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Errol Morris is not apophenia
by Paige Panter `

I have uncovered a dialogue between Errol Morris, Stephen Prince, Andre Bazin, Temple Grandin and my classmates. It is about language and pictures, and so inevitably is also about human living and human death, and more specifically, the ways we represent them—both to ourselves and to others. Some of the statements circulating, and questions that are frequently returned to in the discussion:

Humans use signs to represent the meaning of their experiences and thereby accumulate knowledge. These signs can be pictorial or linguistic.

Are humans more inherently inclined to pictorial literacy or verbal literacy?

How much of this production of meaning loses its value if we think of it as framed by cultural construction? Does the ability of some signs to span cultures argue for the existence of transcendent meaning?

It turns out that cinema is an excellent medium in which to explore these ideas.  And more specifically, Stairway to Heaven, Errol Morris’s made for TV documentary about Temple Grandin is the ideal place to explore these questions. Temple Grandin, and maybe Morris as well, would argue that pictures are language, or at least the way we edit pictures together in our heads constitutes language. “I think in pictures,” Grandin says in the film’s first line. “Pictures is my first language, and, you know, English is my second language.”

Stairway to Heaven is a monologue. It is part of First Person, a TV series of 30-minute shorts in which Morris explores the capabilities of the Interrotron. Grandin (with some assistance from Morris’s incisive, immaculate questioning and editing) tells the story of her mission to make livestock-handling facilities (that is, slaughterhouses) more humane for cattle. Stairway to Heaven is ultimately a story of the things humans do in order to reconcile those big ideas that are hardest to grapple with; for Grandin, these are questions of mortality.

When Grandin was in college at Arizona State University she became fascinated with the Swift livestock handling plant nearby. Eventually she got to take a tour of the facility and began designing more tolerable systems for handling cattle in the plant. The name of that first system she designed was Stairway to Heaven. Its curved chutes and alleys utilize the natural circling and herd behavior of cattle; in Grandin's design, the cattle are soothed by the familiar feeling of following their “buddy” up the stairway. One-third of U.S. livestock are handled in slaughterhouses Grandin has designed.


The major component of Grandin’s story in Stairway to Heaven is her experience with autism; as an autistic individual, Grandin has access to a unique way of thinking and viewing the world. People with autism are often intensely visual thinkers. As Grandin says, when someone says something to her, she translates it into a video in her head before she can respond to it. Her ability to see the world the way a cow sees it—in pictures—allows her to visualize herself in the plant as a cow and so understand why cattle were panicked by certain elements. In a TED lecture, Grandin explains why this makes it natural for her to empathize with animals.


Recall Stephen Prince’s ideas about “pictorial identification skills” in his essay “The Discourse of Pictures” (Braudy 102).  In his discussion of iconicity (which has to do with conceived similarity or closeness between a sign and its meaning), he differentiates between pictorial signs that are realistic and symbolic. For example, while a picture of a tree is recognizably a tree because it so resembles it, we understand a picture of a red octagon to mean stop because we have culturally learned what it represents.

Prince’s essay is about understanding how humans comprehend images. His argument is a kind of backlash against poststructuralist ideas that all signs suffer from a severe disconnect with their intended meaning. He contends that there is a degree of “inherent human ability to perceive pictures” and that not all meaning is culturally constructed (97). He points to the example of a “seminomadic, nonliterate, pastoral tribe in Kenya” (100). Researchers showed adult villagers "two videotapes of a culturally familiar story. One version was unedited, the other featured 14 cuts with frequent alterations of close-ups, medium shots, long shots, and zooms. No significant differences in ability to recall story information were found between respondents who viewed the edited and unedited versions. Fragmentation of the visual scene through point-of-view editing did not hinder comprehension […]" (100).

The idea that the meaning of certain signs persists cross-culturally argues for the existence of transcendent human understanding. Prince further reinforces this idea with studies that engage image processing by children. Two researchers who were particularly devoted to their field conducted an experiment with (on?) their child in which they prevented the child from ever seeing pictures before he turned 19 months.

"The child learned his vocabulary solely through the use of objects and received no training regarding pictorial meaning or content. He was nevertheless able to recognize, when tested with a series of 21 two-dimensional line drawings and photographs, the series of pictured objects (people and things familiar in his environment). The researchers concluded that the results indicate the existence of innate picture perception abilities and that, if there are allegations of cultures or viewers lacking these, it cannot be a matter of not yet having learned the language of pictures" (97).

Prince also argues that the fact that many animals similarly exhibit this ability to perceive pictures and respond to them argues for some inherent picture-processing function—something Grandin has already identified for us with her special relationship to cattle.

Without ever addressing autism, Prince brings Grandin into this discussion. Prince says that the difference between learning language and “pictorial identification skills” is that the former develops from “an extended period of exposure to signification and consequent learning” (102). In other words, humans are largely born with the capacity for pictorial identification, whereas learning words to assign to those pictures requires being around other humans who do so. This is the same thought behind the idea that autistic individuals often develop verbal skills much later than other children; adults on the extreme end of the spectrum may never use verbal communication. We can think about this “extended period of exposure to signification and consequent learning” as meaning the same things as socialization, an area that Grandin describes as highly problematic for the autistic individual. For the same reasons the autistic individual is adverse to socialization, he or she has difficulty with symbols that require social and cultural situation to derive meaning. However much she relies on pictures to process and synthesize information about herself and her world, symbolic images will always be problematic for Grandin. Symbols—pictures “which have a more arbitrary relationship to what they represent”—do little for Grandin’s epistemic process. In fact, they can be quite confusing.


Morris's editing in this clip suggests that he has at the forefront of his mind applying the affordances of video to emulate the way Grandin sees the world. Immediately preceding this montage was Grandin’s discussion of her fascination with optical illusions. Then the screen goes black—we enter Grandin’s mind’s eye—and the images come up. Each is a close up of a single object that is a part of a larger piece of art. A big sun fades into view, cuts to a moon, cuts to two hands in a greeting embrace, cuts to an ark afloat. As the imagery becomes recognizably religious, and Christian, the shot cuts back to Grandin in monologue and she begins to talk about the Lord’s Prayer and its difficult overflowing of abstractions. Morris is particularly fascinated with how someone who cannot speak in abstractions deals in matters of faith. The documentary will go on to explore the ways Grandin's autism affects her religious beliefs, especially in terms of the afterlife .

Grandin explains an instance in which she used her very literal way of processing things to get a grasp of something abstract. She recounts that to get adjusted to the idea of leaving high school and going on to college, she would practice walking through a door that led out onto the roof. Within this literal act, she could meaningfully symbolize “going on to the next step”. As she talks about repeatedly walking through that door, the shot of Grandin’s face talking to the Interrotron cuts to footage from Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Simultaneous with Grandin’s words “going through the door” is a close up shot of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes as they close. The Spellbound footage continues:


From Bergman’s shutting eyes, Hitchcock fades into an ominous image of a door opening upon another door opening upon another door opening upon another door which opens into bright light—it is a scene cited for Hitchcock’s overbearing Freudian symbolism. The film is about psychoanalysis and unlocking repressed memories. When Bergman’s (Dr. Peterson's in the film) eyes close, it is to receive a kiss from the patient/doctor (Dr. Edwards/Ballantyne) whose memories they are trying to uncover. The doors opening are a kind of symbol of the sexual love between them that allows him to trust her, and so allows him to open for her doors into his dormant memories. There are two major memories Ballantyne is repressing, and both are of horrific deaths he witnesses. Morris’s choice of Spellbound makes sense because of its dealings with fear of death, but these Freudian underpinnings are what Morris craftily uses to contextualize other parts of the film.


As the last Spellbound door opens into blinding light, Morris cuts to an image of some kind of exploding light and then to back to a medium shot of Grandin at the Interrotron; perhaps the second image of light, exploding into darkness suggests Grandin's door-opening-into-light-moment will be harder to come by than Ballantyne's. She begins to talk about the difficulty in adhering to Christian ideas about the afterlife when you are a logical person who explains everything in terms of science. Grandin says that she had origninally founded her belief in heaven from stories of near-death experiences in which individuals see the light at the end of the tunnel. But as she investigated further, it turns out all these individual’s causes of death were related to loss of oxygen. Disbelief set in: “I would tend to believe it a lot better if somebody got the occipital cortex completely destroyed”—screen goes black—“the whole back of the head blown off, then I’d believe it,” Grandin says in her unique deadpan. The death she describes sounds a little bit like death by the same bolt stun gun used to kill cattle in Grandin’s livestock facilities—think No Country for Old Men.


The screen goes black again. From this vantage point, we can begin to see that all the documentary’s subsequent footage and all the footage leading up to it has to do with Grandin’s coming to terms with death—and it all revolves around her design that facillitates the cattle's death, the Stairway to Heaven.

A few scenes prior, Morris gives us an image of what Grandin’s heaven might look like. It comes after the film’s most deeply intimate scene. Grandin tells the story of how she came to understand her close connection with and similarity to cattle. Visiting her aunt’s ranch, she saw cattle being put in a “squeeze chute” when they received innoculations because the contraption calmed their nerves. As Grandin observed the cow soothed by the chute’s application of equal pressure to all sides, she wondered what kind of effect it might have on her. At the time, she was in her teens, years that were characterized by what she says felt like “constant stage fright”. Anxiety is common to autistic individuals, Grandin explains. She describes the fierce oversensitivity to light, sound and touch that is characteristic of autism. Morris simulates anxiety for the viewer by bouncing between shots of Grandin’s face at different angles and closenesses as she describes: “a dentist drill going through my head”-CUT-“like a jackhammer in my ear”-CUT-“scratchy petticoats like sandpaper rubbing off raw nerve endings”-CUT-and then a close up on the pin ball machine that Grandin says best describes the “overwhelming tidal wave of stimulation” while Caleb Sampson’s score beats around silver metal balls in a too-small space like a Carol of the Bells meets electronica meets Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

And so the image of the cow held tight in the chute a few shots later seems especially peaceful; the film captures in slow motion as the cow ruffles her ears and sleepily blinks an eye on a large graceful head. Grandin was able to talk her aunt into putting her in the squeeze shoot. She describes the experience as a calmness like she had never felt, and so Grandin set out to build her own squeeze machine. Today, Grandin has an industry that markets this "hug machine" to autistic individuals. In the next scene we see Grandin using the contraption . The scene is a bizarre crossbreed between science experiment and personal intimacy. Though Grandin argues for the former by framing it within her review of “scientific literature” and discussion about “more humane restraint devices”; as she describes the science behind the experience of the cow and why she feels what she feels when the pressure comes over her, Morris is shooting an almost voyeuristic bedroom scene of autoeroticism as Grandin enters the “squeeze machine”. The screen goes black. Sampson’s score begins in the still darkness:


And we are invited into the feeling of the moment. Fade in on a home’s second story, a slightly low, tilted angle shows us white window frames on grey house on blue sky; the camera pans in on one of the windows and continues to tilt like a head slowly-cocking in curiosity: we are inculpated by Morris, reeled in like regular peeping Toms. Cut—now we’re in the house, but not quite in the room. The camera, still at a sneaky tilt lets us peek into the room, but the door we’re hiding around is in focus and Grandin’s slow motion motions around the room preparing the “Big Squeeze” are blurred. The contraption sits on the floor behind a bed. A ceiling fan turns. The blinds of the windows we a moment ago tried to see in through are shut. Grandin gets on her knees. She enters the machine. Cut to an overhead shot of Grandin in the contraption. Cut. Cut. Now we’re under her face, watching as her two fingers take lightly the red knobbed lever. Cut. Close up on just the fingers in action with the shiny red knob in focus. Using just the pads of her fingertips she push-pulls it in a steady pulse. In a series of cuts, we see and hear a rope and pulley system alternatingly tightening and loosening so that the two massive padded brown leather panels tighten around Grandin’s body. After a few seconds of silence, Grandin’s narration resumes, but she is not talking about the cow in the chute any more. Morris has edited her words (?) so that without transition, Grandin is now describing her own squeeze experience and the feelings that “wash over” her. Her voice is just the slightest bit huskier as she almost grows more peaceful in the interview just thinking about how “any bad thoughts in my head, it just gets rid of ‘em.” The score cuts out so we just hear the air pressure shifting in the contraption and then Grandin’s voice, “You have to feel that nice feeling of being held in order to have nice, kind thoughts,” as the camera has cut from the overhead shot to  a shot of Grandin’s face held by the device. We hear the final squeeze subside, and Grandin’s eye is the entranced, totally relaxed eye of ...the cow in the chute. If Morris is indeed conflating this time in the squeeze machine with an autoerotic moment, the scene that appropriately follows is a post-climactic death—after her autoerotic moment, Grandin goes to her fantasy heaven, where the cows go after their own ride up the "stairway".



Now the screen goes black and then cuts to what must be the place at the end of the stairway, the place that follows the peak experience (Grandin's squeeze, the cow's ride up the "stairway"). In an ethereal corral in a pitch-black night, several shiny-haired cows stand around, glowing from an out-of-frame but sun-bright light source. Everything is slow motion. Grandin walks into the frame, dressed in an all white lab coat that reaches down to her muck boots. Sampson’s score is a slowly sauntering electronica dreamy haze. We are in a final resting place—the infinity at the end of the stairway that follows the culminating destination of the peak experience, Grandin’s petit mort to the cow’s actual death by bolt gun.


As the angelic Grandin wanders among the cows, her monologue continues, explaining how once she had ambivalent feelings toward the squeeze machine when school authorities and psychologists in high school told her it was abnormal and wanted to take it away. Cut back to the close up on her two fingers manipulating the lever; Grandin continues, “They just made up all this kind of Freudian nonsense … and I wouldn’t give it up.” The parallels between sexuality and death and visualization as a means for understanding things our minds can’t otherwise process makes Morris’s use of Spellbound poignant.

Morris aligns Grandin’s squeeze machine experience that borders on autoeroticism with the cow’s ascent up the Swift plant’s Stairway to Heaven, and Grandin’s post-climactic death with the cow’s slaughter. He bolsters this theme elsewhere in the short with religious imagery. For Grandin, the Swift plant was both church and a passageway to heaven. She describes driving around it like it was “Vatican City”, and Morris plays footage of St. Peter's while she describes seeing the outside of the Swift plant. As Grandin says, “I wanted to find out what happened when you die. Regular religion was way too abstract. It was just meaningless. But the slaughterhouse was real,” the camera pans to the right, across the top of St. Peter’s, saint by saint, and then cuts to the faces of cattle at the same close-up distance while maintaining the panning movement so that the cows are aligned with the heavenly host.


We next see Grandin driving, seemingly on her way to the Swift plant, singing a country tune that I think is Hoyt Axton: “I’m goin’ to heaven in a flash of fire, with or without you.”  The scene so captures Grandin's unique personality and the song fits so perfectly that I do not believe Morris asked her to sing along to it to emphasize the conflation of their destination (the Swift plant) with heaven, though it may be rare to hear the song today. When they arrive at the Swift plant/heaven, the SUV stops outside and the camera focuses on a series of warning signs that adorn the front gates and regulate entry into the plant. “STOP Check with guard before entering plant,” we see twice, as if Morris is suggesting they are checking in with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before entering.

Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures likewise portrays the Swift plant as a kind of heaven. She reminds us of animal sacrifice in ancient and classical religions—times in which the temple was also the town slaughterhouse. Earlier in the same chapter  Grandin reports a dream that she had around the time that she started working with the plant in which the Swift plant was a kind of heaven. Also, one of her diary entries after working in a kosher plant alongside an orthodox Jewish rabbi records "an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness, as if God had touched me. [...] A good restraint chute operator has to not just like the cattle, but love them." For Grandin, the slaughterhouse introduces her to God and to love for humanity in a way religious abstractions never could.

The Stairway to Heaven, then, is Grandin's venue for faith within the slaughterhouse. The subsequent shots of the Stairway allow Grandin to explicate the humanity instated by her design. She says, “If I can go into a meat plant and the cattle just walk in nice and calmly and they’re not scared, […] that makes me feel happy. Because I know what it’s like to feel fearful and scared.” Morris has reminded us of the deep connection she feels to the cow, a connection so deep that she seems to at times view herself as a cow.

Morris then takes us into Grandin’s visualization of herself ascending the Stairway to Heaven in the same way the cow would. The hazy, blurry shots are in slow motion with abnormal lighting to emphasize the within-memory quality of the scene: What we are watching is what Grandin sees in her mind's eye of herself following the cow's path to the stun gun. Recall in the very beginning of the documentary when Grandin makes the comment “When I get old and die, I’d much rather go to one of my meat-packing plants than have a lion eat my guts out.” The statement, with her chuckle at the end seems the slightest bit absurd without the context of the rest of the film; or at least one wonders why the thought has occurred to her. Now the final scenes of the movie show that in visualizing herself dying the peaceful, humane death of a stunned cow, Grandin reconciles any uncertainty she may have had about her own mortal moment.

At the end of the film, we hear Morris ask Grandin, “Are you afraid of death?”; Grandin replies no. She is not afraid of a life that is “finite”. He asks her if she ever sees herself walking up that Stairway to Heaven. “Oh, yeah,” she nods. “I’ve gone through the system many, many, many times. If everything’s just going right, you just, you know, go through..., feel the conveyor pull me in and then it’d be over with; if everything’s working right, I wouldn’t feel a thing.” It seems that in the same way that she conquered her fear of going to college by walking through a door and visualizing its what it represented, Grandin is at peace with the idea of death because she has, in her mind’s eye, ascended the Stairway to Heaven. The shot cuts to antique-looking footage of longhorns being herded across a river in a way that brings to mind the River Styx.



In this last minute of the film, Sampson’s rendition of Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven" that has been playing during the last scene comes to an end; there is a cut from Grandin’s face to one of the images from the montage of religious imagery at the beginning:


I’m puzzled by this. The image was originally a part of a montage of symbols whose abstract meaning were difficult for Grandin to process. In addition to verbal communication with abstract symbols, human communication via touch is another thing that seems almost entirely lost on Grandin; it’s something that repels her more than it makes sense to her. Is Morris highlighting the strangeness of someone who is soothed by the idea of metal walls squeezing and conducting her body along to death by stun gun but is destroyed by the touch of another human?

I don’t know.

Before this conclusion, Morris asks Grandin to explain the story behind Stairway to Heaven. Grandin tells of how when she finished the Stairway to Heaven project, she brought her blind roommate to the plant to experience it. After feeling with her hands the cattle going through the chute to their death, the roommate composed the following prayer:



The Stairway to Heaven is dedicated to those people who desire to learn the meaning of life and not to fear death. You, through respect for these animals, can come to respect your fellow man as well.

As Grandin recites the poem before the Interrotron, she receives almost fatherly guidance from Morris about how to rightly situate her face in the bright light. The small cues he offers her are reminders of the control Morris exerts over his material. When I first saw the documentary, I was amazed at how Morris had surfaced this complex though unified theme of religion and death and humanness out of a story about a meat packing plant designer. I thought he surely had taken a postmodern-sized helping of creative license and only told a fraction of her story so that he could focus on the same themes he's always returning to. Stairway to Heaven struck me as a retelling of Fast, Cheap’s themes about mortality and leaving a legacy as a means for defying death.

I think I was right that Stairway to Heaven explores the same themes as Fast, Cheap, but I was wrong that Morris could have contrived the meaning that lies behind Grandin's monologue. For one, these are themes that inevitably arise any time someone offers to tell a really good story about being a human. Secondly, I read Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures, (written a few years before the Grandin-Morris conversation happened) and Grandin tells the same story—and in many cases, word for word.

Diane blogged about Morris’s uncanny ability to precisely construct a frame around the material he wishes to explore. In the same way that Morris’s camera frames a scene, and thereby controls reality by choosing which pieces the viewer sees, so the documentary as a whole is framed by which images he edits together. As a documentary director, Morris is iconoclastic for his willingness to make himself a forcible presence in his work. Dr. Heather Nunn, Professor of media, cultural, and gender studies at Roehampton University in London, cites in her useful article about “psychic drama” Morris’s words: “I’ve always thought of my portraits as my own version of the Museum of Natural History [with] these very odd diorama where you’re trying to create some foreign exotic environment and put it on display” (415).

We often talk about Morris’s delicate ability to render reality into an almost fantastic story  in a way that is entirely unique from any other documentary maker. However, I’m not convinced that what he is doing is so different from everyone else. I think Rekha is talking about the same thing when she says: “We all view the world through our own little magnifying glass that’s created by our own experiences and that’s unique to us. The same two people could be in the exact same situation and each could have a tremendously different experience.” Morris, like every documentarian, subjectively selects which details of reality with which to build his story. (Although his keen eye does a better job than any other documentarian at choosing the details.)

In other words, I disagree entirely with Andre Bazin when he claims that cinema is objective. Morris's documentary shows us that a film can portray reality without being objective. (Though I acknowledge that I would likely share Bazin’s perspective if I too were writing in the time and space of 1946, throwing out some of his claims is useful for understanding Morris-ian storytelling.) Bazin wants to suggest in his article that the photographic image is portrayal of reality that denies the artist's imposition of his own interpretation.

In an interview with the Believer Morris disagrees with Bazin:

"Everything that you're seeing has been controlled by some central authority. There is a kind of puppeteer—the director—pulling the strings. The flipside of it is verite: everything you see in front of the camera is uncontrolled. The director observes, records, but in no way influences, in no way determines what will happen in front of the camera. And so what people are really talking about is not truth and fiction when they talk about drama and documentary. What they're talking about is control and lack of control."

Bazin underestimates the power of the frame, while Morris applies it to its fullest potential. Moreover, his ability to do so is what enables Morris to capture the story and to illuminate meaning about the human condition. This is the difficult paradox that Morris's work embodies: by manipulating reality, he generates beautiful expression of profound human truths. Perhaps it has something to do with Stephen Prince's notions about iconicity that I cited at the beginning: if pictures have a quality of a transcendent language that all humans can understand, does it follow that that pictorial language in the form of cinema can uniquely give voice to universal human experience?

When yet in the unwieldy editing process of Fast, Cheap, Morris voiced the worry to our professor: “I wonder whether I have projected [too] much on material that may be inchoate and vague.” You could reword the question for Stairway to Heaven: is this Grandin’s story or Morris’s story?

The answer has to be both: if the story of Grandin’s human struggle with understanding death speaks to Morris’s human story, then it must be true.

And so Temple Grandin and her story that is at once unique and shared by the human community has decided it for me: Morris is not a contriver of meaning; he is a portrayer of reality. I’m not going to tell you what that term—reality—refers to, or what exactly portrayal involves, but I will tell you that when equipped with his tools—cinematography, editing, his framing eye, Caleb Sampson's musical genius, and of course, a subject—the story Morris tells is true.

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