This past Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc featured Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which explores the photographs and video clips that were taken of the torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Morris’ primary concern in the film is not, as one might expect, with torture as such. It is not even with the sort of people who would commit these acts. Rather, it is with the people who would film and photograph the torture, with those who would copy and share these images, and with those who would try to read and interpret this evidence. In doing so, he attends continually to the visual frame, drawing attention to how this frame provides the limit of interpretation and even of legal culpability.
One of the ways that he draws attention to the frame of the image is by continually rematting the shots in the interview segments. Both the sound and the image of the interviewees remain continuous as he does this, so that there is no interruption in the sense of what is being said, but the image becomes repositioned within the frame, slightly to the left or slightly to the right, so that the space around the interviewee’s face or torso is shifted .
The effect of this technique is twofold, I think. First, it highlight’s Morris’ concern with what the frame of a picture includes and excludes, whether this frame be produced by a picture of torture at Abu Ghraib or by Morris’ own film footage. In this sense, the rematting serves as a subtle reminder that the frame of the image is not absolute, that it is constructed, that it includes and excludes, and that it always excludes infinitely more than it includes, an idea that he also explores more explicitly elsewhere in the film.
Second, the rematting is also an indication that Morris is uncomfortable with how the frame of the film tends to reduce the complexity of those being interviewed to a single authoritative perspective. The shifts in matting present a kind of restlessness and uncertainty in the filmic gaze, as if the camera is never able to find a comfortable vantage from which to capture and understand its subjects. This attempt to draw attention to the complexity of the filmed subject is characteristic of Morris’ whole body of work, and the rematting effect reinforces this idea visually.
These two functions of the rematting are connected, of course. They both relate to the limitation of the image as a means to convey meaning, which is a significant question, considering how reliant our culture is becoming on the image and considering also how naively many people understand images to represent meaning. By questioning exactly how seeing becomes believing, Morris is opening a question that extends far beyond the photographs from Abu Ghraib and far beyond the films that comprise his own work, a question, in fact, that is becoming an increasingly fundamental one in our imagistic society: “How exactly do images mean?” or, perhaps better, “How exactly do we read images?”
I think that the answer to these questions is of the utmost significance. If it is indeed the case that our society is increasingly dominated by the image, then it becomes increasingly necessary for people to be able to read and to interpret these images critically, not with the purpose of producing absolute or otherwise authoritative interpretations, but with the purpose of attending to the ways that these interpretations form and inform us. I might even go so far as to say that teaching ourselves to read images in this way is the primary task of anyone who is interested in responding ethically to our culture as such.