Errol Morris’s latest film, Tabloid, doesn’t tackle the major themes of war and torture that his previous efforts, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure, investigated. Instead, he turns his eye toward the cult of celebrity through the story of Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 followed her Mormon boyfriend Kirk Anderson to England, where he was doing missionary work, in order to rescue him from what she believed to be his religious “cult.” Depending on who is telling the story (McKinney, her associates, tabloid reporters) what happened next is either a beautiful, tragic love story or a lurid tale of kidnapping and sex. Essentially, McKinney appears to have taken Kirk (perhaps forcibly) to the English countryside for a weekend and attempted to “save” him by tying him to a bed and having sex with him for several days. When they returned to London, McKinney was arrested and eventually fled back to America.
Standard Operating Procedure (#1–10 of 3)
Jason Bellamy: Ten years from now, if not sooner, when people refer to Standard Operating Procedure, they’ll call it Errol Morris’ film about Abu Ghraib. But anyone who has seen the film, and certainly anyone who has heard Morris discuss it, knows that the prisoner abuse scandal that unfolded at the notorious Baghdad prison wasn’t the subject of the documentarian’s investigation. For Morris, the scandal is coincidental context. What Standard Operating Procedure is actually about is the elusiveness of unambiguous truth in photojournalism. Morris uses the digital snapshots of prisoner harassment at Abu Ghraib to illustrate that while a picture never lies, it seldom tells the truth. To look at a photo of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers, is to see just that, yet instinctively we give images additional meaning; we fill in the areas outside of the frame. In the context of Abu Ghraib we look at that aforementioned photo and call it a depiction of torture or harassment or effective interrogation or standard operating procedure, etc. Any one of these might be true. A few of them might be true. Or maybe none of those interpretations is true. In the end, all we really have is an image of a hooded man, standing on a box with wires wrapped around his fingers. That’s where unambiguous truth ends.
I mention all of this as setup to our conversation about the films of Errol Morris because I think it’s fascinating that a documentary filmmaker would call attention to the unavoidable deceptiveness of his medium. Though most moviegoers are savvy enough to realize that documentaries seldom deal in Absolute Truth, the documentary genre is one that relies on the presentation of at least near-truth. As a “documentary,” Standard Operating Procedure is akin to 60 Minutes; without that label, it would be akin to A Few Good Men. Fictional films can still be truthful, of course, but their truth has a different weight. In a fiction film the “based on a true story” assertion is a decoration, an accessory. It’s like a tattoo. In a documentary, truth is the spine holding everything in place. Thus, you’d think that no documentary filmmaker would want to chop away at the very element that keeps the genre upright. Then again, not many documentary filmmakers are so specifically expressive with their images as Morris. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that Morris’ documentaries are more unambiguously truthful than anyone else’s, but few filmmakers are so skillful at slicing away the periphery to narrow in on the subject at hand. I can’t think of any filmmaker who so adeptly and obsessively focuses our attention to precisely what’s on screen.
Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is proof that a documentary can illuminate, like No End in Sight, while still feeling like an actual film, unlike No End in Sight. The first thing that strikes you is Lynndie England’s face, older and more filled out than we remember, weathered by motherhood, possibly guilt, and as this chilling account of how torture and humiliation at Abu Ghraib was conducted attests to, the nature of scapegoatism. Some critics are mistakenly going into this film expecting a diagrammatic exposé of what led to the Abu Ghraib scandal, one that casts a finger-pointing net at George W. Bush and his administration, when really it’s a study of images and the way they reveal culpability, and how snakes like Donald Rumsfeld have craftily, perhaps unconsciously, exploited their understanding of this relationship to absolve themselves of guilt. The film ponders: How do we blame higher-ups like Rumsfeld for what happened at Abu Ghraib if they weren’t psychically in the picture? Morris’s recreations are his signatures, and they’re sometimes sore spots in his work, but here they feel as purposeful as they were in The Thin Blue Line, cannily dialoguing with his thesis about the veracity of image-making and reaching some sort of apotheosis of mindfuckery when Morris reveals the process by which certain images taken within the blood-splattered walls of Abu Ghraib were deemed to depict “criminal activity” while others were stamped as representing “standard operating procedure.” One moment you’re disgusted by Morris’s subjects, the next they inspire your sympathy—when the subtext those images are unable to reveal are brought to the fore via startling confessions: like Sabrina Harman smiling and holding her thumb up for the camera, an action she claims to default to whenever she poses for a picture (no matter the context), and then you wonder if this revelation makes her actions any more or less reprehensible; or in the case of the famous image of England holding a prisoner by a leash, how the media misrepresented the action in the image and how actual physical information was cropped out of the image (maybe to absolve someone else of wrongdoing, as England speculates, but more likely to make the horror of the picture appear more aesthetically pleasing to the eye). A semiotic essay that doesn’t feel like one or announce itself as one, which is to say it doesn’t play like some Haynesian PhD thesis, Standard Operating Procedure leaves the mind reeling—art, philosophical discourse, and human rights activism in one.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.