In his television series First Person, quirky documentarian Errol Morris (an Oscar winner for The Fog of War) appears to be cleaning out his junk drawer. Subjects and people that didn’t fit into feature-length projects are efficiently dispensed in between 22 minutes and a shade under an hour. The giant-squid fanatic? Done. Ted Kaczynski’s prison pen pal? Poof! The mob lawyer? Gone. That master of disguise? Finis.
The show is done in the typical Morris collage style: talking-head interview intercut with re-creations, stock footage, and bits from obscure old movies. The difference between this and most of Morris’ feature projects is that (with one bizarre exception involving a murder case and a bird) there’s only one interview per episode. Hence: First Person.
Watching all 17 episodes over a few days, the series initially is most notable for its seemingly random quality. Aside from a wide variety of subjects, the show’s tone shifts in subtle ways. Sometimes the interviewees are essentially giving monologues, and other times it’s more of a conversation between the Morris and his subject. (The filmmaker seems to enjoy playing with his level of visibility and audibility in his own work.) Some episodes invite the viewer to question the credibility of the narrator — it’s one person’s word against nothing, after all — while others engender trust and casual acceptance. Some of the stories are told fairly straightforwardly — beginning to end — and others loop back on themselves. There are episodes burning with anger — one involving a postal-service manager stands out — and others that are surprisingly light and playful, such as “Smiling in a Jar,” with its almost flirty rapport between Morris and the woman who runs a medical-abnormality museum.
Yet in toto the series doesn’t feel scattershot; it comes together at the end in mysterious, alchemic, and near-miraculous ways. First Person is a composition of disparate moods, tones, and colors, touching on myriad extremities of the human condition and containing multitudes, but it also has an elusive quality of oneness.
This in itself isn’t at all surprising. Morris pulled off a similar magic trick in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, with both surface meaning (a love of one’s work) and a subtle but elegantly articulated theme of control and power.
The only trouble is that there’s no obvious, easily discernible common ground in First Person. Violence and violent death show up as motifs in nine episodes, although sometimes merely in passing. Two additional shows concern the preservation of the human body or mind. Attorneys are the subjects of two shows. Geniuses show up in two of the last three. And then there are the loose threads: the giant-squid guy, the spy, the guy who lives his life on camera.
One could see the collection as being a series of meditations on mortality and immortality, and how the two concepts — related linguistically in opposition to one another — generally refer to very different things: death and fame. But, as thinkers far greater than me have noted, “Every movie in every cinema is about death. Death sells.” So that might be a bit too easy.
The first season — comprising 11 of the 17 episodes — is enjoyable but slight, and it takes a while for Morris to find his feet in the show’s format. The first three episodes, each related to vocation, articulate a passion but don’t capture its essence; they feel more like academic lectures than flesh-and-blood interviews. The next three tap into a familiar Morris theme: self-delusion. And then comes “The Parrot,” a curious break from format that cemented in my mind the idea that First Person wasn’t something Errol took very seriously.
The second season (which aired in 2001) is much more coherent, and it certainly seems to be reaching for something. There’s a man whose every moment is recorded on video, fulfilling the Native American fear of the camera by having his soul sucked out of him. There are two geniuses, one obsessed with getting back on a game show, and the other — perhaps the smartest man in the world — who works as a bouncer and believes he has unique insight into the nature of God. Most strikingly, there’s a heroic airline pilot faced with an aviation disaster literally unimagined by the plane’s engineers.
That episode, the penultimate “Leaving the Earth,” is as harrowing and suspenseful as any documentary I can remember outside of Touching the Void. It’s the emotional climax to the series, and it also presents, starkly, the theme that finally ties First Person together as a unified whole: profound isolation.
Well, of course. It’s so obvious and pervasive that it’s nearly invisible. First Person serves as an excellent case study in how form affects meaning. The series’ conceit — a single person telling his or her story — by its nature creates isolation.
Morris’ interviewing technique exacerbates the effect. He talks with his subjects through the famous (in film circles, at least) Interrotron, a device Morris invented in which the filmmaker’s disembodied head leads the conversation. Actually, it’s a setup involving television monitors, two-way mirrors, and cameras that allows Morris to maintain eye contact with his interview subjects while they’re looking directly into the camera eye. This creates a striking intimacy between the interviewee and Morris (and his surrogate, the audience), but it’s an artificial connection, facilitated by and filtered through technology. The result is a conversation in which the participants are physically separated — isolated — from each other. The subjects are speaking to a room of machines.
But that’s not the sum of it. In critical ways, nearly all of these subjects were isolated before Morris got his inquisitive little gadget trained on them. The museum curator appears to live among the dead freaks — they are her intimates — to the degree that an interview with Morris provides her obviously pleasurable interaction with the living. The squid guy’s only goal in life is to see the elusive monster up-close, even though it would likely mean getting eaten by it. And the airline pilot, even though he’s in a cockpit full of trained crew with hundreds of lives at stake, is all by himself, without anybody to provide support or assistance.
Hell, even the bird is isolated. In the midst of an investigation in which the freedom of several people is at stake, the parrot probably saw the murder; if it could only express itself more clearly, or reveal the contents of its brain, the mystery would be solved. But it can only mimic sounds, and they’re inconclusive. The inability to communicate creates its own solitude.
Finally, then, the series is not an experiment in creating isolation, but in using form to reflect and enhance it. Just as the structure of Memento brilliantly mimics for the audience the protagonist’s mental state, First Person shows us those who are all alone — and makes them even more so.