Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure, Errol Morris, 2008

The latest installment in Errol Morris’ ceaseless quest for the truth investigates the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos, delving deeper into the story than others might have dared—or even thought—to tread. One of the most severe condemnations of the photographs in question is not simply the torment that the inmates are being subjected to, but the fact that their captors are smiling and giving the cameraman the thumbs-up. But Sabrina Harman, one of the women featured in these photographs, claims that she was trying to document the atrocities being practiced in the prison, fearing no one would believe her if she did not provide some physical evidence. As for the cheery demeanor, she states that she simply didn’t know what else to do with her hands, that she automatically did what you’re supposed to do when being photographed: smile and say cheese.

This seems to me an oversimplified and implausible assertion, especially after noting that in a letter to her wife, Sabrina writes that “The dead guy didn’t bother me, even took a picture with him doing the thumbs-up. But that’s when I realized it wasn’t funny anymore, that this guy had blood in his nose.”—which would imply that she had at one point thought it was funny. In his New York Times blog Zoom, Morris concurs that he’s dubious as to her claim—naturally, he seeks the expertise of Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, and expert on facial expressions. Upon studying a photograph of Harman leaning over a mangled-looking corpse while grinning for the camera, Ekman upholds that hers is not a true smile of enjoyment, but rather a social smile, the kind of fake grin everyone puts on for the camera. (Apparently this is evident in the movement in the skin right above the eyelid.) Of course, most people, upon casual glance, cannot easily tell the difference between the true enjoyment smile and the fake posed smile, and identify the person in this photograph as a sadistic brute gleefully inflicting torture upon her prisoners, as opposed to a moral crusader trying to reveal the crimes of the military to the world.

This is the sort of intriguing observation brought to light by the consultation of a specialist that I wish had not only been explored in the film, but pushed even further—why do people feel so strangely compelled to smile simply because they’re in front of a camera, even if there’s really nothing to smile about? This could have made for a fascinating examination of the nature of photography, as well as significantly aiding in the viewer’s understanding of these notorious images—I for one came away from the film feeling unsatisfied, still not really comprehending why the photos were taken (yes, to document evidence, but why the bizarre poses?). Perhaps this also lies in the fact that Charles Graner, the person whom everyone claims was responsible for orchestrating the photo shoots (he reportedly distributed prints like collectible trading cards), is incarcerated in a military prison and the army would not allow Morris to interview him.

There has been much debate regarding the film’s use of re-enactments. This is certainly not a new practice for Morris, but I’m unsure I can find a clear purpose in the highly stylized imagery seen in the film—impressionistic shots bathed in gorgeous yellow light, beads of water slowly falling from a shower, settling dust that almost seems to sparkle, an extreme close-up of a bushy eyebrow being shaved. These images strike me as too visually stunning for the subject matter within them—not that they’re necessarily meant to mimic reality. In his blog, Morris explains that his “re-enactments focus our attention on some specific detail or object that helps us look beyond the surface of images to something hidden, something deeper—something that better captures what really happened...[The re-enactments] are not asking us to suspend our disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for our entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us—to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world.” But what is being conveyed in these particular re-enactments? In Morris’ brilliant The Thin Blue Line, for instance, he focuses on a milkshake dropped at a crime scene in order to question the official report of what transpired that evening. What is Standard Operating Procedure’s falling milkshake? What striking image is depicted in such a way as to question our previous understanding of what happened? I can’t come up with one.

Nor can I say that the film gets too much closer to the reality of what took place, at least not definitively. The commentators suggest, either outright or more implicitly, that those who were actually guilty were never charged, that all of the blame fell upon the low level officers whose ill-advised actions brought about severe embarrassment for not only the military but the whole country. The accused claim they were just following orders, that they were supposed to be preparing the prisoners for interrogation, lowering their morale in order to make them more susceptible to the line of questioning they would soon be subjected to. Officers like Charles Graner only prepared them for the real torture they would undergo at the hands of their interrogators—in other words, the idiots who took pictures were used as scapegoats in order to avoid revealing the crimes of those more powerful than them. As Harman describes it, she was charged with tampering evidence that the military had already tampered with before her.

The title does signify a rather surprising revelation that comes near the film’s conclusion: after analyzing the thousands of photographs taken at Abu Ghraib, Special Agent Brent Pack of the military’s Criminal Investigations Division labels many of them, as one would expect, “criminal acts”—but still more are actually considered to be Standard Operating Procedure. According to Pack, it is unacceptable to sexually molest people by forcing them to masturbate publicly, but it is okay to humiliate them by chaining them to a bedpost and placing ladies’ underwear over their heads. Incredibly, one of the most iconic photographs of the group, of a hooded man standing on a box with wires attached to his outspread arms, is considered run-of-the-mill activity. Pack goes on to say that he doesn’t expect civilians to understand such things, but I’m nonetheless going to contend that there’s nothing to understand—these acts were, plain and simply, inhumane.

In many ways, this story verges upon the pith of Morris’ work—distinguishing the truth from what is simply perceived to be the truth. As he writes in his blog, “Photographic evidence—like all evidence—needs to be seen in context. It needs to be evaluated. If seeing itself is belief-laden, then there is no seeing independent of believing, and the “truism” has to be reversed. Believing is seeing and not the other way around.” I only wish he had employed more investigative work revolving around this idea, in the vein of his close scrutiny of a pair of Roger Fenton photographs taken during the Crimean War, the process of which was documented in his blog. But while Standard Operating Procedure isn’t my favorite of Morris’ films—in fact, it’s probably my least favorite—it’s certainly not without merit.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

It's been awhile. In my defense, I'd been holding off because I'd jotted down what I recall were some great notes on Hated, a documentary about G.G. Allin, but I'd since misplaced them and was determined to locate them before making my next posting. Unfortunately I think they're gone forever, so I'll just have to watch it again.

Movies watched, April 29 to May 4, 2008
(The gap between April 12, the latest date covered in my last post, and April 29 was mainly comprised of watching Twin Peaks, which I plan to write about once I've finished the series, not to mention the feature film, Fire Walk With Me.)

Black Christmas, Bob Clark, 1974

Nearly ten years before Bob Clark directed one of the most beloved—or at least most frequently watched—Christmas films of our time, A Christmas Story, he made another holiday film, one that’s not likely to be included in the usual seasonal TV programming.

One of the original slasher films (perhaps the original), and definitely the scariest film I’ve seen in recent memory, Black Christmas opens with a sorority holiday party, an ostensibly harmless event—until we realize we’re watching the girls through the front window, from the viewpoint of a stranger who is stalking their every move. In a camera technique utilized a few years later in the opening of Halloween, we then climb a trellis on the side of the house and into an unlocked attic window that no one ever thinks to check—even after the house’s residents are picked off one by one.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the horror: for one, the viewer knows very little about the killer. He reveals his name (“it’s me, Billy”), and he often refers to someone named Agnes. And that’s it—we never even see his face. One can imagine a Halloween-like scenario, wherein the escaped mental patient returns to his childhood home seeking his long lost sister (and, while he explicitly states that John Carpenter did not steal his idea, Clark claims that he'd envisioned a sequel to this movie—it was even to be called Halloween—that did exactly that).

Sound is also a significant aspect. The girls have been receiving frequent disturbing phone calls from Billy (perhaps the first instance of the whole “the calls are coming from inside the house!” urban legend—it precedes When a Stranger Calls by five years), in which he speaks in a variety of different voices, from a whimpering child, to a crying girl, to a reprimanding figure of authority. The distinctly separate voices are unnerving, especially when you realize it’s one person making all of them. One can attempt to piece together the events being ranted about: the little girl screams, “No, don’t Billy!”, the young boy moans about “the baby,” and the shrill, screeching adult shrieks “What your mother and I must know is, where did you put the baby? Where did you put Agnes, Billy?” From this we can surmise that as a child, Billy’s younger sister Agnes died while left in his care, either by accident or through some malicious act—why he’s returned, and what’s led to his extreme psychopathy, is another story, one we’ll never know*. Other auditory and visual factors include the subtly creepy soundtrack of strummed piano strings, and frequent use of ominous camera angles, often looking downstairs at the girls, as if from a voyeuristic viewpoint.

But perhaps what’s truly terrifying is the way that it challenges the viewer’s sense of security. One’s home is the place where one usually feels most comfortable, safe, and protected—but this film makes you question that, makes you wonder if your basement windows are actually locked, if there isn’t someone lurking down there in some dark corner, waiting for the right moment to come upstairs and stab you in the chest with your own glass unicorn figurine.

*A remake from a few years ago attempts to, like Rob Zombie’s recent Halloween does with Michael Myers, expand upon the characters of Billy and Agnes. I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read some detailed plot descriptions and it sounds ridiculous. As in the case of Halloween, the moral of the story is that less is more.

Straw Dogs, Sam Peckinpah, 1971

In this rather dark exploration of what happens when people are pushed to their limits, American mathematician David Sumner and his attractive British wife Amy move into a farm house in the English countryside. They experience some immediate hostility from the handymen who are working on the house, one of whom, Charlie, knows Amy from her younger days. They seem to have a bit of a history, which he reminds her of somewhat aggressively (“you were begging for it”)—she brushes him off, but perhaps not as repulsedly as one might expect.

It quickly becomes evident that David is far more interested in his work than in his wife. Before having sex he stops to check that the alarm clock is set, to ensure that he won’t oversleep and cut into his work. Another time Amy wanders into his office in a playful mood, and he sharply asks her to leave him alone with his equations. Their marital issues are heightened as they continue to face the harassment of their neighbors. When they find their missing cat strung up in a closet, Amy wants her husband to question the handymen, but he chickens out, which makes her even more furious.

One day the repairmen ask David to go hunting with them, which he seems to interpret as a feigned gesture of reconciliation—I have to say, I wouldn’t trust the guys who likely murdered my pet cat to take me out into the woods with guns—and, of course, this isn’t quite the case. Charlie shows up at the house, and Amy inexplicably invites him inside, insisting that he stay even when he offers to leave. When he comes onto her, she tries to fight him off, unsuccessfully. One gets the feeling that despite her motions of protest, she’s really enjoying it, that she only wants him to stop because she’s married and knows she’s not supposed to be enjoying it. But then Norman, another one of the repairmen, comes in and sodomizes her, which she certainly does not enjoy, particularly because this person she has albeit complicated feelings for has just allowed—perhaps arranged for—her to be violated. Oddly, her husband doesn’t notice any marks on her, which seems odd, and perhaps kind of unbelievable, but I suppose it’s consistent with the lack of concern for her that he’s displayed so far.

The mounting tensions ignite towards the end of the film, when the townspeople try to hunt down a mentally slow man who accidentally killed a young woman, a la Lenny from Of Mice and Men. David rescues the man and tries to shelter him inside his house, which, considering their feelings toward him, only serves to provoke the rage of the townspeople, who have become a lynch mob by this time. They start smashing windows, pounding on doors, trying to breach the Sumners’ home. David responds in kind, rather unexpectedly, as until this point he’s been kind of a pushover—which illustrates that everyone has a breaking point. His home is being invaded, and he is prepared to defend it to the death, his primal instincts emerging from his usually mild demeanor.

Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese, 1972

For his first Hollywood film, Martin Scorsese was given $600,000 by legendary schlock producer Roger Corman and told to make an exploitation movie, no doubt to cash in on the success of the Oscar-nominated Bonnie and Clyde of a few years earlier. Loosely based on the autobiography of Bertha Thompson, who robbed the railways with her lover and his gang during the Great Depression, it certainly retains many hallmarks of the exploitation genre—plenty of sex and violence, as well as some offbeat humor—but manages to go beyond it as well. Picture a low-budget B-movie filtered through Scorsese’s albeit nascent directorial vision.

In Jim Sangster’s Scorsese, the director says that “I attempted to show the characters as people acting like children, playing with violence until they start getting killed—then they’re stuck in a real game, a life and death game.” This is effectively communicated—for instance, in Bertha’s childlike grin as she busts into a room full of rich people and announces, falteringly over a giddy laugh, “This is a stick-up!”, as she piles the women’s jewels and tiaras on like a little girl playing dress-up, and likewise in Bill’s pronouncements that “I’m not cut out for this” as things start to go amiss.

The film isn’t without its flaws, but one can detect many of the elements that Scorsese would develop and expand upon in later films. In the end, I’d have to agree with John Cassavetes, who, after seeing Boxcar Bertha, reportedly told Scorsese “You just spent a year of your life making shit!,” urging him to make a more personal film—he then went on to make Mean Streets, possibly one of his best.