As part of Errol Morris Week on Grantland1, Alex Pappademas did a great interview with Morris about his work. Morris has interviewed serial killers, Holocaust deniers, rapists, and the architect of the Vietnam War but said that the person that most challenged his capacity for empathy was Donald Rumsfeld.
He's confident right now! He doesn't have to wait 100 or 500 years. He doesn't care. I really care whether I'm right or wrong. I really do care. And probably for lots of reasons. I don't want to be seen as a dumbass, I don't want to be seen as someone who believes in something that's absolutely false, untrue, something that can't be substantiated, checked. I believe that there's some deep virtue in pursuing truth. Maybe it's the highest virtue. I believe that. Whether you can attain it or not, you can pursue it. It can be a goal. It can be a destination. I don't believe that's Donald Rumsfeld's goal. I believe that Robert S. McNamara really wanted to understand what he had done and why he had done it. You know, we remain a mystery to ourselves, among the many, many, many other mysteries there are. And McNamara's struggle with his own past -- I was deeply moved by it. I think he's a war criminal, I think he sees himself as a war criminal, but I like him.
Director Errol Morris has directed six short films for ESPN collective titled "It's Not Crazy, It's Sports." The films will air on March 1 and then be released online during the following week. The trailer:
The films' subjects include Mr. Met, streakers, sports memorabilia fanatics, an electric football league, and Michael Jordan's stolen jersey. I'll post the films here as they're released online. Morris previously did a film for ESPN about the sports-themed funerals of die-hard fans.
From Errol Morris and the NY Times, Three Short Films about Peace. Morris interviewed Nobel Prize winners and nominees Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, the former Polish president Lech Walesa and rock star Bob Geldof.
I interviewed five of the world's greatest peacemakers, and chose to feature the three who told the most compelling stories on camera. But it was a privilege to meet and to interview every one of them. David Trimble, whose participation in the Good Friday Agreement helped bring an end to Northern Ireland's Troubles, and Oscar Arias Sanchez, who brokered the Esquipulas peace agreement that ended decades of internecine strife in Central America, were no less inspiring than the three included here.
It's the easiest thing to say: that each of these stories is inspiring. They are. I was inspired by them. Can one person make a difference? In most cases, no. But every now and again something seemingly miraculous happens. And one person changes the world. Or as Bob Geldof puts it, tilts the world on its axis.
For a Visa commercial, Errol Morris gathers a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners and nominees (including Lech Walesa) to talk about how important it is for their countries to beat the crap out of the other countries in the World Cup.
Two quotes in the video caught my ear:
Sport is a continuation of war by other means.
Look, football isn't life or death. It's much more important than that.
The first is a riff on Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz's aphorism "War is the continuation of Politik by other means". Clausewitz also devised the concept of "the fog of war", which Morris used for the title of a film. The second is a paraphrase of a quote by legendary football coach Bill Shankly:
Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.
Errol Morris's latest documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, just came out in theaters. But it's also available right now to rent/buy on Amazon and iTunes. Here's a trailer if you need convincing.
When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent 33 hours over the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more? Was he hiding something? Or was there really little more than met the eye?
The Unknown Known has been referred to as a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War, but from this it seems more like its opposite. Morris got some substantive and honest answers to important questions from McNamara, whereas it sounds like he got bupkiss from Rumsfeld.
Errol Morris is at it again, publishing book-length blog posts for the NY Times. This time, he's examining the photograph evidence of Abraham Lincoln and, I think, what those photos might tell us about Lincoln's death. Here's the prologue and part one (of an eventual four).
My fascination with the dating and interpretation of photographs is really a fascination with the push-pull of history. Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the origins of things vs. our desire to rework, to reconfigure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than two radically different predispositions to objects -- the storyteller vs. the collector.
For the collector the image with the crack [in one of Lincoln's photographs] is a damaged piece of goods -- the crack potentially undermining the value of the photograph as an artifact, a link to the past. The storyteller doesn't care about the photograph's condition, or its provenance, but about its thematic connections with events. To the storyteller, the crack is the beginning of a legend -- the legend of a death foretold. The crack seems to anticipate the bullet fired into the back of Lincoln's head at Ford's Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.
It should have a name. I call it "the proleptic crack."
Errol Morris and Tink Thompson share an obsession about the nature of photographic evidence. In a short film for the NY Times, Morris talks to Thompson about the photographic and filmic evidence of the JFK assassination, which Thompson has been investigating on and off since 1963.
Interesting that 1) there exists much more photographic evidence of the assassination than is commonly shown/known, and 2) Thompson very much has a theory of what the evidence shows but Morris doesn't spill those particular beans:
Is there a lesson to be learned? Yes, to never give up trying to uncover the truth. Despite all the difficulties, what happened in Dallas happened in one way rather than another. It may have been hopelessly obscured, but it was not obliterated. Tink still believes in answers, and in this instance, an answer. He is completing a sequel to "Six Seconds" called "Last Second in Dallas." Like its predecessor, this book is clearly reasoned and convincing. Of course, there will be people who will be unmoved by his or any other account.
See also Morris' previous short film featuring Thompson & the assassination, The Umbrella Man.
Vice has a sneak peak at Errol Morris' new documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, in what looks like a sequel of sorts to The Fog of War.
Morris has Rumsfeld perform and explain his "snowflakes," the enormous archive of memos he wrote across almost 50 years in Congress, the White House, in business, and twice at the Pentagon. The memos provide a window into history -- not as it actually happened, but as Rumsfeld wants us to see it.
THE DAILY BEAST: How the hell did you get Rumsfeld to agree to do this? Were you chasing him down?
ERROL MORRIS: No, not at all. I wrote him a letter, enclosed a copy of The Fog of War, heard back from him very quickly, went to Washington, and spent a good part of the day with him. We started it under the premise that he would do two days of interviews, I would edit it, and if he liked it, we'd sign a contract and continue. If he didn't, I'd put the footage in a closet and it would never see the light of day.
The name of the film, The Unknown Known, is a reference to a statement Rumsfeld made at a press briefing about WMDs, terrorism, and Iraq:
There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- there are things we do not know we don't know.
Each Times participant read the passage in one of six randomly assigned fonts - Baskerville, Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Comic Sans and Trebuchet. The questions, ostensibly about optimism or pessimism, provided data about the influence of fonts on our beliefs.
The test consisted of comparing the responses and determining whether font choice influenced our perception of the truth of the passage.
The results pointed to a small but noticeable effect in the authority of each font.
DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.
ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don't know, truth - truthiness.
DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal - Comic Sans, obviously - and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.
ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?
DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don't really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?
Update: Pentagram's Michael Bierut weighs in on Morris' article.
Whether or not a typeface can do any or all of those things, I do agree the landscape has changed. Once upon a time, regular people didn't even know the names of typefaces. Then, with the invention of the personal computer, people started learning. They had their opinions and they had their favorites. But until now, type was a still matter of taste. Going forward, if someone wants to tell the truth, he or she will know exactly what typeface to use. Of course, the truth is the truth no matter what typeface it's in. How long before people realize that Baskerville is even more useful if you want to lie?
If a one kilometer asteroid had approached the Earth on a collision course at any time in human history before the early twenty-first century, it would have killed at least a substantial proportion of all humans. In that respect, as in many others, we live in an era of unprecedented safety: the twenty-first century is the first ever moment when we have known how to defend ourselves from such impacts, which occur once every 250,000 years or so.
It doesn't seem like much and Morris is being coy about it, but I've been assured that something interesting will come of it if enough people take it. So take it!
I have been fortunate in the director of the film, Errol Morris. He is a man of integrity, with a feeling for the issues. It would have been all too easy to have someone who would have concentrated on the more sensational aspects of my private life, and my medical condition, and who would have treated the science in a superficial way. A friend of mine, who has had several television programmes based on his work, was envious of how the scientific ideas came through on the film.
New essay from Errol Morris in the NY Times, What's in a Name? In it, he talks about the two Rockefellers that appeared in the newspapers a few years ago...one an imposter and one real.
Clearly, the name was also responsible for the attention he was getting in the newspaper. Clark is not just any impostor; he is a Rockefeller impostor. And as such he becomes more important, more significant. It is as if the name gives him some of the stature and allure of a real Rockefeller. A perfect example of this is the importance given to Clark in both The New York Times and The Boston Globe. He even managed to outshine Barack Obama and Joseph Biden during the week that Obama picked his running mate. Obama and Biden get a little picture at the bottom of the right-hand side of the front page. Clark gets a photo spread -- one big picture and four little ones -- at the top of the left-hand side. He also got more column inches in the newspaper than Clayton, the real Rockefeller. It's impressive.
Though his several wins came early on in the competition's history, El Wingador is still competing in the Wing Bowl. In the 2012 competition, held today, El Wingador came in third while Takeru Kobayashi completely demolished the competition in his first attempt, eating 337 wings in the process.
For years, I've wanted to make a movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination. Not because I thought I could prove that it was a conspiracy, or that I could prove it was a lone gunman, but because I believe that by looking at the assassination, we can learn a lot about the nature of investigation and evidence. Why, after 48 years, are people still quarreling and quibbling about this case? What is it about this case that has led not to a solution, but to the endless proliferation of possible solutions?
The Updike piece from the New Yorker is available here (subscribers only, but the abstract is informative):
For example, "the umbrella man": though the day was clear and blowy, he can be detected, in photographs, standing on the curb just about where the assassination would in a few seconds occur, holding a black umbrella above him; seconds later he is again photographed, walking away, gazing tranquilly at the scramble of horrified spectators. His umbrella is now furled. Who was he? Where is he now?
The film, as previously reported, is an adaptation of a 2008 report on Bob Nelson, a self-styled cryogenics pioneer. Mr. Morris claims the film, not listed on IMDB, will be written by Zach Helm, writer of the aptly titled Will Ferrell vehicle Stranger Than Fiction. This American Life previously spawned the kids'-movie adaptation Unaccompanied Minors, but Mr. Morris's pedigree -- and unique interests-promise to make this a bit more highbrow, and simultaneously more intriguingly tabloid-y.
I'm going to link again to Errol Morris' piece on his brother's role in the invention of email...the final part was posted a few hours ago...the entire piece is well worth a read. As is the case with many of his movies, Morris uses the story of a key or unique individual to paint a broader picture; in this instance, as the story of his brother's involvement with an early email system unfolds, we also learn about the beginnings of social computing.
Fernando Corbato: Back in the early '60s, computers were getting bigger. And were expensive. So people resorted to a scheme called batch processing. It was like taking your clothes to the laundromat. You'd take your job in, and leave it in the input bins. The staff people would prerecord it onto these magnetic tapes. The magnetic tapes would be run by the computer. And then, the output would be printed. This cycle would take at best, several hours, or at worst, 24 hours. And it was maddening, because when you're working on a complicated program, you can make a trivial slip-up - you left out a comma or something - and the program would crash. It was maddening. People are not perfect. You would try very hard to be careful, but you didn't always make it. You'd design a program. You'd program it. And then you'd have to debug it and get it to work right. A process that could take, literally, a week, weeks, months -
People began to advocate a different tactic, which came to be called time-sharing. Take advantage of the speed of the computer and have people at typewriter-like terminals. In principle, it seemed like a good idea. It certainly seemed feasible. But no manufacturer knew how to do it. And the vendors were not terribly interested, because it was like suggesting to an automobile manufacturer that they go into the airplane business. It just was a new game. A group of us began to create experimental versions of time-sharing, to see if it was feasible. I was lucky enough to be in a position to try to do this at MIT. And we basically created the "Compatible Time Sharing System," nicknamed CTSS from the initials, that worked on the large mainframes that IBM was producing. First it was going to be just a demo. And then, it kept escalating. Time-sharing caught the attention of a few visionary people, like Licklider, then at BBN, who picked up the mantle. He went to Washington to become part of one of the funding agencies, namely ARPA. ARPA has changed names back and forth from DARPA to ARPA. But it's always the same thing.
And it was this shift from batch processing to time-sharing that accidentally kickstarted people using computers in a social way...programming together, sending notes to each other, etc.
Robert Fano: Yes, the computer was connected through telephone lines to terminals. We had terminals all over the MIT campus. People could also use CTSS from other locations through the teletype network. CTSS was capable of serving about 20 people at a time without their being aware of one another. But they could also communicate with each other. A whole different view of computers was generated.
Before CTSS, people wrote programs for themselves. The idea of writing programs for somebody else to use was totally alien. With CTSS, programs and data stored could be stored in the common memory segment and they were available to the whole community. And that really took off. At a certain point, I started seeing the whole thing as a system that included the knowledge of the community. It was a completely new view. It was a remarkable event. In retrospect, I wish I had gotten a very smart social psychologist on the premises to look at and interpret what was happening to the community, because it was just unbelievable.
There was a community of people using the computer. They got to know each other through it. You could send an e-mail to somebody through the system. It was a completely new phenomenon.
It seems completely nutty to me that people using computers together -- which is probably 100% of what people use computers for today (email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, etc.) -- was an accidental byproduct of a system designed to let a lot of people use the same computer separately. Just goes to show, technology and invention works in unexpected ways sometimes...and just as "nature finds a way" in Jurassic Park, "social finds a way" with technology.
This is the first part of a five-part blog post by Errol Morris investigating whether his brother Noel Morris
co-wrote the first working email system at MIT in the mid-1960s. From an MIT colleague of Noel's, Tom Van Vleck:
In 1965, at the beginning of the year, there was a bunch of stuff going on with the time-sharing system that Noel and I were users of. We were working for the political science department. And the system programmers wrote a programming staff note memo that proposed the creation of a mail command. But people proposed things in programming staff notes that never got implemented. And well, we thought the idea of electronic mail was a great idea. We said, "Where's electronic mail? That would be so cool." And they said, "Oh, there's no time to write that. It's not important." And we said, "Well, can we write it?" And we did. And then it became part of the system.
Errol Morris is back with his first NY Times blog post since last summer. Don't quite know where he's going with it yet, but it features an ashtray thrown at Morris' head by Thomas Kuhn, father of the paradigm shift and poor marksman.
I had written a paper on James Clerk Maxwell's displacement current for Kuhn's seminar on 19th century electricity and magnetism. The paper might have been 30 or so double-spaced pages. Kuhn's reply, typed on unlined yellow paper, was 30 pages, single-spaced, with Courier marching all the way from the left to the right side of the paper. No margins. He was angry, really angry.
Speaking of Errol Morris, it seems that his next film will be out this fall and is a documentary about Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, rapist of Mormons, and dog cloning enthusiast.
According to our sources, it seems Morris has just finished up a brand new documentary, "Tabloid" aka "A Very Special Love Story" (the title is not yet final) about Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who, in the late seventies, abducted Kirk Anderson, a Mormon missionary in England, chained him to a bed and forced him to have sex with her. But that's hardly the weirdest thing about McKinney or the case. After jumping bail, she was eventually sentenced in absentia to one year in prison, due to the fact that Britain, at the time, didn't really have rape laws against men in the books. She was later accused of stalking her victim -- who had since married and had children -- during the 1980s and in 2008, she gained more media attention after taking her dog to Korea to be cloned.
If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody's field of ignorance.
When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.
Errol Morris recently gave the commencement address at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; here's the transcript.
It has become fashionable nowadays to speak of the subjectivity or the relativity of truth. I find such talk ridiculous at best. Let's go back to Randall Dale Adams. He found himself within days of being executed in "Old Sparky," the electric chair in Walls Unit, Huntsville Texas.
There is nothing post-modern about the electric chair. It takes a living human being and turns him into a piece of meat. Imagine you -- you the young journalists of tomorrow -- being strapped into an electric chair for a crime you didn't commit. Would you take comfort from a witness telling you that it really doesn't make any difference whether you are guilty or innocent? That there is no truth? "I think you're guilty; you think you're innocent. Can't we work it all out?"
A bouncer in Birmingham hit me in the face with a crescent wrench five times and my wife's boyfriend broke my jaw with a fence post. So if you don't buy a trailer from me, it ain't gonna hurt my feelings. So come on down to Cullman Liquidation and get yourself a home. Or don't. I don't care.
I don't know if these two photos depict the rumored Apple tablet or not, but I *do know* I want 5000 words from Errol Morris that attempt to answer these two seemingly related questions in an attempt to determine their authenticity:
1. Which photo was taken first?
2. Why was the tablet moved between photos?
For some dumbcrap reason, the NY Times has redirected Errol Morris' excellent blog about photography and the truth -- formerly at http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com -- to some new thing called Opinionator. They did the same with Dick Cavett, Olivia Judson, etc. Oh, all the content is still there -- here's Morris' stuff -- and permalinks redirect, but there are no author-specific RSS feeds. There is only the main feed, which started shoveling a bunch of crap I didn't want to read into my newsreader. Come on Gray Lady, just give me Morris; I don't care about the rest.
Update: The Times blogs are on Wordpress and with WP you can add "/feed" to any URL and get a feed. So here's Morris' feed...which helps you and me but not much of anyone else. (thx, mark)
In his newest multipart essay for the NY Times, Errol Morris examines evidence of photo manipulations by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, including Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, and Dorothea Lange. Were they dispassionate observers of American life in the 1930s or employees after a certain type of story?
If one can imagine the political animosity that would have been generated if, as part of the current stimulus package, President Obama introduced a national documentary photography program, then it is possible to understand the opposition that the F.S.A. faced. Fiscal conservatives did not want to see their hard-earned tax dollars spent on relief, let alone a government photography program, of all things.
The thing is, truth is always at the center of Morris' films, as you'd expect of a documentary filmmaker, but he also acknowledges that truth is a complicated thing; he's always toying with questions of truth and fiction. Morris' films aren't about The Truth; they're about our personal, private truths, as well as the lies and rationalizations we create for our actions. So fiction and lies and manipulation are also at the center of Morris' films. Fiction is as much the spine of his work as truth.
Errol Morris shares Seven Lies About Lying, principles about lies often assumed to be true but which Morris believes are false.
5. Lying will be punished. Perhaps. But not as often as truth-telling. Lying effectively in many situations is generally superior than telling the truth, because often we have to search our minds for the truth, whereas a good lie can be easier to produce (though of course caution is indicated if the lie can be easily unmasked). Invariably a skillful liar makes a calculation about his chances of being exposed and avoids situations where a lie can be revealed. Lying is punished only if it is detected. A more reasonable assessment would be that ineffective and unskillful lying is severely punished. No one is held in greater contempt than an unskilled liar.
Morris also solicited Ricky Jay's thoughts on a world without lying:
When you're talking about Kant and trust, it made me think of one of the ways I tell people about the con game. I say, "You wouldn't want to live in a world where you can't be conned, because if you were, you would be living in a world with no trust. That's the price you pay for trust, is being conned."
His refusal to come out against the Vietnam War, particularly as it continued after he left the Defense Department, has angered many. There's ample evidence that he felt the war was wrong. Why did he remain silent until the 1990s, when "In Retrospect" was published? That is something that people will probably never forgive him for. But he had an implacable sense of rectitude about what was permissible and what was not. In his mind, he probably remained secretary of defense until the day he died.
One angry person once said to me: "Loyalty to the president? What about his loyalty to the American people?" Fair enough. But our government isn't set up that way. He was not an elected official, he said repeatedly. He served at the pleasure of the president.
McNamara also had a huge influence on the economics profession, most of all through his 13-year presidency at the World Bank. He focused the Bank on poverty reduction, he brought Communist China into the Bank, he introduced the practice of five-year lending plans, he significantly increased the Bank's budget, he grew staff from 1600 to 5700, he favored sector-specific research, he raised money from OPEC, he strongly encouraged "scientific project evaluation," and he started a largely successful program to combat "river blindness"; the latter may have been his life's achievement.
Robert McNamara, former Secretary of Defense during a large portion of the Vietnam War, died early today at 93. Errol Morris' documentary on McNamara, The Fog of War, is well worth checking out if you haven't seen it.
Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and over 30 of today's top documentary filmmakers provide an in-depth look at non-fiction filmmaking and the steps to making a documentary. These masters of the craft reflect upon the nature of documentary as a form of storytelling and offer insight into their approach to the 'truth.'
Errol Morris follows up on his recent series about Dutch forger Han van Meegeren by addressing some of the comments he received. Here's Morris on the interaction of historical research and modern content management techniques.
The first version of the Time article that I saw was the "electronic" version from the Web. It is particularly strange, if only because the text (from 1947) is surrounded by modern information, including contemporary advertisements for Liberty Mutual, teeth whitening preparations, wrinkle-cream, and most e-mailed articles. Emmy Göring and Henriette von Schirach complaints are directly adjacent to "Will Twitter Change the Way We Live."
I also enjoyed the discussion of "Hitler-soup" at the end.
Over on his NY Times blog, Errol Morris finishes up his excellent seven-part series on Vermeer forger Han van Meegeren. Here are the links to all seven parts: one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.
Forgery is about the way the present looks at the past. The best forgeries may imitate the style of a long dead artist, but to appeal to people at the moment that they're being tricked, forgeries must also incorporate some of the aesthetic prejudices of the moment. When fakes work well, they give us a vision of the past that seems hauntingly up to date. And that's one of the things that makes forgery so seductive.
To be sure, the Van Meegeren story raises many, many questions. Among them: what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it? Whether it is the work of an acclaimed master like Vermeer or a duplicitous forger like Van Meegeren -- we want to know more.
Morris ends the post with a cliffhanger that, if I didn't know any better, was written specifically for me: "The Uncanny Valley."
Errol Morris returns to his NY Times blog with a five-part story about a photograph found in the hands of an unknown Union army soldier who died at Gettysburg. Start with part one. A description of the photograph made it into the newspaper and the identity of the man was pretty quickly discovered. But the story hardly ends there. My favorite part so far is the fourth, particularly the conversation between Morris and one of the unknown soldier's descendants, archaeologist David Kelley.
He popped out that door, and when the door opened and he came through it, the look on his face was like no look I'd ever seen on George Bush's face in my life. [...] And I said, "If he wasn't just back there behind that door crying, I don't know what that look on his face is." Because he just looks absolutely devastated as he comes through this door after essentially ending his eight year presidency. And it's just really striking. He just looks absolutely devastated.
The interview with the last photographer is the least interesting because he refuses to interpret any of the photographs but his set of photographs includes at least 3 photographs that I had never seen before and that weren't "published extensively in the United States".
And then there's the self-created interview ad that is a product of recent advances in technology. Camcorders that can be taken anywhere. We've seen self-reporting from the Iraq War and video diaries created by soldiers. The photographs and videos from Abu Ghraib are part of this phenomenon. Ultimately, video-blogging and self-reporting finds its expression in campaigns like the "Joe the Plumber." As I understand it, the McCain campaign has posted on its Web pages a request for people to film themselves and discuss why they are Joe the Plumber or Hank the Laminator or Frank the Painter. The intention is to collect these testimonials and then cut them together for a tax revolt television ad.
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.
Slo-mo can be a mesmerizing revelation of the grace inherent in the ordinary.
Slo-mo was invented and patented in 1904 by an Austrian priest-turned-physicist named August Musger. And who was working in the patent office in Austria in 1904?
My fantasy now is that Albert Einstein -- working in the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1904, when Musger patented slo-mo in (relatively) nearby Austria -- might have become aware of Musger's slow-motion patent (perhaps it even crossed his desk?) and that contemplation of slo-mo might have influenced Einstein's thinking about the nonabsoluteness, the relativity, of time.
Critics argue that the use of re-enactments suggest a callous disregard on the part of a filmmaker for what is true. I don't agree. Some re-enactments serve the truth, others subvert it. There is no mode of expression, no technique of production that will instantly produce truth or falsehood. There is no veritas lens -- no lens that provides a "truthful" picture of events. There is cinema verite and kino pravda but no cinematic truth.
Is the problem that we have an unfettered capacity for credulity, for false belief, and hence, we feel the need to protect ourselves from ourselves? If seeing is believing, then we better be damn careful about what we show people, including ourselves -- because, regardless of what it is -- we are likely to uncritically believe it.
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.
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.
WH: And you have a great sense for the afterthought. The interview is finished, it's over, and Errol is still sitting and expecting something. Then all of a sudden there comes an afterthought, and that's the best of all.
EM: Yes, often.
WH: Very often, yes. And I have learned that, in a way, from you. Wait for the afterthought. Be patient. Don't say, "Cut." Just let them do it.
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.
The new photos are enlarged details from much wider crowd shots; they were discovered by a Civil War hobbyist earlier this year in the vast trove of Library of Congress photographs digitized since 2000, and provided to USA Today. They show a figure believed to be Lincoln, white-gloved and in his trademark stovepipe hat, in a military procession.
He seems to have struck a nerve, or perhaps forensics is a more popular pastime than I would have guessed. The whole affair snowballed to browser-crashing size: If you add the readers' comments to Morris' own writing, you get a word count of about 223,000, which—just to put it in perspective—is slightly longer than Moby-Dick.
Errol Morris has posted the third and final installment of his quest to find out which of two Roger Fenton photographs taken during the Crimean War came first. It is as excellent (and lengthy) as the first and second parts. Morris asks "How can the real world be recovered from the simulacrum?" and arrives at a compelling answer (which I won't give away here) via sun-maps, shadow experts, The Wisconsin Death-Trip Effect, and ultimately, the Dust-Plunging-Straight-Down Test.
It is insane, but I would like to make the claim that the meaning of photography is contained in these two images. By thinking about the Fenton photographs we are essentially thinking about some of the most vexing issues in photography -- about posing, about the intentions of the photographer, about the nature of photographic evidence -- about the relationship between photographs and reality.
Morris' posts make me a bit sad though. Yes, because the series is concluded but also for two other reasons:
1. Morris' investigation sticks out like a sore thumb, especially compared to most popular media (newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV news). Why isn't Morris' level of skepticism and doggedness the norm rather than the delightful exception? Choosing the easy answer or the first answer that seems right enough is certainly compelling, especially under limited time constraints. Once acquired, that easy answer often becomes tied up with the ego of the person holding the belief...i.e. "this answer is correct because I think it's right because I'm smart and not easily duped and it proves the point I'm trying to make and therefore this answer is correct". Morris encountered dozens of easy and plausibly correct answers and rejected them all based on a lack of evidence, which allowed him to finally arrive at a correct answer supported by compelling physical evidence.
2. At the same time, lessons in photography and philosophy aside, what did we really learn? In the course of this investigation, Morris spent dozens of hours, wrote thousands of words, flew to Ukraine, enlisted the help of several experts, and probably spent thousands of dollars. Based on seemingly insignificant details, he was able to determine that one photograph was taken slightly before another photograph. If so much energy was put into the discovery of that one small fact, how are we actually supposed to learn anything truthful about larger and more significant events like the Iraq War or global warming. Presumably there's more evidence to go on, but that's not always helpful. Does this completely bum anyone else the fuck out?
Would it frighten people? Would they run out of the studio screaming? Who could say? I used it for the first time in Fast, cheap and out of control. And it worked like a charm. People loved the Interrotron.
I loved it too, although I probably embarrassed myself by nerding out about it a little too much.
Furthermore, what do the shadows on a cannonball, a Crimean cannonball, circa 1850, really look like -- not in a Fenton photograph but sitting alone, unadorned in the Valley of the Shadow of Death 150 years later? Olga seemed amused. I am not a great believer in certainty, but I am pretty certain the Duke of Edinburgh never asked to go to the Panorama Museum to borrow a Crimean War cannonball.
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.
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".
I could read interviews of Errol Morris all day long. "It became obvious that I was never going to be able to knock on the door of someone who's committed some massive insurance fraud and stick a camera in their face and get them to talk. It's never going to happen. The best you can expect is getting the shit kicked out of you."
Conversation between filmmakers Errol Morris and Adam Curtis. "People criticized my film by saying things like, 'Why aren't you balanced? What aren't you putting in the other views?' And my response was, 'What if the other view is wrong?' That's the real problem of the balanced view - what's called "perceived wisdom." What if perceived wisdom's wrong?"
Dear The Onion, please stop paginating your stories. I know you're trying to increase your ad real estate, but it's annoying to have to click to read more, especially on shorter stories. From now on, when I link to stuff like this excellent Errol Morris interview, it's going to be to the handy one-page print version with zero ads. NY Times, Salon, WaPo, Wired News, that goes double for you.