Friday, June 25, 2010

Reenactments in The Thin Blue Line: Valid Illustration or Ethical Violation?

The Thin Blue Line is a 1988 feature-length documentary written and directed by Errol Morris. The film is a cinematic investigation into the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer named Robert Wood. David Harris, a sixteen-year-old runaway at the time, testified that Randall Adams, a drifter with Harris the night of the murder, was the man that killed Officer Wood. The film’s title is a colloquial term referring to the thin line of police officers that keep civilization from descending into chaos (as referenced by Judge Don Metcalfe within the film). The film goes on to show how misinformation, bad timing, ulterior motives, and outright lies led to the conviction of a man who did not commit the crime he was accused of. The Thin Blue Line uses reenactments of the murder from the multiple perspectives of Adams, Harris, Officer Wood’s partner Teresa Turko and other eyewitness testimony to allow the audience to better understand the case and separate the facts from the fancy.

According to the IMDb, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rejected the film from Best Documentary consideration in 1989 on the grounds that the reenactments made The Thin Blue Line a fiction film and not a documentary. However, the film’s use of reenactments does not make it a fiction film and does not invalidate the facts of the murder case because the reenactments are filmed in such an overtly cinematic style that the audience becomes aware of them.

The reenactments don’t carry the usual “Dramatization” caption found in most television documentaries or news pieces. As a result, the viewer is forced to evaluate what is heard and said without help, according to Film Art by David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson. Morris’ techniques for signaling and recreating the crime scene involve signature troupes of stylized Film-Noir cinematography, most notably low-key lighting and silhouetted framing of the individual players.

The reenactments use low-key lighting, which immediately sets them apart from the high-key lit interviews. Low-key lighting creates a higher contrast-ratio between the highlights and the shadows, according to The Filmmaker’s Handbook by Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus. A key example of this technique is in the shot that focuses on Officer Wood’s shadow in the headlights of the cop car as he approaches the other vehicle. The shadow creeps into the frame from the top down and the shadow is totally black; No detail, not texture of the concrete road or anything else, can be seen. The deep-black shadow is often used in Film-Noirs to foreshadow incoming danger, in this case, Officer Wood’s death.

The silhouetted framing of individual players within the reenactments corroborate with the limited knowledge of the person telling his or her version of the story. The murderer is never explicitly shown with the camera – a key visual strategy in the film. As different eyewitness accounts of the murder are visualized, the silhouette of the murderer changes to match the different perspectives. When Officer Teresa Turko, Wood’s partner, testifies in court that she saw Adams commit the murder, the silhouette of the murderer has bushy hair. After reading Officer Turko’s original statement, the murderer’s silhouette does not. The film also suggests that she was influenced or pressured to change her testimony by internal affairs to point the finger at Adams. “They refreshed her memory,” replied Adams sarcastically.

The reenactments are filmed in a style more akin to fiction as a way of suggesting that the eyewitnesses’ testimony is not the whole truth but merely their version of the truth. However when interviewing the people involved with the case, Morris uses more conventional and subdued cinematic techniques.

The interviews with all the people involved in the case are filmed with the following standard interview techniques: The “talking head” compositions, three-point lighting, and character-defining backgrounds.

The “talking head” composition consists of the camera focusing on a person’s face or upper half of the body as they talk. Sometimes the person being interviewed looks right into the camera, as in news reports, or slightly off camera to where the interviewer is usually sitting. We never do see Morris in the film but hear him once at the very end of the film (more on that later). Some of the characters in the film look off camera, such as Adams and Harris, while the other characters look directly into the camera, such as Detective Gus Rose and Adams’ lawyer Edith James. In fact, Adams looks off camera left while Harris looks off camera right. Whether this was intended by Morris or not is unknown, but the difference subconsciously tells the viewer that only one of these people is telling the truth.

Three-point lighting is a standard lighting technique for documentary and fiction film alike, according to The Filmmaker’s Handbook. The key light is the main light source that illuminates the interviewee and casts a shadow. The fill light “fills in” the shadows created by the key light on the interviewee’s face. The backlight or “kicker” is the light placed behind the interviewee and creates an edge of light on the person’s back. The backlight is usually on opposite side of the key light. A fourth light, called the background or “set” light, illuminates the background. The three-point lighting is adjusted for each interviewee. As mentioned earlier, the interviews are lit in high-key, meaning that the shadows have detail and the contrast ratio between the highlights and the shadows is very small.

Morris uses the backgrounds of some of the interviews to further illustrate the character of the person speaking. Usually the backgrounds are very simple: A map of Vidor, Texas behind the head of a Detective Rose or the office bookshelves behind Dennis White, Adams’ other lawyer. Morris uses a bluish background for some of the detectives like Marshall Touchton or Jackie Johnson to signify them as members of the police force (“The Thin Blue Line”). However, Morris does something very revealing with the backgrounds of the two main players, Adams and Harris.

In the Adams interview, the background is almost totally black. One can barely make out the metal fence behind him, but that is all. The dark background is mysterious and foreboding. As a result, the future of Adams seems to be quite bleak. The audience, having developed sympathy for Adams, fears for him. The background of the Harris interview is quite different. His background is a wall of tiles with one side lit by a bluish light and the other by a reddish light. This juxtaposition of colors – red and blue, hot and cold – suggests a great deal about his personality. As the audience learns while watching the film, Harris can go from being a polite and cordial to violent and destructive in a flash. Note the two extremes: Polite and violent, hot and cold. The color scheme of the Adams’ interview background subtly but effectively comments on this duality.

“I wanted to make a film about how truth was difficult to know," said director Errol Morris. The ultimate irony is that a film about how difficult it is to discover the truth turns out to reveal a very concrete one: Randall Adams did not murder Officer Wood. Toward the end the film, Morris interviews Harris with a tape recorder and Harris says that Adams is innocent of crime because "I'm the only one who knows". As a result, Adams was acquitted of the murder of Officer Robert Wood and released in March 1989. Harris was eventually put to death by lethal injection for an unrelated crime.

As an added irony, Adams sued the director, Errol Morris, for the rights to any book or commercial film about his life. According to an article in The New York Times, the case was settled in early August 1989. In a Wisconsin Public Radio interview in 2004, Morris responded to the suit, “…my wife summed it up very succinctly. ‘Just because he’s a victim doesn’t mean he isn’t an asshole.’”

*Ascher, Steven and Pincus, Edward, The Filmmaker’s Handbook - 2008 Edition, Plume, 2007
*Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristen, Film Art - 7th Edition, McGraw-Hill, New York, 2004
*“A Conversation with Errol Morris,” Wisconsin Public Radio, July 2, 2004
*“Freed Inmate Settles Suit With Producer Over Rights to Story,” The New York Times, August 6, 1989
*IMDb Trivia page of The Thin Blue Line,, Access Date: December 6th, 2009

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