In each film, Morris displays his genius for allowing people to reveal themselves in haunting and muddy complexity. Something as seemingly kooky as watching a family-run pet-burial business turns into a profound meditation on the human search for meaning. Morris manages to take people's banalities, pedantries, and prejudices, and turn them into art. And he does so with a master's touch: Just at the very moment I think I might be bored I find, to my surprise, that I'm actually utterly fascinated.
In this way, Morris can get away with projects that most of us would simply censor ourselves from undertaking. Who else can go to a dusty road in the Ukraine to retrace an impossible-to-solve mystery about the placement of cannonballs during a harrowing but largely forgotten episode of the Crimean War, and then write a 66-page essay about it? I admit to having forgotten that there even was a Crimean War, but soon I was at the edge of my seat, wondering whether or not the photographer Roger Fenton, one of the world's first correspondents to document war with a camera, moved cannonballs onto the dusty road, or removed them from it. Would Morris, 160-odd years later, figure it out? In this book, Morris the filmmaker transforms himself into Morris the self-documenting-essayist par excellence. He turns the cameras (and the pen) on his own exploits with the same precise scrutiny and baffled wonder he's brought to his other subjects. Morris doesn't find his pursuit of possibly-moved cannonballs any more or less strange than someone else's pursuit of canine cremation, and this open ability simply to look hard is a huge part of his charm.
True to form, Morris is pedantic-but-fascinating in the Ukraine. The chapter, like those that follow, is shot through with images, graphs, and painstakingly transcribed conversations. The essay about the Ukraine goes as far as mapping and graphing the sun's arc on the day of the battle in question. Yet all this cannonball sleuthing is a clever way of elaborating his central question: What is a document? Who makes it? What message does it contain? What politics does it imply? How is it read? What truth does it transmit?