13 June 2011

Be Careful Whom You Have Coffee With

From Leon Neyfakh’s profile of documentary filmmaker and blogger Errol Morris in the Boston Globe:

Morris fought with the head of his [graduate school] program, Thomas Kuhn, a decorated philosopher specializing in the history of science at Princeton. Kuhn believed it was fundamentally impossible for someone in the present to understand the past — that what was considered “true” in one era might be thought false in another, and therefore “objective reality” as such could not be said to exist.

Young Errol Morris was horrified by this view, and was not particularly shy about making Kuhn aware of it. Things came to a breaking point in 1972 when, during a particularly heated conversation, Kuhn threw a heavy glass ashtray at Morris’s head. He missed, but drove his point home by having Morris ejected from the program.

“I felt that he had destroyed my life,” said Morris. It left him reeling for years to come: He still remembers sitting in a coffee shop at Berkeley with Daniel Friedan, a fellow Princeton exile and the son of feminist icon Betty, and commiserating over the frustrating time they’d had out East.

“I’m talking about all these problems that I had with Kuhn, which was a constant refrain, and he’s telling me about all the problems he’d had in the physics department,” Morris recalls. “He said, you know, ‘They just could not appreciate me. I had discovered a new kind of physics!’ And I thought, ‘Oh, no. This looks bad. This looks very, very, very bad. This is not going to turn out well. We’re both going to the nuthouse.’”

Of course, they didn’t. Friedan would go on to win a Macarthur Fellowship, and be recognized for his pioneering work on string theory. Morris, meanwhile, left academia behind once and for all to make a movie about a pet cemetery. . .


LC Douglass said...

Thanks for an enlightening story. Nice post.

david elzey said...

interesting follow-up confrontation not mentioned in that profile: morris' entry into film came about as part of a bet he made with werner herzog in that same berkeley cafe a few years later. morris told herzog about his idea for a film and the feisty german director said "if you can get that film made i will eat my shoe."

and morris made "gates of heaven" and herzog honored his bet, filmed by another documentarian les blank in "werner herzog eats his shoe," which was lovingly cooked by foodie alice waters.

i don't want to overplay morris' importance, though i wonder if this documentary experience is what sent herzog in that parallel direction alongside his more conventional dramas.

berkeley was some kind of hothouse back then...