Errol Morris philosophizes on the reality of truth


Morris’ talk was part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, an event that hosts up to 150 events all over the city every year. (Photo courtesy of Ben Gonzales)

Academy award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris stopped by the Music Box Theater to discuss his new book and ponder the absoluteness of truth as a part of the Chicago Humanities Festival on Tuesday, April 24.

The subject of his new book, “The Ashtray,” is Morris’ strained relationship with Princeton philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe the way scientific fields abruptly shift focus rather than progress in a linear way.

“I think the concept of a paradigm shift is just something to give really stupid people something to think about,” Morris said.

The title of the book comes from one particularly heated argument between the two, the result of which was Kuhn throwing an ashtray at Morris’ head – something Morris admits was “kind of cool.”

“My arguments between Kuhn and I were mainly over his denial of truth,” Morris said. “Reality, I’ve found, has a way of persisting.”

When moderator and film critic Milos Stehlik asked him if the new book was Morris’ attempt at revenge, or a way to get the final word in their feud, Morris acknowledged that retribution probably was his primary motivation for writing the book.

“I find revenge invigorating and motivating,” he said.

Morris spoke candidly to the discussion’s moderator, film critic Milos Stehlik.
(Photo courtesy of Ben Gonzales)

Their disagreements came to a head when Kuhn finally threw Morris out of Princeton. Morris, who always dreamed of being a writer, felt that being a documentary filmmaker was the only option available to him because he was so distraught over being expelled that he couldn’t write.

His pursuit of truth was what led him to make “The Thin Blue Line,” a documentary about Randall Adams, a man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a cop in 1970s Dallas and who subsequently was sentenced to death. Morris found that the real killer was the prosecution’s chief witness, and the revelations in his film eventually led the governor of Texas to stay his execution only two days before he would have been put in the electric chair.

He said it started as a series of interviews he was conducting with prisoners on Death Row. “When you start talking to a lot of people on Death Row, you’ll hear all kinds of stories,” he said. But Morris said that when Adams told him he was framed for the murder of a cop, Morris thought he was telling the truth.

Morris has also released films based on extensive interviews with two of the most controversial U.S. Secretaries of Defense in history. His 2003 film “The Fog of War” was an intimate look inside the mind of Robert S. McNamara, known for his role in the major escalation of the Vietnam War. McNamara, in a rare moment of candor, admitted that if the U.S. lost the war, we would be “tried as war criminals.”

Ten years later, Morris interviewed Bush Administration Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for “The Unknown Known.” Rumsfeld had a penchant for writing dozens of memos, which were often just cryptically written thoughts, about his everyday life working in the White House. Using Rumsfeld’s own words, he paints the picture of a brutally unrelenting and “self-satisfied” politician.

During the nearly 33 hours of interviews, Morris and Rumsfeld wrestled over each other’s differing versions of the truth, notably Rumsfeld’s belief that, “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.”

Morris said that in the age of Trump, the truth, and our quest for it, is more fragile than ever.

“What’s scarier than denying truth is living in a world where the truth doesn’t matter anymore. The search for truth is one of the only things that gives humans dignity. Assuming we have some.”