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Friday, April 25, 2008

Errol Morris Speaks

An interview with Errol Morris in New York with Andrew O'Hehir about making Standard Operating Procedure.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

S.O.P.: Evil is Not Banal

STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE, unlike recent Iraq films is about seeing, perception and the act of photographing. Errol Morris turns his camera on a very thin slice of time and space in this vast conflict but a layer with huge moral and political implications.

In typical Morris fashion, his documentary doesn't provide easy black and white answers. Factions on both the right and left want their documentary films to wrap up neatly and tight but Morris is not going to be the filmmaker who makes the viewer feel comfy by providing a quick and easy sound bite answer to the difficult questions of war. Were the kid soldiers inside Abu Ghraib who took pictures and appeared in them guilty as charged?

Ron Rosenbaum in his article for Slate online, keeps asking the question are the "bad Apple's" responsible for their actions even if we accept that higher-ups order them to carry out actions against the prisoners?

First, the "bad-Apples" Rosenbaum is referring to are Lynndie England (shown in photographs holding a "leash" around a prisoners neck), Sabrina Harmon (shown giving the thumbs-up next to corpse of a former prisoner) Javal Davis, Tony Diaz, Tim Dugan, Megan Ambuhl, Jeremy Sivitz, Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski and others. Morris gives us the first opportunity, using his non-patented tele-prompter interview camera, to hear England, Harmon, Davis, Diaz, Dugan, Karpinski and direct participants talk about what when on inside the prison and in their heads. Why would they do these horrible acts? Why take pictures?

Well, for the most part it wasn't their idea. Let's be clear, the "bad-Apples" pleaded guilty, lost their rank and status in the U.S. military, were dishonorably discharged and went to prison. Is that enough responsibility for Salon magazine? Apparently not.

Obviously, Rosenbaum wants a few bad apples to be the responsible the American people won't be held responsible for these actions torture and death inside Iraq death chambers. That's the bigger order Salon magazine and others wish the bad apples would follow. This certainly was true of the audience I saw the film with - they wanted contrition and for the "bad-Apples" to apologize to the American people. They wanted tears and remorse. America wants a neat and tidy ending. Closure perhaps? Morris is not the man who is going to give easy endings to morally uplift.

Just as back in the 1970s the American people wanted the Vietnam Vet to suffer all the guilt and remorse for the policies of that war, the people living safely in their comfy homes on American soil want the "bad-Apples" to take the rap for Iraq and Abu Ghraib. And then the bad dream can all be over with and we can go on our merry way. I have always thought England, Harmon, Davis, Diaz, and Sivitz should take responsibility for their actions and they do. BUT, they don't do it in the way everybody wants them to, in the way that exonerates American citizens and covers our horrible government actions and policies.

But let's look deeper. Truth be told, the real bad-Apple's at Abu Ghraib have never been charged. The corpse Harmon stands next to is not a prisoner she killed but the CIA or MI person who did torture and killed this prisoner has never been charged for his murder. Never. And the U.S. government has covered it up. The only thing Harmon is guilty of is thumbs-up and a smile like a cheshire cat.

Gruesome, no question, but hardly a major crime in comparison to those going on all over Iraq, in secret prisons on European soil, Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo under the auspices of the U.S. government. The pictures that put Harmon and England in front of the camera, posing before prisoners in the moments of and surrounding their humiliation are only the staged face of American humiliation while the true crimes of torture and murder have been covered up.

Morris reveals in these interviews there is good reason to believe America's true reason for invading Iraq is to humiliate Arab men and use our young women soldiers to do so. The photos inside the prison bare this out. Talking with Morris after he screened the film in Minneapolis, he told me it's very difficult to wrap his head around the insanity, the lack of rational clarity on the part of our political leaders who have lead us into this senseless war. Even more so for the fact that their actions come nowhere near producing what they pretend they wish will result.

Rosenbaum likes to create an eroticized view of Morris' use of slow motion or super-slo-mo in the re-enactment scenes of STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE. Morris uses a camera called the Phantom v12 to capture motion at 1,000 frames per second as opposed to standard 24 movie frames or previously the standard over cranked slo-mo of 130 frames per second. If anything unintended or off-message, Morris' slo-mo makes horrific motion stunningly beautiful. We see dogs snarling and bullet casings drop and bounce on the floor set to Danny Elfman repetitive and melodic scores.

However, it is clear why Morris uses slo-motion in many of his films from THIN BLUE LINE to FOG OF WAR. Less I think for the "moral investigation" as Rosenbaum likes to imply (the use of slow motion in science fiction as in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or football games to show the spiraling ball in motion which does not have moral overtones) and more as a tool that focuses viewers attention more precisely on the details of the real world. In dramatic filmmaking we think about our purpose constantly: How important it is to direct the viewer to comprehend the story with purpose and focus. Great documentary filmmaking should do exactly the same thing. Comprehension is reinactment

The reason Morris footage of Abu Ghraib appears charged with moral implications is because, mostly simply stated, war has moral implications. Treatment of captive prisoners, innocent and guilty alike, is the most moral of all situations. That is why our founding fathers took a restrained view of government abuse of the people. None: This means all human beings and their rights not just American national human beings.

The truth behind the Terror memos by John Yoo and Timothy Flanigan, the White House and the Justice Department is that they have no moral compass and fail to see the horror of their actions and policies. They see exceptions abound. To circumvent the law, they seek court opinions that will rule human-beings as non-people just as the most notorious tyrants and dictators in history have done.

Morris' use of slo-mo is perhaps more pronounced in an age when information is devalued by its speed and constantly updating nature. We need slo-motion to gain focus and put the space of closely observant thought back into seeing. Slo-motion give us the time to contemplate critical details that fast and dirty media skips over.

The questions that are more important is "What was happening outside the frame?" Of course, this means what is happening in terms of these young soldiers being instructed and order to comply with their commanding officers. This also means what is going on inside the torture chambers and secret prison camps.

Certainly, as Rosenbaum wishes, the bad apples could have violated their orders and faced immediate and severe discipline in a war zone. Not a happy course for a soldier in a hostile war zone but, yes a possibility. Would the shameful actions of torture and murder end there? No. Would American's moral authority have been retained? You've got to be kidding.

Morris has called this film a "non-fiction horror movie" and it truly is - Evil is not banal it is horror.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


A year ago at this time Screenlabs Challenge participants were hard and fast at work molding scripts into shape and bring their crews together. One of those projects, FORGOTTEN written by Julie Kane Meyer, produced and directed by Chris Gegax will be screening in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival on Tuesday, April 29th at 7:00PM

Meyer had read her script in the Sunday night Screenwriters' Workshop Script Group and was able to create a tight character study matching two women during a chance encounter that melds their lives in ways they previously would not have wanted or imagined.

In her script group was Chris Gegax, a film director with a few shorts under his belt and a eager interest in looking for new material. Chris and Julie became partners in response to the Screenlabs Challenge.

As those who followed this web site last summer know, Gegax and Meyer's FORGOTTEN was awarded the Jury Awarded Best Film Prize and Meyer also given Best Screenplay for the short dramatic film.

Gegax took risks with casting the film by pairing experienced stage actress Marilyn Murray with Katie Rhoades, a counselor who works with victims of prostitution but no acting in her background. Drawing upon personal experience, Rhoades brought a cool confidence matched with determined street smarts to her role.

If you are interested in making your own Screenlabs Challenge dramatic short for the 2008 challenge, like Chris and Julie, you can attend a free workshop this Thursday, April 24th from 7:00pm to 9:30pm at IFP Minnesota Film Center.

The FORGOTTEN screening takes place at St. Anthony Main Cinemas on Tuesday April 29th at 7:00 PM, 115 Main Street NE, Minneapolis  (50-cent parking all-day at St. Anthony Falls Ramp). This program is likely to sell-out. Arrive early to guarantee a seat, or purchase tickets online.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Planet B-Boy and the Dance

When I was living in New York in the mid-1980s I would take my lunch during the summers and eat it in Washington Square Park. The park was a nexus of activity both legal and illegal from chess playing, comedy acts, feats of daring-do, escape artists, student filmmakers shooting films to crack dealers right next to NYPD's finest sitting in their Ford cruisers.

And then there were the dancers. The break dancers.

One weekday afternoon, my co-office worker at New York University, Sheri Bishop and I went over to the park and on that day her son Bobo had come down from the Bronx on the subway to share lunch with his mother. We went to the park where a bunch of kids with boom-box and cardboard sheets set up for break dancing.

After a few minutes of Sheri watching in consternation, her brow deeply boroughed with confusion she said "Bobo, you show these boys how to break dance!"

"Ma, no, don't start" he said. We were close enough to this group of East Village kids to hear Sheri's comments who often came over from Alphabet City to do their dancing in the park and hoping for a few dimes and quarters to be thrown their way.

"No Bobo, that ain't break dancing. These boys don't know how to break dance."

"Ma, shut up" he said embarrassed and trying not to be heard by the downtown crowd, "I don't come downtown to show anyone how to break dance."

"Bobo! Show these boys how to break dance! This ain't dancing they are just pulling tricks."

"This isn't my turf ma, don't make me..."

Truth was that the Alphabet city boys, some crush and some stravin; marvin, weren't break dancing -- all they were doing were tricks. Amazing as tricks can be, the ten, twenty or thirty second routine was nothing more than gymnastic flips, freezes, twists and spins. Astonishing and cool enough for any guy eating his Gyro and grape Fanta at lunch, but, Sheri was right: it is not break dancing.

A few minutes later one of kids came over and invited Bobo to join them and he did. The kid from the Bronx showed these downtown guys how check-in, take out, cut it and the challenge was on. This kind of community dancing in the streets, the give-and-take, and the exchange of moves both athletic and artistic is amazing.

When you watch PLANET B-BOY by filmmaker Benson Lee you feel at bit of the same way. You're not seeing the whole dance but the tricks are so amazing and death defying you won't be disappointed.

Friday, April 04, 2008

MUTUM: Story of Brazil's Recent Past

Patricia and I went to the Walker Art Center to see MUTUM during the Women's in the Directors Chair series. This Brazilian film by Sandra Kogut is about a family on an isolated subsistence farm in the arid backlands of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Our central character is Thiago, a ten year old boy who knows little about the outside world except for a few horseback trips into a nearby village.

Thiago's father is distressed by a passing way of life and trying to provide for his family. His mother bares the burden of her husbands anger and frustrations and Thiago throws himself between them as his mother protector.

The feature film is an adaption of Jose Guimaraes Rosa's novel and while it is fiction, it strikes at the heart of Brazil true agrarian migration and the poverty that devastated rural Brazilian states like Minas Gerais and Bahia.

Religion plays a significant role in MUTUM, as the mystery of how nature delivers its fate evades common experience or a social consciousness thus becoming an acceptance of an authority beyond that which you can see or touch. But there is no preaching and deifying of faith.

In many ways, MUTUM reminds me of the brilliant German documentary film THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL for the intensity and detail of how they story is told. Not much dialog and visual detail aplenty, it keeps your head in the world in which Thiago lives. We feel the full power of a thunderstorm as dramatic as it can be in a place where a person is not constantly barraged with manufactured drama.

MUTUM is a mood-piece, a film that is evocative and deeply detailed in creating the sense of a simple life where children spend the day playing with insects, teaching the papagaio to talk, and chasing chickens. The pacing and lack of dialog set the viewer in a different spatial and temporal frame -- a pace of life that is nearly incomprehensible to modern western over-stimulated audiences. But MUTUM's unhurried observations are well worth the effort to persist in watching.

The young actor whose name is also Thiago is astonishing and the film, with all its subtlety and nuance pays off hugely at the end -- even with its small and unsensational emotion. The emotional impact is deep but not blunt. You may never get the chance to see this film but if you do, let it transport you into a different world than the one your are accustomed to living.