21 July 2004

"Capturing the Friedmans"

Last night I finally got around to watching a film I'd heard a lot about- Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans. A documentary chronicling the fall of a family under scrutiny over sex abuse charges, Friedman's is a slippery snake of a movie- unbelievably revealing yet completely devoid of definition- be that definition of style or definition of stance on the content. I would still deem the latter to be a good thing in relation to the film, and furthermore I'd add that that disparity is what sticks with you when you're done with it, and not the subject matter.

The Friedmans, in relatively happier times...

So much of the story is over-the-top that it is to Jarecki's (creator of Moviefone) credit that he kept the film so grounded in reality and credibility. Arnold and Elaine Friedman kept a family of five (three sons; Jesse, Seth and David) in affluent suburb Great Neck, Long Island. What was seemingly the proto-typical "seemingly normal" family in the suburbs was really a den of disfunction. On Thanksgiving 1987, this came to a head.

Arnold and Jesse Friedman, before their arraignment

Acting on a tip, police discovered a flow of child pornography to-and-from 7 Picadilly Rd in Great Neck- all going through the patriarch of the Friedman clan, Arnold Friedman. Upon execution of the search warrant, the smoking gun- a stash of child porn stuffed behind an office piano.

Understandably, the police were fairly worried about the developments, given Friedman's extensive contact with young boys. They decided to interview all the young men tutored in computer classes at the Friedman home (with Jesse as apprentice), trying to see if there was any merit to their fears.

This is where the film basically takes off. The conceit of the film from therein is the harsh split between reality and perception- the clash of guilty versus not guilty. There is significant evidence to suggest that there is reason to suspect Arnold, and there is equally compelling questions rooted in certifiable doubt.

It would seem there is no way that either Friedman family member charged could possibly have committed the literally countless acts of sexual peterasty on the boys involved. Debbie Nathan, a columnist for the Village Voice and an expert on the modern hysteria involving child molestation cases, writes an amazing article to back up her stance in the film- that there was no way the Friedmans could be guilty as charged, and that the testimony was questionable. Of course, as she writes- you cannot question the machine that is a community gathered in a "witch-hunt."

But if this were that simple, the film would not be as effecting. Friedman, we know, was into child pornography. In fact, he also admitted to Nathan himself to "crossing the line twice" on a family friend's child. In the film's most remarkable scene, the discovery of an old film reel depicting his ballet-dancing young dead sister (blood poisoning at 8) prompts the revelation of a detail that will actually shock the viewer, no small feat considering the subject matter up to this point. Friedman the elder details in various mediums attraction to men, lifelong fascinations with the young male form- one born of his childhood sexual predilections (which may have grown from sleeping in the same room as his nightly fornicating mother and boyfriend of the week).

This is side one of the film, the left arm of the film. The other side, the right side, is the Friedman family, and the remarkable access we are afforded during their most dire moments.

David Friedman is NYC's most popular birthday clown, and he is also a fierce defender of his father's (and brother Jesse's) innocence. David also came of age just as the home video age began to boom, and it took a family like the Friedmans- faux performers and self obsessed over-analyzers- to tape it all. During their darkest hours, when the family was literally falling apart, David let the camera roll. And roll. And roll. There was the fierce anger directed at their mother, a woman they saw as abandoning the father in his darkest hour (which is debatable, of course). The Friedmans were a group of 4 men, all on an inside joke- and the woman putting up with it. Elaine was never on the inside. She's since remarried.

The intense detailing of the family's dissolution is wrong to watch, but certainly a treasure trove for any documentary filmmaker. There are family skits from the happy early days, there is the awkward pre-Seder dinner during Arnold's trial, there is Jesse's last night of freedom. All of them are harrowing to watch (and familiar in a disassociated way), but laced with an odd sense of distension. The Friedmans alternately tackle their issues head on (saying straightfaced to the father what they worry his sentence will be, and commenting "if he goes away for [over 10 years] in a state-run facility, he's not coming back.") without pause, and deflect issues by pretending they're not there with humor and family in-jokes (Jesse's courtsteps performance post-sentencing, the free flow of dancing and joking before Jesse's incarceration). It's fascinating to watch.

But ultimately perplexing. Who are these people? They're just people right? David is a very stubborn and singularly-thinking man on the entire subject, even parsing his own father's admission of pederasty outside of Great Neck by saying- "Crossed the line? What does that mean? I don't even know what that means!" Though he is vulnerable- a heartbreaking video he made for himself (he says so, and tells us we really shouldn't be watching, either) shows him weeping for the loss of his family... then blames his mother. The parent that DIDN'T have a child molestation problem.

Jarecki deftly weaves a story that his both horrifying- and addicting. The style with which different wrinkles appear may seem overly bombastic- but they certainly heighten the feel for these characters we're getting to know. No greater such moment in the film than Jesse's lawyer's account of a pre-trial interview of Arnold in jail. He asked to be moved, because a 4 year old boy, bouncing on his inmate father's knee in the common meeting room, was "getting him incredibly excited."

But who's to say the lawyer is telling the truth? Who is? Is ANYONE lying, or at least intentionally deceiving? A film such as this ending in a question with closure is far more compelling than one with a hammer and chisel conclusion. Though flawed, Capturing the Friedmans was frighteningly prescient- from the reality TV themed self chroncling, to the hysteria identified by Ms. Nathan. Scary, sad movie.

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