Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: ‘Standard Operating Procedure’

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Why can’t they just leave Errol Morris alone? I know I’m coming a little late to the conversation, but the guy makes the most sensitive, humanizing films that try to bridge our understanding of human frailty, oddity, evil and injustice. One of his films even got a guy off of death row. And he has masterful control of the camera: his cinematography (one of his current co-directors of photography is Robert Richardson, who also shoots for the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone) is exquisite. But, still, they treat him like an arrogant, misguided 5th grader playing in the high school gym.

Standard Operating Procedure by Errol MorrisI recently went to see Standard Operating Procedure, and walked out of the theater in a daze. The movie is a masterful concoction of searing, insightful interviews with the American soldiers responsible for the mistreatment of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, along with well-produced, sophisticated re-enactments of some of the incidents. There are exploding helicopters (culled from a scene from the big-budget Charlie’s Angels), computer-generated renderings of ghost-like interrogators, and re-enacted scenes of torture. I was struck by how Morris rips through all the black-and-white newsprint we’ve read about that notorious prison, and makes it all feel so visceral. I could almost breathe in the conditions both the soldiers and their detainees were in. It felt like a real horror show, like a ghostly torture chamber rendered by M. Night Shyamalan and, maybe even torture-porn provocateur Eli Roth. Which is to say, it made me feel sick. Which is also to say, that it is an amazing accomplishment.

Morris reveals the truth in ways no other filmmaker can. But he is still shunned by so many. When I stood outside the theater, a man asked me, “What did you think?” I knew it was a loaded question. I told him I was moved, and asked him what he thought. “Well, let’s just say I’m more from the Maysles school of documentary filmmaking.”

OK, whatever. He’s got a right to his opinion. But what irks me is how estimable critics such as J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, Richard Schickel of Time and Variety‘s Todd McCarthy knock Morris for imbuing the subject matter with too much of his “fancy style.” And then there are these recent reports from The New York Times that Morris paid his interview subjects, suggesting this makes them compromised sources.

If only people could sit and watch an Errol Morris film without staid preconceptions about what a documentary should be. Morris, like so many documentary filmmakers who are now following his footsteps, isn’t so much making a nonfiction film as he is making a film. His work transcends fiction and nonfiction by weaving the two together. And if that’s too confusing for the viewer, then he or she is missing out on something vital in our culture. In the age of double-speak where a president can create tax policies and war strategies based on fictions, or a television show such as The Hills can seduce a generation with its seamless merging of fiction and nonfiction into a tasteless but addictive froth, it’s best to develop a medium that can use a similar language — but to do so intelligently and with good conscience. Call it homeopathic filmmaking. Morris is treating like with like, and he should be applauded rather than reviled for it.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Montelban

    FOREIGNID: 15479
    I couldn’t agree more! Even if you don’t like his style, you have to give him credit for creating a very distinctive style in a genre that, until more recent years, hasn’t had as much variation as it should have had.

  • Erin

    FOREIGNID: 15480
    I am infuriated by the people calling Morris’s ethics into questions based on paying honorariums to his interview subjects. You will notice those criticisms are largely coming from academics who have no credits listed on imdb; and mainstream film reviewers who have little demonstrated appreciation for documentary film. In what other arena are people with zero field experience reasonably allowed to criticize other people’s work process?
    This conversation is absurd and offensive and worst of all, detracting from a film with very valuable information. Which I don’t mean as a criticism to Tom’s post here but of the NYT piece and the fact that many reviewers since has felt the need to mention this “controversy”.