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Curious Cinema: An Errol Morris Retrospective

One of the leading nonfiction filmmakers of his generation, Errol Morris has pioneered an approach to the documentary that marks a modernist departure from the observational techniques of cinema-verité. Like the nonfiction practitioners of the French New Wave (Resnais, Marker, Rouch), Morris has addressed some of the most profound questions of our time: life and death, good and evil, truth and fiction. But rather than finding his subjects on the streets of Paris or the plains of Africa, Morris has conducted his work in some of the most unlikely places—a pet cemetery in Northern California, a Texas courtroom, a backwater town in Florida. A formal innovator as well, Morris has gained critical attention for the scoring of his documentaries, by such contemporary composers as Philip Glass and the late Caleb Sampson, and for creating a distinctive, directed look to the imagery he creates to make sense of that odd phenomenon called reality.

Thanks to Lions Gate Films and to Fourth Floor Productions for their assistance with this retrospective.


December 18 (Saturday) 8 pm
Special Advance Screening: Errol Morris in Person
Tickets are $8 for this HFA special event

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1999, color, 35mm, 96min.

Morris’s latest feature is an unsettling journey into the world of Massachusetts inventor Fred Leuchter, Jr. Leuchter’s fascination with the mechanics of capital punishment began when he was a young boy visiting the prisons where his father worked as an employee of the Massachusetts Department of Correction. The interest of this self-described "execution technologist" in the mechanisms of death led to his development of the lethal injection machine and ultimately to an investigation of the death camps of Auschwitz. Leuchter is a man who carries no malice, but his unhesitating belief in himself and his science makes him a willing tool of others who exploit him for their own ends.

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December 10 (Friday) 7 pm
December 12 (Sunday) 8 pm

The Thin Blue Line

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1988, color, 35mm, 101 min.

Dubbed by its maker "the first murder mystery that actually solves a murder," The Thin Blue Line remains Morris’s most acclaimed and perhaps most controversial work. The filmmaker was long fascinated by Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who earned the name "Dr. Death" for his testimony against defendants in murder cases, whom he pronounced "incurable psychopaths" and therefore deserving of the death penalty, Morris embarked on a series of interviews with Grigson’s death-row inmates. The film emerges from one of these cases, that of Randall Dale Adams, an inmate still pleading his innocence, whom Morris is convinced has been falsely convicted.

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December 10 (Friday) 9 pm
December 11 (Saturday) 9 pm
December 12 (Sunday) 6 pm

A Brief History of Time

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1991, color, 35mm, 84 min.

Morris’s screen adaptation of physicist Stephen Hawking’s bestselling book on the mysteries of the cosmos focuses on both the theoretical and the personal. Morris combines readings voiced by Hawking’s speech synthesizer with striking visualizations of his theories, and incorporates interviews with his family and scientific colleagues to suggest that the chaotic conditions that govern the universe have also affected the earthly journey of this singular figure in modern science.

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December 11 (Saturday) 7 pm

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1997, color, 35mm, 82 min.

A quartet of portraits of individuals who have embarked on visionary career paths that are nevertheless linked by a passion for the animal world, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is Morris’s most visually arresting film to date. In it we encounter Dave Hoover, a protégé of legendary lion-trainer Clive Beatty; landscape gardener George Mendonca who spends his days tending a menagerie of hedges precisely formed into wild animals; futurist Rodney Brooks and his tiny out-of-control robots (also fast and cheap); and Ray Mendez, a deeply committed rodent specialist.

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December 17 (Friday) 7 pm
December 19 (Sunday) 8 pm

Gates of Heaven

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1978, color, 35mm, 85 min.

Morris’s first film, Gates of Heaven was a major critical success and earned its maker high praise from Roger Ebert ("rich and thought-provoking") and a testimonial from German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who ate his own shoe after the film’s Berkeley premiere to fulfill a vow. Intrigued by a San Francisco Chronicle headline ("450 DEAD PETS GOING TO NAPA VALLEY"), Morris borrowed funds from his family and a grad-school classmate to make this singular portrait of the people and animals affected by the financial demise of a pet cemetery. Contrasting the visionary owner of the defunct operation with the entrepreneurial family behind the successful Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, the film vividly captures what Ebert called the "dogged elusiveness of the American Dream."

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December 17 (Friday) 9 pm
December 19 (Sunday) 6 pm

Vernon, Florida

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1981, color, 35mm, 60 min.

After attempting to develop a screenplay about a bizarre form of insurance fraud that involved non-accidental dismemberment of limbs by residents of a small Florida community ("Nub City"), Morris opted instead to record several of the town’s more interesting citizens. The resulting work gently presents rural America in all its genuine strangeness as locals discuss their passions for turkey hunting, radioactive sand, and stargazing.

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Screens with "Vernon, Florida"
December 17 (Friday) 9 pm
December 19 (Sunday) 6 pm

Stairway to Heaven

Directed by Errol Morris
USA 1998, color, 35mm, 27 min.

Slaughterhouse designer Temple Grandin has always found humans to be inscrutable. Not so with cattle. Not only does she feel her emotional background has helped her to understand animals, but her personal struggle with overcoming fear has drawn her closer to the bovine world than to the human. At turns humorous and deeply affecting, Stairway to Heaven is at once a portrait and a meditation on what it means to be human, as well as another look at one of Morris’s favorite themes: the connections between ourselves and the animal world.

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