I have often been asked the difference between movie reviews and film criticism; and after much thought, I’ve decided the answer is about one week. That’s my excuse, anyway, for not having written until now about Andrew Jarecki’s highly praised debut feature, Capturing the Friedmans. The picture has undergone a metamorphosis since its release: changing from a made-for-TV documentary (produced through HBO) into a kind of celluloid soapbox, from whose top any number of orators can speak. If I’ve been slow to climb up, it’s because I wanted to hear the other speeches.
They have concerned both the subject matter of the film and the nature of its materials–which is telling, since the story is inflammatory in mere paraphrase. It concerns a well-respected high school teacher in Great Neck, Long Island, Arnold Friedman, who in the mid-1980s attracted the notice of postal inspectors for having received man-on-boy pornography. A search of Friedman’s house turned up many such items, along with the roster of a computer class he taught privately in his basement, to a student body that was apparently all-boy. By means of persistent questioning of the students–aided at times by hypnosis–the police brought forward dozens of complaints of sexual abuse against Friedman and his youngest son, 18-year-old Jesse, who had helped teach the class.
After bail was posted, Arnold was reduced to shuffling around the kitchen in mute humiliation, while his wife, Elaine, railed at him (now, at last, she knew why she was so neglected), and their three sons railed at her in turn. We needn’t strain to imagine the gestures and vocal tones. We see and hear them as if at first hand–because the eldest son, David, had bought a video camera, and the footage he obsessively recorded of his wretched family is now a major part of this film.
So, as its title suggests, Capturing the Friedmans cries out for commentary on two overlapping topics. First is the question of whether the police were right to apprehend Arnold and Jesse. Did the Friedmans violate boys, or did the accusations condense out of an atmosphere of anxiety and self-righteous anger? The second question regards our right to take pictures of people, or even to look at such images. What degrees of violation are involved in using child pornography; following the TV news coverage of a juicy indictment; keeping a camera trained at all times on the members of your family; paying ten bucks to sit in a theater and gape at someone else’s family breakdown?
To its credit, Capturing the Friedmans urges the latter question on its audience. Early on, Jarecki puts on the screen part of a video diary that David Friedman recorded in 1988. “If you’re not me, you shouldn’t be watching this,” David says to the viewer. “Turn it off.” But the footage plays on, as David breaks into screaming, wracking sobs. I felt I’d crossed a line by watching–a sense of trespass that would recur many times, since Jarecki repeatedly maneuvers the viewer into an appalling intimacy with the Friedmans. He does so, of course, with footage that David willingly supplied.
In fact, David has been so cooperative that he’s shown up at theaters with the film’s editor and co-producer, Richard Hankin, to conduct impromptu postscreening discussions. I happened to catch one of these as I sat in a full house one recent Saturday night. The talk confirmed what I’d already concluded from the film: that David hopes Capturing the Friedmans may clear his father’s name (to the degree that anything can) and exonerate his brother Jesse. On the evidence of the audience’s response, David’s trust in the filmmakers has not been misplaced.
Although people have claimed otherwise, Capturing the Friedmans is no more impartial than the “We Report–You Decide” productions of Fox News. Granted, the film is appropriately evenhanded toward Elaine, showing how the catastrophe that struck the rest of the family provided a much-needed opportunity for escape; and the tone overall is blessedly nonpolemical. But when it comes to the criminal charges against Arnold and Jesse, the film’s show of open-mindedness amounts to a rhetorical ploy. Notice how expertly Jarecki and Hankin play out their information: getting you to suspect the worst at the start, then introducing doubts, building sympathy for the accused, dropping in surprising little revelations right up through the final reel.
I believe the filmmakers have every right to take sides this way. In fact, I admire the subtle persuasiveness with which they’ve done so. But I’m also intrigued that so many people deny it’s been done.
The most sophisticated viewers will praise Jarecki and Hankin for their artful complexity, then speak in the next breath of the devastating truths to which the Friedmans were blind, truths that are said to have been unselfconsciously recorded as home movies, or teased out by a fair-minded outsider. Even here, under extreme test conditions, the myth of cinematic objectivity refuses to die, and for very interesting reasons. Capturing the Friedmans quietly convinces us that we, as viewers, may now own the truth–which makes us superior to the cops, the lawyers, the judge and the TV reporters. I need hardly add that we’re also superior to the Friedmans. We’re sorry for them, of course–but they were a mess. And even if, in the theater’s darkness, we become secret sharers, wondering what the cops might make of some dirty part of our own lives, we remain superior. The Friedmans were caught, and we weren’t.
So the title has a third meaning, as the boast of a satisfied audience. In that company, I will include myself. I think Capturing the Friedmans is deep, compelling, skillful and heartbreaking. But as I climb down from the soapbox, I must note that Jarecki and his collaborator, David Friedman, have captured me, too.
Short Takes: Let’s say you went to The Italian Job because you were in the mood for a fleet caper film, with characters who were no better than they should be. What should you do, now that you’ve discovered your mistake? I think the best antidote on hand is The Hard Word: the story of three convict brothers in Australia who are occasionally let out of prison to rob armored cars and suchlike, with most of the take going to the warden, the cops and their lawyer.
Written and directed by Scott Roberts, The Hard Word has about one ending too many and three or four character resolutions too few. Apart from that, I think it’s one of the more clever little mammals scurrying about for dear life beneath the feet of the summer’s dinosaurs. Roberts’s direction is crisp on average, with occasional flights into inventiveness; and his good bad guys have the merit of becoming more interesting as the plot unfolds (although his bad bad guys, unfortunately, do not). The film’s stars are Guy Pearce, who looks thin and greasy as the plan-making brother, and Rachel Griffiths, done up as a blonde to play his none-too-loyal, seriously dirty-minded wife. But watch especially for Joel Edgerton, who appears as the youngest and most volatile of the brothers. He looks like a young Albert Finney and acts like a born scene-stealer.
Let’s say, though, that you’re one of those funny people who don’t need their movies to be fleet. Maybe it’s enough for you if pictures and sounds are sensuous and smartly put together, even if nothing much happens by way of a plot. And maybe you feel relieved if the character to whom nothing much is happening is a woman, rather than a criminal brother from Australia. For you, Claire Denis has created a wonderful little mammal called Friday Night.
I might say that Friday Night takes you through the stages of a near-anonymous one-night stand in Paris; or, to interpret the film more freely, that it brings you into a woman’s fantasy of such a fling, as she imagines it on the night before she moves in with her boyfriend. Either way, what really matters is that the rooftops slowly darken until the Eiffel Tower becomes a beacon against the rose of sunset, and that Laure (Valérie Lemercier) drives out into the night and gets stuck in an impossible traffic jam. “The city is choking, everyone is exhausted,” a traffic reporter says on the radio in strangely cheerful tones. “We must be generous. Try carpooling.” As if called into being by this advice, a man appears and asks to sit in the car. Laure says yes, without hesitating. Jean (Vincent Lindon) then takes the wheel, and the traffic miraculously disappears. By mutual though almost wordless consent, Laure and Jean proceed from this speed derby to a hotel–or rather, according to the glowing, truncated sign, a HOT–which turns out to be entirely empty. Images of hands, clothes and parts of faces flash across the screen, as the couple satisfy themselves the first time. The second time, they get undressed. Then they go out to a near-empty restaurant for a pizza, across the surface of which the anchovy wriggles like a goofy smile.
When the night is over, Laure is happy, and Jean has not turned out to be what an American filmmaker would have made him: a serial killer, thief, sexual freak or disease-bearer. I’m glad about that, and I’m glad that Lemercier, as Laure, looks like the writer Emmanuèle Bernheim (on whose novel the film is based) and also like one of Claire Denis’s artistic forebears, the filmmaker Maya Deren. She, too, might have dreamed such a movie, in which things get good for a woman after she lets a man take the wheel: a fantasy of abandoned control, realized in this case by a virtually all-woman crew that includes cinematographer Agnès Godard and editor Nelly Quettier. Another reason to like the French.
Screening Schedule: Over the weekend of June 21-22, the Museum of Modern Art will show films about the human and environmental costs of globalization, the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the poisoning of the village of Minimata and the ratcheting upward of the dangerous noise inside Israelis’ heads. All these are selections in the museum’s annual sidebar exhibition to the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar. This year, the seminar focuses on film as a tool for social responsibility and political struggle–which might sound like a yawn, unless you’ve seen these movies by Franny Armstrong, Tran Van Thuy, Tsuchimoto Noriaki and Avi Mograbi. For information call (212) 777-4900 or see www.moma.org.
The Pleasures of Home: If you’ve been feeling glum because you couldn’t watch Mark Rappaport’s essay films in your living room any time you please, then your troubles are over. Water Bearer Films has just brought out two Rappaport DVDs. The first is the 1992 masterpiece Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, which finds that evidence of the star’s sexual preference was hidden in plain sight in his films. The second is The Silver Screen/Color Me Lavender (1998), which rediscovers dozens of other such open secrets in American film history, an astonishing number of which involve Walter Brennan. For information call (212) 242-8686 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.