Friday, September 5, 2014

Standard Operating Procedure: How Pictures Tell A Story (Or Don't)

     You know that feeling after the lights have come back on and you’re in that awkward blinking back to reality phase after a movie, not really sure where you are? Your head feels heavy and, no matter how long you stare at the blackness that cut in afterwards, no one is going to come and tell you “just kidding, here’s the ending you want.” It doesn’t happen often and it’s not an altogether pleasant feeling. Because sitting in that seat, you feel like you just witnessed something you weren’t supposed to. Something that was supposed to stay behind closed doors. Something that sticks in your mind, like tar. Something that latches its claws and refuses to move, an ugly creature that keeps you up at night. Something that you won’t soon forget. 
      For me, this feeling came after watching Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Even now, as I write this, I’m still trying to wrap my around what I had seen. To be honest, it didn’t surprise me as much as it confirmed things I knew existed. Humanity is certainly a strange animal. For the sake of this article, I will only provide a paraphrased summary of the events that unfolded. Because in this moment, I don’t wish to talk about the movie as much as I want to talk about how it was made. I will say this though: it is something that needs to be watched with an open mind. That’s what Errol Morris does. He provides perspective. So that’s all we can go with. Perspective.
     The film follows the events leading up to the “Abu Graib” scandal of 2003. In short, the United States had a series of prison out in Iraq that were used to torture its prisoners (for information). See, this concept isn’t new. And it certainly isn’t something that this country can acquit itself of. But this movie focuses itself on the details of this scandal. Because while these prisoners were interrogated, a series of photographs were taken: of those running the prison smiling and looking as if they enjoy themselves. Yet, Errol Morris provides a different take on the situation (that led to the arrest of a handful of military personnel). He provides perspective behind each image. He allows those to explain themselves. And you’re left wondering who you should believe.
      It’s an incredible well-done documentary: with an overall feel of grit that meshes well with its equally dark topic. From the lighting, to the camera work, it sets up this very intense atmosphere. You almost feel like you’re the one now interrogating these people but you’re not finding any answers that make you comfortable. 
      Specifically, in terms of making this, Errol Morris utilizes a fascinating mix of motion graphics and animation. In scenes where the actual pictures are discussed and brought up, he gives them life. He creates these spindling maps that link together, swirl into righteous identity, and float about demanding attention. They make words that otherwise would seem boring and unremarkable, come to life in a frightening way. It’s certainly no Ken Burns.
      He creates a digital atmosphere that transports us into the bodies of those who investigated these events. We feel as if these moving pictures, as they record time differences and link of clues, are doing this in real time. It's a strange sort of re-enactment that begs to be seen beyond the realistic ways we'd go about it. By using motion graphics to put up a photo or to visualize an abstract thought, Morris is able to create a scenario of discovery that follows the lead of the film.
     Almost like watching a hacker makes his way through thousands of digital files during an action movie, we see exactly what these interviewees mean as they start to connect the dots. And it plays well with the entirety of the film because the point is that pictures are just two-dimensional. That every story has more than one side. And if we're not careful they can tell a story vastly different than intended. One that's dark and cruel is a sickening way.
     I guess pictures do tell a story. And I guess they really don't.

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