Towards an (Aesth)etiquette of Torture: Polite Form in Zero Dark Thirty and Standard Operating Procedure
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The Abu Ghraib photographs, which juxtapose tortured bodies and smiling US soldiers, are said to constitute an extreme breach of etiquette, the most severe disetiquette. These photographs also preoccupy two recent American films: Zero Dark Thirty and Standard Operating Procedure. This essay examines etiquette’s ability to reaffirm social hierarchies through seemingly innocuous cinematic techniques on display in these films. Not only do they move towards an (aesth)etiquette of torture, the films also demonstrate that etiquette can be read for form in and of itself.
“It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,” Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others. The pain of others has, perhaps, never been more hungrily regarded in the 21st century than after the release of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos in 2004. These photos show Iraqi prisoners in varying states of mental torture and physical humiliation at the hands of American G.I.s. Handcuffed, hands and feet bound, the detainees are shown with putrid sacs on their heads, faces covered, stacked one on top of the other in a pyramid of flesh, dirt-smeared skin flattened against the filthy floor, testicles bulbously protruding from between clenched thighs—degradation in pixelated chroma.
Next to these artfully arranged objects of humiliation are grinning, winking, smiling American G.I.s. Some offer a thumbs-up. Some grin wolfishly from behind naked, degraded bodies. One poses, teeth glistening in a wide smile, next to a dead prisoner, the corpse’s heavily beaten face framed by packs of ice. It is this juxtaposition of tortured bodies against uncontained mirth that shocked the American populace—it constitutes an extreme breach of etiquette, the most severe disetiquette. It questions the American self-image of moral superiority. These photographs have preoccupied many post-9/11 American films depicting torture and the Global War on Terror (GWOT). These films, such as Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) (2008), have been discussed mainly for their ethical implications (or ethical missteps); as a result, these discussions have neglected the crucial function of etiquette within such films—particularly within and as film form itself. Both Zero Dark Thirty and SOP react to the Abu Ghraib scandal by constructing an etiquette of form. While Zero Dark Thirty creates a self-effacing formal etiquette through its quick edits and invasive close-ups in an attempt to rectify the Americans’ breach of etiquette as embodied by the Abu Ghraib photographs, SOP employs CGI and self-reflexive framing techniques to construct an empty etiquette that gestures to its own performativity, formalizing a critique of the American military’s self-made image of moral superiority. Not only do these films move towards an (aesth)etiquette of torture in their representations of violent acts, but they formalize etiquette, demonstrating that etiquette – those seemingly superficial aesthetic codes – can be read for form in and of itself. Etiquette as film form can no longer be ignored, but should be evaluated for its critical productivity.
Building a Philosophy of Etiquette
It is somewhat surprising that film theory has neglected to discuss etiquette at length, considering the entanglement of etiquette and aesthetics immanent to the medium. However, this neglect of etiquette is only part of a larger philosophical tradition of passing etiquette over in favour of its more popular cousin, ethics. A philosophy of etiquette has yet to be properly established, though etiquette is responsible for the formation of social hierarchies and subjects. Laura Bovone’s definition perhaps crystallizes etiquette’s function best: etiquette is “the formal code that governs encounters,” she writes. “[It is] a code of manners.” Etiquette does, indeed, govern social interactions and behaviours, shaping public personas through cultural coding. Its emphasis on superficial, everyday interactions has led to a perception of etiquette as lacking theoretical weight, compared to the more obvious moral weightiness of ethics. However, ethics could not exist without etiquette’s “code of manners.” As Scapp and Seitz argue, “etiquette prefigures ethics, and ethics, the practice of living a good life, has always depended on the graceful relations for which etiquette provides a ticket to enter the domain of sociability.” Subjects cannot behave ethically if they aren’t already accepted into the social sphere—etiquette is of the utmost sociocultural importance. As a result, etiquette does not just shape superficial behaviours, but shapes social structures and formulates subject positions. Those who adhere to codes of manners, to etiquette, are better accepted into the social sphere, offering them more social currency. As Hamann writes in his incisive essay on etiquette’s political function, “etiquette continues to operate as an important set of techniques through which individuals actively participate in the social constitution of themselves as subjects living within complex relations of power.” Etiquette is not, then, merely a set of superficial cosmetic codes, but a set of social survival strategies. For instance, romance etiquette, from first dates to marriage proposals, is structured around a heteronormative tradition of romantic relationships. These social rituals of etiquette – men paying for dinner on a first date, for instance – reinforce this heteronormativity. While subjects who adhere to such structures of etiquette are enfolded into the realm of social acceptability, those who stray from these structures (through unmarried partnerships, same-sex relationships, etc.) are excluded. Hamann goes on to define etiquette as “a semiotics of propriety,” signifying a will to belong within the exclusionary borders defined by a group. Those who can read the codes of propriety, who can attach the signifiers of politeness to the signified, are insiders accepted as subjects within the dominant social structure. Etiquette not only governs behaviour, then, but reifies boundaries between groups, separating “us” from “them,” or “me” from “Other.” Etiquette’s power is daunting, insidious, and pervasive.
The philosophical canon’s neglect of etiquette should, at this point, appear surprising and even irresponsible, given etiquette’s immense social power. In an impassioned essay, philosopher Judith Martin demands that a philosophy of etiquette be established, lamenting that, “When modern philosophers mention etiquette at all, they do so blithely presuming that everyone now agrees that etiquette is at best, frivolous, and at worse, repressive.” Like Hamann, Martin criticizes the popular belief that etiquette lacks theoretical and moral weight. She overtly aligns etiquette with structures of morality, writing that, “Morality and etiquette form a single, albeit highly complex – and by no means conflict-free – system of rules for the governance of social conduct [...] Were morality and etiquette to fall by the wayside, civilization would disappear.” Though Martin’s essay, with its attitude of doomsday prophesying, was published in 1993, very little work has been done since then to establish this philosophy of etiquette. The articles discussed here are, in fact, some of the very few papers published on etiquette in the past 10 years. Though etiquette shapes the public self and constructs exclusionary group boundaries, it remains on the fringes of philosophy. Much of this neglect comes from etiquette’s relation to aesthetics, to appearance; it has been deemed “cosmetic” and superficial. However, as we shall see in a discussion of formal etiquette/etiquette of form in Zero Dark Thirty and SOP, the seeming superficiality of these aesthetics has deep and politically productive ends.
Abu Ghraib’s Failed Etiquette
Before heading off into a close analysis of both films, it is important (and indeed, good manners) to lay the theoretical groundwork for this connection between formal etiquette and aesthetics, much of which will be drawn from Erving Goffman’s examination of etiquette’s performativity in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In this text, Goffman invokes etiquette through his equation of social acts with performative acts. Every social being is, in a sense, an actor who must behave according to the pre-written, pre-established script of etiquette. Through a “veneer of consensus,” he writes, “each participant [in the social interaction] is expected to suppress his immediate heartfelt feelings, conveying a view of the situation which he feels the others will be able to find at least temporarily acceptable.” These performances, then, must conceal illicit pleasures or desires; to break this “front,” or reveal the phoniness of the performance, is to lose social acceptability, and, perhaps more dangerously, to reveal these structures of etiquette as purely artifice.
This exposure of etiquette’s artifice is, of course, what occurred with the appearance of the Abu Ghraib photographs. The American GIs’ expressions of pure enjoyment – their jouissance as torturers – conflicted with the government’s assurance that American soldiers only ever performed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and then, only to retrieve “actionable intelligence.” The pleasure so happily displayed in these photographs reveals what Goffman describes as “a crucial discrepancy between our all-too-human selves and our socialized selves.” With these photographs, a crack appears in the façade of professionalism and moral superiority so proudly performed by the American military. This breach of etiquette and the shamelessness with which this breach was broached has captured and mystified the American population for over a decade. Indeed, the inappropriateness of the soldiers’ smiles – the revelation of the performativity of American etiquette and moral superiority – has garnered as much attention as the acts of torture themselves, as evidenced by the first reports following the photos’ release. The 60 Minutes II segment responsible for much of the story’s initial entrance into the public sphere emphasizes that, “in most of these pictures, the Americans are laughing, posing, pointing, or giving the camera a thumbs-up.” The New Yorker’s lengthy report on the photos describes the American G.I.s as “leering,” often giving “a jaunty thumbs-up sign.” These reports struggle with the shattering of an American identity as saviour and harbinger of democracy, with the revelation of American etiquette as something only ever artificial and performative.
Since 2004, most scholarship on the Abu Ghraib photographs have also focused on this breach of etiquette, critically reinforcing the connection between etiquette, aesthetics, and visual media. In her book on the representation of torture in popular culture, Neroni writes that it is “the enjoying face of the torturer in Abu Ghraib” that “stains American history,” rather than the acts of torture themselves. In a similar vein, Susan Sontag’s powerful essay, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” argues that the most troubling aspect of these photographs are the soldiers’ grins, since they prove “not just that these acts were performed, but that their perpetrators had no sense that there was anything wrong with what the pictures show.” These discussions of the inappropriateness of what is represented in these photographs gestures to the acceptability of what is not represented—a performance of proper etiquette. Though Neroni and Sontag’s are valid critiques of the Abu Ghraib photographs, their fixation on the photos’ grinning faces poses a tacit question: would these photographs be more acceptable if they displayed an appropriate performance of etiquette? If the soldiers showed socially acceptable affects of guilt and shame, would Abu Ghraib have become the scandal that it did? On April 16th, 2003 – one year before the Abu Ghraib photos were released – U.S. Southern Commander General James T. Hill and Secretary of State Rumsfeld released a list of government-approved interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. A year before that, in January of 2002, President Bush determined that detainees at Guantanamo Bay were not subject to the rights outlined in the Third Geneva Convention, effectively stripping them of the right to a fair trial, and again, approving brutal interrogation methods. It was no surprise, then, that these torturous acts were taking place, which leads to the unsettling conclusion that it was not, perhaps, the torture that shocked the American public, but the collapse of their national identity as the morally superior nation involved in the Global War on Terror through the disruption of this etiquette of torture—the rejection of a performance of guilt, or even seriousness.
Both Zero Dark Thirty and SOP respond to these photographs, struggling to represent and deal with torture on-screen, as well as the perceived threat to security generated by 9/11. In these films, scenes of torture are juxtaposed against and situated within formal structures of etiquette. This essay does not attempt to argue that etiquette is more important or more worthy of discussion than ethics; rather, I am merely drawing attention to a lack of discourse surrounding etiquette, while pointing to film form’s insidious ability to perform etiquette and, by extension, reinforce social hierarchies. Both chosen films move towards an (aesth)etiquette, a visual construction of etiquette intended to heal the scandal of Abu Ghraib (as in Zero Dark Thirty), or further expose etiquette as empty performance (as in SOP). As Laura Bovone writes in her essay on Goffman’s theories of performativity, “Ethics and aesthetics are indivisible.” Etiquette is form: of behaviour, of appearance, of performance, and, of course, of film. The two films discussed here prove that etiquette can (and should) be read for form—a form with important, critically productive implications.
Contrasting Films, Complementary Aesthetics
Superficially, Zero Dark Thirty and SOP appear to be hugely and irreconcilably different. Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow’s fictionalized re-telling of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, led by a tenacious CIA operative (played with ferocity by Jessica Chastain) named Maya. SOP is an Errol Morris documentary exploring the backlash and conflicting narratives surrounding the Abu Ghraib photo release by – controversially – pairing interviews with the American soldiers involved and stylish re-enactments of the torturous acts themselves.
However much these films might differ in content and modes of filmmaking, they have both been heavily and similarly criticized for their handling torture imagery. In directing Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow consciously chose to use hand-held cameras, giving the film a sense of contemporaneity with the events depicted. In other words, these shaky, hand-held cameras evoke an aesthetic of journalistic investigation that misleadingly lends the film an aura of objectivity. Indeed, Bigelow has openly declared that, in selecting this camera equipment, she aimed to create a “reported film,” an “imagistic living history.” Wobbly, shaky images frame the film’s procedural content, from Maya’s first day on the job to her melancholic celebration of Bin Laden’s death. This docurealist, journalistic effect, however, has been called into question many times for its illusory suggestion of truth-telling. Richard Brody of The New Yorker has criticized what he calls the film’s “superficial realism,” labeling it “a careful and calculated contrivance.” Others have critiqued the positioning of these torture scenes for their implication that torture was a necessary means of obtaining intelligence. CIA director Michael Morell has even inserted himself into this discourse, critiquing that “[t]he film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques were the key to finding Bin Laden [...] That impression is false.” So, Zero Dark Thirty is a fiction film attacked for veering too far into documentary territory. Morris’s approach to directing SOP has, in a complementary way, been critiqued for creating the opposite effect.
Morris’s directorial style could be viewed as the complete inverse of Bigelow’s. In an interview with Sight & Sound, Morris declared that, “The truth is not guaranteed by natural lighting or a handheld camera,” dismissing the objectivity of docurealist aesthetics as invalid. Indeed, neither natural light nor handheld cameras make an appearance in SOP. As he does in his other documentaries, Morris does away with cinéma vérité documentary form, opting instead for highly polished interview segments and, most noticeably, beautifully shot re-enactments of the Abu Ghraib torture scenes. These stylistic choices did not fare well for the film’s success: it was dismissed by critics, and made only $229,000 at the North American box office. Most critics disliked Morris’s stylish re-enactments, accusing them of merely exploiting the horrors of Abu Ghraib, rather than productively critiquing them.
These two films, though by all appearances incredibly different, are complementary in their uses of controversial film forms. While Zero Dark Thirty is a fiction film that took on a veil of documentary cinema, SOP is a documentary film that came uncomfortably close to fiction; both films blur the line between reality and illusion. Through their heavily and consciously stylized depictions of torture, both films cause their audiences to question the veracity of filmic and photographic images themselves. As the following discussion will demonstrate, this formal self-reflexivity proposes an etiquette of representation, an etiquette of form, as a reaction to the Abu Ghraib scandal. While Zero Dark Thirty’s formal etiquette, as most clearly demonstrated by its use of cut-aways and close-ups, proposes a polite depiction of torture that aims to fix, however slightly, the breach of etiquette displayed in the Abu Ghraib photos, SOP’s use of CGI sequences and self-reflexive framings creates a formal etiquette that gestures back to the emptiness of America’s performativity of morality.
Zero Dark Thirty’s Apologetic Etiquette
The torture sequences of Zero Dark Thirty move towards a formal etiquette that, through its use of the cut-away and the close-up, aims to control its viewers through a performance of moralism and duty—two values at odds with the Abu Ghraib photographs. These torture sequences depict a series of physical and mental humiliations as a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), is waterboarded, sexually humiliated, and forced into a sensory deprivation box by burly American interrogation expert, Dan (Jason Clarke), all the while watched silently and (almost) impassively by Jessica Chastain’s Maya. These sequences, like the rest of Bigelow’s film, are shot with her preferred shaky, hand-held camera, a stylistic strategy at odds with the film’s etiquette of form. While the film proposes a fully realistic depiction of torture through narrative and its notorious shakicam techniques, its editing – through the cut-away – works to place these tortuous acts within a structure of etiquette, so as to re-imbue America’s military presence with etiquette itself. For instance, an early scene in the film shows a newly arrived Maya entering a dimly lit, scummy torture chamber, where Ammar is being interrogated. After he refuses to offer information, Dan forces a burlap cloth over Ammar’s face, calls brusquely for Maya to bring him a bucket of water, before dousing Ammar’s face cloth, waterboarding him as he thrashes and gasps like a newly caught fish. Here, the cut-away’s effect of etiquette is clearest. Though we are assailed with many shots of Ammar’s asphyxiating body, our consciences are soothed somewhat by frequent cut-aways to Maya’s conflicted expression. She looks down, looks to the side, looks anywhere but at the detainee struggling for breath three feet away from her. She is the embodiment of shame in these moments, an appropriate affect. Cutting between shots of Ammar and shots of Maya’s appropriately stricken expression injects the scene with a sense of propriety, of etiquette, full of what was lacking in the Abu Ghraib photos; Maya corrects the Americans’ failed performances at Abu Ghraib. Where the soldiers at Abu Ghraib demonstrate a break with etiquette in their smug smirks and evident excitement amid tortured bodies, Maya of Zero Dark Thirty is paralyzed by this scene of torture. The film, then, proposes that yes, torture could be construed as unethical, but it is necessary, and not at all enjoyable for military personnel—the Americans are not monstrous. The cut-away, here, is one of apology and politeness.
Fig. 4: Zero Dark Thirty’s waterboarding scene.
Etiquette’s insidious function as the cut-away is noticeable once again in the film’s constant refusal to graphically depict nudity and sexual degradation. At one point, Ammar is strung up, hands bound to ropes attached to a vaulted ceiling. He hangs, limp, like a filthy marionette. Angry with Ammar’s refusal to offer information, Dan yanks down Ammar’s pants before gesturing to Maya, saying: “Do you mind if my female colleague checks out your junk?” The film cuts from Dan to Maya (who looks away), and then cuts to behind Ammar. We see his bare behind, but never his frontal nakedness. We are never forced to be that explicitly complicit in his sexual degradation. This is, of course, untrue of the Abu Ghraib photographs, in which the Iraqi prisoners are often shown naked, forced into simulated positions of oral sex, anal sex, and even unsimulated masturbation. Readily available to the public, these photos of vulnerable, sexually degraded bodies have been consumed by millions of people. However, since their release in 2004, many websites displaying these photos, including Antiwar.com, have censored the prisoners’ penises, as if to retroactively establish some etiquette of modesty, to retroactively conceal this exploitation of vulnerability at the hands of American soldiers. Through its use of a cut-away from Ammar’s nakedness, Zero Dark Thirty establishes its own etiquette of images. Torture via waterboarding and sleep deprivation is representable, but a man’s forcibly exposed penis mocked and critically observed by two American CIA agents is, apparently, stretching the audience’s complicity too far.
This sequence of sexual humiliation evokes the Deleuzian concept of semi-subjectivity, a formal construction of perspective that, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, helps create the film’s politically charged etiquette of form. Deleuze defines “semi-subjectivity” as an oscillation between subjective and objective shots, in which the camera “no longer mingles with the character, nor is it outside: it is with him.” Indeed, we are not entirely rooted in either Dan or Maya’s subjectivities; though the film’s hand-held cinematography lends a feeling of infiltration and closeness to the scene, we, as audience members, are kept on the fringes. We linger in this semi-subjective space that “has no equivalent in natural perception.” We occupy a position of “being-with” the camera, our perceptions controlled entirely by the shots and their relations. We are somewhat attached to Maya as a character, but not to the point where we become as complicit as she is in Ammar’s degradation; we cut away from his nudity, from her humiliating gaze. Deleuze refers to this semi-subjective imaging as a camera consciousness, defining it as “a case of going beyond the subjective and objective towards a pure Form which sets itself up as an autonomous vision of the content.” Indeed, this “pure Form” is constructed through these shots, a form that performs and embodies a particular etiquette. Looking at Goffman’s idea of performance, defined as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants,” it becomes clear that Bigelow’s film, through form, performs an etiquette that reeks of (perhaps a false) apology. The cut-away is a subtle, yet politically charged, attempt to acknowledge America’s involvement with torture while performing shame; the cut-away is form at its most polite.
Working in tandem with but inversely of this cut-away technique is a heavy emphasis on Ammar’s face through close-up. Though the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty are, really, a conversation of facial close-ups, alternating between Maya, Dan, and Ammar’s faces, shots displaying Ammar’s defeated, pained expression are most memorable for the sheer uncomfortableness they provoke. Again and again, the viewer is assaulted with images of Ammar’s face covered with burlap cloth, choking as he’s waterboarded, or shots of Ammar’s face streaked with mucus, tears, and dirt. The close-up has frequently been discussed as one of the most intimate shots in cinema. It forces viewers to engage with the image—escape is impossible. Film theory is littered with discussions of the close-up, from Jean Epstein’s concept of photogénie to Balazs’s poetic obsession with the close-up’s magnification of the human face. All of these discussions have focused on the close-up’s relation to and manipulation of scale, its ability to de-familiarize otherwise familiar objects (such as the human face) through magnification, revealing, as Epstein calls it, the “soul of the cinema.” As Mary Ann Doane writes in her essay on the close-up, this theoretical obsession with the shot-scale’s “uncontainable excess” and “residue of separability” is not simply an innocuous trend, but “has a great deal to do with an implicit politics of cinematic scale” which, incidentally, is “most visibly incarnated in the close-up.” This “politics of cinematic scale” is at play in Zero Dark Thirty’s formal etiquette, embodied by the film’s use of close-ups of the three primary torture chamber figures: Dan, Maya, and Ammar.
Through its exploitation of the facial close-up’s magnification not only of facial features, but of human emotion, Zero Dark Thirty adds to its etiquette of form an illusion of intimacy and a performance of sympathy. Linking the close-up and the portrayal of human emotion, we turn again to the writings of Deleuze. In Cinema 1: The Movement Image, Deleuze privileges the close-up as the affection-image of cinema—a visual display of human emotion at its purest. Narrowing his focus even further, Deleuze goes on to privilege the face, like Balazs and Epstein before him, as the primary object of this cinematographic technique. However, this face is not always a face, in the literal sense of the term; rather, any object can be “faceified,” or visagefiée. In short, Deleuze’s discussion is an anthropomorphized one. “[T]here is no close-up of the face,” he writes. “[T]he face is in itself the close-up, the close-up is by itself face and both are affect, affection-image.” Through close-ups, faces are attributed to objects and, with them, all the infinite affects a human face is capable of conveying. The close-up is affect. Deleuze hangs this process of faceification on the close-up’s de-territorializing of the image proper, arguing that, “The affection-image, for its part, is abstracted from the spatio-temporal co-ordinates which would relate it to a state of things, and abstracts the face from the person to which it belongs in the state of things.” The affection-image, this close-up of faceified objects, is understood only in relation to itself; it is no longer a face, but an object with facial attributes. As a result, the close-up both faceifies and effaces the face. It offers quality of expression, it offers affected/ive-ness, but never within its own narrative or social structure—only in and of itself.
Zero Dark Thirty, superficially, seems to engage with the close-up as a means of individuation, assigning identities to Iraqi prisoners, of “faceifying:” them and offering affective expression, in the Deleuzian sense. As with the cut-away from Ammar’s nakedness, this contrasts the Abu Ghraib photos. These photos are striking in their anonymity, most often showing prisoners with burlap sacs over their faces, hiding their identities, diminishing them to nothing more than heaps of flesh. Though these photos are difficult to look at for their content, observers are spared having to engage with the expressions of affect, of pain, presumably displayed on the prisoners’ faces; observers engage with images of bodies, but not images of men. Zero Dark Thirty re-establishes the prisoners’ identities by focusing primarily on a single detainee (Ammar), and through emphasizing his face, his expressions, and his pain. The film offers an etiquette of observance, of acknowledgement. “We see you,” we can say to Ammar, “and we know your story.” However, this is, once again, merely a performance of etiquette in an attempt to re-humanize the de-humanizing aspects of torture. There is an impactful politics of cinematic space at work here. While the camera lingers on Maya and Dan’s faces to allow for the fullness of their affects (shame in Maya’s case, dutiful aggression in Dan’s) to transmit themselves to viewers, Ammar’s face is shown in disorientating, shaky, short close-ups. The camera doesn’t linger here. Additionally, Ammar’s eyes, unlike Maya and Dan’s, are rarely open. When he gazes at his aggressors, he does so through sagging, exhausted eyelids, contrasting the pointed, autonomous glances of Dan and Maya. While the Americans are in control of their facial movements, effectively constructing their own close-ups as affect-images by faceifying themselves, Ammar’s affects are forced out of him. He has no control over his own affect-image; his affects are not his own, but exist only in relation to the Americans’. His affect-image is not, then, created through the faceifying of the object that is Ammar’s face, but through the effacement of that very face itself. Ammar’s face becomes sub-human, an object forced to convey and emit certain screams, yells, affects, and, of course, facial contortions, through the actions of Dan and, through her witnessing of the event, of Maya. As a result, the use of the close-up in Zero Dark Thirty performs an etiquette of intimacy, closeness, and shame by focusing on the faces of Dan, Maya, and Ammar. However, when these close-ups are examined even more closely, the effacement of Ammar’s face becomes apparent. His objectification here exposes this carefully constructed etiquette of form, gesturing to the performativity of Bigelow’s cinematography as fair, truthful, and morally sound.
The Intentionally Empty Etiquette of Standard Operating Procedure
Errol Morris’s documentary, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), takes a different approach, using an etiquette of form to critique the empty performativity it identifies in the American public’s response to Abu Ghraib’s images of torture. SOP’s etiquette of form/formal etiquette lies in its use of CGI sequences emphasizing the digitality and plurality of the Abu Ghraib images, and its conscientious use of framing. The documentary explores how these acts of torture came to be photographed, and how they have affected the lives of the American soldiers involved. Morris gives certain infamous soldiers a chance to explain their actions at length, to defend themselves, and to garner sympathy from viewers. One of these soldiers is Lynndie England, who is most well-known as the figure leading a leashed prisoner around on all fours in a particularly infamous Abu Ghraib photo. England provides reasons for her actions; she is given space to explain herself, since the critique of SOP lies not in the acts of torture themselves, but in the American public’s reaction of knee-jerk finger-pointing in 2004 and, by extension, the problematics of photographic representation. SOP does not attempt to heal the breach of etiquette of Abu Ghraib as does Zero Dark Thirty, but attempts to self-reflexively gesture to its own construction in an effort to expose etiquette’s form as artificially constructed and performative. To carry out these critiques, SOP constructs an etiquette of form through its emphasis on the datafication of the Abu Ghraib photos.
One sequence, in particular, emphasizes this role of the Abu Ghraib photos as data, mobilizing an etiquette of form by gesturing to the dehumanization of torture through the photos’ very multiplicity, their sheer volume. The sequence begins with an interview with Special Agent Brent Pack, the man assigned to investigate the Abu Ghraib photos. Pack immediately begins to to describe these photos not in terms of their content, but in terms of their decipherable data, such as date and place taken. As Pack continues this description, the hundreds and hundreds of Abu Ghraib photos appear against an empty black void. Quickly, they begin to arrange themselves along a linear timeline, sorting themselves by date taken, all the while becoming smaller and smaller, receding from view until they’re each nothing more than a tiny, multi-coloured square of indecipherable content. These photos of torture become nothing more than lines, shapes, and colours—empty form, signifying nothing.
This distanced and de-humanized approach to the Abu Ghraib photos is heavily contrasted with the lengthy displays of the torture images scattered throughout the film. Whereas those moments allow viewers to linger on images of violence and form their own opinions, this arrangement of photos offers no chance for reflection, but attempts to break each photo down into its barest, most skeletal form. Through this contrast, Morris gestures to the inability to gain an adequate understanding of an event through data analysis alone; his lengthier uses of the Abu Ghraib images and his focus on one-on-one interviews emphasize a need to dig deeper, a refusal to accept the superficial truths offered up in photographs. While Zero Dark Thirty responds to the Abu Ghraib scandal by proposing a formal etiquette of representing torture (a polite representation of violence), SOP proposes a formal etiquette of discourse, calling for a need to broaden the conversation. The film’s CGI “black void” sequence self-reflexively gestures to the dehumanization of the images, exposing a breach of etiquette that extends beyond the thumbs-up and smiles of the Abu Ghraib images, and leaks into the American populace’s outraged reaction to the images themselves.
The film’s formal etiquette, viewed through its self-reflexive datafication of images is, most essentially, a critical evaluation of news media’s dehumanizing representation of images of war and violence, evoking Baudrillard’s claim that the news contains “No more violence, or surveillance; only information.” Baudrillard’s statement emphasizes a dissolution of the boundary between active and passive viewership. Though Baudrillard’s crisis of the real is a problematically masculine and Western one, and “universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world,” his claim that viewers no longer see crises or violence or hijacks on television, but only innocuous information, is of importance to SOP’s construction of etiquette. In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag’s discussion of war photography expands on Baudrillard’s discussion of violence-as-information, linking it to the dehumanizing process of American media sources. “Wars are now also living room sights and sounds,” she writes. “Information about what is happening elsewhere, called ‘news,’ features conflict and violence—‘if it bleeds, it leads’ runs the venerable guideline of tabloids and twenty-four-hour headline news shows—to which the response is compassion, or indignation, or titillation, or approval, as each misery heaves into view.” This passive consumption of violent images, Sontag finds, is exacerbated by the images’ transience: “Awareness of the suffering that accumulates in a select number of wars happening elsewhere is something constructed. Principally in the form that is registered by cameras, it flares up, is shared by many people, and fades from view.” SOP literalizes and visualizes this experience during its CGI black void sequence. Each photo “flares up,” before quickly receding from view and occupying its tiny centimeter of space along the linear timelines Special Agent Brent Pack constructs from the hundreds of Abu Ghraib photographs.
Already, the plurality and transience of these photos emphasizes the public’s ability not only to transform these photographs into pure information (data) but also to forget about their horrors quite quickly. By provoking his audience with lengthy, uncensored displays of the Abu Ghraib photos, then allaying this provocation by inoculating the photographs with data, Morris forces his audience to confront their preferred consumption of violent images, which is revealed to be a dehumanizing, passive, and purely informative one. By establishing an etiquette of form through his CGI datafication of images, Morris, ultimately, critiques this very etiquette of scientific objectivity—he reveals this etiquette to be, in a way, merely a form of disetiquette. The politeness of objectivity disguises the bad manners of uncaringness.
SOP’s self-reflexive employment and critique of etiquette as form is also prevalent in its use of the frame (and the frame-within-a-frame). For instance, his lengthy displays of the Abu Ghraib photos show these photos hanging against a black backdrop, their white frames separating these images from the screen’s frame itself. This framing technique has clear political ends. In an interview with Megan Ambuhl, one of the perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib tortures, she begins addressing an infamous photo showing a blood-spattered cell covered in detritus and haunted with violence. She describes the events leading up to that picture, saying that one of the prisoners attacked a guard, and was subsequently shot by the on-duty soldiers in an act of self-defense. Since its release, the photo has been used as evidence against the American soldiers. Lips pursed, Ambuhl laments that, “You can’t see forwards or backwards...You can’t see outside the frame.” Through this statement, Ambuhl questions the veracity of photographs, their immanent meaninglessness unless a viewer is present to assign meaning—a meaning that can often be contrary to the photograph’s intentions. Morris’s frame-within-a-frame technique, then, becomes a formal means of gesturing outside the photographs’ frames. In her essay on Morris’s film, Linda Williams privileges his use of “the forcible frame” as the most politically resonant component of the film. She proclaims Morris as the vanguard of a new type of documentary that challenges the idea of truth as ontologically rooted in the photographic image, and that deals with postmodern images’ “difficult apprehension of truth” in the digital age. The film is culturally important, she writes, as it “seeks to understand the epistemological frame of crimes of war.”
Ambuhl’s statement that these photographs don’t allow for viewers to see outside the frame gestures to a need to question the veracity of these images, and to seek out the larger story. Morris’s documentary does this through its interviews with the American perpetrators of the Abu Ghraib tortures, eventually formulating an argument that it was not so much their fault (they were not simply a few rotten soldiers in a group of morally untouchable American heroes), but that this torture was a symptom of systematic corruption. The torture was sanctioned, Morris discovers, by higher-ups who then tried to place all blame onto the soldiers framed in the photographs. These higher-ups are, of course, consistently out of frame, and therefore beyond reproach.
While this gesturing to outside the frame calls for an etiquette of discourse in order to establish what went on at Abu Ghraib, this frame-within-a-frame technique also, like the CGI black void sequence, performs and questions etiquette for the viewer’s benefit. Indeed, as Benson-Allott points out, “the Abu Ghraib photographs are also based in showmanship, or representing a world for an audience. In a sense, therefore, the lesson of Morris’s film is that the Abu Ghraib photos are actually more like his imaginative, mannerist restagings than we might at first suspect.” These photographs are, in a way, displayed for our benefit as viewers. The use of the frame, then, not only formalizes an etiquette of discourse, of looking-outside-the-frame, but also calls attention to the viewer’s complicity in the perpetuation of these photographs themselves. As Thomas Austin puts it, “I suggest that in Standard Operating Procedure these conventional proposals of how the viewer should respond, ethically and politically, become ambiguous, uncertain or unconvincing.” Through emphasizing that the higher-ups’ involvement in the photos has been ignored, Morris places his viewers into a position of complicity, causing them to question their reaction to the photographs’ release. The ostracization of those soldiers involved with the photographs emphasizes the American public’s willingness to perform outrage at the appearance of the photos, without attempting to see beyond the frame. This blind desire to maintain a structure of etiquette through reacting appropriately (as outraged and shocked) has led to the perpetuation of this corruption. Once again, SOP both formalizes etiquette and drags etiquette into the spotlight of self-reflexive critique to propose that the outrage felt at the photographs was merely a performance that resulted in much of the Abu Ghraib story being left unread. This outrage, too, stemmed from a desire to reaffirm the American public’s sense of moral superiority. To return to Sontag, these reactions prevent the acknowledgement of a complicity in the creation of these images. In short, moral outrage and sympathy – as performances – produced a sense of fulfillment in the American public, superficially resolving the scandal. Through SOP’s formal structure, it becomes evident that looking outside the frame is not only necessary—it is proper etiquette.
Both Zero Dark Thirty and SOP are concerned with America’s self- and global images throughout the War on Terror, turning to etiquette as a means of either salvaging the country’s reputation as morally irreproachable, or critiquing this reputation as artificial. To construct their arguments, both films mobilize a formal etiquette, demonstrating that the superficial codes of propriety governing our everyday interactions can be embodied by cinematographic techniques—a close-up, for instance. Etiquette has an aesthetic, a form that, when constructed in films representing the War on Terror, has insidiously political implications. Through a formal etiquette, Zero Dark Thirty performs apology, politeness, and modesty, cutting away from unseemly images of sexual degradation and superficially individualizing and re-humanizing the process of torture. Standard Operating Procedure’s formal etiquette, on the other hand, folds back on itself to gesture to etiquette’s empty performativity. Both films react to post-9/11 discourse and anxieties by reaching for etiquette. Etiquette is pervasively – but quietly – political.
Though this paper has focused on films dealing with a specific time and a specific country and a specific conflict, etiquette can be found everywhere in film, insidiously controlling the social interactions between camera and subject, camera and audience, and subject and audience. Through examining how etiquette serves certain political agendas by imbuing torture with politeness, its political pervasiveness becomes apparent. This approach and theoretical model can be applied to many other representations of torture on screen to dissect and critique many films’ insidious political intentions. Torture has long been a source of cinematic fascination, from Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to the recent “torture porn” horror sub-genre. Though torture films vary widely in terms of content, themes, and aesthetics, they all, in some way, attempt to naturalize or justify torture through constructing etiquette. The horror film, for instance, seeks to fulfill its contract with viewers: it aims to horrify. Dreyer’s text, on the other hand, uses torture as a framing device for the exploration of martyrdom and spirituality. Each torture film, however, carries out political aims through bodily transgressions, all of which is committed under pretense of etiquette—an etiquette of cinematic form.
This formal etiquette has political implications that should no longer be ignored. Etiquette is not “less than” ethics. Etiquette informs ethics, creates ethical and unethical objects, and dictates our social behaviours. As film form, etiquette can alter our perception of events, of the world, of each other, of others. Politeness is not apolitical. As film form, etiquette – that code of manners – is a heaviness of responsibility disguised as the superficiality of aesthetics. Film’s formal etiquette is the embodiment of social hierarchization hiding in plain sight.
Amanda Greer is currently a PhD student in Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto. She recently completed an M.A. in Film Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on representations of motherhood in film, and the convergence of ethics, etiquette, and morality in cinema. She was recently awarded the William M. Jones Award for Outstanding Graduate Student Paper at the American Culture Association’s annual conference. Her work can be found in journals such as The New Review of Film and Television, The Journal of American Culture, Third Floor: An Art History Journal, Camera Stylo, and Film & History. She completed an Hon. B.A. in Cinema Studies and English Literature at the University of Toronto.
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