pleasure of feeling briefly important, like the ace crimesolver of an old B-movie. Morris makes visual connections between these movies in the interviews and re-enactments, turning memory into one big movie that plays out in people's minds. The director himself is a fan of these types of films - on several occasions he's mentioned Edgar Ulmer's Detour as his favorite movie, and it's not a stretch to draw thematic similarities between Ulmer's tale of a drifter who finds himself caught up in a web of criminality not of his own design and the sad fate of Randall Adams. Thin Blue Line, like all of Morris' documentaries, is at its core a story about people creating their own narratives, which Morris then constructs into his own narrative. The subjects become characters, their backgrounds flashbacks, the revelations and betrayals of other subjects intricately-designed twists - somewhere within the structure, truth is taken apart and put back together as outrageously and romantically as any work of fiction.
But what drew Morris to this particular work of fiction? Again, coming off Thin Blue Line suggested that Morris might do well with a mystery that takes place in the American South featuring shady figures and corrupt law enforcement agents. Although Line presents the contradicting stories of Adams' interrogation that makes the cops out to be Big Fat Liars, Morris obviously feels a kinship with fellow investigators. Morris was once a private investigator himself, and has often described the "investigative element" of his approach to filming, his "process of discovery or uncovering of material" no different than a detective stripping a case down to its bare essentials and turning it into a cohesive narrative. Thematically, The Dark Wind is like that - Chee follows leads, interviews both reluctant and discreditable witnesses, puts himself on the line in his quest for the truth - but by design a straight-forward narrative is diametrically opposed to that idea. Morris had a script to follow, actors who needed to know their lines, locations that had to be locked in advance etc. Morris' gift is drawing out unexpected things from his interview subjects, but there's no surprise when you know what somebody's going to say. Add to that the stringent limitations on where he could actually shoot (the options he thought he'd have may well have drawn him to the project in the first place) and the demands of The Dark Wind clearly robbed Morris of, for lack of a better term, his artistic freedom. Discussing the troubled production, Eric Bergren said: "Producers want a director who knows exactly what he wants and states it very clearly." Whoever that obvious statement is referring to, it sure as hell isn't Errol Morris.
* I started work on this article months ago, back when the whole "birth certificate" issue was still in the news - it was a lot more topical back then.
** Other current runs I enjoy are John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke & Key and Mark Waid's Irredeemable, with art by Peter Krause and others. The latter is about a Superman-type hero who goes insane, destroys a couple cities and holds the terrified survivors of the world under his thumb...how great is that? And, although the work is inconsistently serialized in various different publications and by no means linear, I'm always up for anything Chris Ware has created.
*** The two movies have a weirdly similar scene in which one of two lawmen who can't stand each other hits his siren to pull the other over so he can talk to him, opening with "You were doing 57 in a 55!" or some dumb joke like that.
**** Dammit - I should have saved that "redact" line for my upcoming De Palma Frustrating Filmographies article...oh well, it's too late now. I just type this shit out, I don't know how to delete - or "redact" - it.
***** I didn't see any hanging around in World Trade Center and I assume he didn't include one in the Wall Street sequel (although it would be funny if he did; he could at least give Michael Douglas one of those cigar store Indians in his office or something) so I'm guessing he's abandoned that visual motif by now.
****** A fictionalized account of the incident is crucial to the plot of SCALPED.
******* To be fair, there was a year-long casting process to find an actor with a fuller Native American background; only after this proved futile was Phillips cast.
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