Errol Morris and W.G. Sebald or Art and History


David Byrne has a good review of Errol Morris’s new film, Standard Operating Procedure. (David Byrne Journal: 05.03.2008: Objective Truth)

I initially was disappointed by the film, since I thought it was going to be shattering in what it revealed. I hoped it would be like Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line”. As it was, the story it told through the voices of those involved didn’t appear new or interesting. However, as I thought about it afterwards, and I considered some of the ideas that Morris has been writing about, I began to think that that wasn’t the only point of the documentary. For the documentary is also a study of the question: what does photography signify? It is a question that Morris doesn’t answer so much as explore. It’s the study of this question that makes the film interesting, more so than the (hi)story of American involvement in Abu Ghraib.

It reminded me of the reviews I read about W.G. Sebald’s book, “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Many of the harshest critics of the book appeared to take it to task solely as a work of history. But Sebald is first and foremost an artist, and in this work, as in his fiction, he is exploring ideas and themes almost independent to the (hi)story at hand. To criticize him solely on his historical qualities is to miss much of the point of the writing. Likewise, to watch Morris’s film and criticize him as if he is Seymour Hersh is to also miss much of the point of his filmmaking.

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