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1 June 2008 — Episode 017 Podcast

Standard Operating Procedure
Filmmaker Errol Morris on the set of Standard Operating Procedure.
Photo by Nubar Alexanian © 2007 Max Ave Productions. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

On this episode of the podcast, J. Robert Parks talks with filmmaker Errol Morris about his new film, Standard Operating Procedure, then we reconsider the film to see if our comments from Episode 16 hold up in light of the interview, a second viewing, and Morris's writings and public statements.

0:00 Intro
3:52 Interview: Errol Morris
20:13 Interview (continued): "I like trouble"
27:24 Interview (continued): "A problem with my art"
32:42 Rob's Second Viewing
38:12 Depicting Atrocities: Resnais, Lanzmann, Farocki
43:32 External Ideas: The Drop of Blood
44:58 Ambiguous Stance: Morris's Voice
48:36 The Title: Threading the Needle
49:54 Cynical View vs. Benefit of the Doubt
52:14 Give Me Thoughts, Let Me Think
57:01 The Distracting Beauty of Images
1:00:33 Outro

Listen Now or Subscribe in iTunes (it's free)
Duration: 61:29

Correction

In the spirit of J. Robert's introduction, I have a correction of my own. During the post-interview discussion, when talking about the depiction of atrocities in film, I referred to Harun Farocki's Respite, saying that it was about a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. My brain went east, but the Nazis went west. Farocki's film is actually about Westerbork, a camp in the Netherlands, sometimes called Dutch, as in: "I'm in Dutch with the fact-checkers. Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here."

Related Links

Some of our discussion is about whether Standard Operating Procedure contains Morris's essential ideas about Abu Ghraib or whether it hints at them without committing. Outside of the film, Morris has said a great deal about the subject. For example:

  • Errol Morris has an excellent blog at the New York Times, but his posts are more like the lengthy reports of an investigator. In particular, see his essay on re-enactments — part 1 and part 2 — and his post on Sabrina Harman's smile. In the latter, dated May 19, Morris explicitly argues that Harman's smile helps to deflect attention from the far more serious crime of murder, perpetrated by a CIA interrogator. He doesn't make this case in the film, or at least not very clearly. His post also quotes passages from his interviews that are not in the film.
  • Philip Gourevitch's book on the Abu Ghraib photographs is based on material unearthed by Morris, only some of which shows up in the film. (I've not yet seen the book.)
  • Cathy and Erin at Show Me Your Titles discuss Morris's film, then Erin has an illuminating talk with Morris. (The discussion is up front; the interview begins at minute 51.) In the interview, Morris says categorically that Sabrina Harmon is a scapegoat and that in a different context she might have won a Pulitzer Prize. I agree, but it's hard to come to that conclusion from watching his film. (I heard this podcast after the discussion I had with J. Robert.)
  • Have I neglected to link to the trailer? Nope! The music therein comes from Serenada Schizophrana.
Posted by davis | Link | Other Episodes
Listener Comments
June 2, 2008, 01:08 PM

Hey Robert, thanks for the link, I'm glad you enjoyed the show.

Maybe it doesn't across as strongly in audio but I was really surprised by how wounded Morris seemed by the bad reviews SOP was getting. My interview with him was the day after that ridiculous NYT piece ran about him paying honorariums and I got the impression he really took it to heart and was disappointed people really seem uninterested in engaging with the film on the terms he thought were more interesting.

Or maybe I'm projecting what I think about people's reactions to this film, hah! Definite possibility.

June 2, 2008, 02:56 PM
davis

About that NYT piece: I don't know if you were at the SFIFF screening or if this came up in your conversation, but Morris pointed out that his interviews aren't like a journalist's interviews, he can't just get someone on the phone for half an hour. His subjects have to fly to Boston to his studio and be on camera for quite a while. It can be a big hardship or at least a major impediment for an interviewee, so it only makes sense to pay them. ("I paid them, and I don't regret it," he said.)

And I too hate that this, instead of the content of the film, becomes the discussion. Similarly, the headline about Iraq films is that they aren't making money.

What's amazing to me is that after all this time and all this coverage, we're still relatively ignorant about the details of what really happened, as Morris has shown.

June 6, 2008, 11:31 AM

I don't have much of insight to share, as I haven't seen the film and I'm not sure I want to. But I found this episode to be an exceptional one. Great interview and discussion.

June 6, 2008, 10:57 PM
davis

Hey thanks, Brian. I'm glad to hear that. We've gone on quite a while about this movie, so thanks for tuning in.

By the way, one addendum while I'm here: I picked up the Gourevitch/Morris book linked to above and mentioned in the podcast, and although I haven't read it, yet, it already seems like it could have been an interesting exhibit in our discussion about representing atrocities. Notably, the book contains no pictures at all. The dust jacket includes a subtle photo of feet standing on a box and, inside, a picture of each author, but that's it. I thought it might be like a book version of the movie -- even though Morris insists that it's not -- but it's just words.

June 6, 2008, 11:02 PM
davis

And here's what Michiko Kakutani writes when reviewing the book for the New York Times:

By insistently focusing on the photos and the lower-level soldiers who appear in them, the movie version of “Standard Operating Procedure” often has the inadvertent effect of playing into the “few bad apples” argument put forth by the Bush administration. This book version, in contrast, does an admirable job of situating those photos (which curiously do not appear in the volume) within a larger context, showing the roots those repellent images had in decisions made at the highest levels of the Bush administration, which started the torture snowball rolling by declaring that it need not abide by the Geneva Conventions in its war on terror.
June 12, 2008, 07:20 PM

I finally listened to this. Now I feel like I have to have a mini retro this summer. And I wish I'd caught _SOP_. He's definitely a smart dude with plenty to offer. _Thin Blue Line_ is great but I'm with Werner Herzog: I think _Vernon, Florida_ is something really special. In any event, thanks for this, fellas.

June 12, 2008, 11:36 PM
davis

Herzog's favorite is Vernon, Florida? Interesting. I like that one, too, although I think I've only seen it once. I should take another look. Those first two films are especially good at letting people ramble.

Incidentally, screenwriter and now director Mike White says that he was influenced by Gates of Heaven.

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