Film: Errol Morris: Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Errol Morris is not a terrific storyteller, really. He’s a marvelous interviewer, eliciting stunning frankness through his Interrotron, and his collaborations with cinematographers Robert Richardson and Peter Donahue are intoxicated with light and motion, paring action to its sparsest visual expression. His editing is patient, and that may be his downfall – as a storyteller, anyway. Like Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter; Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, and most clearly The Fog of War, he cuts Standard Operating Procedure to the meditative rhythms of introspection rather than driving narration, slowing what might have been speedier plotting – in the choppy hands of more literary filmmakers – to the near halt of interrupted memory.

For a few years, since seeing The Thin Blue Line, I found this both spellbinding and tedious beyond reason, in the way that, say, watching the earthly progress of a rising tide might be. Especially in that film, where I felt Morris was trying to convince me of his subject’s innocence of murder, his method seemed beside the point, slow for the sake of lingering on details that have no functional, legal meaning: the slosh of a milk shake, the blast of gunsmoke. The artfulness was not beyond me, but for what reason? It seemed counterproductive, and worse, his storytelling was slack as a result.

I have since continued to feel this way, watching The Fog of War, or Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (Mr. Death seems to have married this inclination perfectly with the man himself, Fred Leuchter, whose introspection seems at best halting and fixated), but lately it’s affected me differently. A recent review of The Fog of War struck me less for its protracted narrative than for its fluid commingling of first person recollection and immediate visual breakdown of those very spoken thoughts. His images, and the rhythms he employs to piece them together into a story, seem more intuitive and moody than they are necessary, almost as though they are a copout, a way to avoid showing talking heads for two hours. Except that he does show talking heads, talking a lot – and his images evoke extraordinary mood.

Standard Operating Procedure is in every way a standard operating Morris film. We have seen the same methods, used to even greater emotional and narrative capacity in the past. Nevermind that this time his subject is a prominent contemporary moral conundrum – the prisoner abuse documented by photographs at Abu Graib – Morris is doing nothing new. In fact, he may be slipping. His interviews are more numerous than usual, more lackadaisical in tone, and go on and on and on when the dramatic arc of the film might be considered complete. Yet when he got around to it, I was mesmerized by his filmmaking. Danny Elfman’s pulsing Danny Elfman score at last seems loaded with the gothic horror weight Tim Burton always hoped it carried (but that Tim Burton’s films never supported), and it’s generously ladled out over recre after recre, as prisoners are beaten, humiliated, tortured, and violated by a largely unseen pack of U.S. Army personnel. Only they are seen, repeatedly, in the photographs they took of themselves in the act, as well as their interviews, and in the interviews of each other. This marriage of retrospect and instant analysis now, in Morris’ career, has graceful flow, of the lofty, smoky bent of a man morally attuned to judging the actions of his subjects from a distance – and inasmuch as one is morally willing to allow him that judgment, pulling it off. I let him, because I agreed with him. But judgment aside, his craft is absolutely impeccable. It’s so pleasurably precise, in fact, that I cared less when his storytelling slowed to a predictable shuffle, and then stuttered to a whimsical close with an observation about the birds returning to the walls of the prison every evening. Which isn’t even the end of the film, but the last moment that has stayed with me.

I feel roughly the same about Morris’ filmmaking style as I do about David Lynch’s. For everything I love about both – their immaculate visual craftsmanship, their wonderfully wayward editing choices, their monomaniacally personal approach to subject matter – when it’s time to fill in the plot gaps and make a narrative whole out of the cinematic experience they’ve conjured out of spit and imagination, I just get a little bored. The kind of boredom I feel watching most narrative-driven films, the kind that creeps in when the mechanics of storytelling are less interesting than the mysterious impetus to ensure the story is adequately told.

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