Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 21, 2003 3:37 pm 
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Dubious presentation of a disturbing story

"Capturing the Friedmans:" what does the title mean? First, filming them, and their filming themselves, "capturing" their own lives, or parts of them, on screen. This was "An American Family" that did its own documenting in the early days of video, the Seventies and Eighties. Along comes an inexperienced filmmaker, Andrew Jarecki, meaning to do a film on party clowns, and makes a discovery of a family's traumatic history. The father, Arnold Friedman, had a taste for boy pornography and was caught in a post office sting operation. This came at the height of the American hysteria over imagined satanic orgies involving children leading to trumped up descriptions of such orgies by pressured young people, to arrests and prosecutions, in various parts of the country. And it so happened that the nerdy Arnold Friedman, an award winning high school science teacher, also had a computer class at his house attended by young boys. Police got the names of the students and went to work on them. Prosecutions of Arnold and his youngest son Jesse followed and the family was destroyed.

It's clear from the pornography sting and from his own admissions that Arnold was indeed a pedophile. As a youth he had had sexual encounters with younger boys and with a gay brother (which the brother does not remember; nor does the film reveal the brother to be gay till the end) and he had had arousing encounters with small boys at the beach as an adult. The extent of the latter is uncertain, and whether the boys were even aware of anything is unclear. Given Arnold's evidently repressed nature, probably the events and the arousal happened mostly in his mind. It's also clear that nothing whatever happened in the computer classes and that all the testimony was prompted by the police questioners just as similar testimony was elicited during the same period on the West Coast and elsewhere, during a period of hysteria documented by Debbie Nathan, a journalist interviewed for the movie.

Both Arnold and Jesse pleaded not guilty when arraigned. But a series of disasters followed. Arnold's previous pornography conviction was a bad beginning. The boys had always been a team and shared their dad's sense of humor and their mother had always felt left out, and now, in this horror, feeling betrayed already by the child porn case, the mother turned against her family and chose not to believe in her husband's innocence. Sadly, Arnold and Jesse did not have a top lawyer to defend them. And perhaps worst of all, Arnold collapsed with guilt and prepared for martyrdom, eventually caving in to his wife's suggestion that he plead guilty. Her ostensible assumption was that if her husband took on the guilt, things would go easier for Jesse. But this proved to be a grievous mistake and yet, incredibly, Jesse also decided to plead guilty and even made a tearful confession in court that was as hysterical and imaginary as the witnesses' testimony in the case. We never see the latter, but we see enough of the filmmaker's interviews long after the fact with witnesses, fellow students, and their parents to gather that it was all a result of hysteria, coercion -- and in the case of the most suspicious and talkative former witness, hypnosis.

And so the Friedman's were "captured" again, literally now, by a hysterical American society and by their own helplessness to resist that hysteria, captured and brought to ground, destroyed as a family and two of their members sent away. The 19-year-old Jesse served 14 years. His father was sentenced to life and committed suicide in jail by taking an overdose of an antidepressant. Jesse has recently been released, at 32, and been reunited with his mother, Elaine, who has remarried. The brother David, a top New York City party clown and the source of the documentary idea, may have his livelihood threatened now through the movie's revelations. The middle son, Seth, wisely refused to participate in Jarecki's project.

The Friedman's let themselves be taken advantage of. And they equally took advantage of themselves, filming their early moments of celebration and silliness, and then, in the crisis, filming their anger, their mutual hostility, and their despair. And finally today they have allowed themselves to be taken advantage of again by letting Jarecki proceed with his nosey, clumsy exploration of their ruined lives.

"You be the judge." "What really happened?" the movie's publicity luridly proposes. That is foolishness, of a wicked sort. There is nothing important that is not clear here -- including the bogus lack of bias of the filmmaker, who obviously knows the trial was a sham, and who confused the serious issues involved and further sullies the family's ruined reputation, and weakens his presentation of what could have been an extraordinarily compelling story, by hiding behind a mask of neutrality and coyly manipulating the order in which the facts are revealed.

This is not a good way to present a documentary. On the contrary. The lesson is that when you're dealing with facts there are two basic ways of presenting them. Either you lay them out in the order in which you discovered them, making your documentary a story of how you assembled your material. Or you present them completely for maximum clarity from the start, like a good news story "lead," with the rest that follows simply filling in the details. Jarecki unfortunately does neither, so the movie he made is a good portrait neither of his process nor of the facts.

For me the most disturbing elements of the story are Elaine's abandonment of the men and the sons' growing hostility to her, on the one hand, and Arnold's hangdog, pathological assumption of guilt, on the other. Elaine seems to have dealt with the nightmare by putting all the blame on the others. Arnold, in yet another family video, is curiously upbeat on the night before he went to jail, playing the piano, smiling, and talking more forcefully than he ever has before. It's as if he wanted to be sent away and the expectation of it was a tremendous release for him. His whole sad secret life, his pedophilia, could only be made public by his immolation and vilification for guarding it all these years. He had decided that he was the sacrificial lamb. For a moment he was fulfilled, going away to be punished for his sins and setting his family free. But of course it was not that simple and his happiness was not to last. In the reality of prison he was miserable and rejected and filled with the more terrible guilt of being the cause of his son Jesse's ruined life. Jesse was beaten and nearly killed in jail.

If this material sounds undigested and painful, that is the impression the movie leaves. There is no catharsis of tragedy and no revelation of truth, just the scandal and downfall of a family and a documentary profiting in a dubious fashion by that family's guileless willingness to tell all.

(Kenneth Turan of the LA Times expresses similar misgivings in his June 13, 2003 review of this documentary.)

My version on IMDb.
A detailed discussion by Mark Eastman expresses views similar to mine.


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┬ęChris Knipp 2003


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