Rightwing Film Geek

2003 TOP 10 — Number 1



If CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS were only a police procedural about a suburban family victimized by charges of child molestation against two of its members, father Arnold and son Jesse during the 1980s day-care witch-hunts, it would still be a very good, interesting and diverting film. But what made this film so unique and so great, the best of the year and NOW out on a kick-ass 2-disc DVD, is that the family basically recorded its entire life on film and video, before during and after the charges, and the current-day filmmaker had access to all the footage.

With that footage, and a truly brilliant storytelling structure that lets us have information in strategically-parceled-out drips to lead us down garden paths and then pulls the rug out from under us, FRIEDMANS somehow manages to be, all at the same time — a case study of a terrible miscarriage of justice; a mind-dizzying game on narrative and expectations (its twists truly rival MEMENTO); two father-son love stories; a family meltdown (there are scenes of family quarrels that play like early John Cassavetes or Ingmar Bergman); and a meditation on knowledge and the will to believe. By the very end, the dizzying kaleidoscope has even turned upon itself and we’re questioning the very ethical existence of the film and the final hug sticks in the craw horribly. (Again, like MEMENTO’s heartbreaking “now, where was I?”) All at the same time. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS is that good.

friedmanstown.jpgArnold and Elaine Friedman are introduced as a typical 1950s couple with three sons (David, Seth and Jesse) and a home in Great Neck, Long Island. It looks like we’re gonna see another Suburban Hell movie, shooting leaden ducks a la AMERICAN BEAUTY with obviously contrived time-lapse footage of the town and shots of home facades, because we all know that Suburbia is a “comfortable concentration camp” and that beneath the surface placidity, passions run dark and dangerous. We *do* know that, don’t we? And so the revelations begin, starting with Arnold’s arrest one ordinary day for receiving child pornography in the mail and ending with charges of hundreds of counts of sodomizing the boys in a computer class the Friedmans ran in their basement. Both Arnold and Jesse plead guilty and are sent to jail for a long time. That’s the basic structure and I can’t duplicate the pleasure of actually following the story, but there’s a lot of meat on them thar bones.

I should say that I believe the charges against Arnold and Jesse were false, the product of group hysteria, the leading questioning of children, and police blackmail. To my mind, three undisputed facts are each dispositive — 1) there was never any physical evidence of sodomizing, as there had to have been after the description of the game “leapfrog”; 2) there were zero complaints of abuse before Arnold’s porn arrest, yet hundreds of counts were charged; and 3) many “victims” were tainted by police-questioning techniques, including the leading of children and the absurd use of hypnosis.

friedmansarrest.jpgLike with MEMENTO, part of the pleasure in FRIEDMANS is the way the story structure invites us to jump to (wrong) conclusions and thus makes us understand how an outrageous miscarriage of justice and the destruction of this family could *both* have happened. The test question is this: once it’s established that a miscarriage of justice took place, what’s your next thought? Moralistic denunciation of witch-hunters is fine and there’s a place for it, but for me that can only go so far. The *much* more interesting question is — how and why? How could people believe something so obviously false? That people believe that hundreds of sodomizings could go unreported for years tells me people were watching too many Suburban Hell movies (setting their expectations of the possible and the normal). But if one wants to go beyond cluck-clucking, the filmmaker has to make *us* (at least tentatively) see the world the way the mistaken people did. And one way to do that is to mislead the audiences into jumping to conclusions in exactly the way real-life authorities and the town did.

This is where I think Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comparison with DAY OF WRATH is so apropos. Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 masterpiece was notoriously ambiguous on the matter of whether Herlofs Merthe and Anne are actually witches. It was about hysteria but it made you understand the hysterics. Besides being 20th-century sofisto audiences, we’re cued through various means early on to see Merthe’s death as hysterical, sexphobic retaliation on the part of repressive authority. But if we reflect on it and see the film a second time with the plot events in mind, we realize that Merthe’s first line was “there is great power in evil” while selling gallows herbs (i.e. she actually *was* guilty of conspiring with the devil); that all her stakebound maledictions came true; that Anne wished death on her husband at the moment he felt death on the moor; and that Anne’s trying to realize an unnatural liaison. In sum, we see how even Anne could have come to be seen as a witch, even by herself. The whole point of FRIEDMANS (well, of one of its strands anyway) is precisely about such emotional manipulation based on partial knowledge and the “will to believe,” both within the family and within the town. In Great Neck, people who said their sons weren’t sodomized were viewed as suspect and the horror of pedophilia meant that the charge was enough — doubters were ostracized as insensitive.

FRIEDMANS makes us think one thing and then give another piece of the puzzle, which makes the rest appear in a completely different light. For example, the preposterous investigation and the lack of physical evidence (plus the basis for the investigation being a porn bust) cues us to think Arnold wasn’t really a pedophile, he’d just committed “pedophilia in his heart” as Jimmy Carter might say. But then we find out he was a sex abuser, though not of the charges involved. And then we reflect on how the mother’s uncertainty about Arnold’s innocence (a major factor in tearing the family apart, and which we’ve been cued, through Elaine’s unattractive personality, to see as the sons do) as not so unreasonable after all. And Arnold’s decision to accept jail time appears in a new light. And Jesse and David’s dogged faith in their father appears as more than (or less than) filial loyalty, and also possibly as the latest act of anti-Momism (or certainly, we can see how *Elaine* could see it that way). David’s scene dismissing Arnold’s confession of the other acts of abuse is as hilarious an act of willed denial as you’ll ever see. And so on. This is why I find FRIEDMANS’ withholding of information and manipulation so enlightening and thrilling. As Jean Renoir put it: “The thing that is most horrible, don’t you see, is that everybody has his reasons.” You feel everybody’s reasons in this film. That’s what the manipulations achieve.

friedmansbox.jpgFRIEDMANS never gets “meta” like such documentaries as ABC AFRICA or DERRIDA, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nonmeta-documentary (and few films), for which textuality is such a central concern, and eventually the film’s central ethical concern. The whole film is essentially a reality TV show avant la lettre — voyeuristically looking at the misery of people who film themselves and volunteer for debasement. Rosenbaum writes a lot of tendentiously-wack-liberal soapboxing, but when he’s on his game … I read no better film review last year than his above-linked piece on FRIEDMANS, where he zeroes in on this very matter. We see footage of the most rancid, bitter family fights. At the absolute minimum, it’s the Friedmans exploiting themselves or each other, and to both common ends and to ends against each other … in three of the nastiest confrontations — the nights before Jesse and Arnold go off to jail and the defense-strategy meeting at the dinner table — someone explicitly says “stop photographing me” and it’s clear in at least two of the cases that the footage was part of David’s persecution of the mother Elaine. There’s even a subtle reference, if you blink you miss it, to the fact that David has been kicked out of the house by the time of Jesse’s plea. It’s very uncomfortable to listen to … like arguing outside an operating room, as an Orson Welles character once said, but a family breaking apart should be uncomfortable at a certain level.

But the film explicitly implicates us, the movie audience, practically from the first three things we see. They are — 1) home-video footage of mock news-style interviews, including Jesse and Arnold breaking the fourth wall and talking into the camera; 2) opening credits that include the double-meaning word “Capturing” (i.e. arresting and photographing) and the song “Act Naturally” and its repeated line, “I hope you come and see me in the movies”; 3) self-made footage of David, amid tears, ranting into the camera at an imaginary viewer, i.e. us., telling us that nobody will ever see this footage unless you’re cops or prosecutors, and so, to anyone watching this: “GET LOST!!!! (that’s the G-rated version) … don’t invade my grief; my family is destroyed and leave me alone.”

One of the things things emphasis on textuality does is challenge the astute viewer of FRIEDMANS to ask himself “wait a second, how did this footage make its way to this screen?” until by the end, the film has completely transvalued (and subtly, I leap to my feet in applause to note) a closing shot that would otherwise be a sentimental cliche. That shot, of a hug between Jesse and Elaine at a hotel room, leaves us with a very strange taste in the mouth. It sticks in the craw as something artificial and staged.

friedmansjarecki.jpgDirector Jarecki has shown us much home-movie footage where we can “see” (in various senses) the filmmaker; the “characters” frequently break the fourth wall (David addressing the camera at the start); and the process of filming has been interrupted (the “please don’t film me” requests and the attack at the courthouse at Jesse’s sentencing come first to mind). So by the end of the movie, we have become very sophisticated viewers about the process of image-making. And so the minute we see the camera inside the hotel room and pick up that it’s supposed to be Jesse and Elaine’s reunion, we start thinking. David is estranged from his mother and Seth absent from the film for some reason or another, and so the immediate question to come to mind is “who is filming this and isn’t it obviously a ‘staged’ moment?”

The hug and the implied uplift of the final shot, if taken or meant to be taken straight, would be a false emotional note. Look at the situation — the family is in shreds. The father is dead and disgraced, the mother was always an outsider and is now remarried and apparently relieved of it, Jesse is the walking prison-scarred dead, David is consumed with anger at his mother, and Seth is, far as we can tell, nowhere around and unspoken of. And this is all supposed to end on a hug? I’m not saying Jesse and Elaine were “faking it” for the camera, in the sense that professional wrestlers “fake it.” But the artificiality and stagedness of the means underlines that it’s a staged moment emotionally. It reminded me emotionally of a scene late in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece CRIES AND WHISPERS in the moments after Agnes’ death when Karin and Maria try to synthesize the love for one another they had as girls and they touch one another and speak with the tentativeness of a toddler still learning to use its muscles. But the next day, things are back to normal.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 2

campbellscott.jpgTHE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA)

I’ve pretty much already said here what I wanted to say about THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS in this post and in this post.

I watched it again last week, when I got the DVD and each of the five times I’ve seen DENTISTS, it’s just gotten better: more seamless, more romantic and more moving.

And Denis Leary is *NOT* giving a bad performance people. He’s playing an id in a world of superegos. He *should* be performing in a completely different key. Grrr.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 3


THE SON (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)

“Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
— St. Francis of Assisi

THE SON is a European art movie that almost nobody saw (it never played commercially in Washington; I saw it twice at festivals) and it’s still not on video unless your player can read European-coded discs or tapes. This joker compared it to Robert Bresson; when I saw it a second time, with a professor at Howard University, she thought it excruciatingly slow and boring (though she warmed up to it once we started discussing it); the other day, I got a note from a film-buff pal who wondered to me “I’ve watched the first 20 minutes or so of this and I’ve yet to see anything of interest … what should I be looking for?” So I well realize that THE SON, much as I love it, is not a crowd-pleaser.

Still, I can’t get the suspicion out of the back of mind that THE SON could be a crackerjack success among the people at St. Blogs (Barbara? Father Sibley? Mark? Others?) if more people could see it and get the word out on it, because this little Belgian masterpiece speaks to the workings of God’s grace more than any other film I saw last year. In addition, it centers around divine grace and one of Christ’s admonitions to virtue more thoroughly than any film I can think of where the word “God” never appears, the central character never goes to church, and priests or religious figures are absent. Or rather, THE SON preaches grace without ever using words. Oh, there are indications that we’re supposed to understand the film allegorically and theologically all right, the film’s title and the fact that the central character, Olivier, is a carpenter. And he is faced with a moral dilemma of Christ-like proportions. But even if God is present everywhere in the film, He is visible nowhere.

Brother writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne spend the first 25 or 30 minutes of the film just following a mousy, pasty-faced character actor named Olivier Gourmet (who won a deserved best-actor prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) as his character goes about his job teaching carpentry to teenage boys at what looks like some sort of apprentice program. We learn the nuts-and-bolts of a profession in THE SON like in few films I recall. For a long time, in fact, the film hardly seems to be more than IF I WERE A CARPENTER and the Dardennes show Olivier’s taciturn, stern, fatherly manner with his charges — a perfectionist teaching and exuding a work ethic and job skills.

And he goes on living alone. And merely existing. And looking. At something. Or someone. For some reason.

thesonavuncular.jpgWhen I say “following Olivier,” I mean that about as literally as one can. The Dardennes use the same close-up-heavy, seemingly hand-held style as they did in ROSETTA — the camera is constantly moving and seemingly permanently perched about a foot behind Gourmet’s head, creating a kind of intimate claustrophobia for us within Olivier’s skin. Some wags complained that the Cannes jury should have give the prize to the back of Gourmet’s neck or his earlobes, and other sane (but wrongheaded) people found the style offputting and/or said it wrecked the film. But I found the camerawork a breathtaking virtuoso act and, although the plot doesn’t obviously kick in until a big revelation at about the 30-minute mark, the Dardennes hide more story-exposition than you’d ever guess until after THE SON is over (the Dardennes’ focus-puller does more story-telling than most Hollywoof scriptwriters). We get a general sense that Olivier is haunted by something he’s been able to put in the past. But he has that … inexplicable interest in one of his students? I usually cannot abide films that go nowhere for long periods, but right when I mentally said to myself “OK, I think they’ve milked this for all it’s worth, something needs to happen soon” — something did. And then I said “thanks dardennebuds.” That plot point constitutes a major spoiler for one of the great pleasures of THE SON (for me at any rate) — the intimate mysteriousness of the opening half-hour. You have been warned

“Then came Peter unto him and said: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus saith to him: ‘I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times’.”
— Matthew 18:21-22

We find out the reason for Olivier’s interest in one of the pupils — a teenager named Francis just released from reformatory. Francis had served five years in juvenile hall for killing Olivier’s son in a car robbery gone awry. Olivier knows this; Francis does not know who his boss is. And the rest of the film concerns the VERTIGO question — what happens when Scotty/Francis finds out who Judy/Olivier is? And what is Olivier’s agenda?

One of the many reasons this film is so great and the last hour so tension-filled is that we never quite know (from the uncertain way Gourmet carries his body and his taciturnity) what Olivier is doing. Is he an ironic criminal out of Poe planning the perfect crime? Is he trying to exercise Jesus’ command to perfect forgiveness, despite its obvious impossibility and the nature of the wrong done him. Not until the very last shot of the film can we be certain. THE SON is a series of temptations put before a Christ-figure on the road to exercising perfect forgiveness, the last of which, perversely, is his own righteousness.

thesonwife.jpgMost of the time, when people “forgive” their tormentors (and I’m speaking of much more than parents of murdered children, which is at the extremities of torment), they generally say a few easy words, and then they leave the sinner at a distance and move on. But THE SON is about a man who has “forgiven” (in that easier sense) his son’s killer at the start of the movie. But then the world, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, conspires to push the limits of forgiveness … by putting the killer in his apprenticeship program, by a scene in which Olivier has to save the boy from a ladder-climbing accident, by Francis’s starting to like Olivier, treat him as a friend and finally asks him to be his guardian. Olivier’s ex-wife (their marriage broke up over the death of their son) finds out and goes batshit — “how can you do this,” she screams. “I don’t know,” he (honestly) answers.


In the climactic scene, Olivier makes a date with Francis go out to a lumber yard alone. The drive out there makes up most of the film’s third act and it keeps tantalizing us with doubts and hints until I was thinking of the third act of IN THE BEDROOM and of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” with Olivier as Montresor luring a young Fortunato to his crypt for an ironic death. There’s a universe in the smallest snubs and changes in tone of voice. They stop at a pastry shop, and each gets a turnover. Olivier pays for his, leaving a surprised Francis to pay for his. No explicit explanation is offered or sought, but look at the faces. We’ve seen Olivier’s fatherly or avuncular manner with his pupils, but when your father or favorite uncle took you out somewhere, you didn’t go Dutch — and these are Belgians (couldn’t resist). It seemed like such a calculated and particularized snub that I thought it was paving the way for something more. There’s also an element of shame in Francis’ behavior throughout the drive (his evasive answers to Olivier’s asking “why were you in jail?”) and that makes his fleeing a perversely moral reaction to being made to face your wrongdoing.

Martin Luther once said: “Love God, often I hate him,” and Isaiah was terrified by seeing the face of God, and that’s sort of the dynamic here. And then, in a final perverse twist at the end, when Olivier tells him who he is, Francis flees him precisely BECAUSE the boy (quite rationally, I add, since he has seen IN THE BEDROOM) assumes he has been lured out to a murder site.

Has he? See the movie.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment