EVEN the title of Errol Morris's new film, "A Brief History of Time," raises fascinating questions. Does time have a history? If so, can it be briefly told? And can it be photographed, edited, and arranged in cinematic form so that general audiences - not just the theoretical physicists who think about such things for a living - can understand and appreciate it?
Mr. Morris gives a convincing "yes" to all of the above. Human conceptions of time certainly have a history, and an investigator with exceptional clarity and creativity of mind - such as physicist Stephen Hawking, whose writing and experiences inspired Morris's film - can indeed crystallize the main issues of time, relativity, and quantum mechanics into a concise and accessible presentation. A highly readable book by Dr. Hawking, also called "A Brief History of Time," has proved this by selling 5 1/2 mil lion copies in 30 languages around the world.
What makes Morris's film into a deeply humanistic work, as well as a stimulating and informative one, is its interest in Hawking's own life as an example of the liberation to be found in the quest for understanding via the mathematically based sciences.
Early in his career, Hawking was diagnosed with a disabling condition that made it seem unlikely he would live to finish graduate school, much less become a contributing member of the scientific community. Needless to say, he fooled the doomsayers. Colleagues have called him the inheritor of Albert Einstein's mantle as the leading theoretical physicist of his day; and Morris's film makes stunningly clear what a spirited, transcendent, and even joyous mental life he leads behind the quiet facade of what s uperficial observers would call a profoundly inadequate body.
Morris's movie is also transcendent and at times joyous, showing no patience with the solemn instructiveness or inspirationalism that a less-inventive filmmaker might have indulged.
It starts with common-sense simplicity, speculating on the priority of the chicken or the egg, and launching its highly sophisticated visual scheme not with charts or equations, but the unruly image of a barnyard fowl. It ends with a similarly unexpected (and cleverly metaphorical) view of Hawking riding his automated wheelchair into the limitless cosmos of unfettered human thought.
Between these points, Morris provides a steady stream of gracefully assembled shots, blending Hawking's life and work into a coherent whole that balances its technical, speculative, and biographical elements with consummate skill.
The ingenuity of "A Brief History of Time" is no surprise in light of Morris's past career as a documentary-maker with an utterly original style.
HIS earlier films include "Gates of Heaven," a tragicomic account of a California pet cemetery; "Vernon, Florida," a surrealistically tinged visit with residents of a small Southern town; and "The Thin Blue Line," his masterpiece, about a man's wrongful conviction and near-execution for a murder he didn't commit.
Like those movies, "A Brief History of Time" is rooted in real life, but filtered through the mixture of keen-eyed intelligence and keen-witted irony that constitutes Morris's unusual world view.
It's full of information on black holes, which aren't completely black; the direction of time, which isn't reversible despite Hawking's years of effort to prove the contrary; and what might be called the "endless finitude" of the physical universe, which Hawking explains by noting that in all his years of traveling, he has not managed once "to fall off the edge of the world"!
At the same time, however, the film is a brilliantly construed work of visual art in the best Morris tradition. Its richness was achieved partly in the editing process, which was long and painstaking, and partly in the way Morris went about gathering the interview sequences that make up much of the movie. Rather than travel around Europe and the United States to interview Hawking's colleagues and family members, Morris told me recently, he constructed sets in a British studio, and conducted his interview s there under conditions that he could control in every detail, including lighting, framing, and camera positions.
Like other Morris films, "A Brief History of Time" is at once a documentary and a deliberately crafted artifact that addresses real people, events, and ideas within a carefully conceived framework of musical rhythms, painterly compositions, and richly cinematic montage passages.
Although the artistic strategies used in the film are not quite as original or invigorating as certain masterstrokes in "The Thin Blue Line," the eloquence and maturity of Morris's new work are unquestionable - as are the prospects for his continued growth as a filmmaker, a thinker, and a gifted interpreter of the human condition.
Many talented collaborators also worked on "A Brief History" and deserve a share of credit for its success. John Bailey and Stefan Czapsky did the cinematography, and Brad Fuller was the editor. Philip Glass composed the score, which was produced by Kurt Munkasci and conducted by Michael Riesman, both experts in minimalist music.
Prior to reaching theaters, the film won two amply justified awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a major showcase for independent cinema.