The Bat Segundo Show: Errol Morris

Errol Morris appeared on The Bat Segundo Show (#205). Morris is most recently the director of Standard Operating Procedure. (There is also an accompanying book written by Philip Gourevitch.)

Guest: Errol Morris

Subjects Discussed: Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Torture of Others,” the American cycle of photographing physical abuse, finding out what we’re looking at before drawing conclusions, the differences between a still image and a moving image, reenactments, guiding the viewer’s ability to map reality, Comte de Lautréamont, misinterpreting Crimean War photographs, the milkshake toss in The Thin Blue Line, basing an illustrated montage on a line from an interview, Sabrina Harman’s thumbs-up gesture, Harman and the Cheshire cat, Paul Ekman, perceiving the bad apples, what makes Morris angry, little guys taking the blame, Morris’s fondness for pariahs, extending understanding, whether flying subjects into Cambridge creates truth, Shoah, and Werner Herzog.


Correspondent: I actually want to bring up your most recent article for the New York Times, in which you delineated the difference between a single image and a moving image, in the sense that a moving image involves trying to create a map of reality. Because you’re not paying consistent attention to the actual moving image. But here you are with a film that has reenactments as well as interviews. And so I’m wondering: to what degree do you guide the viewer’s sense of mapping reality? Or is this a kind of cinematic device that is similar to, say, for example, the writings of Lautréamont in which he has this narrator who guides the reader and this is your effort to help out the viewer through the reenactments and through the juxtaposition and through the editing?

Morris: I think it’s both. I’ve never been compared to Lautréamont before. Here’s what I would say. There’s a movie. A movie is a movie. But you can also ask what is behind the movie. Was my intention to investigate the story? Was it my intention to find out new things? It’s self-serving of me to say so, but I would say yes! I mean, what’s the idea here? The idea is there is this set of photographs. They’ve been shown all around the world. Hundreds of millions of people have seen these photographs. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. But do we really know what we’re looking at? Has anyone talked to the people who took the photographs? What actually was going on in the photographs? I’ll give you an example. One picture that Susan Sontag remarks on is the picture of Sabrina Harman with her thumbs up. Smiling. The body of an Iraqi prisoner. Al-Jamadi. A lynching? I would say yes. But who is responsible? You look at the picture and you think, Ugh! It’s the woman in the picture. The smile! The thumbs up! She’s the culprit. She’s implicated. We come to find out. Wrong! Wrong! So this is an ongoing problem that I have with how photographs are interpreted in general.


Standard Operating Procedure

It seems particularly fitting to remark upon Errol Morris’s latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, as Armond White offers yet another hysterical fulmination about how online culture is apparently destroying exegesis, ranting in particular about “the shame of middle-class and middlebrow conformity that critics follow each other when praising movies that disrespect religion, rail about the current administration or feed into a sense of nihilism that only people privileged with condos and professional can tenure.”

This colorful sentiment is, to say the least, a disingenuous generalization. For Morris’s documentary (and the accompanying book written by Philip Gourevitch) would seem to suggest that one cannot approach an important subject like Abu Ghraib without a sense of outrage. That no matter how rational one is in investigating the events behind this nightmarish aperçu into America’s dark underbelly, journalist, filmmaker, and audience member alike must shout to the high ethical heavens. But is it really an act of conformity — class-driven, no less — to be appalled by what is revealed in the photographs? Is it conformist to speculate upon why Sabrina Harman offered a thumbs-up signal or whether or not Lynndie England was coerced by Charles Graner into holding a dog leash?

An innate sense of inquiry cannot be called conformist if it involves an independent series of perceptions that involve grasping some aspect of the truth, subject to change upon additional thought and information. And yet the main problem with Morris’s fascinating new film is that, with the ancillary and rather fixed reenactments photographed by Robert Richardson, it is possible that Morris may be holding the viewer’s hand too much, urging her to care when the interviews alone offer enough unknowns and the horrific glimpses into a soldier’s dead eyes four years later are enough to make one uncomfortable.

In watching these soldiers, I couldn’t help but consider the scene in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah in which barber Abraham Bomba works in his shop, reproducing the precise grooming moves he employed while cutting the hair of victims about to be gassed in Treblinka. It is an eerie echo from the past that cannot altogether be shaken off in the present. And in my painful determination to understand, however limited, why these soldiers had done what they did and how the Abu Ghraib experience had shaken them, I wanted to know more about how the idea of getting used to anything — even the rough interrogation and humiliation of prisoners — was carried back to the homeland. This may not be an entirely fair request of Morris. His film is, as he contends in the press notes, an investigation into the Abu Ghraib photographs. But if, as Susan Sontag observed, “the photographs are us,” is it entirely unreasonable to ask the investigator to venture further?

It isn’t mentioned in the film, but Javal Davis, who comes across as a smooth, free-wheeling raconteur, is revealed, in Gourevitch’s book, to be “in sales. The career path that I have now, you know — comfortable. I deal with people on the regular basis. I’m not handling anybody’s problems. I’m not dealing with anything violent. So I’m business to business, all personal, ‘How you doing? I’m Javal Davis. Nice to meet you.’ Everybody’s happy. I like that. Sales. I’m a salesman.” And because Morris has flown out Davis, along with all the other soldiers, to his Cambridge headquarters to conduct these interviews, we do not see these soldiers in their current habitat. For all we know, Davis could have viewed his trip to Cambridge as a business trip. Business to business. And he could have adjusted accordingly.

It’s possible that Richardson’s visuals serve as a device similar to Comte de Lautréamont’s unusual narrator. In Maldoror, Lautréamont offered a unique device in which the narrator often parodies feelings by willfully distorting or rethinking the sordid events that are presented. Likewise, by illustrating what his interviews are telling us through these visual reenactments, this may be Morris’s heavy-handed help to us that we must rethink our own thoughts and feelings concerning these photographs. Or perhaps it’s more visceral. As I learned in an interview I conducted with Morris this week, outrage was also involved in these reenactments.

The outrage is conveyed as a prisoner is described having his eyebrows shaved off, with Morris including a close-up of a razor deracinating a tuft of hair. Morris likewise dramatizes a dog that terrorizes another prisoner. But Morris has the dog menacing the prisoner in slow-motion, with a melodramatic sound mix depicting the dog’s bottom jaw snapping shut like a steel trap.

Given the intriguing ambiguities unearthed during the interviews, this seemed to me to spoon-feed the audience too much. And I wasn’t alone. In an essay for Artforum, Paul Arthur took umbrage with these visuals, observing:

Their style, however, belongs to a film genre that provides titillation through horror. To employ this rhetoric in a documentary about actual horror is obscene, yielding familiar aesthetic thrills as a substitute for specificity of meaning. We aren’t prompted to contemplate the Iraq occupation’s signature scandal as the product of a mercenary chain of executive decisions, cultural attitudes, venalities, and personal pathologies; we are, as it were, let off the hook. It’s only a movie.

If a generic sense of horror is what is required to get through to the average moviegoer, then I cannot quibble as strenuously as Arthur does (and perhaps White will). But if a complex issue requires complex consideration, then any reenactment that will help a viewer construct a “map of reality” must not dictate too much. It is reasonable to accept the shaved eyebrow, but the dog goes over the top.

Likewise, in the book, Gourevitch maintains a level-headed, mostly objective tone for almost 160 pages before writing:

There is a constant temptation, when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of it. This temptation is greatest when the history is fresh and deals with crises that are ongoing — crises that mold our understanding of our world and ourselves. Surely, if you have come this far in this sordid tale, you must crave some relief, some release, from the relentless, claustrophobic annihilation of the dungeon: a clear and cleansing note of sanity, an interlude of avenging justice or an eruption of decency, the entry of a hero. But surely you don’t want to be deceived. There is no such solace or sanctuary in this story.

Gourevitch then launches into a grand attack on what the Abu Ghraib atrocities say about America, pointing to the famous precedent of treating enemy prisoners well set by George Washington and fulminating against the Bush Administration. Not even a journalist as dutiful as Gourevitch can look at the photos and the complicit involvement of these bad apples without exploding.

Others will likely perceive this film to be mostly about the visuals atop the visuals, the analysis atop the analysis, the meta within the meta. But the real “standard operating procedure” explored in this film isn’t so much the pedestrian issue of how war caused the lines of basic human decency to become fuzzy, but the manner in which a great filmmaker has partially abandoned his subtleties to get Americans hopping mad. The faults lie not in the filmmakers and not, as White suggests, the critics. They’re doing their best to continue the dialogue, but their efforts have increasingly fallen upon deaf ears. For Abu Ghraib does not entertain. And neither does moral outrage.

(To listen to my podcast interview with Errol Morris, go here.)

On Cruelty and Journalism

A kid eagerly opens his Xmas present. His eyes light up with happiness and great shock. How did his parents manage to pull it off? It’s an Xbox! Something that the kids down the street have and that mock him for not having. But his parents somehow pulled all their pennies together and came through.

“Open it!” screech his parents, knowing that the kid’s about to get a surprise.

press.jpgAnd the kid rips open the cardboard, only to find that within the box are a handful of shirts.

But that’s not all. The parents then begin laughing at the poor kid, who is heartbroken at being duped and heartbroken at being poor. The parents continue to chant how they can’t afford an Xbox. And they’re recording this moment for posterity. Just so they can see how their son is hurt, horrified, and dejected in the course of three minutes.

You can find the video here. And I find it appalling that these parents would not only commit such a despicable act of cruelty, but that they would record this on camera for posterity. (If they couldn’t afford the Xbox, how then could they afford the camera?) There is simply no morally justifiable reason for this behavior. Class doesn’t excuse it. And with the parents constantly referencing their social station, we truly see just how trapped this kid is. Not by class, but by neglect, an inability to emphasize with one’s fellow humans, and a wholesale justification of psychological torture. The disturbing question I’m dwelling upon after watching this video is just what the kid will learn from being photographed like this. Will he emerge psychologically troubled? Will he then in turn capture his misdeeds with a video camera?

I can’t help consider this cruel act of domestic terror in relation to additional cruel photos that were unleashed the other day ago at Wired. The photos — new ones from Abu Ghraib — were presented because psychologist Philip Zimbardo planned a talk around them. Zimbardo was the man who administered over a famous Stanford experiment in 1971, in which students acted as prisoners and guards and the “guards” began abusing the prisoners, demanding that they strip and perform sex acts. He’s come out with a new book on the subject, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. But aside from pondering why a person would turn to outright cruelty, I want to know why these people also feel the need to record these acts for posterity.

In one of her last essays before her death, Susan Sontag had a few ideas on this subject. She suggested that the Abu Ghraib photos reflected something particularly troubling in American culture — that “the horror of what is shown in the photographs cannot be separated from the horror that the photographs were taken — with the perpetrators posing, gloating, over their helpless captives.”

But I don’t think this impulse is limited to war. I think the impulse to photograph or videotape a cruel misdeed is now indelibly interwoven into the American psyche. The camera is now a device that offers anyone total justification for being entirely removed from human emotion. We’re not allowed to get involved. We’re supposed to be objective reporters, even if it involves removing ourselves from our own abject acts. And if you express anything remotely subjective or if you actually give a damn in any way, you’re considered to be a stain upon the great American journalistic quilt.

I conducted an interview not too long ago in which I had to stop tape. The things we were talking about made the interview subject cry. And I couldn’t in good conscience continue the interview and remain “objective” about it. The man was in pain. And I cared too much. Off tape, I asked the man if he was okay. He insisted that he was. But we had clearly gone down a dark road. When the interview was over, I spent a good hour considering the ways in which I had brought out this man’s emotions, damning my apparent gift for gab. My girlfriend listened as I condemned myself for getting these answers. As I blamed myself for his pain. Is this what it means to be a journalist?

I’ve yet to master the podcast. I know that when I listen to this audio, I’ll have to experience his pain again. But I also know that I have a journalistic obligation to portray this pain for my listeners. Because it’s a story that everybody needs to hear. But I also wonder if I’ll reveal myself — even in a small way — to be just as terribly removed as these parents and these soldiers are.

More Abu Ghraib Photos

Here. These were, of course, kept secret from the public. Disgusting. Definitely NSFW. I’m ashamed to be American. And I think I’m going to roll into a ball. Because if these photos don’t get America horrified, I don’t know what will.

NPR, of course, is silent about these images this morning.

I’m looking at CNN’s website and there’s a tiny link to the right when this should be the top story.

Nothing at the Washington Post or the New York Times. Or even my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

In short, the American media is thoroughly bought and paid for at a time when Americans absolutely need to bear witness to the inhumane and cruel actions that Americans — yes, that would be us — have inflicted upon the Iraqi people. They need to understand that these images were kept from them by a government all too determined to “protect” them from the knowledge that war is well beyond hell.

I can’t imagine what kind of atavistic asshole you have to be to turn away and ignore these images and walk into work with that bullshit skip in your stride, that Starbucks cup in your hand, and say to yourself just how great it is to be an American.

[UPDATE: Transcript from Australian news program containing more details on the video and link to video itself. Utterly atavistic. (Thanks for the lead, Tayari!)]

[UPDATE 2: Brian Sawyer writes in to note that the images are now the front-page story on CNN and Google News. The San Francisco Chronicle? A Valentine’s Day pillow fight at the Ferry Building is apparently more important than these new photos. See screenshot below.]