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.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

I've always loved slo-mo. It's one of those technological developments that we take for granted—thereby overlooking the profound pleasures, both sensual and intellectual, that slo-mo opens up for our vision of the world, of time, of being itself. What got me thinking about slo-mo again was seeing my friend Errol Morris' slo-mo-saturated new documentary about Abu Ghraib, Standard Operating Procedure. Slo-mo is virtually the standard operating speed of Standard Operating Procedure. I think there's a reason (and a revelation) inherent in its use, which I'll get to. But first let me talk about why I find slo-mo so seductive in the first place.

First, there's the sheer beauty of it! A dangerous beauty, true, since it can aestheticize indiscriminately. (Insert obligatory admonitory reference to the slo-mo machine-gun slaughter at the close of Bonnie and Clyde as iconic example.) But, for the most part, slo-mo can be a mesmerizing revelation of the grace inherent in the ordinary.

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For better or worse, just about everything looks better in slow motion. Even awkwardness looks balletic in slow motion—or, at least, "Chaplinesque." (Do you know the Hart Crane poem by that name, by the way? Check it out here.) Gracelessness becomes graceful and gracefulness becomes transcendent.

The movement of ordinary physical objects can acquire the luminous, numinous mystery of a glowing Spielbergian UFO. I became hooked on slo-mo from watching pro football—not just the complex beauty of broken field running but the close-up of the lovely slow spiral of a long forward pass as it drifts through space to the embrace of a receiver's arms. Gravity's rainbow!

Motion itself seems more miraculous than mundane in slow motion. In slo-mo we don't take motion for granted; it becomes sensual, dreamlike art. After you've watched a lot of slo-mo, conventional life seems "jerky" in every sense of the word.

Slow motion can cause one to rethink time itself: Consider the possibility that the speed at which time seems to proceed is really arbitrary. There's no reason we couldn't live in an alternate universe in which time moves faster or slower. (Though how would we know the difference? Insert Woody Allen-type joke about how "everything would be the same except you couldn't get same-day dry cleaning".)

With slo-mo, the passage of time is suddenly something one can experience more pronouncedly, something one can observe from the outside rather than from within it. Watching slo-mo allows you to compare time as we know it with different rates of being—the way one rarely can when one is part of time, in synch with its inexorable speed, and unable to step back from it. It's the difference between floating down a river and watching it from its banks.

Did you know (I didn't until very recently) that slow motion was an invention—patented, in fact? Who knew time could be patented? Back in 1904, an Austrian priest-turned-physicist named August Musger obtained a patent for a process by which he modified film projectors to produce slo-mo on screen. The irony was that August Musger (named after the slowest month?) was slo-pay, too. He lost his patent in 1914 because he failed to pay the fees for its renewal on time.

But the corporation that snatched up the priest-physicist's patent didn't profit from slo-mo for long. Eventually, most filmmakers reproduced the effect by "overcranking" the camera (as it's called), not jiggering with the projector. They'd run the camera at a higher frame-per-second rate as they were recording, then play the film back to audiences at the usual 24-frames-per-second speed. (Although cranks are long gone, this is essentially how people do it today, although new digital methods now allow directors to achieve some slo-mo effects in postproduction.)

Still, the fact that it was an Austrian priest-physicist named August who patented slo-mo is almost too good to be true, since the technique raises the questions that priests and physicists both struggle with: the mysteries of creation and time. Did time exist before the creation of the universe (either by God or by the Big Bang)? If so, how fast was it moving, and why that speed? Will some inventive creationist defend the seven days by saying they were 7 billion years in super, super slo-mo?

Once, polymath littérateur George Steiner told me a fantasy of his: that some Austrian street photographer might have captured both Hitler and Freud together on a Viennese tram during the time they both lived in the city. My fantasy now is that Albert Einstein—working in the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1904, when Musger patented slo-mo in (relatively) nearby Austria—might have become aware of Musger's slow-motion patent (perhaps it even crossed his desk?) and that contemplation of slo-mo might have influenced Einstein's thinking about the nonabsoluteness, the relativity, of time.        

But there's slo-mo and then there's super slo-mo. I'd been accustomed to Errol Morris' effective use of slo-mo in films like The Thin Blue Line and Fog of War. In a way, his use of slo-mo is akin to "close reading" in literary criticism. It expands our apprehension of the ambiguities and hidden resonances of emblematic moments.

But the super slo-mo in Standard Operating Procedure takes it to another level. I first saw it when I visited the Abu Ghraib set Morris was filming on in L.A. a year or so ago. I recall him rhapsodizing about the effects he achieved with a new camera called "the Phantom."

Most "real-time" film is shot at 24 frames per second (or close variations). Most conventional slo-mo is shot at around 130 frames per second. The Phantom shoots at the equivalent of 1,000 frames per second!

Out in L.A., Morris showed me some Phantom-created super-slo-mo footage of a snarling dog of the type used at Abu Ghraib to terrify detainees. The dog's bloodlust is bestial enough in real life. But the super slo-mo captures a more primal savagery than anything you can glimpse in real-time snarling and snapping. The footage offers some essence of viciousness that the brain must register at a subliminal level. It implicitly asks the question: Do all animals, including us, possess some variation of this rage?

Oddly enough, though, it wasn't the dog footage but a stretch of super slo-mo featuring inanimate objects—empty shotgun shell casings bouncing around after being ejected by the firing process—that somehow stayed with me. The more I thought about it, the clip seemed to encapsulate one of the key questions the film investigates most closely: How much were the perpetrators at Abu Ghraib acting with free will, making individual moral choices, and how much were they compelled by wartime "circumstances," following orders from higher-ups to act abusively?

Standard Operating Procedure focuses on the so-called "bad apples" at Abu Ghraib, the low-level military policemen and women such as Lynndie England who became scapegoats for officials further up the chain of command.

The links between the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the higher-ups writing torture-enabling memos in the White House and Justice Department (John Yoo, Timothy Flanigan) have been persuasively demonstrated by Tara McKelvey (a close friend) in her Abu Ghraib book, Monstering. (Disclosure: I actually know some people who aren't involved in investigating Abu Ghraib.)

Morris takes the notion that ultimate responsibility lies higher up the chain of command as a given. But his film seems to me to be asking whether the "bad apples," the ones following orders, following "standard operating procedure," should be let off the hook just because others higher up bear heavier responsibility. His film suggests that closely examining the bad apples' behavior and rationalizations can tell us something about ourselves.

Don't the bad apples bear some responsibility? They could have said no at any point, but instead—with the exception of a couple of whistle-blowers—they played along, adding their own little twists of humiliation and viciousness to the treatment of mostly innocent detainees.

This question picks up on one recent tendency in Holocaust history, the focus on the actual hands-on perpetrators rather than on the higher-ups, the Hitlers and Himmlers, with their abstract plans for a "Final Solution." The point is not to diminish the role of these architects but to look more closely at those who carried their plans out.

You see this tendency in Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men, about the low-level soldiers in a German military police battalion, and in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (although they take somewhat contrary views of the nature of complicity) and, of course, in Claude Lanzmann's famous nine-hour documentary, Shoah, which focuses on the Polish and Eastern European killers in the death camps.

At the heart of Standard Operating Procedure are long interviews with five of the seven "bad apples," who go to great lengths to evaluate and rationalize what they did at Abu Ghraib. The film doesn't ignore the wider context. Rumsfeld and Gen. Sanchez are given their dues, as is the fact that, according to some accounts, before 2003 no fewer than 30,000 people were hanged to death by Saddam Hussein's torturers there.

But Morris is fascinated by the bad apples. They open up to him, speaking not defensively but often weirdly matter-of-factly about what they did, which ranged from humiliation to outright torture and tolerating the killing of one detainee.

Listening to them talk, one thinks of Stanley Fish. Yes, I have accused the celeb professor of writing "The Worst Op-Ed Ever Published" here in Slate. But once, back when he was a more serious scholar, he posited a fascinating theory about Milton's Paradise Lost in a book called Surprised by Sin. Fish argued that Milton's method was to recreate in the mind of his reader the experience of the temptation and the fall that is the subject of Paradise Lost. He wanted his reader, too, to become entranced by the seductive rhetoric of Satan—who speaks better poetry than God—and then be brought up short by the fact that he's fallen for Satan's silver tongue. Just like Adam and Eve: surprised by sin.

So it is with the long and winding tales of the "bad apples," which are the verbal equivalent of slo-mo. They return to, circle around, a single incident (the murder of a detainee by the CIA, for instance) from a variety of angles, offering a superslow verbal accumulation of visual detail.

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