2003 TOP 10 — Number 1
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki, USA)
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.
Arnold 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.
Like 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.
FRIEDMANS 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.
Director 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.
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