Choose life, as Irvine Welsh used to say. As the muleshit of modern moviedom deepens, our sympathies naturally swivel toward the “real.” The new era of personal documentary filmmaking, a low-tech creed maintaining that there’s a movie in every family, may very well have reached a tipping point with Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans. A mere HBO documentary and yet an ordeal that hacks to the bone of the parental condition, this is quasi-verité as community purge-fire. It’s difficult to imagine another doc having such extraordinary material at its disposal, or another filmed family being as spellbinding. Is it a great film, or simply a record of devastating domestic trauma, fallout, resilience, and sorrow? Does it matter?
On the face of it, this new doc school detours from the political zones that gave nonfiction cinema its mojo in the 1960s, but Capturing, like Love and Diane and many other recent close-quarter films, is actually fraught with sociopolitical combat. For the Friedmans of Great Neck, Long Island, the family is both death pit and sanctuary. Their tribulations began around Thanksgiving 1987, when their home was searched by postal detectives for child porn belonging to Arnold, a goofy retired science teacher who gave computer-tutoring classes out of his home. Armed only with the found stacks of contraband and a list of Arnold’s tutorial students, the Nassau County police proceeded to knock on neighbors’ doors and interrogate the children, quickly building a preposterously massive case of multiple-count sexual abuse against not only Arnold but his 18-year-old son Jesse.
Jarecki paces his film judiciously, assuming we do not recall the details of the Friedmans’ hair-raising case from when it pounded local headlines during the first Bush administration, and doling them out for maximum impact. Formally, Capturing is too sludgy with orthodox cable doc-ness (run-of-the-mill talking heads, overscored interludes with lawn sprinklers and LIRR commuter trains, etc.), but its secret weapon is also visual: The Friedmans were apparently inveterate home movie mavens. Not only does Jarecki pour in Super-8 footage from the family’s buoyant early days (and a heartbreaking snippet of black-and-white celluloid showing Arnold’s ballet-dancing sister, whose childhood death from blood poisoning 50 years earlier was the event that initiated the middle-class dynasty’s slow collapse), but also copious video footage of the family, shot by the eldest son, David, during the entire crisis. (Opting out of interviews, Seth, the middle child, appears only through David’s viewfinder.)
This privacy-blasting window on the Friedmans’ hell includes David’s neurotic, hyperventilating video diaries (“If you’re not me, you really shouldn’t be watching this. . . . If you’re the police, fuck you!“), a monstrously uncomfortable seder, and recordings of astonishingly frank family explosions of strategy debate and blamestorming. They are so used to performing they cannot seem to stop, and as Arnold, a previously gregarious kibitzer, closes up within himself while awaiting trial, the battle lines are loudly drawn between the sons and their bitter mother, Elaine, who by this point simply seems to wish her life were completely free of men.
What the interviews with detectives, D.A.’s, and Arnold’s former computer pupils make outrageously clear is that the Friedmans, as someone says, “got a McMartin’s”—they were among the last great martyrs in what Voice vet Debbie Nathan has termed a “modern American witch-hunt.” (This despite the fact that Arnold admits to “crossing the line” twice—but never in Great Neck.) Errol Morris-like, Jarecki lets the asinine authorities talk until they’ve buried themselves in righteous dung. The audiovisual intimacy and crashing injustice at work here create the texture and breadth of a classical tragedy—except it happened, to people we know. Under the circumstances, it may be banal, but nevertheless true, to note how each member of the family acquires a biblical-Shakespearean grandeur: the fatally flawed patriarch diseased with guilt for destroying his child, the eldest son desperately hobbling on the edge of mental ruin trying to sustain his family, the enraged mother defensively insisting on everyone’s sacrifice but her own. Then there’s Jesse, the resilient, calmly grinning innocent who paid the largest price of all.
The glibbest way to read Capturing the Friedmans is as a Blue Velvet-y exposé of suburban turmoil. But pedophilia ends up being merely the Macguffin; the authentic tragedy here, so honestly and sublimely manifested, is the damage inflicted upon love by natural and unnatural forces. I’ve seen only a few films in my lifetime that so potently express the golden hopes of childhood and parenthood, as well as the inevitable decimation of that hopefulness—that forward-looking bliss—at the hands of catastrophe, or merely age, spite, and exhaustion. Or, as for the Friedmans, all of the above.
Because it feigns a utopian tranquility, suburbia is a popularly ironic site for iniquity and anguish, but if you live there, films like The Honeymoon Killers and The Swimmer, playing at the Pioneer as a ‘Nam-era “Suburban Nightmares” double bill, read more as site-specific voyages of universalized discontent. Being American dreams, both are actually about money—its cannibalistic acquisition and devastating loss. Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1970) is based on the trial transcripts of the infamous 1949 Lonely Hearts Club murder case, in which porcine ex-nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) and seedy Spanish con man Raymond Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) were executed after years of scamming lonely women and then offing them for their assets. (Arturo Ripstein’s assayed the same territory in Deep Crimson.) Kastle clearly had Long Island angst of his own to work through: “Valley Stream! What a joke!” Fernandez exclaims. “One little jail after another with 10 feet of grass between them!”—a sentiment you’d imagine the Friedmans appreciating. Shot in cruel black and white (neophyte director Martin Scorsese was booted off the project after a week of composing only master shots), the movie’s a claustrophobic triumph of ambience, all high-watt lightbulbs, vinyl seat covers, polyester prints, canned sound, abrupt explosions of Mahler, and overall clamminess.
Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack’s relatively unloved The Swimmer (1968) is one of the oddest Hollywood films ever made: nakedly existentialist, Kafkaesque in its structural metaphor, Beckettian in its deadened rhythms. Expanding upon but remaining faithful to John Cheever’s brief, dry-eyed suburban wail, the film maintains a first-person association with Burt Lancaster’s disoriented Westchester family man as he swims his way home through his uncongenial (and often outright wary) neighbors’ pools, a journey during which summer turns to autumn, and suburban belonging becomes lonesome madness. The movie was derided in 1968 as pretentious and faux-solemn, but time has revealed it to be a compelling bizarrerie that seems altogether courageous, visually potent (Lancaster’s dwindling man loping half-naked through the forest and across highways), and chilling. As semi-subconscious fables of modern masculine displacement go, it rivals Frankenheimer’s Seconds.
For better or worse, my own suburban boyhood was lavishly informed by untold submersions in Sergio Leone’s big, fat, helpfully programmatic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967), something of a favorite among local broadcasters. The ogre king of spaghetti westerns and an absurdly hyperbolic vision of American greed (however curiously Italian) at play in the carrion-strewn fields of the Civil War, Leone’s epic solidified Clint Eastwood’s international box office lock and set a new ceiling for mock iconicity and Morricone soundtrack hysteria.
It was also, for years, hamburger ground by TV-print editors. Film Forum is uncaging the full, nearly three-hour version of this desert beast for the first time in English—for the new-to-us 15 minutes of footage, MGM got Eastwood and slavering overactor Eli Wallach into the studio to dub over their dialogue’s original Italian dubbings. (A voice-over vet had to be called in to mimic the late Lee Van Cleef.) The restored sections are, for the most part, extensions of existing set pieces (Wallach torturing a dehydrated Eastwood in the desert, the motley duo wiring the bridge with dynamite, etc.) and a few linking scenes. All told, and in giant widescreen, it’s only blood-red adolescent fun, but it blooms like Douglas Sirk with a Gatling gun compared to the teenage demographic’s current fare. Matrix, schmatrix: This is the season’s supreme party movie.
“Complex Persecution: A Long Island Family’s Nightmare Struggle With Porn, Pedophilia, and Public Hysteria” by Debbie Nathan