Wednesday, April 23, 2008

 

Heroes and villains

Over at Propeller, I posted my interview with Errol Morris (which includes questions submitted by the community). The subject was Standard Operating Procedure, the director's new documentary about the Abu Ghraib scandal. The film is hypnotic and deeply disquieting. I'm not wild about Danny Elfman's score, whose amped-up melodrama seems ill-suited to Morris's cooler aesthetic. But this elegant meditation on crime and punishment--and on photography itself--has stuck with me since I saw it. Here's a salient bit from the conversation:
Morris: Everybody loves to imagine what these stories are. You see something really, really, really bad--and I would put Abu Ghraib in that category--and the natural human tendency is to imagine that these people are beyond the pale, they're not like you and me, they're in some deep sense subhuman. And on the flip side, there are the real heroes, who stood up and said, "I won't allow this to happen." Now, I'm not saying that there aren't people who are beyond the pale, and that there aren't real heroes. I just think that the story is far, far more complex.

For both the Left and Right, the bad apples are these odd constructions. Everybody has an investment in seeing them as bad. Part of what the movie is trying to do--and I think it's a risky thing to do--is to show people struggling with a kind of nightmare.

Propeller: The nightmare of Abu Ghraib itself?

Morris: Yes. I mean, the place was crazy. They put a prison in the middle of the Sunni Triangle! One of the standards of the Geneva Convention is that you do not put prisoners in a war zone, where they can be killed. You put them behind your own lines. Abu Ghraib, setting aside all its associations with Saddam's regime, was in a place that was just dangerous. There were two military intelligence officers who lost their lives that September during a mortar attack. Prisoners were killed, too. It was a dangerous place, ill-supplied, understaffed, with people pouring in from random sweeps. People coming into the place were unable to get out, due to endless bureaucratic rigmarole. For all intents and purposes, we were running a concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Congratulations!
Again, you can read the rest here. And for the visually inclined, here's a brief film clip of the director talking. Since he was leaning back in his chair, his shirt is crisply lit and his face is grainy, with a Francis Bacon-like swirling of reds and purples. (Fun fact: as a young man, Morris studied the cello with Nadia Boulanger, as did his frequent collaborator Philip Glass. Is she the mother of American minimalism? Aaron Copland studied with Boulanger as well, and I've always thought that his 1924 Symphony for Organ and Orchestra had a distinctly minimalist shimmer to it.) Anyway, here's Errol:

video

Comments:
I read the entire interview with Morris and found it fascinating and, of course, disturbing. I had a lot of respect for Morris before reading the interview; I have even more now. This quote from him is especially chilling: "For all intents and purposes, we were running a concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Congratulations!"
 
Hi Charles, I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. I'll be curious to hear what you think of the film. Meanwhile, it's worth noting that even Morris was indulging in a bit of hyperbole by calling Abu Ghraib a concentration camp. It was a ghastly operation in all sorts of ways--but not an industrialized killing machine on par with Auschwitz.
 
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