Lost in the Movies: Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans

Putting aside the fact that much of Capturing the Friedmans is in video – certainly the family home movies provide its elusive emotional core – this 2003 documentary calls to mind those competing definitions of cinema: “truth 24 frames a second,” “lies 24 frames a second.” While nonfiction films would seem to sway the pendulum in the former direction, they actually make the issue even more complex. On the one hand, what we are seeing, especially in a documentary like this which utilizes primary source material (home movies compete with interviews for screen time, and there are no re-enactments – thankfully) is an undeniably direct representation of external, physical reality. On the other hand, what lies behind that exterior – what is the shell of the image concealing? And more importantly, why this particular footage, and why shown in this particular way? If the truth is in what we see on screen, then the lies – or at least the mysteries – are what we don’t see, what’s hidden behind and littered around the frame.

Those, then, are the metaphysics of Capturing the Friedmans. What about the actuality; what do we see? Deceptively cheery home movies, which prime us to suspect the worst. Representatives of the law in their present-day offices, recalling a case from 20 years ago. Heavily blurred images of dirty magazines which Long Island family patriarch Arnold Friedman had stashed behind his piano - the same piano at which he offered lessons to neighborhood children. Arnold led away in handcuffs, accused of child molestation. His son David (later New York's most famous birthday clown and the initial sole subject of this movie, before director Andrew Jarecki got wind of his family history and expanded its scope) wearing underwear on his head in an ill-advised provocation of police. And then youngest son Jesse, also arrested, accused of conducting heinous, almost Boschian sex orgies at the family home during computer lessons co-taught with his father.

What these images add up to: in 1987, Arnold Friedman was caught in a child-porn sting and acknowledged his pedophilia. Following this, federal officials investigated his computer classes, came up with multiple allegations of molestation and arrested both Arnold and Jesse for suspected child abuse. Arnold pleaded guilty and later killed himself in prison (outside of the courtroom, he has claimed that the guilty plea was to distance his case from his son's, and that in fact the allegations were false, though he did admit to molesting boys in an unrelated incident years earlier). Jesse also eventually entered a guilty plea, despite maintaining his innocence before and after his court appearance - claiming that, at only 19, he was pressured to "confess" by his lawyer and his mother, who feared that an unsympathetic jury would condemn him to life in prison. No physical evidence was ever found to confirm the many allegations of rape, questionable psychiatric and police tactics - including hypnosis in the former case - were used to obtain eyewitness accounts, and students have since stepped forward to say that they never saw anything untoward occur at the classes - a far cry from the hellish mass-rape scenarios prosecutors alleged. In other words, the case - which ultimately killed one man and sent another to prison for 15 years - now looks extremely weak.

But aside from the legal questions, the film is ultimately a family portrait, shattered - alternately in slow-motion and time-lapse, which is to say that we watch moments of pain and confusion up close and personal yet are able to digest years of destruction in the course of two hours. Jarecki, in his first film, expertly controls the pace, distills a narrative from the chaos, and yet manages to convince us, for the most part, that he is being fairly objective and letting the material speak for itself. In a certain sense, he does not get in the way of his material, exploiting its ambiguity - but in another sense, this approach could be seen as doubly manipulative: pulling us deftly in one direction, without admitting it's doing so.

Debbie Nathan, who is interviewed in the film, alleged in a 2003 Village Voice article that Jarecki's ambiguous approach - his statements that "he didn't know" if Arthur Friedman was a child molester, and his use of the tagline "who do you believe?" to promote the film - is a dishonest calculation. She writes that "Jarecki, the multimillionaire founder of Moviefone, also has shrewd business sense. While the film was in production, Jarecki told the Friedman family he thought the two were innocent of the charges. Polling viewers at Sundance in January, he was struck by how they were split over Arnold and Jesse's guilt. Since then, he's crafted a marketing strategy based on ambiguity, and during Q&As and interviews, he has studiously avoided taking a stand."

Yet lest she be seen as the redemptive voice of reason here, Nathan's own piece is compromised by a desire to downplay the effects of sex abuse. (Wanting to humanize pedophiles, Nathan goes too far, cherry-picking academic studies to soft-pedal molestation as something that may not "feel weird or troublesome enough to remember for very long"; her apologia climaxes with a slippery miss-the-point: "the Arnold Friedmans of the world are kinder to kids than many normal adults.") So even the criticism of the compromised film comes from compromised sources itself. Furthermore, other critiques of Jarecki's steadfast "objectivity" differ on the ill effects of this perceived approach.

On Salon.com, Charles Taylor asserts that the Friedmans were obviously innocent and regrets Jarecki's lack of Michael Moore-esque chutzpah in confronting his subjects. (Even more than Nathan, Taylor gives short shrift to the victims of child abuse, and sees molestation as largely a myth, created by Reaganite America's desire to see children "fantasized and fetishized as wholly pure beings." In other words, he simplifies just as much as the molestation-hunters who saw sex abusers behind every door.) Meanwhile, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times also scolds Jarecki for his hands-off approach, but regards the often bizarre Friedmans as the ones who escaped from Jarecki's grasp. Turan writes, "the Friedmans turn out to be a stranger and messier bunch than this film is comfortable with or quite knows how to handle."

Indeed, there's plenty of "strange and messy" behavior to mull over. There's Jesse's manic dancing on the courtroom steps after his sentencing (see above), David's cruel condemnations of his mother (who sometimes seems the only sane member of the clan), and most of all Arnold's creepy and contradictory admissions - from raping his younger brother as a child to being turned on by a child visitor to the penitentiary, all of which warp attempts to paint the family as noble victims of right-wing homophobic inquisitors. There's also the fact, exemplified by Jesse's little dance and David's underwear stunt - not to mention the videotaping of private family arguments - that the Friedmans are always performing. As Jeff Ignatius puts it, "These guys are never authentic, because they're always on-camera. I don't see any moments in Capturing the Friedmans that are unself-conscious."

As is often the case, Capturing the Friedmans' weaknesses are also its strengths. First of all, it's true that Jarecki at times strikes an uneasy balance between controlling his material too much and failing to stamp a clear perspective on the proceedings. On the one hand, he's guilty of manipulating interviews to make us question accusers and sympathize with accused (a "victim" is photographed sprawled out on a couch in short shorts, face obscured by shadow, while another student who denies abuse is photographed in a bright room; he's well-groomed and wearing a suit). Overall, the alleged victims are almost entirely voiceless here - the psychodrama of Arnold's pedophilia is played entirely within his own life and that of his family. While it's true that the movie's subject is the Friedmans, and that many accusers remain veiled by anonymity, it's troubling that Jarecki's superficially objective viewpoint makes so little effort to address those who may have been abused. Jarecki also gives us one final, puzzling "surprise" by waiting to reveal that Arnold's brother is gay - as if by coming out he somehow avoided his repressed sibling's fate (pedophilia and homosexuality are, to my understanding, not related). And on the other hand, despite a propensity for stylistic tics which suggest a strong vision, Jarecki does take a step back - not only from establishing his sympathy with the Friedmans, but also from providing a clear outline of the actual charges. We hear outlandish-sounding snippets but never a clear, concise statement of the prosecution's case.

Yet Jarecki's ostensible neutrality (not in the organization of the material, which clearly favors the Friedmans, but in its overt presentation which eschews moralizing narration and "gotcha" interviews) does allow room for us to ponder the tangled case in full respect for its complications. This is an achievement, and one which a more agitprop documentary would not have been able to maintain. The "silence" of the filmmaker, however misleading and ethically dubious, also allows the raw material to speak for itself. Here, many of the Friedman's aforementioned flaws actually serve to humanize them and what seems wacky also seems irrational and desperate and stumbling in ways that are familiar to any honest member of the human species - that dance in front of the courthouse, smile and all, is best understood as a dance of despair.

Even given the various contingencies and contexts within which Jarecki places the footage, all this has a certain primal power which remains unadorned by any attempt to "make sense of it all." By freeing the video footage in this sense, Jarecki remains honest to the spirit of confusion and chaos which engulfs his protagonists, and he also universalizes this specific horror show. In its most harrowing moments, the Friedman spectacle - both shadowed recollections and at times irreconcilably playful and/or partial (in both senses of the word) direct video - becomes an exaggerated allegory of the secrets and tensions every family harbors. Here is the madness and sorrow which hides beneath the surface of even, maybe especially, the most outwardly successful and vibrant nuclear families and, by extension, the entire human race. It's ironic that Jarecki manages to evoke this general feeling by allowing his material to remain specific, but then that's almost always the achievement of art.

Of course, whether or not this extremely personal material and this probable miscarriage of justice have any right to be confused with art (let alone voyeuristic entertainment which, in tarring the doc as a highbrow version of reality TV, certain skeptics have alleged) is a matter of debate. But that can of worms was opened one hundred years ago, when the first camera was pointed at "reality," turning ephemeral moment into scrutinizable spectacle. These questions will continue to be asked as long as cinema, particularly documentary, exists in one form or another.

Speaking of which...

Next up: Grizzly Man (#47)

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this piece was linked.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner and was also linked on The Sun's Not Yellow.

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