Feelings of Revulsion and the Limits of Academic Discourse. A letter to Errol Morris

9 Nov, 22

March 20, 2010
Dear Errol,
I am writing you because I don’t know what else to do.  Normally I’d write an article or give a paper but those forms feel inadequate.  I have loved almost all your films and I try hard to avoid writing about films I hate. It is too easy to demonize the author or the film. I want to engage you directly because I experienced powerful feelings of revulsion when I saw Standard Operation Procedure.
But why a letter?

My body speaks the language of feelings and emotion; it is the language of unconscious desire as well, and is very distinct from the signifiers of written language.  I need to give expression to my bodily experience and yet fear that I will betray it in doing so, especially with the detachment granted to the author of academic discourse.  Images are always particular and concrete and they can pack a punch.  The particularity of an image gains clarity by contextualization, and yet as soon as it is contextualized, it loses some of its distinction.  Translating the affect of images into the web of signification woven by words can feel like a betrayal as well. Trauma, like images, retains its particularity by resisting contextualization; it remains incomparable.  I think my revulsion has something to do with the way you give form to traumatic events in an abstract, almost ethereal way that produced something like a traumatic effect for me.
These disturbing feelings are what trouble me here. I felt confronted with atrocities—torture—in ways that throw me into the same state as seeing evidence of genocide would.  Atrocities test the limits of representation.  We address the unspeakable to give it form. The raw experience of encountering atrocities poses the challenge of contextualizing and determining responsibility, including perhaps our own. This challenge is what I felt your film failed to address successfully.

Instead, you took the sting from terrible images that had shocked the world by decontextualizing, and even fetishizing them.  This tactic felt at odds with their gruesome contents and it, in turn, became a new form of revulsion, one peculiar to the form you gave to torture at Abu Ghraib.  I felt as if your film were saying to me, “When you think about it, Bill, it’s not as bad as you imagine.  I can reframe and explain it to you.”  And yet, what I could not help but say to myself was, “When you think about it, it’s not what you think it is, Errol. The explanation you give disturbs more than it reveals.”
You mention in your DVD commentary that we all know the photographs were a distraction, masking the responsibility of others beyond the obvious “bad apples” but then say you want to hear from the people literally behind and in the photographs to learn about their state of mind and the pressures they faced. This, to me, is a fatal error.  Bertolt Brecht wrote long ago that a photograph of a Krupp’s munitions factory fails to reveal the socio-economic reality of power and hegemony that function behind this reified façade. Brecht was not concerned, certainly not exclusively concerned, with the state of mind and pressures on the photographer of such an image. I wish you hadn’t been, either.

As I watched your film in San Francisco at a 7pm show in an auditorium with only 8 or 9 others strong feelings snap through my body using faster, more primitive neural networks than those deployed by cerebral thought.  I feel a Fight or Flight response at work. As your film begins and the MPs’ stories unfold, my sense of discomfort increases.  The speakers seemed stunned, almost expressionless, not all there, without any solid ground to stand on.  Their faces possess a particularity that can vex all understanding but it’s a particularity isolated from its usual density: no background, no location, not even the remainder of their bodies.  I feel as if I am watching animated portraiture.  The effect is quite remote from the catch-as-catch-can aesthetic of so many documentaries.  The shooting style reminded me of paintings of religious icons with their golden halos although you have replaced those halos with the abstract, empty “no place/anyplace” of a dematerialized studio backdrop.  You omit any return to “les lieux de memoire” so vital in many other documentaries. And it is not a spiritual realm you celebrate but a zone populated with rationalization and denial.

An almost fetishistic quality haunts the portraits. It seems to enact a refusal to see the bigger picture on your part that parallels the blind spots of your characters. I could say you are letting the audience judge and decide, as I have done in response to your earlier films, but the MP’s excuses pile up so high that I sense an attempt to convince me to accept these self-deceptions, or to sidestep them by contemplating the photographs as free-floating, near-linguistic signifiers, shorn of their grim particularity and geographic/historical referentiality. I feel less an invitation to decide for myself than a desire to have me accept the rationalizations and your tolerance of them as a truth in need of acknowledgment. Fight or flight is definitely taking hold of me.

My normal sense of narrative anticipation converts to a growing feeling of frustration and discomfort. The lurid photographs, no matter how many special effects surround them, remain appalling but, like Sabrina Harmon, your response is a strangely clinical and dissociated curiosity. Where is the moral center to their testimony?  To your film? To your perspective?  These lacunae leave me waiting your moral voice to arrive.
The MPs’ stories roll on with surprising monotony.  My body can’t find a comfortable position; I wiggle and squirm in my seat.  My legs want to lift me up and carry me out of the theater but I resolve to stay.  I feel I owe it to your film; surely it will shift to a different plane before it’s over.
I can clearly see that the MPs have undergone something so painful they remain traumatized by it.  I wish I were a Frantz Fanon.  He was capable of hearing and treating the suffering experienced by the French soldiers who tortured their Algerian prisoners, but I feel ill-equipped for the task and wonder if such a challenge is what you intended for me.  What is Errol doing I wonder; why are you subjecting me to such tortured testimony, so full of evasions and denials?  You’ve taken me to the border zone where human action betrays inhumanity, barbarity, and the total objectification of others.  Am I to follow, letting anger turn me against you just as these MPs turned against those who often angered them, sometimes for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism and their role in “softening up” terrorist detainees?

My sense of a social order depends on accountability and responsibility of the one to the many and of the many to the one. As I watch, that web of mutual responsibility ruptures in front of me.  I don’t know what to do with my discomfort and anger; I need to understand it, to plunge deeper into it rather than sidestep it and see if I can discover exactly what provokes it.
Rather than shifting over to a detached mode of analysis, I focused on my feelings of revulsion and eventually came up with three reasons for these feelings. I hope I can share these reasons with you, Errol, and I hope you’ll tell me if you think I am missing something vital.

The First is the painfully limited perspective of the guards.  They see their past conduct through a glass darkly, but are asked, and paid, to speak, and elevated to the larger than life proportions of the movie screen.  Their images emanate from the screen like giant personages of mythic proportion and yet they display little, if any, emotion, especially remorse.  “I found myself,” “I just had to…,” “I was told to …” and other dissembling locutions deny their own agency.  They “just” softened up detainees.  Is the MPs’ testimony meant to “just” soften us up to their unfortunate plight as scapegoats?
The MPs had nowhere to turn, they say, and found themselves doing unimaginable things.  Besides, they were under fire from mortar shells, had no contact with the Iraqi population, and experienced severe stress their entire tour. They arrived at Abu Ghraib in a near hypnotic state of fear and distrust and remained so, perhaps up to the moment when you filmed them.  No sense of individual responsibility emerges.  Sociopaths typically lack remorse, possess no empathy, and hold the law in disregard.  I hesitate to label the MPs sociopathic if that confers a mark of incorrigibility and yet you seem to take no interest in how a specific institutional framework and a set of inhumane policies can construct sociopathic behavior.

You seem to think that, as victims, they deserve a chance to offer their rationalizations to us. But as perpetrators, they were found guilty, and sentenced to jail.  Believe me, Errol, I understand how they were used as scapegoats by the administration but sometimes scapegoats are also guilty. Strangely, you also don’t show any particular interest in the ways in which their background and experience prior to arriving at Abu Ghraib—their family life, their educational level, their political views and social habits—contributed to their criminal conduct.
In fact, I felt that, although you knew the outcome and their clear guilt, you chose to ignore it.  Your curiosity about their state of mind bore a resemblance for me to that of the press as they listened to the rationalizations and denials by public figures charged with sexual misconduct–the Mark Foleys, Elliot Spitzers, John Edwardses and Tiger Woodses of recent infamy–even though we later learned that they had, indeed, committed the acts with which they were charged.  Is denial, deception and outright lying all that fascinating, especially when we know that is what it was? These MPs appear to be locked in that same intermediate state of denial that Tiger Woods alone has confronted and overcome with humility and dignity.  Why you would choose to be locked into such a state with them is what I do not understand.

The Second reason for my revulsion involves your reenactments of military torture. I felt the strongest visceral urge to flee the theater when you gave us tracking shots down corridors populated by ghosts as you reenacted actual interrogations and legalized torture.  I felt pinned to a morally impossible space.  It was like the grotesque tracking shot in Schindler’s List when Spielberg has the camera slowly approach the door to the apparent gas chamber housing Schindler’s Jews. We slip past the Nazi guards clustered around the door’s peep hole to see the panic and fear inside that chamber.  It’s a grotesque point of view shot because it is literally the point of view of the death camp guards. The stakes are far higher than when I shared Norman Bates’s point of view as he spied on Marion Crane, but you offer no moral lesson to counterbalance the pain of occupying the point of view of perpetrators of torture.  The reenactments were agonizing to watch.
At Abu Ghraib, we move from individual pathology to national policy, from individual deviance to institutionalized torture, but this has no apparent bearing on your style of reenactment: you exhibit a strange form of curiosity: it’s detached more than idle, and verges on morbid.  Your response is as if you were examining a strange, unfamiliar form of life that you’ve place inside your interrotron as if under a bell jar.

I have always sensed a fascination and identification on your part, Errol, with people who live outside the bounds of “normal” human encounter, who become swept up in self-, or, here, small group-fashioned worlds of beliefs and behavior.  This was part of the charm and strangeness of Gates of Heaven, Vernon, FL, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, and to a lesser extent A Brief History of Time.  Your fascination achieved a perfect equilibrium between respecting outsiderness and seeking a common truth in The Thin Blue Line where what began as idiosyncrasy took on murderous proportions.  Your commitment to untangling the Rashomon-like tales of your many witnesses to arrive at a clear and simple truth gave the film a moral center, a center that feels inexplicably missing from SOP.
With Mr. Death and Fog of War  you shifted from idiosyncractic behavior (peculiar but largely innocuous behavior for the society at large—to ideological behavior—individual actions that serve the needs of a given ideology.  Your curiosity in these two films continues to suggest both an identification with and strong curiosity about those whose views carry them to the margins of the social order.  You show a remarkable willingness to let your subjects describe and defend themselves in whatever way they wish, without prodding or challenge.  This works well with idiosyncratic and not so well with ideological behavior. The clearly self-serving testimony of Robert MacNamara and the delusional claims of Fred Leuchter left me uncomfortable to the extent that I wondered if you would once again locate and occupy a moral center in these films.  You didn’t.  That form of dialogue belonging to the I and Thou relation of mutual encounter, and honesty, remained at the horizon as you settled for relying on an expert to refute Mr. Leuchter’s most outrageous claims and on your own special effects to point to the magnitude of Mr. MacNamara’s war crimes, a strategy you repeat in SOP.  I felt that you had retreated behind your interrotron and forfeited the moral ground to your subjects.

The third reason for my feelings of revulsion involves the complete absence of the voices of the Iraqi detainees. They are the living referents of these horrific photographs.  What happened to them? Why did you exclude them but recycle these degrading images of them?  Surely some of them, including those who were never suspected of terrorism and for whom no “softening up” or vigilante punishment could ever be justified, are readily recognizable by friends and family.  Did a “higher truth” legitimize displaying these images? Did you think your film would never get to Iraq or Iraqis never see it in the U.S.?
Could you imagine making a film about American POWs held captive in Vietnam during that war that dealt exclusively with the rationalizations of Vietnamese guards for their acts of brutality and torture in violation of the Geneva convention, and to simultaneously deny those American POWs any voice whatsoever, while recycling images of their degradation and torture?

I think of Rithy Panh’s powerful film, S-21, and the moral center of that film when former prisoners who survived S-21 and the killing fields confront their Khmer Rouge guards.  They confront one another in what is clearly a dignified and respectful encounter fostered by Mr. Panh. The encounter has enormous power as the former prisoners cut through the rationalizations offered by ex-guards and express their bewilderment at their countrymen’s loss of moral compass. You are not Rithy Panh but were you not moved to hear those absent voices, to hear how they would address these guards who lost their moral compass and who might yet regain their bearings if they could be brought to understand the full depths of what they did?
Of course you are not Ari Folman or Alain Resnais or Claude Lanzmann or Alex Gibney or Rory Kennedy either, and I am sure I will lose you if I start to discuss what these other filmmakers managed to do that your film doesn’t.  You are a distinct voice, one that has shone brightly when you have captured the idiosyncrasy of others non-judgmentally. But in reflecting further on the revulsion I felt at your approach to the political complexity of torture at Abu Ghraib and the horrific images describing it, I sense that you have drifted away from your strength, despite, and, indeed, because of a continuing curiosity with the idiosyncratic outsider and social misfit.

I continue to admire the bulk of your work and hope that these comments might be of some benefit as you go on to other projects.  I realize that I chose to write a letter because of what felt  like the limits of academic discourse but like others who have felt overly confined by specific forms and modalities of discourse in the past, I now wonder if I have truly escaped the arena of academic discourse or in some small way, perhaps, modified it.  My wish, in any case, is that it be of genuine use to you.
Bill Nichols

first published in Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media