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Conspiracy or chaos: Two ways of seeing history from Errol Morris

‘Who knows who’s pulling the strings, or if any strings are being pulled by anybody?’

The way filmmaker Errol Morris sees it, all narrators are unreliable and history is chaos. Above, Morris arrives for the premiere of his 2018 project “American Dharma.”
The way filmmaker Errol Morris sees it, all narrators are unreliable and history is chaos. Above, Morris arrives for the premiere of his 2018 project “American Dharma.” (Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images)

Errol Morris spent his career as a documentary filmmaker telling unusual stories — about the rhythms of a small town in Florida; or Stephen Hawking’s theories of the big bang; or even how defense secretaries Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld view their roles in political history.

His latest movie, “My Psychedelic Love Story,” is about Joanna Harcourt Smith, the onetime lover of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychology professor who became an advocate of the use of psychedelic drugs. Leary was one of the key figures of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, earning him a spot as Public Enemy No. 1 in President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs.

Smith was a young European jetsetter who hooked up with Leary when he was on the run after escaping prison, and later she became a fierce defender of him when he was captured and sent back. After Leary did an about-face on the use of drugs to avoid more-severe punishment from federal authorities, Smith was a focus of ire from many of Leary’s old pals, who openly posited she was a federal mole sent to set him up.

“My Psychedelic Love Story” allows her to openly question her own role in those events; whether she was a free actor or a pawn of government forces; and much much more. Morris recently joined CQ Roll Call’s Political Theater podcast to talk about it. An edited transcript: 

Q: It’s hard to describe how bizarre a story this is. How do you think it fits into what we’re going through right now?

A: People don’t even know how this current story is going to end. We’re still going through it. If anything, it’s an ongoing nightmare. People may view history as a series of conspiracies. I don’t quite see it that way. I see history as chaotic. Who really knows what’s going on? Who knows who’s pulling the strings, or if any strings are being pulled by anybody? The story is powerful. It’s certainly a story for our time. Absolutely, because Joanna is asking a fundamental question. It’s at the very beginning of the film. She’s asking: “Am I a free actor, or was I just a tool being used by various governmental organizations?”

Q: She is as fascinating as they come. You’ve specialized in unreliable narrators. How does she rate?

A: We’re all unreliable narrators. Show me a person telling a story and I’ll show you an unreliable narrator. I suppose the question is not, “Is she an unreliable narrator,” but “How much of an unreliable narrator is she?” There are elements to the story that I still, of course, wonder about. I contacted the FBI and the CIA and asked them basically what they had in their files. I got the classic nonsense reply: “We can neither confirm nor deny that we have anything.”

Q: I think at one point you said this sounds like something out of a Greek tragedy?

A: I think it’s an extraordinary, tangled, first-person story. Years ago, I did this series called “First Person.” I realized that there was a different kind of storytelling that I could do, and I thought of it as first-person narratives. I felt that the best way to get inside of somebody, to investigate a person, as opposed to an event, was to do only one interview. I would even risk saying it was a philosophical choice because it was a way of telling an internal story, a story about how a person sees themselves.

Q: Do you see parallels in the idea of an unreliable narrator to our modern politics?

A: I wrote an editorial for the Boston Globe just before Election Day about Donald Trump. The issue isn’t whether he’s lying. Of course, he’s lying. To me the issue is not him lying, the issue is whether he believes his own lies. Does he really think that he’s telling the truth? My guess is yes. That’s even more frightening. I bet he believes he won the election. I bet he believes he didn’t do anything wrong. I bet he sees himself as an American hero.

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