Standard Operating Procedure – 3.5 stars out of 4
One the most important elements of Errol Morris’s films, if not the most, is the idea of thought-process. Morris is not interested in traditionally constructing an argument or story, but what constructs one. Inevitably, he is conscious of his own filmmaking process because he knows everything is an act of creation. In Standard Operating Procedure (2008), Morris does not allude that the photos taken at Abu Ghraib were misrepresented by the public, but that the meaning of images in general, even appalling ones, are relative to the observer.
Linda Williams’s article “Cluster fuck: the forcible frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure” suggests that Morris “offers the mind-set of the framers [...] to see how such photos could make sense to them” (2). Although this is true, I would further argue that Standard Operating Procedure offers not only insight into the minds of the subjects, but challenges us as the viewers to consider our own thought-process as well, since, in the documentary, we become framers ourselves.
Morris’s use of the Interrotron is a good example. At first, it may seem to be a device for studying the subjects’ psyche. They are located at eye-level, their head overtaking the frame, and the colorless background is deliberately effaced. Therefore, it is impossible not to study the interviewees’ facial expressions and wonder what they are thinking. Williams notes: “we see the interviewees’ eye movements and facial gestures as they encounter or resist encountering Morris’s own face and eyes in the lens that films them” (2). In this case, Morris and us share the same perspective – staring at and studying the interviewees.
The key word there is “study”: ironically, while the interviewees mentally frame the photos taken at Abu Ghraib (one could argue the reframed pictures of the photos shown constantly throughout the film are a visualization of this mental process), the Interrotron causes us to frame the interviewees themselves. Williams understands that “[Morris] asks us to interpret the interpretation, to witness the witnesses” (8), demonstrating that the audience are framers of the Interrotron interviews, showing that that and even the Abu Ghraib photos demand a framer to act as “captions to provide context [to the image]” (8).
But Morris does not exempt us from imagining the traumatic memories of Abu Ghraib. In other words, we are not left to only the study the subjects’ faces. Therefore, the reframing of the photos of Abu Ghraib are not just a visualization of the interviewees’ mental process (as I said), but ours as well. When the photos are presented, the interviewees’ voiceovers do not tell us how to feel. Naturally, we depict the frame ourselves.
Morris uses highly stylized reenactments to imagine the subjects’ trauma and compel us to view the photos in their context. He haunts us with the imagery we can only assume overwhelms the memories of the interviewees. Williams posits that it is here “the audience encounters itself. Its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of sense impressions” (7). Therefore, Morris distances us from criticizing the way the interviewees mentally frame the pictures of Abu Ghraib and, instead, forces us to do the framing ourselves. The reenactments, meanwhile, make us feel we have, like the subjects, “seen what lies beyond the frame” (7).
Therefore, in Standard Operating Procedure we the viewers are constantly put in the position to reflect on the thought-process of the subjects or even ourselves. While Williams’s article understands the role of the subject (as framer), it only slightly touches upon our role. The latter is crucial in Morris’s films because that is what makes his films profoundly reflexive, always questioning how the human mind arrives to its own definition of truth.
As framers, we become self-conscious of the way our mind works and reaches its own conclusions. While this does not excuse or justify the photos taken at Abu Ghraib, Morris shows that everyone contextualizes the frame and that there is never one way to explain a photograph.
Williams, Linda. “”Cluster Fuck”: the forcible frame in Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. (2010): 1-9. Print.