At this moment he was trying to recall the way she looked, with her hair of gold, that hung in two straight plaits on either side of her face, making three-cornered her round, white forehead; her wonderful eyes, violet blue, heavy lidded, with their astonishing upward slant towards the temples, the slant that gave an Oriental cast to her face, perplexing, enchanting. He remembered the Egyptian fullness of her lips. . . .
As was the fashion of the time, Norris repeats this excruciating description — nearly verbatim — thrice more in the novel's first 150 pages. To complete this 652-page slog of one's own volition and enjoy it (I did neither) bespeaks of Morris's Job-like patience, his deep appreciation for the utterly alien, and, possibly, latent obsessive tendencies.
Unlike the novels of Frank Norris, Morris's films are highly entertaining, self-aware, and well-edited. But he shares Norris's desire to portray the world as it is. His films seek truth, whether that truth is the real killer or the similarities between humans, robots, and rodents. And he is, in his way, like Norris and other naturalists — such as Dreiser, Lewis, and Upton Sinclair — part realist storyteller, , part investigative muckraker, part social scientist; twining his interests in individual characters and social institutions, whether the subject is the defense department, the criminal justice system, or tabloid journalism.
These days, Morris pursues the truth in more than one medium. Since 2007, after decades of writer's block, he's been writing a series of blog posts for the New York Times. Some are collected in his forthcoming book of essays, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mystery of Photography, due out in September. The Ashtray — a book about the time the philosopher Thomas Kuhn threw an ashtray at Morris's head — as well as a book about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer are to be published next year.
"When I was asked to write for the Times, I didn't think I could write for the Times. I didn't think I was able to write for anybody," he says. "I started writing long-form essays all of a sudden. 'Cannonballs' [an essay about the circumstances around Roger Fenton taking his famous Crimean War photograph, Valley of the Shadow of Death] was the first really long essay, which was 20,000 words plus."
>> READ: "Review: Tabloid" by Peter Keough <<
Morris lets slip that he does much of his writing in the quiet grandeur of the Loeb Music Library at Harvard, though he regrets mentioning it: he's afraid others might get the same idea. It's clear he's thrilled to have become a prolific writer at the age of 63. Why now?
Well, the New York Times called, that's why. "It might be just as simple as that," Morris says. "Somebody asks you to do something, and maybe the time is right."
Whatever their inspiration, his writings have opened a vein. "It has really liberated me in many ways," he says.
"Now I'm writing movie scripts, and I feel like I'm coming alive as a filmmaker. I'm doing a number of dramatic features as well as continuing documentaries. Sometimes I think it's the beginning of my career."
Though he can't announce the details, Morris tells me the first scripted feature he's set to direct is based on a story from This American Life, to be produced by Ira Glass.