Thursday, April 30, 2020
A class of Virginia Commonwealth University senior English majors spent the spring semester studying the films of Academy Award-winning director Errol Morris. Then they got a chance to talk with Morris himself in a 90-minute Zoom discussion.
“It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said student Ashley Harden. “How often do you get to experience the art and then meet the artist? We had spent the whole semester kind of getting to know this guy, Errol Morris, and then to actually speak with him and see him as a real person was an experience I can't quite put to words.”
The course, “Errol Morris: A Senior Seminar,” explored the filmography of Morris, director of acclaimed documentary “The Thin Blue Line” (1988), the Oscar-winning “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003) and numerous other films. It was taught by Gardner Campbell, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
Campbell has been a fan since he saw the filmmaker’s feature debut, “Gates of Heaven,” in 1980 as a graduate student at the University of Virginia. “Clearly a major talent had arrived, and one whose work was unlike any I’d seen before,” Campbell said. “I’ve been studying Errol Morris’ work ever since.”
In 1997, Campbell was on the faculty of the University of Mary Washington. The school’s alumni association asked him for a recommendation of who should be Mary Washington’s next Distinguished Visitor in Residence.
“Without hesitating for a second, I said ‘Errol Morris.’ By that time Morris had completed four feature-length documentaries but was still largely unknown,” Campbell said. “The one film folks at Mary Washington had heard of, though few had seen it, was ‘The Thin Blue Line.’ But they took my recommendation, bless them, and invited Morris to be the Distinguished Visitor in Residence.”
Campbell was put in charge of organizing an event around Morris’ visit, including a festival showcasing his films and a preview of the film “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.” Morris taught five classes during his visit, teaching film, journalism, political science, physics and communication.
Campbell and Morris kept in touch over the years after his visit to Mary Washington. And Campbell has always taught Morris’ work in his film courses.
We had spent the whole semester kind of getting to know this guy, Errol Morris, and then to actually speak with him and see him as a real person was an experience I can't quite put to words.
When it came time to propose classes for the 2019-20 academic year, Campbell was asked if he would like to teach a senior seminar.
“I immediately proposed the idea of a seminar on Errol Morris,” he said. “And so it was that in the spring of 2020, I found myself in a dream come true: an entire semester devoted to detailed, in-depth exploration of the work of Errol Morris, from ‘Gates of Heaven’ to ‘American Dharma,’ including his hybrid literary-artistic-philosophical book ‘The Ashtray.’”
Campbell reached out to Morris and asked if he would like to speak with the students in the course.
“I had cherished a hope that Errol himself might make an appearance in the seminar,” Campbell said. “Then that dream came true when I wrote Errol and he replied, simply, ‘Yes. I’D LOVE TO.’”
Campbell had planned from the outset to invite Morris to speak with the class, but wanted to wait until students had a chance to progress in their studies of his work. When all VCU classes went remote, that meant the conversation would be via Zoom. Morris spoke with the students from his office at Fourth Floor Productions in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“The students were understandably nervous at first. How often does the subject of your seminar actually appear in your seminar?” Campbell said. “By April, they’d all begun serious work on their research papers. They were all intimately familiar with Morris’ work, as we were just about to begin a series of seminar presentations. I think the students had so much to ask Errol that they hardly knew where to begin. But Errol is such a genial presence, candid and funny and generous, that the conversation took off.”
The students asked a wide range of thoughtful questions about production history, Morris’ artistic process and more.
VCU English student Jackie Petras hadn’t heard of Morris before taking the class, but ended up falling in love with his work.
“Being able to discover and study such an incredible director was an irreplaceable experience, but spending an hour talking with Errol Morris himself was something I will never forget,” Petras said. “He was just as wonderful as I thought and was so engaged with what our class had to say. It was honestly the best way to close out my senior year.”
Harden said the seminar was a great experience and “illuminating.”
“I personally had a great experience in this sort of class and I hope the university continues to encourage these sorts of interesting seminar topics in the future,” Harden said. “As an English major myself, I had reservations at the beginning of the semester, taking a film-focused seminar, but I really think I got something special out of it that I might not have gotten with a typical literature seminar. It was awesome.”
Campbell said he is “grateful to the English department for the opportunity to teach the course, deeply grateful to my students who’ve done such thoughtful and smart work over the semester, and of course extraordinarily grateful to Errol for his astonishing work and for his generous time spent with my students.”
“Most of all, 40 years after I first saw his work, and 23 years after I first met him, I continue to be in awe of the scope, variety, intensity and sheer invention of Morris’ work,” Campbell said. “He’s truly a genius. And this class has been a blast.”
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