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Peter T. Chattaway
The Self-Deception of Mr. Death
"Have you ever seen a man's brains?" That question is asked by one of several old eccentrics who populate Vernon, Florida, the town after which Errol Morris named his second documentary feature in 1981. It is a question that has been at the heart of just about every film Morris has made; he seems fascinated, even haunted, by the question of how the mind works. He explored that theme in his recent docu-poem Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997). It also provides the key to what seems at first a meandering digression in Morris's most celebrated film, The Thin Blue Line (1988). Near the end of that documentary, about an innocent man who was sent to prison and almost executed for a murder he didn't commit, Morris lets another man, David Harris, talk about his own childhood. It was Harris's accusations that prompted the police to arrest the innocent man in the first place; now that Harris himself is on death row for another murder, he all but admits to Morris that he committed the original crime himself. For most viewers, the case is closed, the story told. Yet Morris lets Harris go on and trace his reckless behavior back to his youth. "I wasn't doing nothing but hurting my self," Harris concludes.
This "tangent" begins to make sense when you realize that Morris is interested not only in objective knowledge—knowledge of what has transpired in the outside world—but also in what we might call subjective knowledge, or knowledge about oneself. When I interviewed Morris for this magazine two years ago, he called Harris's epiphany "one of the most ironic lines I've ever put on film, and people never comment on it. … When ever I hear the line, I think, 'Not quite, David. Others as well.' This moment of self-knowledge seems to be a moment of self-deception."
Self-knowledge and self-deception, and the ways in which they intersect with one's objective knowledge, are the subjects of Morris's newest film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. Leuchter wrote ...