Back when I was living in Madrid and before I got my first journalism job, I was lucky to learn one of the best questions you can ever ask someone: “So what got you here?” Defining here is up to them, and that’s what makes the question so great: the first words out of their mouths tell you where they see themselves in the world. From there, you’re almost always off to a crackin’ story. The CEO of Continental Airlines once answered it by telling me not about the great job he’d done by pulling the company out of bankruptcy, or the magnificent house we were sitting in at that moment, but about how he’d begun as a cropduster and still was at heart and couldn’t wait to get done talking so he could fire up his motorcycle and blaze for the hills — which, since he had a spare, we ended up doing for the rest of the day.
For me, the best test case is still the first: crashing on our sofa in Madrid was some friend of a friend who slept all day and drank all night, meaning his mouth only opened to snore or swallow. I’d written him off as a mope, but when he woke up one afternoon and I asked him that question, he was suddenly off to the races. He and a buddy were planting tulip bulbs in Holland, got sick of it, stole bikes, pedaled till they collapsed in a park in France, which turned out to be a last stop for over-the-hill prostitutes, one of whom gave them a place to stay…
And it’s in that same spirit that Errol Morris puts a camera on the same guy that my friend, Jason Fagone, brilliantly profiled a few years ago in a book that’s as superb as its title: Horsemen of the Esophagus.
What I love about Morris’ film is the same thing Jason figured out when he dove into the unlikely world of competitive eating: people are at their best when they’re trying to figure themselves out.