Wednesday, December 17, 2008


To Errol is human

By Edward Copeland
Twenty years ago, Errol Morris made one of the greatest documentaries of all time, The Thin Blue Line. I'd planned to write an appreciation of the film on the exact anniversary of the film that helped get an innocent man released from Texas' death row until circumstances took me down. Thirty years ago, Morris made a less-slick, but really sweet and odd nonfiction film called Gates of Heaven about pet cemeteries and the people who bury their lost companions there. Morris has continued to make documentaries but it seems as if the more polished his technique as a filmmaker has become, the more his skills as a documentarian have faltered. This is certainly the case with his Abu Ghraib documentary this year, Standard Operating Procedure, which seems more interested in re-creations and showy scenes than simple reporting.

Since the subject matter of Standard Operating Procedure concerns the Iraq war, Morris is at a bit of a handicap since documentaries about Bush's boondoggle and the war on terror have practically become a genre of their own.

Morris' film does have some pluses going for it though: interviews with many of the key players involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal, including Lynndie England, a presence in many of the most infamous scenes of torture. The straight-on interviews with the principals are powerful enough, but Morris feels the need to dress it up with ghostly images and actors portraying the people involved, even tossing in the explosion of a military helicopter at one point for no apparent reason.

When one soldier is reading a letter she wrote home, describing how she had to stamp out swarms of ants, Morris feels it necessary to create sepia-toned images of shoes coming down on insects. (He even gets an original score from Danny Elfman and some cinematography from Robert Richardson to spruce things up.)

Standard Operating Procedure seems particularly weak coming on the heels of last year's Oscar winner for documentary feature, Taxi to the Dark Side, which focused on abuses at prisons in Afghanistan which later migrated to Abu Ghraib. That film played like an investigation and was all the more powerful for it.

Standard Operating Procedure never really builds to anything and goes off on strange tangents, such as a lengthy section explaining the difference in time stamps on different versions of the same photos and how one man fixed the cameras to have the same time.

I was so puzzled by Morris' approach that though I didn't much care for the film, I started to listen to the DVD commentary in search of my own answers. Soon into Morris' commentary he explains that what he wanted the documentary to be about was photographs, if what's in the frame is the truth or if it's hiding the reality outside the frame.

That's certainly a noble idea, but Abu Ghraib alone was the wrong vehicle to get this point across, because that doesn't come through. You know how a joke isn't funny if you have to explain why it's funny? That's how I feel about movies, fiction and nonfiction. They shouldn't need supplements to explain them. They should succeed or fail on their own.

Maybe if Morris had told multiple stories, such as he did with Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, his idea about photos would have been clear, but expecting viewers to glean that from as combustible a subject matter as Abu Ghraib and Iraq is not the right vehicle for that pursuit.

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At the risk of sounding like a dittohead, all I can say is, yes, Edward, that's exactly how I feel about the Abu Ghraib film. Jokes and docs aren't effective if they need explaining.
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