February: Wormwood

“Morris’ Late Style”

Bill Nichols (Independent Scholar)

A common trope of art history tells the story of art as a life cycle: birth, growth, maturation, decay, and death. The metaphor can apply to individuals or movements. Without adopting the full-blown metaphor, we can also focus on work from late in an artist’s career and ask whether a “late style” distinguishes such work from what has gone before.

My sense is that Wormwood, about the death of Frank Olson, quite likely at the hands of the CIA, finds Errol Morris in the thick of a style sufficiently different from his earlier works to be called late. But late style can mean many things. Such work can be a tired repetition of familiar themes and tropes; a rote, more mechanical approach to topics; a virtual parody of former work; a diminution of insightfulness; a degradation of creative power; a summing up of views distributed through previous work; a distillation of a worldview into near perfect form or an encapsulation of the wisdom of a closely examined life. In each case, the scent of death is in the air. The sense of an ending ripples out beyond the work. It is time to face or flee the figure who pursues us all.

For Edward Said, this became the theme of his late work. His short essay, “Thoughts on Late Style,” published in the London Review of Books in 2004, the year after his death, explores this question in relation to Ludwig van Beethoven, among others, by riffing off of remarks by Theodore Adorno. Late style is not, in such cases, a summing up or a perfect whole, but more a fragmentary, jumbled, disorienting effort to acknowledge a painful truth. In Adorno’s words, cited by Said, this sort of late work represents “‘the remains of a synthesis, the vestige of an individual human subject sorely aware of the wholeness, and consequently the survival, that has eluded it for ever’.”

It is Eric Olson who speaks such a thought in Wormwood when he asks why he has spent his life in pursuit of an answer that will forever elude him. But it is Errol Morris who embodies this pursuit of truth, which can be known at some level, but that nonetheless only points out, with the mocking laugh of the ultimate trickster, that the desire to know can never be satisfied. It is this desire that drives both Eric and Morris toward answers that recede before them like a fathomless hall of mirrors.

Morris has met his obsessive match in Eric Olson, the son of Frank Olson, whose death in 1953 was a result of a) an accident, b) a suicide, c) an overdose of LSD, d) an assassination plot by the CIA, or e) an execution conducted by the CIA but licensed by a government terrified deep dark secrets might see the light of day. Eric devotes his life to deciding which option is true and arrives at “the truth” after some sixty odd years only to realize that he asked the wrong question. It is not a matter of how did he die but who killed him and why, and, even more, of what will happen next to ensure that justice is done? No justice will be done. That is the hard truth and it does not make Eric free. He is a vestige of his former self and the film is a testimony to the nightmare that has haunted him his entire adult life.

To assign attributes of late style to this film is neither to praise nor blame but to describe. Some further description may drift toward an assessment. One of the great insights of Hannah Arendt involved the routine, procedural, banal quality of evil. Morris takes a different tack. In The Fog of War, The Unknown Known, and Standard Operating Procedure, he adopts the stylistic flourishes and excesses that had populated earlier films and turned them to the characterization of evil: war crimes during World War II and torture during the war on terror. For Morris, as revealed in his reenactments of what was authorized as “standard operating procedure” in his eponymous film, torture is less the work of rationalized procedures carried out with calm efficiency by unmoved operatives than a realm of oneiric horror. “The horror, the horror” rings throughout these films, especially Standard Operating Procedure, and now, Wormwood. To me, this is an effect of late style as something close to self-parody. It diminishes the true horror of banality and locates evil within a phantasmagoric realm familiar to us most commonly as the locus of a terrible, irreal hell.

Recourse to the phantasmatic acknowledges that little is gained by dollops of excess. Excess must be, indeed, excessive and in Wormwood it is so both in overall length—four hours to investigate one murder—and in repetitions that cycle over and over through the work: close ups of feet crossing floors; choker close ups of faces; documents seen as undecipherable fragments; split screens; cyclical, repetitive music akin to Philip Glass’s; and Eric’s convoluted, painful, “let’s not cut to the chase” detailing of his obsessive journey into an unfathomable heart of darkness. Eric’s conclusion, put in terms a less obsessed observer might apply, is: Frank Olson was very likely executed by the CIA on behalf of the United States government 1) because he probably knew about a program of interrogations using torture in Europe (Operation Artichoke), the actual use of biological weapons—not just their development in which he played a part—against North Korea during the Korean War, and 2) because he not only knew of these things but was probably deeply troubled by them, and 3) because he may have considered making them public in an explosive act of whistle blowing.

None of this proven. All of it is conjecture. And it is a plot spoiler to name them, but then again, the late style of the work is only secondarily about plot. It is primarily about subjectivity, the experiential quality found within a nightmare. By film’s end it is clear that Morris and Olson share the same obsessive, phantasmatic page. Everything and anything can support this plausible but unproven conclusion. Archival footage of POWs in North Korea confessing to deploying biological weapons is matched with interviews of returned POWs in the United States recanting their “false confessions” and confirming that no biological weapons were ever used. But what is striking about the footage Morris uses is that the recantations are delivered in as lifeless and mechanical a tone as the allegedly false confessions. The subjectivity of a flat tone and blank expressiveness undercut the face value of what is said.

Lifelessness, in fact, pervades the film. Apart from the highly animated account by Eric, all the other characters show little zest, expressiveness, or enthusiasm, particularly the actors who re-present our absent subject, Frank Olson, and his contemporaries, from his wife to his fellow CIA agents and Army associates. It is as if the reenactments resurrect the living dead who, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, haunt Eric and the viewer. (Morris does, in fact, intercut fragments from Sir Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, a thematic stretch more than a stylistic one.) Morris is quite right to say these are not reenactments if reenactments represent the filmmaker’s conception of what really happened in the past. Instead, the reenactments fabricate scenes and dialogue that may have never happened, and cannot be proven to have happened, but they correspond to what Eric or Frank Olson or Errol Morris himself imagines might have happened. The undead infect the spirit and soul of Eric Olson. He can find no peace, and neither, for the duration of the film, can the viewer.

The spectre of death returns. Late style cannot escape it. I find this a frustrating, exasperatingly protracted work of ceaseless excess and yet I must also acknowledge that those very qualities signal a turn toward a “late” insight: even if it can be known, the truth may not set us free from the obsession that drives us toward it. Morris plunges down the rabbit hole of relentless obsession. This interminable worm in the wood, with a patina of logic and no end in sight, begs for a late style equal to its dark truth that what remains, after what’s knowable is fully known, survives intact but beyond the reach of the hand that grasps so achingly for it.

“What is Wormwood?”

Sudeep Sharma (Cal State University, Long Beach)

At first glance, Errol Morris’s Wormwood is about a sad, darkly comic “accidental” death, but it quickly becomes about something much more. Through the course of four hours, the fantastic death of Frank Olson from an LSD experiment gone wrong, a death apologized for by then President Gerald Ford, is slowly revealed to be possibly, maybe, conceivably (perhaps) a coldly calculated assassination by unknown deep state operatives. It’s a fascinating story and told in what could be called “peak Morris” style with dramatic and penetrating interviews (frequently with Morris on camera with the subject), layered sequences of music and image, and Morris’ trademark reenactments.

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But, what is Wormwood? Is it a documentary or fiction? Is it a film or television series? Wormwood has elements of each but doesn’t fall cleanly into any of these categories. While these questions of definition may seem pedantic, they get at the heart of a specific kind of crisis in media today over what is a film and what is television. Whether it is the role of television at prestigious film festivals, what streaming television services are doing to cinema culture or even the broader question of which is better, there is a tension between film and television that is meaningful for both producers and consumers.

The classification of documentary as television or film has historically been complicated by the fact that television has been the dominant distribution platform for the form. Longer documentary television series have added another twist to the difference for documentary as a form between TV and film. Despite playing at major film festivals and some qualifying theatrical runs, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has decided that Wormwood does not qualify for its Best Documentary award. Following Ezra Edelman’s OJ: Made In America, the Documentary Branch of the Academy changed their rules excluding explicitly “multi-part or limited series”. As a result, where a film like the four-hour Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, which was originally conceived of as a film but now streams on Amazon over six episodes, qualifies for Best Documentary consideration, Wormwood, originally conceived and described as television serial program, does not.

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Despite the Documentary Branch’s decision, Wormwood is eligible for consideration in the Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and all other craft categories. If this all sounds confusing, it is. For Morris, this debate is particularly noteworthy because his landmark documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988) was disqualified for Oscar consideration as a documentary because of its use of reenactments. Large segments of Wormwood are reenactments explicitly not of things that happened, but of documents handed to the Olson family that are considered to be fraudulent. In other words, the reenactments are not fiction in any straightforward sense. Yet it is not those reenactments that disqualify Wormwood; it is its status as television that has kept it from Academy consideration.

Sudeep 2

Does any of this actually matter? For Morris, the difficulty of labeling Wormwood as something means it will be ineligible for any award and “fall through the cracks.” Something about that rings false to me, especially coming on the heels of a long debate over whether or not David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return was one of the best films of 2017. For me, these debates between defining something as television or film often seem more dependent on seeing television as a lesser-than form beneath certain “true” auteurs. Personally, Twin Peaks: The Return was the best thing I watched in 2017 and is something I believe I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. Is Twin Peaks: The Return, an 18 one-hour episode series on Showtime, diminished by calling it a television show? I do not think so, in the same way it is not diminishing to call Wormwood a limited run serial. And yet, to call Wormwood a television show does not seem to accurately describe it. It challenges the traditional notions of a documentary and, like Twin Peaks: The Return for Lynch, could be seen as the culmination of Morris’s career. It is his “everything bagel” of documentary; it is everything and anything (except raisins).

Sudeep 4

In thinking about Wormwood and the question of what it is, I’ve been drawn to an article in the New Yorker by Morris about Nathan Fielder and the Nathan For You Season Four finale “Finding Frances.” Morris writes that the feature-length episode is “the most interesting ‘reality’-based work yet made,” and marvels about how the episode shatters the fourth wall in its last scene, thereby highlighting how the wall may never have even existed. “Finding Frances,” which Morris says is “a perfect imitation of an imitation of life,” is pretty remarkable and one critic even voted for it as Documentary of the Year for their Critic’s Association.

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Wormwood, a documentary film, is a perfect companion piece to “Finding Frances,” a TV show (or perhaps Wormwood, the TV show, is the perfect companion to the documentary film Nathan For You). For me, the best way to make sense and classify Wormwood is as an Errol Morris metawork, a text that reflects upon him as an artist as much as it says about Frank Olson, the CIA, LSD, or the security state. It is a perfect imitation of an imitation of a documentary film.

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