When did objects—its and bits, odds and ends—begin to take on reel lives of their own? Not long after film took lives of its own.
After the 1800s—Bainbridge’s setting up shop for the department store, Dickensian Christmases’ good family cheer overtaken by store-bought items waiting under the heavily-decorated tree for eager wrapping-rippers, Veblen’s theory of “conspicuous consumption”, the rise of store-displays and mail-order catalogues—more leisure-time meant not only more shopping-time but more viewing-time. In Dziga Vertov’s city-symphony documentary Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a movie theatre’s seats seem to come alive, perhaps warming up before patrons file in to sit on them; later, thanks to more stop-motion magic, the tripedal camera assembles itself, then
gives a merry little dance, tripping the shutter-light fantastic. But the trip could turn deadly—film was a dangerous object. The image-strips whirring through projectors then were made of nitrate, so inflammable that it could even burn underwater. There were theatre infernos, as on January 1927, in Montreal’s Laurier Palace, when a blaze erupted during a children’s movie and 77 people between the ages of 4 and 18 perished in the smoke and flames. (Bill Morrison’s 2002 found-footage film Decasia is comprised entirely of moldering, blistering nitrate reels whose spectral images often seem to bubble and melt into each other in a delirium of decay.)
After cinema was already turning humans into objects on-screen and early film-strips could, on tragic occasion, turn cinema-goers into inferno victims, objects truly began to take on eerie film-lives of their own after the hellfire and ashes of World War II. That raging cataclysm, its horrors beggaring belief and staggering the imagination, saw the Nazis not only treat Holocaust victims as less-than-human but render Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled down into objects (from Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: “my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine Jew linen”). And perhaps the greatest reason of all for such possession-obsession came with the mind-blowing power of one object to annihilate so many of us all. The atom bomb’s horrific might heralded homo sapiens’ scientific bending of nature to our murderous will. If the “disappointed shells” in Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” have more life than the weary soldiers they just fail to hit, by 1945 only one large, nuclear-energized shell needed to hit the ground to erase life (and raze the earth) for miles around, and on into future generations.
There was a shift in art, then, to an entirely new sensitivity to objects, along with the ironic celebration and reimagining of materialism—Postmodernism. Take this passage from Thomas Pynchon’s paragon of postmodernism, noir mystery-quest The Crying of Lot 49 (1965):
The can [of hair spray] hit the floor, something broke, and with a great outsurge of pressure the stuff commenced atomizing, propelling the can swiftly about the bathroom. . . . The can, hissing malignantly, bounced off the toilet and whizzed by Metzger’s right ear . . . the can continued its high-speed caroming; from the other room came a slow, deep crescendo of naval bombardment, machine-gun, howitzer and small-arms fire, screams and chopped-off prayers of dying infantry. . . . The can knew where it was going, [Oedipa] sensed . . . The can collided with a mirror and bounced away, leaving a silvery, reticulated bloom of glass to hang a second before it all fell jingling into the sink; zoomed over to the enclosed shower, where it crashed into and totally destroyed a panel of frosted glass; thence around the three tile walls, up to the ceiling, past the light, over the two prostrate bodies, amid its own whoosh and the buzzing, distorted uproar from the TV set. She could imagine no end to it; yet presently the can did give up in mid-flight and fall to the floor, about a foot from Oedipa’s nose. She lay watching it.
This zany Exhibit A of the Pynchonesque presages the birth of so many movies where far-too-lively objects become the killers, imbued with sinister self-awareness, “hissing malignantly” towards us . . . and we’re helpless before this suddenly murderous “stuff” in our lives. It’s a mad, bad reminder of just how much objects have taken over, so much so that these things often have more life than the people supposedly in possession of them. And it’s as if we’re projecting our own, often Freudian, fears on the many not-always-so-good goods we buy and own and use—our things biting the hands which purchase them with that ultimate object, money. And so Killdozer! (1974) trundles into terror-town three years after Steven Spielberg’s first feature Duel—amid America’s curious ’70s craze for “good buddy” CB-chatting trucker-culture—has a trailer-truck (driver unseen) targeting a hapless highway driver. There’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), dissolving unsuspecting victims in its acid-goo waterbed-mattress before remaking itself and even snoring. A vacuum cleaner roars suckingly to life in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The TV screen proves evil in Poltergeist (1982). The Lift (1983) drops us into a killer elevator. A killer car’s the star of Stephen King’s Christine (1983). The Stuff (1985) is whipped cream which consumes the consumer, eating away their insides and zombie-fying them. And King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive (1986), featured consumerist pleasures of the land of the free turned into one long buyers’ beware: an insulting ATM, a murderous vending-machine, a child-flattening steamroller,
lawnmowers running amok, chainsaws turned lumberjack-rippers, arcade machines gone berserk, and trucks making humans roadkill.
These days, the newfound power of the computer—turning on us in Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—to connect or disconnect us may have much to do with cinema’s recent object-lessons in inanimate malevolence. Because when objects take on such destructive power, they can reduce humans to mere things; in an object-filled world, we may be stiffly packaging, vacuum-packing, and compartmentalizing our primal emotions more and more (of course, movies especially have been charged with desensitizing assailants and killers to violence). In 2011, a convicted murderer, at his parole hearing in Hamilton, recalled fatally shooting the woman who rejected him seventeen years ago: “I could see what I was doing, but I couldn’t stop. I was so upset. It was like an inanimate object.”
Both that sense of lives as things—or nothing—and the sense of a mere few things—pieces of evidence—determining one man’s death-row fate haunt what may be the only film to free a man from a life-sentence. In Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (1988), David Harris talks of his crime, for which Randall Adams has been wrongly convicted, with that conscience-less sense of impersonality and detachment: “I never really concerned myself with it.” But Morris, in his restrained, artfully classical film—seeming as much a chilly drama, especially with its Philip Glass score, as a documentary—is greatly concerned, and deeply concerns us, with the case. While largely removing himself from the picture—there’s no mention of: Morris as a private investigator; the murder for which David Harris is in prison is a killing he committed on the day he was supposed to meet Morris for an interview; Adams’ release (almost certainly thanks in large part to Morris’ film)—he draws us in more and more. We’re investigating, watching the crime-scene re-creations (based on often conflicting eyewitness testimony), following police-procedure (or lack thereof), and examining not just suspects but tell-tale objects. These significant, perhaps even innocence- or guilt-determining objects are shown in close-up: a map of Dallas, a diagram of Officer Robert
Wood’s bullet-entry wounds, a drawing of the murder weapon, November and December 1976 newspaper articles about the case, a TV guide (related to Adams’ alibi), a police car’s flashing red light, a clock, crushed-out cigarettes in an ashtray, even a spilled milkshake. Because the little details of life suddenly matter: adding up to clues, suggesting ways to track down the killer, comprising evidence which, pieced together, make up a case . . . but are they also red herrings? A license plate turns out to be a false lead after it was wrongly recalled by the murdered officer’s partner, Teresa Turko, the woman who dropped that milkshake; it’s also never resolved, at least in Morris’ film, where she was—in the patrol car or out of it.
In a 2008 essay by Morris in The New York Times, online, elaborating on his film’s construction, he notes:
A crime-scene diagram prepared by investigating officers suggests that Turko was not being entirely truthful. The telling detail was the location of where the milkshake landed: 14 feet from the door of the police cruiser. [Its location suggests that Turko was sitting in the patrol car when her partner was shot, not positioned at the rear of the stopped vehicle, according to procedure.]
Why care about the milkshake? Why does the milkshake matter? Because we assemble our picture of reality from details. We don’t take in reality whole. Our ideas about reality come from bits and pieces of experience. We try to assemble them into something that has a consistent narrative.
. . . I also talked at length to Teresa Turko herself, but was never able to interview her on film. She had been consigned to a desk job, filing documents, and was not particularly anxious to revisit the past. The murder of her partner and the Internal Affairs investigation that followed had destroyed her career.
Turko—never explicitly named in the film—is first seen drinking “the malt” in the second re-creation of the crime-scene; in the third re-creation, when we’re told by a policeman the “speculation was” that she was in the car, not outside, backing up her partner, she’s sitting there and, when the shots are fired, she throws her milkshake out the window. It flies through a black void. Then the Burger King drink hits the ground, the lid
on the paper cup coming off, the liquid oozing and pooling out onto the roadside. Now the milkshake takes on a weight, an existential force—the thing becomes something more than a thing, standing in for where its drinker was or wasn’t. It also, emotionally, stands in for Turko herself—her guilt, her responsibility, her perspective (otherwise missing from the film). It’s a crucial fact, and factor, and force, in a narrative in flux—shifting a little, re-forming itself in our rearview mirror with each new witness testimony.
In Morris’ masterpiece, which sifts through pieces for a master-narrative—the truth—re-enactments gain weight and importance with every new detail and interview. Real-life documentation—maps, diagrams, Adam’s signed confession, newspaper reports, film listings (Adams and Harris went to a drive-in together), that TV guide—is much more serious and important than the reel-life documentary, for the words taken from Adams “can be used against you in a court of law”. As Morris has said:
I believe there is an objective truth. The Thin Blue Line is the perfect example of that. Someone shot the cop, it’s not up for grabs . . . Now, people may give varying accounts of [that murder] which are self-serving, are self-deceiving, are wrong. That’s part of who we are, and how narratives are constructed, and how people relay events and lie about events, but none of that means that there is no underlying truth or reality to be uncovered. . . . Pursuing the truth is trying to provide answers to difficult questions using evidence through interviews, forensic evidence, etc., etc. It’s a quest, it’s a pursuit, it’s an investigation, a mystery. . . . you should use any tool available to you to try to ferret it out, to try to get at it, to try to uncover it. . . . [Despite not qualifying for the Academy Awards because it was not classified as a non-fiction film,] it was a documentary, and indeed it was concerned with the truth. . . . It was a result of two and a half years of investigating, sometimes with a camera, sometimes without a camera, but investigating. Trying to answer questions. Trying to interview witnesses. Trying to get at the truth, which to me is what this is all about.
But can a truth-seeking film become possessive itself? Once freed, Adams objected to his life being objectified as a story, one of those constructed narratives. He got into a legal battle with Morris over the rights to his story; the director, for his part, remembers that “he became very angry at the fact that he had signed a release giving me rights to his life story. And he felt as though I had stolen something from him. Maybe I had, maybe I just don’t understand what it’s like to be in prison that long, for a crime you hadn’t committed. In a certain sense, the whole crazy deal with the release was fueled by my relationship with his attorney. And it’s a long, complicated story, but I guess when people are involved, there’s always a mess somewhere.” A mess of things; a mess of competing claims; a mess of details.
Documentaries, interviewing or investigating human subjects and no more objective than fiction-films (the only difference is documentaries’ closer relation to real-life events, i.e., things which actually happened), offer us the illusion of navigating, with the guide of a constructed narration tying together objects and evidence and interviews and arguments, mess (often called “life”). A mess of information and data and things and objects. And navigating all those objects so that we can rediscover simple human truths, or even just one—not who did it, but who did it.
Christine. Directed by John Carpenter, Columbia, 1983.
Clairmont, Susan. “‘I just kept on firing . . . It was pure rage.’” The Hamilton Spectator, 21 January 2011, https://www.thespec.com/news-story/2110676–i-just-kept-on-firing-it-was-pure-rage-/.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Columbia, 1977.
Decasia. Directed by Bill Morrison, Icarus, 2002.
Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. 1977. Directed by George Barry, Cult Epics, 2003.
Duel. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Universal, 1971.
Killdozer!. Directed by Jerry London, Universal, 1974.
The Lift. Directed by Dick Maas, Sigma, 1973.
Man with a Movie Camera. Directed by Dziga Vertov, VUFKU, 1929.
Maximum Overdrive. Directed by Stephen King, De Laurentiis, 1986.
Morris, Errol. “Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One).” Opinionator (New York Times Blog), 3 April 2008, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/03/ play-it-again-sam-re-enactments-part-one.
Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum est.” 1917-18. Poems, Chatto & Windus, 1920.
Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” 1962. Ariel, Faber and Faber, 1965.
Poltergeist. Directed by Tobe Hooper, MGM, 1982.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. J. B. Lippincott, 1966.
The Stuff. Directed by Larry Cohen, New World, 1985.
The Thin Blue Line. Directed by Errol Morris, Miramax, 1988.
The author, a professor of film studies, has written and published this blog post for educational, critical, and analytical purposes. All film stills are included only to bolster the post’s argument and to further its educational purpose.