Standard Operating Procedure in Iraq, Harold & Kumar in Guantanamo
For the professionally outraged, a Too Soon! double feature this weekend poses a tough choice for fulminatin’: Errol Morris’s eerily beautiful reenactments of Abu Ghraib incidents vs. Harold and Kumar’s (five-minute) stay in “Guantanamo Bay” for a big-bubba prison-rape joke. In either case, you kind of know what you’re getting into. Morris’s customary interests in odd-hunting, unknowability and denial prove apropos yet frustrating when applied to the facts of Abu Ghraib, while Harold and Kumar’s second trip yields a bewildering mix of bathroom humor, supersized stereotypes and flashes of sharp satire.
Since Standard Operating Procedure has reaped thinkpieces aplenty, let’s start with its comparatively overlooked stoner neighbor, which happily embraces low expectations. Gulagged for carrying a bomb-like bong on a plane, Harold and Kumar break out and flee across the American South; hillbillies, Klansmen, and black people are re-represented. Subject to a manhunt led by a Homeland Security jingoist, the pair seek White House connections via Kumar’s ex-girlfriend, engaged to a young Republican pol in the making.
In other words, the conceit of the original H&K, which elevated a munchies run to a hyphenated-American odyssey, gets inverted: human-rights nightmare is enlisted as plot device/gag for antic franchise. The payload of mass-media exposure is hard to shrug off: on balance, it seems unwise to splash Gitmo across 3,000+ screens as the setup for a joke (one you might rather hear as a Chris Rock rant through clenched teeth). But if writer-directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg abandon that responsibility as well as the educative bumps from the ride of the first movie, they do boisterously tackle worthy targets like counterproductive counterterrorism efforts, cronyism and brashly ignorant leadership. Tucked among the Epic Movie smorgasbord of rotely reversed stereotypes and fan-friendly Neil Patrick Harris escapades are barbs worthy of South Park’s heyday.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is not always smart, no, but is SOP? Morris’s close-up interviews with Lynndie England and her cohorts are interspersed with slo-mo mood-moments as lusciously lurid as similar elements in his past docs, but here depicting a hellish guard-dog mid-snap or a blood droplet falling. As a patchwork account emerges, minus higher-ups or policy, you begin to feel that Morris brings as much stylistic baggage as the makers of H&K. The voyeuristic game to Morris’s films — watching the self-incrimination or self-exposure of his interview subjects — seems at best irrelevant. And when the director of The Thin Blue Line suggests that the Abu Ghraib photographs paradoxically leave even more unexplained, it feels less like a revelation than an oblivious capitulation.
Obviously, Morris isn’t going to be the most popular guy for saying “we don’t know” at a time when we need to know as much as we can, or for deploying reenactments as a device when the real thing is horrific and unreal enough. But maybe the most problematic reenactment is the movie’s restaging of already hard-won insights about the commission of horrible acts during wartime; Morris acts, and promotes himself, like a pioneer, which he is, primarily, in successfully restoring Abu Ghraib to the cognoscenti’s lips where Taxi to the Dark Side didn’t. That’s how it can be more appealing to watch a scene in which a pothead fantasizes sex with a human-sized bag of weed than to see somebody shooting fish in a barrel and calling it epistemology.