To be honest, I was a little disappointed in Standard Operating Procedure…but the fault is my own, not the film’s. My expectation was that the film would start with the photos of Abu Ghraib & misdeeds of the lower ranking soldiers and then move up the chain of command, both militarily and thematically speaking, to explore the issues of truth in photography and culpability. To Morris’ credit, he didn’t do that. It’s too easy these days to attempt arguments about Iraq or the Bush Administration that connect too many dots with too little evidence…essentially propaganda that sings to the choir.
SOP has a surprisingly small depth of field; it’s the story of those infamous photos, the people who took & appeared in them, and what they have to say about the photos & the actions they purport to show. And in that, the movie succeeds. Morris leaves plenty of negative space into which the audience can insert their own questions about what the photographs ultimately depict and who’s responsible in the end.
Incidentally, Morris generated a bit of controversy recently when he admitted that he’d paid some of the interviewees in SOP. The criticism of this practice is that “the credibility of interviewees diminishes when money changes hands and that these people will provide the answers they think are desired rather than the truth”. That is a concern but no more so than every other reason for being untruthful, including not telling the truth out of spite for lack of payment. People have so many better reasons to lie than money.
Honestly I was getting a little burned out on Errol Morris. I’ve been reading his Times blog, reading and listening to interviews with him about Standard Operating Procedure, and went to see him at the Apple Store last night. (I was most intrigued by his observation that photographs both reveal and conceal at the same time.) But this (relatively) short interview with him on the AV Club site is worth reading and got me unburned out. One of the many choice quotes:
I wish they’d just get it over with and make [Iraq] the 51st state, because I think it’s the perfect red state: religious fundamentalists, lots of weaponry. How could you go wrong? We’re already spending a significant fraction of our gross national product on the infrastructure; such as it is, on Iraq. Make it the 51st state and get it over with.
The interviewer, Scott Tobias, makes an interesting observation toward the end.
It seems like there’s been plenty of instances in which big guys [i.e. Bush, Cheney, etc.] could have and should have been held accountable. Yet it’s not as if they’ve slipped a noose. It’s as if they deny that there’s even a noose to be slipped.
And Morris replies:
That’s what’s so bizarre. You know, there are smoking guns everywhere, and people are being constantly hit over the head with smoking guns, and people simply don’t act on them.
For me, this is the central mystery of the Bush administration. There has been demonstrable legal wrongdoing on the part of this administration and through some magical process, they’ve charmed the country and managed to sidestep not only legal action (including impeachment) but even the threat of legal action and — this is the best part — get fucking reelected in the process. With Bush’s disapproval rating at an all-time high (for any President since Gallup began polling), it’s not like people aren’t aware and the 2006 elections clearly show the country’s disapproval with Bush et al. Maddening and fascinating at the same time.
The web site for Errol Morris’ new movie, Standard Operating Procedure, is up. Looks like it supplements the movie with interviews, photos, etc.
Interview with Errol Morris in the Columbia Journalism Review about Standard Operating Procedure.
Somebody comes up to you and says, “I’m a postmodernist; I don’t care about truth; it’s subjective.” My answer is, “So it doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger? It doesn’t matter whether someone committed murder, or whether someone in jail is innocent or not?” I believe that it does matter. What happens in the world matters a great deal.
Morris also says that there will be a web site that accompanies the film where you can view all the Abu Ghraib photos in the order that they were taken.
You can click on a photograph and an iris opens up — you go into the photograph, and inside of the photograph is context. Take, just for example, the Gilligan photograph, the one on the box, with the wires. I rubber-band that photograph with the other ones taken at the same time, so that it becomes a group of related photographs. There’s software that allows you to reconstruct the room from the different angles of the photographs. Then I have biographies that you can click on for all the people who were in the room, and their own accounts. Plus you can see stuff that I recorded for this movie. In other words, you can really enter the world of the photograph.
The Abu Ghraib article by Errol Morris and Philip Gourevitch which I wrote about here and was subsequently taken down is back online. For now. Get it while you can. (thx, tom)
Powerful and disturbing article by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris from this week’s New Yorker about the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib.
Later, when the photographs of crimes committed against Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib were made public, the blame focussed overwhelmingly on the Military Police officers who were assigned to guard duty in the Military Intelligence cellblock — Tiers 1A and 1B — of the hard site. The low-ranking reservist soldiers who took and appeared in the infamous images were singled out for opprobrium and punishment; they were represented, in government reports, in the press, and before courts-martial, as rogues who acted out of depravity. Yet the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.
Never mind liberty, it would seem that we’re giving up our humanity for security.
Update: Nuts, they took the article offline for some reason…
Update: Looks like the article is back up. For now.
Video of Errol Morris talking with Philip Gourevitch about Abu Ghraib and Standard Operating Procedure at the 2007 New Yorker Festival. This was painful to watch at times — Morris speaks very deliberately — but worth leaving the audio on in the background. They showed a clip of the movie at the festival but it got cut from the video…rights issues, I imagine.
Errol Morris writes several hundred words about two iconic photos taken by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War, during which he explores the interplay between “clear” evidence and the interpretation of that evidence by people with different agendas and ideas.
As I’ve said elsewhere: Nothing is so obvious that it’s obvious. When someone says that something is obvious, it seems almost certain that it is anything but obvious - even to them. The use of the word “obvious” indicates the absence of a logical argument - an attempt to convince the reader by asserting the truth of something by saying it a little louder.
This might be the best blog post I’ve ever read. I can’t wait to see Standard Operating Procedure, Morris’ upcoming documentary on Abu Ghraib and, from what it sounds like, the culmination of his exploration of truth in photography.
Filmmaker Errol Morris is writing a blog for the NY Times about photography. It’s supposed to be Times Select only and therefore behind the Times’ stupid paywall, but I can get to it just fine for some reason. His most recent post concerns the confusion over the identity of the hooded man in the iconic Abu Ghraib photograph, which topic Morris is researching for S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure, his upcoming film about the prison and the events that happened there.
Some information on Errol Morris’ newest project, a film about Abu Ghraib:
Morris introduced us to his latest project about the Abu Ghraib, and the iconic images created from the prisoner torture. It’s his hypothesis that it’s a handful of those photos from that we’ll remember a hundred years from now about the Iraq War. He explained that this project began with the mystery of two photos by Roger Fenton described by Susan Sontag in her book, Regarding the Pain of Others. During the Crimean War, Fenton took photos of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Two are of the same road, one with cannonballs littering the road, one with the cannonballs in the ravine. The Mystery being which photo was taken first, which was staged?
This is an interesting topic for Morris considering he pioneered the use of “expressionistic reenactments” in documentary filmmaking with The Thin Blue Line.
Update: The film is called “S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure”.