Errol Morris and the strange power of slo-mo.

Scrutinizing culture.
April 10 2008 2:22 PM

From Slo-Mo to No-Mo

Errol Morris and the strange power of superslow motion.

(Continued from Page 1)

They offer such detailed "human" accounts that there is a temptation to "normalize" their actions—to conclude, as they make sense of what they did, that it all makes sense. To understand all is to forgive all. They couldn't help it. The conditions there were terrible. The place was a chaotic hell with no explicit orders except the directive to "soften up" detainees so that shadowy "professional" interrogators could use more formal methods of torture on them.

You almost find yourself nodding along. But, then, you recognize—surprised by sin—that you need to question this rationalizing response. You feel a need to ascertain which actions were determined and which were chosen, wondering all the while what you would have done in the same situation. Slow-motion storytelling becomes a kind of moral investigative tool.    

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Morris' interviews tempt us to empathize. He lets the bad apples tell us their stories in what you might call slow motion, and it is in the very slowness of the way the intersecting tales are woven that one can begin to see the warp and woof of evasion and denial.

I found it a fascinating investigation of the borderline between free will and determinism. The bad apples spoke as if they had no choice, as if circumstances determined their behavior. They followed orders. And yet, as McKelvey points out in her book, Lynndie England had been a whistle-blower of sorts in her civilian life: She once chose to take a stand, pointing out workplace lapses in the chicken processing plant she worked at in her native West Virginia. * Why was it different at Abu Ghraib? Weren't the bad apples free at some level to say no?

In Browning's book about "ordinary men," the story of a reserve military police battalion, we learn that the men in the unit were given the option of not participating in the mass murder of Jews. Some did opt out and were not punished, indicating that those who killed did it by choice, not compulsion. It could be done. They didn't have to follow orders, even in Nazi Germany.

What does all this have to do with the slow-motion footage of the shotgun shells?             The scene is a re-creation of a moment when one of the Americans fired a shotgun at a prisoner who had a smuggled gun. We see the midsection of the shotgun as it's firing and ejecting brass shell casings with each blast. We follow the shells as they float in super slo-mo to the floor, bouncing off the floor and one another at crazy angles. Flying and diving.

Lingering in this way on the apparently crazy angles and bounces and ricochets highlights the fact that these trajectories are not random—that they are, in fact, an enactment of determinism. Every empty shotgun shell casing ejected from the weapon is "following orders," following the laws of physics. (On the macro, nonsubatomic level, of course.) Their movement, their bounces, their ricochets are all determined to the last micron.

They have no choice. They are empty cases. The angles weren't "crazy"; they were ordained by the mathematics of force and motion. This is the way the "bad apples" portray themselves. Empty cases. Buffeted by forces beyond their control.

The image of the empty cartridge cases challenges us to question this plea of determinism, the implicit analogy. That's the way it worked for me, anyway. Were the bad apples really "empty cases" or did they have something within them that allowed deliberation, control over the trajectory of their actions?

Perhaps that challenge, that question, that investigation of moral responsibility is so deeply embedded in the documentary that my reading of the slo-mo footage is entailed by my reading of the film.

On the other hand, this contextual subtext of free will is something I might have missed if super slo-mo hadn't forced me to think about the significance of the bouncing shell casings: the question of whether the laws of psychological determinism, of emotion, are as fixed as those of motion. Is there a physics of courage and cowardice?

I tried this idea out over dinner with Morris, and later we spoke about it on the phone. He professed interest in my take, although he may have been trying to be agreeable, and I didn't press him on it, since I often feel bad about pushing him out of the more open-ended and sometimes enigmatic stances he prefers.

And so our conversation moved from the ethical dimensions of super slo-mo to the metaphysical questions it raises. From slow motion as an investigative window onto the mind to slow motion as an investigative window onto time itself. From slo-mo to the idea of no-mo.

As best as I can recall, it began with Morris discussing something he was working on for his New York Times blog, an essay that began as a defense of his use, in his documentaries, of "re-enactments," which occasionally get some critics' knickers in a twist. (The first part of the essay was published last week.) One of the things he wanted to do was to distinguish justified, versus unjustified, uses of the technique. He was planning to begin the essay (10,000 words in draft when we spoke) with a digression on "continuity problems" in films, the glitches that result when editing together two versions of a scene. (When a character wears, say, a red tie when beginning a speech but finishes it tieless, that's a minor continuity problem; major ones involve story and character inconsistencies.) Morris has a complicated theory about the relationship between re-enactments and continuity problems, which I will let you absorb directly when he publishes it in a subsequent installment.

But the discussion of continuity problems and of super slo-mo prompted me to bring up Jorge Luis Borges' persistent preoccupation, in his stories and essays, with disproving the reality of time itself as a continuum.

Borges took Zeno's paradox to its limits. You know Zeno's paradox: Achilles is racing a tortoise and the tortoise has a slight head start, but, argues Zeno, Achilles will never catch up to the tortoise. Never close the distance at all. Never move—at least in some radical interpretations—because to move forward Achilles must cross an infinite number of points between any given two points, and even if it takes an infinitesimal slice of time to cross each one, it would take him infinite time to get through the infinite points that lay between him and any point in his path. (For more, see this entertaining study by Joseph Mazur of the thousands of years of disputation over it.)

Zeno's refutation of continuous motion itself is more explicitly reflected in his "flying arrow" paradox. As Mazur puts it: "The flying arrow paradox concludes that motion is impossible. Zeno pictures an arrow in flight and considers it frozen at a single point in time … [arguing] that if it is stationary at that instant then it is stationary at any—and every—instant. Therefore it doesn't move at all."

So Borges took Zeno's paradox and ran with it, so to speak. (See, for instance, his essay "The Perpetual Race of the Tortoise and Achilles" in Selected Non-Fictions.) He claimed that if there were no such thing as continuous motion, there was also no such thing as continuous time, which is purportedly a continuous succession of moments.

What, then, was Borges' vision of time? He held that the universe was a series of discontinuous moments—almost like a series of separated frames on a strip of film. Each frame an infinitesimal moment of discontinuous time, existing entirely independent of the ones before and after it. As did the people within each frame. Not slo-mo. No-mo.

How did Borges account for memory, then? In an essay in Other Inquisitions, "The Creation and P.H. Gosse," Borges played with the notion that the universe might have been created just moments—or even a single moment—ago, and that we were created with memories of an illusory past we never lived implanted within us.

OK, it's a little tenuous, but hard to disprove.

Morris' words on this: "All of existence is a continuity problem." By this logic, you are a different person entirely from the entity who started reading this essay. You don't have to regret anything in your past. You have no real past. You are someone new. But, then, so am I.

Nice to meet us.

Correction, April 10, 2008: This piece originally stated that Lynndie England was fired after taking a stand against workplace lapses at a chicken processing plant where she worked. In fact, as Tara McKelvey reported,  following the incident, she walked off the job. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)