America Is Hard to See




WHEN I MEET with Errol Morris, the browser on his desktop is open to his Twitter profile. On another desk close by sits a wooden box, inlaid with velvet, and filled with row after row of glass eyes. They remind me of the strabismus that robbed Morris of stereoscopic vision as a boy. They’re also an unavoidable metaphor for the lenses of the camera through which Morris has forged his life’s work. But it’s the intrusion of that other prosthesis, the many-eyed lens of social media, that permeates this scholarly, Saturday quiet at Fourth Floor Productions in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a bit like noticing the unmistakable bulge of swollen lymph nodes beneath the robe of a plague doctor: a grim reminder that we really are all in this together.

When surveyed as a single effort, Morris’s work — 12 documentary features, two television series, three books — is the pursuit of the point at which falsehood bifurcates from truth. Sometimes that point is concrete, and sometimes it’s elusive, and sometimes it’s beside the point entirely. But to say that even — and perhaps especially — he is not immune to the chaotic and ambiguous beam of our networked discourse is to point out certain pervasive, underlying realities about the nature of information in 2020, realities that have a particular bearing on Morris’s latest film, what you think about it, and why it matters.

American Dharma arrives in the midst of an information crisis in this country. Never, it seems, have so many of the facts about our world been open to such impassioned interpretation, and never has the act of interpretation seemed to so irritate and paralyze institutions whose everyday functioning we once took for granted. When brought to bear on the political order established in the United States between 1988 and 2016 — from Fukuyama’s End of History to Mishra’s Age of Anger — this irritation and paralysis takes its most significant form in the presidency of Donald Trump.

It’s into this breach that Morris’s new film determinately plunges. In response, he has received some of the most scathing criticism of his career. You probably know by now that American Dharma is a feature-length interview with Trump’s former campaign manager and strategist Steve Bannon. You probably have feelings about this fact, whether you’ve seen the film or not — which, as of this publication, you probably haven’t. The digital footprint left by controversy can far exceed that of its source, and, with the proliferation of speech online, the space and the resources accorded to the speech of certain individuals — their “platform” — has never been more fraught. It is this often bewildering feedback cycle of discourse and meta-discourse — a legacy of Bannon’s influence, as much as anyone’s — which is always at its peak in matters pertaining to Trump.

Morris actually interviewed Trump, briefly, as part of a segment for the 2002 Academy Awards, in a Warholian montage of cultural icons (Mikhail Gorbachev, Iggy Pop) and everyday people offering their thoughts on classic movies. Not yet a reality television star, Trump gave his unguarded impressions of Citizen Kane — wealth, marriage, and the meaning of Rosebud — that manage both to totally misread the film, and to offer a glimpse of the unreflective self-belief that would make his political rise possible. At the ceremony the following year, Morris took home an Oscar of his own for The Fog of War, his feature-length interview with former defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. Together, these two projects have returned to haunt American Dharma.

The Fog of War marked a political turn in Morris’s filmmaking. Up until then, his subjects had been outsiders — made that way by their encounters with extremity, hardship, and death. In their outsider status, Morris found something like their American-ness. It took McNamara — an individual for whom encounters with extremity, and with death, undoubtedly made him a kind of exceptionally American outsider — for Morris to finally seek out, like a novelist or a portrait photographer, something of that eccentric individuality at the historical scale.

When Fog of War screened at the 2003 Telluride Film Festival, Steve Bannon was there to see it. The former strategist offers this coincidence — the first of many — in American Dharma, while commenting on a clip taken from The Fog of War itself. Like Morris’s interview with Trump almost 20 years earlier, American Dharma is a movie partly about movies — both what they contain, and what others project onto them for themselves. For Bannon, the McNamara that Morris showed was a face of the American managerial elite and, by omission, the Americans those elites had betrayed and deceived. The clip spurs a memory of his own: as a boy, delivering a newspaper bearing the name of a young soldier from the neighborhood, freshly killed in Vietnam.

The reverie’s forking paths go deeper. Bannon recalls attending practice for his daughter’s West Point volleyball team, and noticing the label on their box of new uniforms: Made in Vietnam. His memory of the first anecdote is awakened by the experience of the second, spilled out in a single, distressed retelling. Here Morris provides a keyhole perspective into the origins of Bannon’s economic nationalism, a cudgel against those same elites’ world order, which treats war and displacement merely as stages of global economic development. But it’s also a lesson in the ease with which profound emotion can conspire with fuzzy, associative logic, to stir the American political imagination in unpredictable ways, whether through a conscientiously constructed work of cinema, or through a hectic, ideographic array of networks.

It’s a lesson that Bannon learned well, beginning with that screening of The Fog of War at Telluride. A year later, he began a directing career of his own, making conservative documentaries that caught the eye of the blogger Andrew Breitbart, a fellow traveler in the new political warfare being waged in the emerging cultural sphere of the internet.

But that new political warfare — as American Dharma demonstrates — looks much like the racial and moral panics of old. What Breitbart and Bannon discovered was that the libidinally charged thought patterns of hate speech could generate frenzies of activity if given an unregulated space in which to replicate. Unregulated, specifically, by media establishment patricians, authoritative inheritors of the liberal consensus, entrenched since World War II, for whom Nazism is the great enemy and the Holocaust the ultimate taboo. The unregulated space they imagined, by another name, was the comment section of the Breitbart News website. The epiphany, Bannon claims, was his own. In 2007, sent by Goldman Sachs to run a company called Internet Gaming Entertainment, he discovered the truly massive number of isolated people willingly dissolving their bodies and livelihoods everyday into the seductive digital reality of gamespace, where wars are frictionless and consequence-free, and where — unlike reality — they had total control over their own lives. Here was the foundation of the alt-right, the movement that would supply Trump’s online foot soldiers.

There’s something almost poignant about Bannon’s hypothetical story of “Dave,” whose death in the real world goes unacknowledged, while his fellow gamers mourn the passing of his avatar, “Ajax,” with all the pomp and procession of an emperor-god. “Dave” could easily be a stand-in for Breitbart himself, whose sudden death shortly before his website’s re-launch left Bannon fortuitously at the helm.

The sheer number of improbable accidents that brought Bannon from a member of Morris’s audience to a subject of one of his films lends this notion an eerie credibility. Without question, it has emboldened his advocacy of “dharma” — a dilution of the Hindu concept into a personal kind of spiritualist self-help — in the film and elsewhere. It has likewise defined his self-ascribed “apocalyptic rationalism.” “If you really believe in the duty-destiny-dharma deal, you can justify everything,” Morris says of Bannon’s ethos. “It’s a slick way of just making everything right, making everything okay, and … there’s something really deeply disgusting about it.” Over and over in American Dharma, Bannon foretells a coming American revolution, though whether it’s at the hands of Trump, or his downtrodden populist supporters, is never made clear. Like a televangelist or a besotted raconteur, his interest with these fulminations is less in being right than in simply keeping you interested.

And Morris is interested, in his own darkly comic way. If such a revolution is in the offing, however, he suspects it will arrive after “the flap of the butterfly wings” of Anthony Weiner’s dick pics. After all, the particular cycle of coincidence that American Dharma imposes on Bannon’s own coup begins and ends with Anthony Weiner: the sex-tweet scandal that cemented Andrew Breitbart’s reputation in 2011 returns, transformed by the State Department emails discovered on Weiner’s laptop, just in time for the 2016 election. Morris submits this series of absurdities as the harbinger of Clinton’s downfall, over and against Bannon’s own tale, of spin and counter-spin on the eve of the second presidential debate.

It’s an exchange that signals American Dharma’s most significant stylistic break with Morris’s earlier work: it’s not so much an interview as it is a dialogue. The film rounds out a trilogy of national grotesques that began with The Fog of War and continued with The Unknown Known, Morris’s portrait of Donald Rumsfeld from 2013. But in both of those films, Morris observes a judicious — almost godlike — remove from his subjects, deploying sophisticated jump cuts and dense, allusive montage to render his own presence, throughout the hours of interviews he personally conducted with them, faint, if not invisible.

This effect owes much to the Interrotron, a system of cameras and teleprompters which Morris developed for the making of 1997’s Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, and has used in nearly every project since. Conventional on-camera interviews require the subject to look to one side, and make eye contact with the person interviewing them rather than with the camera itself. The Interrotron places a teleprompter (transparent in one direction) with a video feed of over the lens of the camera. This allows the subject to establish eye contact with Morris — a kind of prosthetic eye contact — while they’re staring into the camera. The effect is particularly potent in these political films, where the pathos and fleeting charm in the gaze of McNamara or Rumsfeld is steadily, inevitably, eroded by the accumulated evidence of their crimes.

However subversive its deployment in practice, the Interrotron is fundamentally a humanist instrument; the product of an age of American optimism that spans the early 20th century, from the New Deal to the Space Race — to say nothing of parallel developments in Hollywood. It’s the mark of an optimistic belief that developments in technology could help to bring the nation closer together. For all of Morris’s professed skepticism, the aesthetic premise at the core of the Interrotron is that, through a kind of inquiry that is part cinematic and part scientific, no matter our differences or our distances, we really can come to know one another. It is this feeling — of outsiders embracing, if briefly, in mutual recognition (in America we are all outsiders) — that makes Morris’s greatest films more than simply portraits or puzzles, but pinhole glimpses at the collective soul.

Consider what it means, then, that the Interrotron is not in use in American Dharma. Consider that, far from disappearing behind the camera, Morris is seen and heard more in this film (confrontationally, elliptically) than any of his others; and that the line of sight between subject and audience is now broken. Morris’s skepticism, post-2016, has turned to pessimism. “We’re all fucked,” he’s liable to exclaim at any given moment in our conversation. If you are watching American Dharma (which, again, most likely you are not), you and Steve Bannon are frequently looking literally past one another.

The camera peers, instead, from near the director’s shoulder, often at Dutch angles — an irresistible nod to Weimar expressionism — on and alongside a desktop in the middle of a soundstage. Half in shadow, Bannon’s face holds a glimmer of magnetism in an otherwise craggy physiognomy, bloated and inscrutable. Morris’s own face is never shown; instead, his silhouette looms prosecutorially. It is as though he has been summoned symbolically from out of the background of his earlier films, to provide not just a new item on the visual ledger — a whole additional entity with which the audience can identify or estrange — but a moral and aesthetic weight to the task at hand.

It’s a task he’s never undertaken before: to bear witness to historical outrage practically in media res. “People have said, ‘You should have waited,’” Morris tells me. “Well, sorry, I didn’t!” As we learn from the start, American Dharma isn’t really interested in common political ground. Morris’s implicit humanitarian internationalism — a product of his upbringing in a Jewish household for whom the Holocaust was traumatically recent — is irreconcilable with Bannon’s reactionary isolationism, fed unquestionably by racial animus. On the white nationalist implications of policies like the border wall or the Muslim travel ban, Bannon is evasive to the point of defensive silence.

“How many times would you have to prove that he’s a racist, and if you did prove that he’s a racist, where would you be? I think it’s pretty goddamn obvious that he’s a racist.” Long before 2016, Morris began a series of columns in The New York Times, in which he set out in characteristically detoured fashion to refute a central doctrine of his former teacher, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn: incommensurability. Expanded and published in 2018, The Ashtray: (Or The Man Who Denied Reality) asserted that, contrary to Kuhn, no point of view (or “paradigm”) could ever be so unfathomable that it couldn’t be communicated or compared to others. But for generational reasons, as much as out of preservation of his own sanity, Morris seems to be unwilling to confront the notion that Bannon, the alt-right, and the viral network of those consumed by the Trump phenomenon do, in some meaningful way, exist in a political paradigm of their own; that the truths they have constructed for themselves — like the combs of a poisonous hive — are largely impregnable to the rhetoric of American liberalism. Pointing out the ways in which Bannon’s ideology is noxious and offensive is not, in the end, a substitute for a political program that will defeat him and what he represents. And it’s on these terms that liberal critics deem the film a failure, failing themselves to see the larger ideological crisis playing out.

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The film’s more successful and more paradigmatically “Morris” project, however, advances in a language that both participants can speak: cinema. Unlike McNamara’s lessons or Rumsfeld’s “snowflake” memoranda, American Dharma modulates and flows through selections from Bannon’s personal cinematic canon. What Bannon may lack in body count among his companions in the political trilogy, he makes up in his contributions to the art of mass manipulation. In his responses to clips selected by Morris from works by John Ford, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, and others, a portrait emerges of Bannon as a man shaped as much by history as by a history of images — of Hollywood’s ability to unite the masses not through humble, humanistic inquiry, but through raw, spectacular power.

Bannon’s favorite film, Twelve O’Clock High, is one such pursuit of this power. Henry King’s 1949 story of a bomber crew’s mission over Germany features Gregory Peck as the no-nonsense General Savage, who aims, in essence, to turn his unit of men with individual thoughts and feelings into a single, fearless, undifferentiated killing machine. It’s a dull, neurotic film, justifiably forgotten by time. Bannon first saw it at an orientation at Harvard Business School, where it presumably inspired a generation of leveraged buyout specialists and derivatives traders to believe themselves leaders of men.

“That is one weird movie,” Morris tells me.

It’s also a movie that makes you wonder about America, because I, like all school children, at one time or another have been indoctrinated into a whole set of what I take to be American values, or certain books that I read when I was growing up. And now I wonder … it seems like it could just as easily be a fascist film.

Peck’s General Savage displays a fanaticism that makes it difficult to disagree. “‘Think of yourselves as already dead…’ I certainly as a result of that election now think of myself as already dead!”

Morris makes ample use of the film’s ostensibly rousing and fateful scenes, but he also uses the film as a source text for some of the most outlandish passages in his own filmography. The set where he’s staged the interview with Bannon is no mere soundstage, but an Air Force Quonset hut, a mockup constructed in tribute to Twelve O’Clock High. For Bannon, the parallel between Peck’s arrival at the British air base and his own arrival at Trump Tower on his first day as campaign chief executive is impossible to resist, and Morris’s strategy is to indulge him to over-excess, reenacting flashpoints from King’s film with Bannon cast in the lead.

Reenactments have played central roles in Morris’s films before, and contentious ones as well. The sheer length and quantum entanglement of the reenactments in 2017’s miniseries Wormwood aspired to a fiction-documentary hybrid that pushed his method into murky, paranoid waters. The Thin Blue Line, perhaps his most famous film, illustrated the holes in a murder case by playing through scenarios that directly contradict one another, sparking objections that Morris was frivolously conflating filmmaking and jurisprudence. “People thought that this was not the appropriate way to tell a story about reality,” he tells me. Ultimately, these sequences are less about the facts of the matter than about how individuals and institutions narravitize and reconstruct them.

But the reenactments in American Dharma are symbolically rather than forensically charged, and far stranger. For one, the “events” they reenact are not events at all, but images on a screen, suggesting the ways in which our subject has surrendered to and merged with the virtual. For another, Bannon is dressed not as General Savage but as himself. Striking stances or performing brief, totemic actions from the film, he is dramatically game but visually deflated. Positioned in this simulation, he stages not a re-creation but a culmination of his perverse ideological fantasy. It’s easy to imagine Bannon, psychically wounded from boyhood by the United States’s imperial failures in Vietnam, reaching back into the spectacularized mists of a more remote and reassuring victory; here, Morris shows the result in all its ridiculousness. “The hackneyed analysis (it’s not untrue, I don’t believe), [is] that people who didn’t fight in World War II really felt deprived,” Morris offers. “I never felt deprived, you know, I never felt deprived that I wasn’t in a sealed train going to Auschwitz, I feel fortunate — but those people really wanted to fight the Big War.”

It’s genuinely difficult to convey, for those who haven’t seen them, just how bizarre these scenes truly are. Suffice it to say that your reception of American Dharma — as a statement about our political times, as a work of cinematic art — rests, perhaps overly much, on what you think of them. They contain faint echoes of much more direct and intense set pieces conceived for Indonesian génocidaires in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (which Morris executive produced in 2012), but in the end, they hover too ambiguously between heroic kitsch and Brechtian awkwardness to deliver a blow of comparable power.

Leave it to the circumspectly liberal imagination of an artist like Morris to entrust such a gesture — so open to interpretation — at the beating heart of a film whose subject is nothing less than the contemporary crisis of interpretation itself. Fittingly, liberal critics have seen in American Dharma exactly what they wanted to see — or, what they wanted not to see. In major takedowns in The New Yorker and Variety, critics worked through their irritation at what can only be called a failure of the film to exorcise Bannon’s political demons. Setting aside that many of their complaints are, in fact, addressed in the film, American Dharma is not an activist film, nor is it even — strictly speaking — a work of political protest. It is the examination of an individual whose rise was symptomatic of a crisis that, like his legacy (his “dharma,” if you will), is still unresolved. These critics’ problems with the film are to a large extent their problems with our present reality: even at moments when Morris openly refutes or berates Bannon’s irresponsibility or obfuscation, the film refuses to dismiss the significance of his influence.

But such frank political soul-searching by an eminent director was evidently not popular in the media-industrial environment of 2018, when American Dharma premiered at the Venice Film Festival. An effort to understanding, however confrontationally, this inarguably consequential figure was dismissed as the “platforming” of a hatemonger. It’s difficult to pinpoint the original source of the platforming discourse. Undoubtedly it’s been incentivized online, in the reactive postures toward mainstream entertainment properties foisted on social media. On Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, criticism has become an extension of consumption, and the act of consumption has taken on both a performative and political valence — like voting, but far more popular. Consumption and critique in these libidinal, hyper- and trans-active spaces, most visibly coalesces around broad, simplistic interpretations of what an entertainment property does and ought to offer.

By this logic, the marketplace lifts up what is morally virtuous, but ultimately the source of this virtue is the marketplace itself. In an era of rampant industry consolidation, from Warner to Comcast to Disney, access to content is increasingly rare without corporate approval. Behind the internet’s largely debunked democratic veneer, fewer people than ever sit at the controls of this information regime, while the culture which dominates it (“stan culture,” “poptimism,” call it what you will) unwittingly enforces the status quo from below.

American Dharma premiered at nearly the exact same time that David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker — bowing to pressure from both inside and outside of his organization — disinvited Bannon from a one-on-one interview he’d scheduled at the magazine’s annual festival. Symbolically, it marked the end of a period of agog profiles and fascinated coverage of the racist far right by prestigious liberal media outlets that had begun as early as 2015. Remnick’s invitation of the very shade of American Nazism to the corridors of the country’s most august publication was a kind of third rail moment for the liberal cultural apparatus, and it duly deployed the antibodies of protest and boycott to shut it down.

While Remnick and The New Yorker rebounded, the collateral damage sustained by American Dharma has been undeniable. In November 2019, over a year after its premiere, the film finally began to appear in theaters. A rollout on one of the major streaming services — for many communities without independent theaters, the only point of access to non-blockbuster cinema — is not yet forthcoming. It’s difficult to see the embargo around American Dharma as the product of anything less than the same corporatized avoidance of risk that Martin Scorsese pointed out late last year regarding that most abundant of genres, the comic book movie. Meanwhile, those films which the marketplace delivers that reproduce uncomplicated liberal values remain — in spite of their faithful critical plaudits — little more than a niche.

Just seven months after American Dharma’s Venice premiere, IFC released another Bannon documentary, Alison Klayman’s The Brink. Shot in the vérité, fly-on-the-wall tradition that Morris has long rejected outright, The Brink launches its attacks more unilaterally, depicting Bannon as a huckster and a fraud, a faux-populist glad-hander and frequenter of plush apartments and luxury hotels — elements American Dharma is interested in, if less programmatically. If its motivations weren’t transparent enough, The Brink cements its status as propaganda with a rebuke to the overwhelmingly male conservative spaces in which Bannon circulates: a closing montage of the women-led Democratic landslide in the 2018 midterm election. Distributors evidently saw less risk in the latter: over its nine-week release, The Brink screened in 124 theaters; over a comparable period, American Dharma has reached just 11.

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Morris may share many Democrats’ fear and trembling, but the style in which he produces it is inimitably his own. Dharma’s closing scene — over Bannon’s renewed predictions of revolution — is of the Quonset hut, and the American flag flying within, in flames. On first blush, it’s heavy handed, the kind of hallucinatory figment we’d expect in a Steve Bannon production. And this might, perhaps, be partially the point. As much as it is a portrait of Bannon’s rise and fall, American Dharma is also a slantwise story about the political and media class’s hypnotism by dark, apocalyptic visions not altogether different from Bannon’s own. They are visions in which the cultural bulwarks entrenched, so long ago, to fend off the return of something like Nazi Germany, could be quickly and brazenly swept aside; in which the best of us are drawn, moth-like, to a flame we mistook for enlightenment. The flame — hurled ruefully by the man who shot Liberty Valance — is the light from our devices, the never-ending dreamless sleep of interlocking social media and cable news networks, where we stare into the eyes of teleprompters, and legends are increasingly more welcome than facts.

Just what is meant to fill the void left by this conflagration is uncertain. I’m reminded of a remark from Werner Herzog, in a film inspired by the release of Morris’s first film, 1978’s Gates of Heaven [1]:

I have wondered what the value of films was. And I think — I don’t know — it gives us some insight. […] It doesn’t change — people have thought it would — films could cause revolutions or whatever, and it does not. But films might change our perspective of things. And ultimately, in the long term, it may be something valuable, but there’s a lot of absurdity involved as well. As you see, it makes me into a clown. And that happens to everyone.

In our conversation, and on the press circuit where he has pleaded his case, Errol Morris has embraced his own moment of absurdity. In interviews, he is talking about American Dharma, about the public’s response to the film, and about his own response to the public’s response, in spite of the fact that hardly anyone can see it. Often, it is with a self-deprecating, self-forgetting humor. “So then I started to think a whole number of things,” he tells me, characteristically, “Do I have any understanding of irony? Do I know what irony is? Wouldn’t it be deeply ironic if someone who really loves irony, such as myself, really doesn’t understand irony? That would be ironic, I suppose.”

As of now, American Dharma is no longer a film — no longer only a film. The commentary and context that so routinely engulfs every piece of consumable media now threatens to blot out utterly this film in particular — all the more so because for most, perversely, there is nothing to talk about. So if, like so many more and less worthy contemporary works, the film is finally swallowed altogether by its accompanying wall text; if this piece is one more such accompaniment and little else, allow me to add that American Dharma is significant — that it ought to be seen. The rest is up for interpretation. “So if you don’t see it as ironic, what can I do,” he says, “I can’t force you to see it ironic, I could threaten you, I could tie you down and maybe, you know, pound a couple of railroad spikes into your chest … A reeducation camp — an excellent idea! You will see this as ironic or I’m going to have to hurt you, even kill you. So I don’t know, I give up, uncle!”

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Ryan Meehan is a writer based in Brooklyn. His criticism has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB Magazine, and The Wire. He is currently at work on a novel about art and terrorism.

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[1] According to legend, Herzog wagered that if Morris — reluctant to finish any of his early film projects — could release what would be his debut, Herzog would eat his shoe. The subsequent event was staged at the UC Theater, and was the subject of the Les Blank film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980).

 

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