With physics as a topic, Morris faced daunting task in 'Brief History'

October 08, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Errol Morris would never be accused of taking the easy way out.

After all, he once did a movie about a pet cemetery. Then he did a movie about a trashy drifter on death row in Texas who claimed he was innocent.

And Morris proved he was innocent. And got him out. It was the now justly famous "Thin Blue Line."

L And for his next trick . . . a movie on theoretical physics!

The result, "A Brief History of Time," opening today at the Charles Theatre, is a chronicle of the life and ideas of Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking, the world's leading expert on black holes and at the same time, a victim of a disabling disease that has kept him locked in a wheelchair, his limbs all but useless, his larynx removed, for most of his adult life.

"When I first became involved," says Morris in the clipped and precise tones of the Princeton graduate school student in

philosophy he once was, "it was not altogether clear that it was even possible."

The job was to translate Hawking's best seller -- which was an eloquent if recondite examination of some of the further regions of theoretical physics -- into a mainstream (more or less) movie.

"The trick was to do justice to it, but also to be accessible."

But from the outset, Morris understood that Hawking himself had to be a part of the process.

"It's one thing to write a book where the information is the primary focus and the author is something of a peripheral figure. But in a film, he would have to be the principal figure. You have to deal with him. Early on, it had to combine elements of both the life and the thought.

"After all," he continues, warming to the subject, "he has such a profound metaphorical connection to the material. Here is a man at 21 given a death sentence; his body becomes a prison or he suffers almost a form of premature burial. And the meaningful object of his scrutiny is the black hole, which is the collapse of a star into a smaller and smaller body."

His first obstacle was formidable: Stephen Hawking himself.

"He was greatly concerned that the movie would be about him, about his body and not his mind. But ultimately, he agreed to appear in thefilm and some weeks ago he appeared before 1,200 people and said nice things about it. That was a great relief to me."

The movie is a delicate balancing act between Hawking's penetrations of the mysteries of space and time -- "He's really searching for God," Morris says -- and an account of Hawking's extraordinary life. But it is also, though not explicitly, a celebration of the spirit.

"Stephen is simply extraordinary," says Morris in recollection. "He's a person who refuses to dwell on the circumstances of his life and illness. He much prefers to be thought of as a working scientist. He can be difficult, but what is amazing is how engaged he is. He travels, he has a schedule that would kill an ordinary man. He very much lives his life."

And Hawking has a mordant sense of humor. He festoons his Cambridge office, otherwise a jumble of books and blackboards scrawled with all but impenetrable formulas, with photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Yet the distance isn't so great as first it seems, nor is the imagery so incongruous.

"I think he sees a kinship with her," says Morris. "She was someone else who was primarily a body to the outside world, so much so that the person inside got lost. But there's a person there, too."

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