August 18, 2003

Capturing "Capturing the Friedmans"

About a week ago, I went to see Capturing the Friedmans, a documentary about a family from Great Neck, New York (out on Long Island), and a troubling and sordid incident that rent them apart.

The story is a fascinating one, and the movie is endlessly compelling. On filmmaking terms, it's not particularly interesting - talking heads interspliced with archival footage. But the film's subject matter enthralls, disgusts, disturbs, and captivates like nothing I've seen for a while. And, well, it makes you think. A lot.

I fear my memory has gone a little foggy, since it's been so long since I've seen it, but I want to write about my reaction. This entails lots of spoilers, so I've placed these thoughts behind the "Continue reading..." link.

If you haven't seen it, I encourage you to do so.

The film has what has become to known as that "Rashomon-like" quality. Different people, talking about the same thing, and all seem to have different understandings of what occurred. And you realized that it's deeper than different "understandings" -- these people deeply believe in what they remember, and yet many of these people directly disagree with one another, and the viewer is left scratching their head... "What *did* happen?"

There are only two things that I came away with feeling certain about.

1. The father, Arnold, had a problem -- he was aroused by pictures of sex with young boys.

2. The incidents that Arnold and his son, Jesse, were accused of perpetrating (sodomy and beatings of boys attending a computer class) never happened.

Now, Arnold and Jesse went to jail for these crimes, a gross injustice that causes anger. Who is worth directing anger at?

Arnold. He clearly had a problem, and refused to deal with it until it was too late.

The police. The saw a man had child pornography, and then saw that he also taught a computer class, and then engaged in faulty math that led to the dogged persecution of an innocent man. The interviews with the police officers are chilling -- they're the only one's who clearly misremember facts (the woman claiming that there was child pornography in plain sight throughout the house), and they essentially admit they used coercive investigation methods on the supposed child victims.

Who do you feel sorry for?

Jesse. Jesus Christ. A 19 year old boy swept up in this thing that's far bigger than him. Who realizes he's left no choice but to confess to a crime he didn't commit, because the option, a jury trial, would have likely lead to an even more heinous punishment.

Elaine. The mom. She's not painted in a very nice light, but it's clear that she did the best she could given the circumstances around her, and while her decisions weren't always wise, they were heartfelt.

Other Stuff That Interested Me:
The disagreement between Jesse and Peter Panaro, his lawyer. This was the one time in the film when two people spoke directly at odds with one another about what happened. Jesse says things were one way. Peter says it was the other. And neither has a lot to gain from lying about the past, so it seems like this is simply what these two remember.

The judge. She's a stereotypical no-nonsense tough-on-crime judge, and would be easy to demonize, but considering what she was saw, what she heard, what she was given, she made the only choice she could. It was interesting to think about being in her shoes, presented with this situation, a necessarily filtered and skewed view of what happened, and thinking, "Yeah, I'd probably have done the same thing."

The obsessive documenting. The reason this film works is because the Friedmans, first Arnold, and then David (the oldest son) were borderline obsessive about capturing and saving family history. The material that the filmmaker had to work with is astonishing -- you've never seen real people interact with each other in such a brutally honest and distressing way.

David. Whoa. Denial. Big big big denial.

Howard's (Arnold's brother) homosexuality. For the first 90% of the film, we see Howard simply as a talking head, providing some perspective on his brother that the children and wife could not offer. At the end, we learn that Howard is gay. I wondered how the filmmaker decided to handle this. Given that this film is about pedophilia, and that Arnold claims to have had sex with his brother when they were boys, it was clear that acknowledging Howard's homosexuality would be tricky. The couldn't simply ignore it -- that would be dishonest in a movie that is so frank. They could have revealed it early on, but that might have colored people's perception throughout the movie. I think the filmmaker likely made the best choice, saving it until the end, but it ends up feeling abrupt and a little suspicious -- still probably the least disconcerting way to do this.

Frances Galasso's coffee mug. The woman who headed up the investigation for the police is interviewed years later in her dining room. The filmmaker makes sure you see GEORGE W BUSH on her coffee mug.

I'd love to read your thoughts, if you've seen the flick.

Posted by peterme at 11:24 AM | Comments (13) | TrackBack


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