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Down The Rabbit Hole After Rummy (or The Man Who Wasn't There): A Review of Errol Morris's Documentary, The Unknown Known

 

    Documentary director, Errol Morris has made a career out of exploring human self-delusion. His last film, the 2003 Oscar-winning, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara focused on the career of the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara during the Vietnam War. Lessons, yes, but no epiphanies. In that film, there is a point of ingress to the humanity of its subject. McNamara apologized on camera and seemed genuinely remorseful for the mistakes he made prosecuting the war in Vietnam. However, the movie was not without its moments of revealing frustration: we watch stunned as several glaring realizations deflected off of his rigid preconceptions and fly overhead just beyond his reach. The beauty of that was in how Errol Morris captured those moments on film.

    In The Unknown Known, Morris examines another former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who promulgated and presided over yet another military misadventure, the Iraqi War. Here the going is much darker than in the previous film, in spite of its bright digital graphics and high-key lighting. Ever the narcissist, Rumsfeld loves the spotlight - even if the light cast upon him is hard and unflattering. Here in The Unknown Known the light is indeed hard, yet it exposes even less of its subject than in The Fog of War. Why?

    It has everything to do with the subject and nothing about how Morris approaches it. Nothing penetrates the bullet-proof obtuseness of Rumsfeld. No lessons are learned and passed on. No onscreen epiphanies experienced. And certainly no apologies given. It’sdisturbing to watch Rumsfeld onscreen, not because of what’s on display, but because of what isn’t. The reveal comes from what isn’t revealed. He is glibly impervious to introspection, self-examination or regrets, let alone assuming any personal responsibility for the quagmire of Iraq or the torture of terrorist suspects. The picture that emerges of Rumsfeld is of a mass of oblique angles suggestive of a human being that never quite coalesces into one. His lies are layered over with a thin façade of evasions, rationalizations, denials and saccharine platitudes couched in Lewis Carroll-esque sophistry - cherry-picked from sources like Martin Rees by way of Carl Sagan (i.e. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”) and de-contextualized to suit the convenience of the moment (namely, to convince the American public that WMDs existed in Iraq). Rumsfeld is as intellectually bankrupt as he is emotionally barren. So, it should come as no surprise when, on closer examination, his grand philosophies disintegrate into pulp like an origami Münchausen exposed to a hail storm. And it should come as no surprise to discover that Rumsfeld couldn't care less, either. He's obviously too pleased with himself to notice that he's been publicly outed as a war criminal.

    In fact, nothing ​​seems to touch him in any deep, profound way, although he is quite adroit at using feigned, shallow displays of emotion to manipulate situations. Factual contradictions deflect off of him like BB pellets on an Abrams tank. All we are left with is the yellowed veneer of his weirdly jocular, often inappropriate Cheshire grin and the queasy feeling that he views human relationships as an amusing, but dissociative, game of strategy. He is a Machiavellian apparatchik par excellence where the false self is all you get because there isn't anything else vaguely genuine hiding behind it to reckon with. Errol Morris has been accused of being played as a patsy, of not penetrating past Rumsfeld’s defenses to get to his core. But what if there isn’t anything else to the man but a layer of defense mechanisms? This is the material Morris has to work with and he avoids confrontation, hectoring or rhetorically painting Rumsfeld into a corner for his (and our) gratification. That would be too easy, too ham-fisted. He allows his subjects to weave the webs in which they ensnare themselves. And those webs are spun out of words.

    Karl Kraus and George Orwell both explored how language is corrupted and manipulated to serve the abuse of power. Errol Morris is also a keen observer of this phenomenon in The Unknown Known. Rumsfeld’s endless fiddling with semantics in his oppressive deluge of memoranda (called “snowflakes”) to his colleagues is a reminder that sometimes the cruelest weapon an authoritarian can wield is not necessarily a well-placed lie, but rather the power to bore. (Although his lies ruined hundreds of thousands of lives, there were no reported avalanche casualties at the Pentagon.)

    All that the audience is left with is Rumsfeld’s presence - or an eerie lack thereof. And it sucks the oxygen right out of the room. Watching him, it becomes apparent there’s no creativity, passion, nuance or emotional complexity operating here, nothing compelling enough to draw us in and keep us riveted, because Rumsfeld - like his bosses, Dubya and Hair Trigger Dick Cheney - lacks the depth and humanity necessary to do so. Our attention spans bead up and roll over Rumsfeld’s superficiality like tears on Teflon-plated armor because there is no point of entry to see underneath the lies and stratagems. Rumsfeld would have been far more intriguing, even sympathetic, if he hid a history of emotional wounds that compelled him to be so callous and destructive. Instead, what lurks beneath his hermetically sealed, air-tight surface is a howling void shaped like a man. So, it’s left to composer Danny Elfman’s score to provide the soul and moral center of the film. Without it, the film would be more difficult viewing, a vast stretch of desert without water.

    In the final analysis, what Morris has captured on film is nothing less than a high-level sociopath working the room, the living embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil. But, unlike Eichmann, Rumsfeld will never know the clamminess of a prison cell or the bite of a hangman’s noose. Because of this, an argument could be made that the film is misclassified as a documentary when it should be filed under “Horror”.

    It's terrifying to know that a hollow man like this was the Secretary of Defense twice under two administrations. However, the most frightening fact of Rumsfeld’s career is the one least known to the public: that he was once a contender for Ronald Reagan’s vice presidential running mate and, ultimately, - like the man who took his place, George H.W. Bush - President of the United States. Luck  intervened. Or, as Rumsfeld himself might quip, "Stuff happens".

     

    © 2014 Curt Chiarelli

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DaVinci41
Curt C. Chiarelli
Artist
United States
Curt Chiarelli has been providing design, sculpture and illustration services for the motion picture/television, toy/collectible, video game, museum exhibit and publishing industries for 25 years. A native born and bred Chicagoan, Curt began his career early at the age of 20 when he was contracted to create storyboards for the McDonald’s Corporation.

At the age of 23 and barely after receiving his B.A. in Communication Arts from Columbia College, he became this country's youngest production designer when he was hired by HBO to art direct a comedy feature," Men Will Be Boys".

From that point forward he began to receive a steady stream of commissions until his first major career breakthrough occurred in 1991 when he created the stop-motion animation model of the character, Goro for the Williams Electronics international blockbuster hit video arcade game, "Mortal Kombat".

In 1994 he left his staff position in the Exhibit Design Department at the John G. Shedd Aquarium to accept an invitation from Skellington Productions to join their team in the creation of the stop-motion animation models and effects for the feature length motion picture, "James and the Giant Peach". Noticing that his employment prospects were much enhanced and the weather far more accommodating, he decided to remain in the balmy climes of California for the next 13 years.

Since then, he has worked on such high-profile commissions as the creation of the "Halo" action figure line, collaborated with famed fantasy illustrator, Boris Vallejo on his "Mistresses of Fantasy" collectible sculpture line, the advertising campaign poster for "The Age of Empires III: The War Chiefs", theatrical masks for a collaborative effort between Cirque du Soleil Productions and illusionist, Criss Angel titled, "Believe" and seen his work featured multiple times in the yearly anthology, "Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art".

His client list includes Microsoft Corporation/Bungie Studios, Miller Brewing Company, Capital One, Gemmy Corporation, Walt Disney Productions, Universal Studios, Steve Johnson's Edge FX, Michael Curry Design, Chiodo Bros. Productions, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, Cartoon Network, MTV, HBO, IMAX, Lucasfilm Licensing, Nickelodeon, Warner Bros. Toys, RC 2 Corporation/JoyRide Studios, Hasbro Toys, Mattel Toys, Kenner Toys, Moore Action Collectibles, McFarlane Toys, Playing Mantis Toys, Fisher-Price Toys, Dark Horse Comics, Diamond Comics Distribution, Conte Collectibles, Franklin Mint, Noble Collection, Ashton-Drake Galleries, Illusive Concepts, 3DO/Cyclone Studios, Electronic Arts, Accolade, the John G. Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum of Natural History and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, amongst many others.

Curt's scope of activity has recently expanded to include writing. He has written two books within the past three years: a short story collection of Lovecraftian satire ("Shoggoths & Shibboleths and Other Eldritch Tomfooleries") and a memoir of his life in the commercial art business ("Fiddling Whilst Rome Burns"). A third volume of critical essays ("On the Tumbril") and an art instructional book are currently being compiled and edited.

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:iconsean-dabbs-fx:
Sean-Dabbs-fx Featured By Owner Jun 3, 2013
Sheer joy looking through your portfolio here (though I am sure this is only a small fraction of it) there are so many artists that influence you in your life, directly and indirectly - and you sir have been a great influence on me - and for the most part I had never even realized, until now. Thank you :D
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:icondavinci41:
DaVinci41 Featured By Owner Jun 5, 2013
Hi Sean:

You're quite welcome! In a lot of cases my colleagues and I operate in complete anonymity, but when someone like you writes us messages like this they are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
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:iconsean-dabbs-fx:
Sean-Dabbs-fx Featured By Owner Jun 7, 2013
ha ha - yes I can imagine!

Do you get time to do any other sculpting/effects type work now-a-days? What are you working on at the moment?
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:icondavinci41:
DaVinci41 Featured By Owner Jun 8, 2013
It's mostly maquettes and collectibles nowadays when I sculpt. Animation Insider.com has just posted an interview with me. I've written three books in the past three years, one of which was just published as an e-book by Smashwords Editions and another one - an art instruction book for fantasy artists - in the works. And I've production designed an entertainment venue that I'm trying to get underwritten.
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:icondavinci41:
DaVinci41 Featured By Owner Apr 9, 2013
<script language=javascript type="text/javascript" src="[link]"> </script> <center>Powered by WebRing.</center> <noscript><center><table bgcolor=gray cellspacing=0 border=2><tr> <td><table cellpadding=2 cellspacing=0 border=0><tr><td align=center> <font face=arial size=-1>This site is a member of WebRing.
To browse visit Here.</font></td></tr></table></td></tr></table> </center></noscript>
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:iconsoulbrotha:
Soulbrotha Featured By Owner Mar 13, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Wow, your sculptures are absolutely amazing.
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:icondavinci41:
DaVinci41 Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2013
Thank you very much! Take care.
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:iconyellowbronco:
yellowbronco Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2012  Professional Interface Designer
great stuff, i love it
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