This browser is supported only in Windows 10 and above.


Errol Morris on “Standard Operating Procedure”

Posted by on

04222008_errolmorris.jpgBy Nick Schager

Since his masterful 1980 debut “Gates of Heaven” — and, more specifically, after 1988’s “The Thin Blue Line” — documentarian Errol Morris has boldly expanded the notion of documentary filmmaking, pushing the boundaries set by his cinema vérité forefathers in an effort to discover, if not kindred spirit (and admirer) Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth,” then at least an essential truth. Whether examining the life of Stephen Hawking, the ruminations of Robert S. McNamara, or the study of eccentrics like those featured in his “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control,” Morris has sought to explore fundamental questions about life through a combination of traditional nonfiction interviews and fictionalized reenactments. That hybridized aesthetic design is at the forefront of his latest, “Standard Operating Procedure,” an in-depth look into the infamous photos taken by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib in which, amidst stylized reenactments of the controversial pics, the director affords a platform for the thoughts of the soldiers-turned-amateur-photographers at the heart of the story. Meticulously crafted and methodically argued, it’s an inquiry into what actually happened at the prison, but also into the nature of images, both topics that Morris took time to discuss with me.

“Standard Operating Procedure” is a film about images — how they’re constructed, and what they tell us. As your film is itself a collection of still and moving images, did it require a more conscious or careful approach?

I’m always conscious about how I’m making the film. This time around, more or less, I don’t think so. I’m well aware of the fact that I’m making a movie about photographs, and there’s something inherently different about doing that, than anything I’ve really done before. But careful? You want to put it together in a way that makes sense, that conveys some sort of idea of what you’re trying to say. I was interested in how pictures can often mislead us, they can reveal things and also conceal things at the same time. And that irony is something which I believe is the heart of the movie.

How did you decide upon the style used for the reenactments, given their stark aesthetic dissimilarity from the photos themselves?

The photographs are always clearly identified as photographs. You see white borders on them, and they’re all presented without zooming in or zooming out. Occasionally, I think there are one or two repositions when I’m calling attention to the fact that something has been cropped or reframed, or I’m identifying a character in the frame or trying, as in the case of Roman Krol, to match his point of view as he’s looking into the prompter at himself in a photograph. But it’s the do-nothing approach, it’s the anti-Ken Burns approach to photographs. There’s very little movement on them, and the reenactments are really quite different. I mean, they’re different in so many, many, many, many ways. It’s the first film that I’ve shot in scope, 2.40:1, and the photographs are, if anything, much closer to square-shaped. They’re very different in aspect ratio from the frame. And they’re still images. The reenactments, no matter how much slo-mo I use, it’s still motion picture film. It’s not a still, although at places, it may approach still photography.

04222008_standardoperatingprocedure1.jpgWhy create such a heightened contrast — glossy and professional vs. grimy and amateurish — between the photos and reenactments?

I wanted a contrast. I think it is heightened contrast. It’s deliberate, and they look completely different. They’re not meant to blend together in the same kind of thing. It’s a different ingredient, if you like. Think, for a minute, of the ingredients of the movie. The movie has these retrospective interviews and people reenacting, in words, things that occurred in the years previously. Then there are photographs, which are the real pieces of evidence from Abu Ghraib. They’re digital photographs, I didn’t alter them in any way — I didn’t frame them, crop them. Those are the photographs themselves. And there are the reenacted elements, which are designed to set up a scene around the photograph. They are designed to take you into that moment that the photograph was taken. Often, I’ll design a reenactment around a phrase, someone will say something and I’ll think of an image. So you add all those ingredients.

Just to go back, I was talking about Roman Krol looking into the prompter at himself. He tells you this story about how he was just throwing this Nerf ball, and how he was really, really angry, and they [the soldiers] were doing this because they wanted to show the people in the cells, the prisoners, their disapproval regarding the inmates possibly raping a young boy (and, in fact, they were found innocent). I have the hands coming through the bars, and it’s a way to bring the audience into the moment that those photographs were taken, and into what he’s saying. The idea that they [the soldiers] are creating these scenes [i.e. throwing the Nerf ball] for people watching in the cells. I think all of that is really, really interesting.

Why, out of all the stories and images from Iraq, did you choose this story and these images?

That was not the intention. The thing is, I made a movie about photographs. Actually, some of the most famous, or if you prefer, infamous photographs taken in the last 10 years. They happen to be perhaps the central photographs of the Iraq war, and photographs that we know little or nothing about, heavily politicized, people with lots and lots of opinions about them, but very few people having asked any questions about them at all.

04222008_standardoperatingprocedure2.jpgLike all of your work, the film is quite journalistic in nature. Was “Standard Operating Procedure” an attempt at providing a corrective to the mainstream media’s coverage of the photos?

I would say not correction, in the sense that I knew what the correction was supposed to be. It was curiosity, that people talked about the photographs as though they knew the circumstances under which they were taken, or they knew who had taken them, or why they were taken. It seemed to me they knew very little. No one had bothered to talk to these people about the pictures, no one had bothered to find out why they were taken, what they thought they were doing, what actually was depicted in the photographs. It seems that they just preferred to theorize about them rather than actually investigate them.

Why not choose to investigate — and attempt to uncover the identities of — the higher-ups whom the film argues are the real culprits of the Abu Ghraib crimes?

People think there’s only one thing to say about the Iraq war, and that’s that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush did it. What I find so very odd about this war — you would hear, while I was making the movie, “Have you found the smoking gun?” The smoking gun is very easy to see. People prefer not to see it. They just released the full document of John Yoo’s OLC [Office of Legal Counsel] torture memo. It’s not substantially different from anything that we knew already. We knew that the administration had relaxed rules and regulations governing the treatment of prisoners and torture. This can’t really come as a surprise to anybody. There isn’t one story to be told about Iraq, about the war, about America, about these pictures, about Abu Ghraib. There’s a myriad of stories, and I chose to tell a story which I believed, and I still believe, is important. If people want to read some kind of screed against Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, they’re easily available, and I’m sure they can find many of them in order to satisfy themselves.

[Photos: Errol Morris; “Standard Operating Procedure,” Sony Pictures Classics, 2008]

“Standard Operating Procedure” opens in limited release on April 25th.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

Posted by on
GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

Posted by on

Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.