Response to papers and comments on Standard Operating Procedure

by Irina Leimbacher

Introductory remarks before papers

This panel came about due to a series of passing remarks with colleagues in haphazard movie theatre encounters, university hallways, or late night conversations on street corners in which it became clear that some of us had almost virulently opposed reactions to Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure. Linda Williams was the first to transform her response into an article on the film, Bill Nichols, in a conversation with me, semi-seriously suggested a public debate about it, and Jonathan Kahana actually pulled us together for this panel. In the meantime, I think some of our reactions and analyzes have softened a bit. Nevertheless, the papers presented here ideally set the stage not for agreement, but for a lively debate in which we hope the audience will participate.

Response after the papers

I want to thank Bill, Jonathan and Linda for their varied insights into Errol Morris’ SOP. It is a privilege to be able to respond to three people whose scholarship I respect enormously and to participate on a panel whose narrow focus allows for an in-depth engagement both with the close reading of a film text and with their divergent approaches and reactions to this text. In my response, I want to reiterate some of these divergences and raise more questions about this troubling yet fruitfully provocative, film.

First, since the issue at hand is framing and re-framing in and of Standard Operating Procedure, I think it is interesting to note how the three papers themselves framed their arguments, and perhaps to also ask ourselves the more preliminary question how and why we react to films as we do, and subsequently, how we translate such an initial reaction into argument or scholarship? Bill addresses this directly, a still somewhat rare occurrence in academia, and his initial response to the film became the frame for his paper: acknowledging his embodied reaction, then analyzing it. He also frames his piece as a letter, clearly a rhetorical device not chosen naively with regard to a film constructed largely of scenes of address and a film that uses letters to a lover as one of its central pieces of evidence. In the case of Morris in his film, however, the addressee (i.e. Morris) is invisible, largely inaudible, and constructed as an empty and unacknowledged cipher, something that Bill critiques at a later point in his paper.

Jonathan, on the other hand frames his argument and the film within our culture’s discourse of trauma and the speech act of the “excuse.” According to him, since Vietnam, trauma has become a “form of political collectivity” and a collective discourse that can turn the excuse, with regard to war, into an affirmative position.

Finally Linda, frames her argument around the very acts of framing and re-framing, both the MP’s framing of their very own “mass ornaments” and Morris’ visual and conceptual re-framing of these framings.  Within these frames, the writers reach very different conclusions, almost polar opposite in the case of Bill and Linda.

For where Bill sees a failure to address the challenge of determining responsibility, Linda sees “torture” subjected to intense and fruitful interrogation. Where Bill sees “no moral center, ” Linda sees a brilliant interpretation of interpretations, a witness of (or shall I say for) witnesses. Jonathan, somehow in between, seems to see the film structured, whether deliberately or symptomatically, as a paradox that shows us, through its self-enclosed economy of discourse about torture, that cinema may not be the medium to teach us to see behind mass-produced images.

In these cases, there is nothing about these articulated frames that leads to each of the scholars radically different conclusions. Instead their differences perhaps have more to do with their varying interpretations of certain formal and aesthetic elements of the film. The two main elements are, of course, the interrotron interviews and the reenactments. Each of these is a Morris staple , but they are used in this film in slightly different ways than in his past films. In the remainder of my response I will briefly look at these two elements and then come back to the central question of Morris’ framing practices in this film, and the problems they embody for me.

The interrotron interviews

For Jonathan, these interviews honor and dignify the speakers in part by never being challenged, and the closeness of the interrotron images inherently create a kind of empathy in the viewer. Because of their contextualization by Dugan’s early statement in the film, however, the film additionally suggests that the speakers have experienced or are still experiencing a state of trauma “in which agency and action are separated from will and consciousness.” Not only are the speakers offering excuses, we are meant to excuse them.

For Bill, Morris’ interrotron-inflected interviews put the interlocutors under a bell jar, alienating the documentary subjects from first their bodies, then also their lived social contexts and the larger institutional and political contexts under discussion. Bill sees Morris’ interviews as providing no insight into the subjects who seem “not all there” or stuck in some nowhere of the film studio.

Linda, on the other hand, sees the possibilities opened up by the interrotron’s direct gaze as revelatory, as she reads in and through the subjects’ eye movements and facial gestures while they speak. Indeed she sees them ethical beings wrestling with their conceptions of right and wrong. She suggests that Morris’ “restless reframings” alert us to, attend to, changes in demeanor that might reveal this.

The reenactments

For Jonathan the reenactments are significant not so much for their style but for their redundancy in relation to the interviews. By merely amplifying, exaggerating or aestheticizing (and I would add, by not contesting, mocking, or undermining as in some of Morris’ earlier films) the positions expressed in the testimony become statements that “have the effect not of confessions but of excuses.” While for Bill, some of the reenactments place us in morally impossible spaces, aligning us with the pov of the perpetrators of crime, making no distinction between mere deviance and legitimizing an illegal national policy, treating everything and every ethical position as if they were the same.

Morris’ frames

With regard to Morris’ framing in his film, Linda claims that Morris reflexively calls attention to and augments numerous frames in order to reveal the mindset of the framers and ultimately to discourage us from judging them. Bill finds this “achievement” not to bean achievement but a weakness of the film, which for him does not augment the frame nearly enough or at least not in the right direction. Where is the social and political context, where are those whose bodies figure most prominently on Morris’ screen, as much if not more a subject of fetishistic display or perverse ornamental possession for Morris as for the MPs? Where are the voices, or at least some gestures toward the subjectivities of the Iraqi prisoners?

One can probably get a sense of where I personally stand with regard to Standard Operating Procedure. I would like to make a few comments to complement some of my colleagues’ arguments. I too saw the film in San Francisco, but unlike Bill I saw it in a full house at the largest theater of the SF International Film Festival with Morris present. At the end of the film, Morris, to my shock, got a standing ovation. (San Francisco audiences never fail to surprise me). Yes, Morris had encouraged and made gestures to the greater responsibility of the military hierarchy. Yes, he had shown that the little guys, and gals, were not ultimately to blame. Perhaps he had successfully absolved the “bad apples” of their guilt, turning them into victims rather than perpetrators. But at what cost? At the cost of complicity in a culture of the excuse, which is perhaps not so grave when it concerns the individual but is a sign of dangerous self-absorption when it becomes the discourse of a nation. At the cost of complicity in the perverse fetishization of the Arab male body that his camera spends so much time depicting (in extreme close-up and extreme slow motion) in a state of abject despair and powerlessness. At the cost of complicity in a culture that wants to accept things only at “face” value, that deliberately confuses monologue and dialogue, that cannot hear the voices of those it has demonized, and that sees no need either to claimany responsibility whatsoever nor, god forbid, to ask for forgiveness.

The litany of excuses, of denials of responsibility, of Jean Cayrol’s text from Night and Fog rises to the surface of my cinematic memory.

“’I am not responsible,’ says the Kapo. ‘I am not responsible,’ says the officer. ‘I am not responsible.’”

But then who is responsible asks the narrator, and we in this room know the answer that that film suggests:

“We turn a blind eye… a deaf ear…”

Morris’ film gives a different answer: that of the pointing finger, and the finger is always pointed away from the self. Who is responsible for this profound lacuna at the heart of this film? For me it is Errol Morris – not his subjects, not the photographs of Abu Ghraib, not the military and the politicians, but Morris himself.

Towards the end of her 2005 book Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler writes:

“… when one gives an account of oneself one is not merely relaying information through an indifferent medium. The account is an act—situated within a larger practice of acts—that one performs for, to, even on an other… “ (130)

And a few pages later:

“No ‘I’ can begin to tell its story without asking: ‘Who are you who speaks to me?’ ‘To whom do I speak when I speak to you?’ If this establishes the priority of rhetoric to ethics,[1]that might be just as well. The mode of address conditions and structures the way in which moral questions emerge….” (134) [emphasis mine] [open endnotes in new window]

These notions — that an account only exists as address; that rhetoric may take priority over or precede ethics; and that the mode of address conditions the way in which moral questions emerge — seem relevant to an analysis of this work by Errol Morris. (And here by address I include the address of interviewees to the interrotron and the address of filmmaker Morris to us.) First let me do a quick analysis of the SOP interviews. As Bill said, heads only against a studio-lit wall. But what wall? A grey concrete institutional wall is suggested. What does this mean? All the speaking subject are equal? They are all parts of some grey and impersonal institution? They are all just cogs in some bigger industrial, or rather military-industrial, wheel? Or that grey multi-toned concrete is simply in fashion, an art director’s fashionable background for a not so fashionable topic?

The frame is wide, the cameras multiple, the heads jump cut across the screen. (Most interviews have 2 to 3 alternating positions of the talking head in the frame/screen.) From one side to the other they push against the frame’s boundaries but are always contained by them (with one exception which is very revealing).[2] What can we make of this? The subjects have been “framed”? Is Morris calling attention to changes in demeanor or expression as Linda suggests? Does his camera blink with empathy, with compassion for them or for us? Is he working to reveal something? I would venture not. Indeed the jump cuts are a confession (or should we say excuse?). A confession that Morris has made a cut in the interview. Yes, he is self-reflexively exposing his cuts by making them emphatically visible, but what are the implications of cutting his subjects’ speech so constantly and consistently that it becomes a stylistic device?[3] In calling visual attention to itself, the visible cut perhaps dissuades aural attention to the fact that words, sentences, perhaps even paragraphs have been taken away.

And what of Morris’ absence, his retreat behind the interrotron, as if the speakers’ looking into the lens of Morris’ mediated face (or the face of Morris’ mediated lens) would necessarily lead to greater honesty, transparency, or a deeper degree of self-reflection rather than just more concern with posing or com-posing a presence for the world. Twice we hear Morris’ questions, because grammatically the responses could not stand alone. Question one to Megan Ambuhl-Graner: “Did any of this seem weird?” And question two to Lynndie England: “When did he find out that you were pregnant?” This is the extent of Morris literal (aural) presence, but his figural presence through the machine-proxy and through, to use a now old but hardly outdated concept, the “voice” of the film, is all the more heavy-handed.

To cite Judith Butler once again:

“The mode of address conditions and structures the way in which moral questions emerge….” [emphasis mine]

What kind of mode of address is created by the interrotron, and what moral questions does it encourage? Dissuade? Open up? Close down? (I think this is an important question for reflection, even if I don’t yet have a tidy answer.) Cinematic testimony always has and embodies multiple authorship. The filmmaker bears or at least shares responsibility for the act of enunciation, both for what can be and what is enunciated (based on a dialogue and understanding between filmmaker and subject) and for the cinematic and discursive shape that this enunciation takes (based on the shooting, cutting and editing of words).

Any filmed interview or testimony is thus always the fruit of shared address and shared authorship, and I strongly believe we should hold filmmakers co-responsible for what is said and howit is said in their films. The filmmaker is always present—in the pro-filmic reality which gives rise to the cinematic discourse, in her traces in the mise-en-scene, and in the temporal/spatial construction and deployment of speech.

Jonathan has noted that Dugan’s placement at the beginning of the film inflects Morris’ “framing” of all that follows because it suggests and opens up the possibility of the excuse amidst the collective trauma. Indeed Dugan not only introduces the film, but closes it as well, and if there seems to be any live quasi-surrogate for Morris’ voice (or the voice of the documentary), it would be him. But it is not only Dugan’s voice that opens and closes the film, but also his own photos. Which photos? Photos of a sunrise and a sunset, the frame of a human day, the natural rhythm of day and night without which we would have no world in which to live. Dugan repeatedly suggests a binary between what is normal and the “surreal” ambiance of Abu Ghraib, the normal and the abnormal methods of interrogation, the goodmorale of order and the low morale of the cluster fuck. Somewhat bizarrely, Morris has Dugan’s opening comments end with the sentence:

“I wouldn’t recommend a vacation to Iraq any time soon.”

For Dugan/Morris, then, it is as if this would be the norm that we should, or do, aspire to. Normalized Iraq and normalized Abu Ghraib (according to what and which nation’s laws?) would permit Iraq to become a new site of pleasure for American tourists. Of course I know this statement is expressed with irony, but I would venture to claim that behind humor always lurks the trace of ideology.

Dugan/Morris ends the film with the following sentence, heard over his snapshots of a lovely sunset.

“So I started my day everyday at least watching those guys, the birdies, take off and at least thinking something in the world was still normal. They could fly away from Abu G. They came back every night, but they could fly away every morning. It helped deal with the weirdness.”

With Dugan, Morris has moved us over the course of the film from cluster fucks to weirdness, from sunrise to sunset, from finger pointing to finger pointing. Indeed, the category of the “weird” seems to be the surrogate for any ethicalcategory throughout the film. As one of the fifteen words spoken by Morris in his movie (and those who have seen his website know that the “weird” seems to be an ontological category for Morris), as a recurring word throughout several of the testimonies, and as Morris’ last word to us, we must ask if thisis the type of analysis that we expect from non-fiction media that takes on some of the most fundamental and frightening issues of our day.

(Brief postscript: I want to add that I’m not at all suggesting that Morris needed to blame or inculpate the subjects of his film, but rather that he could have solicited and assembled a much more sophisticated and self-conscious dialogue, both with his various subjects and with us, his audience).

And now for comments and questions to all the panelists.

Links to individual presentations:

Go to Notes page for Leimbacher essay

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