The Spectator

From Slo-Mo to No-Mo

Errol Morris and the strange power of superslow motion.

Illustration of Errol Morris in a director's chair by Charlie Powell.
Charlie Powell

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.

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.

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.    

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.)