June 4, 2014

The Unknown Known

I’m not big on art, I’m not a movie buff, and my musical spectrum is mostly confined to a few bands. Don’t even try talking to me about genres because I can’t tell them apart. So much for being a radio broadcaster.

With most films, I can’t tell you who directed the one I just watched, nor can I name its producer. It doesn’t matter to a layman like me most of the time. And so — even though I enjoy watching movies — it takes a special kind of ingenuity for me to really appreciate one. Not because I’m a discerning artist, no. Quite to the contrary: For naked eyes like mine, subtle artistic clues usually go under the radar.

And it is exactly for the reasons above that I’m delegating myself to the task of writing about Errol Morris’s documentary, The Unknown Known. Yes, I did pay attention this time because I wanted to know who made this film.

You could argue that the task of dismantling someone like Donald Rumsfeld isn’t such a hard one these days, but to reduce The Unknown Known to its journalistic-ingredients would be a sin to the art of moviemaking. gulps

First off, Morris’s own-invented interview technique captures the interviewees’ facial expressions and body language in a very unique way. It’s a distinction you can’t quite describe until you get to watch it. Morris explains his invention, the Interrotron”: (via Wikipedia)

Teleprompters are used to project an image on a two-way mirror. Politicians and newscasters use them so that they can read text and look into the lens of the camera at the same time. What interest me is that nobody thought of using them for anything other than to display text: read a speech or read the news and look into the lens of the camera. I changed that. I put my face on the Teleprompter or, strictly speaking, my live video image. For the first time, I could be talking to someone, and they could be talking to me and at the same time looking directly into the lens of the camera. Now, there was no looking off slightly to the side. No more faux first person. This was the true first person.

One more thing: Take this quote — for example — courtesy of Rumsfeld:

You wonder why they didn’t respond to all the efforts that were made to avoid that war. How could they be that mixed-up in what the inevitable next steps would be? Why they wouldn’t sit down and have an agonizing reappraisal and come to some logical conclusion.

The former Secretary of Defense is talking about the Iraqis, of course. But all the while, the footage shown on the screen is that of the United States Capitol. In a black and white time-lapse video that captures it just from the right angle, the sun rises on Capitol Hill as Rumsfeld shares another gem of wisdom.

The Unknown Known screen captureIt’s subtle. But subtle brilliance does not escape even an uneducated observer like me. It made me smile. So I thought I’d share it with you.

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