directed by Andrew Jarecki
"Only that which has no history is definable"
-Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, 1887
by Walter Chaw The rare film to encapsulate the macro and the micro with eloquence and no little existential disquiet, Andrew Jarecki's amazing documentary Capturing the Friedmans tackles issues like the nature of film, the slipperiness of memory, and the unreliability of identity in ways that are uncomfortable and prickly. The revelations in the film about modern cultural anthropology are indescribably delicious, speaking to pleasure in a way that Jonathan Rosenbaum once identified as including the sensations of fear and unbalance--as an experience, the picture is as exhilaratingly unnerving as only an illicit document can be. When, early in the piece, eldest son of the Friedman clan David addresses the camera directly in what he warns is a personal journal, Capturing the Friedmans subverts the exploitive voyeurism that defines cinema, particularly pornographic cinema, in a way that is as cannily, uniquely, ironically filmic as Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. It's something we feel we shouldn't be watching--a realization that, once established (within the first minutes of the picture), finds the audience formulated helpless and naked before the film's reptilian regard.
Occurring in the midst of the child molestation witch-hunt hysteria that overtook the United States in the late 1980s, the joys of Capturing the Friedmans begin with its title, which is at once a literal description of two members of the Friedman family (father Arnold and Jesse, the youngest son of three) accused and eventually pleading guilty to multiple counts of serial sexual abuse, and of David's decision to turn the camera on the excruciating disintegration of the Friedmans in the crucible of public opinion and familial mistrust. This leads to raw footage of Arnold and Jesse's last days of freedom, of mother Elaine cast as the villain for being blindsided by the revelation that her husband-of-decades has a stash of kiddie porn hidden behind the family piano, and of a few impossible-to-reconcile moments that left me feeling as vulnerable and unsettled before a film as I have ever felt in what Manny Farber referred to as the personal "age for cinema." The questions of guilt and innocence are not nearly so important in Capturing the Friedmans as the blossoming understanding that there is nothing in human affairs that is free of the pull of zeitgeist. Not the bonds of family, nor the bonds of civilization.
When the chief investigator of the Friedman case recalls a pornographer's hovel stacked knee-deep with atrocity, director Jarecki offers photos taken upon the authorities' initial search that reveal the model middle-class "home"--spick-and-span and free utterly of anything possibly out of the ordinary. The thing that stuns is that there isn't a moment where one is led to believe that anyone (either the authorities or the Friedmans) acted in bad faith. The chief investigator isn't lying when she says that she remembers the Friedman abode as a den of inequity--time and indignation have created a memory as real as experience.
There's a photograph of me taken when I was four of a trip to Disneyland. I'm riding a rocket ship with a forgotten uncle and having a great time. I remember that trip to Disneyland, but I don't remember it in any other context than that photograph--there's no feeling attached to it, but if asked under oath, I'd talk about the rocket ship, the forgotten uncle, the sun, the wind, and the happiness of a great time. David Friedman explains that he filmed the moments his family was destroyed so that he wouldn't have to remember them, and then augments his troubling insight with the avowal that his tactic has worked. Capturing the Friedmans becomes self-aware and sentient at this moment, a breathing, pulsating beast of a picture that innocently suggests that the victims of the Friedmans may have had their memories implanted by an overzealous (and, without exception, well-meaning) child-welfare mechanism, while slipping a stiletto of a suggestion between the proverbial ribs that the act of filmmaking, itself included, is a similar process of imprinting and Svengalian influence.
The issue of the film is "truth" and "Truth"--we're of course concerned that a guilty man and his innocent child may both be innocent of the particular crimes of which they are accused ("let those without sin" a subtext here, if a relatively unimportant one), but by the end we've become more concerned that the memories and perceptions upon which we base our identities are perhaps as unstable and subject to revision as the constantly flip-flopping "truths" of the picture. Capturing the Friedmans is the documentary distillation of the chief concerns of Memento, The Blair Witch Project, and Happiness--ending on its most poignant (and piquant) allusion, to The Parallax View's "Parallax Test." (A montage of images that subvert signs and signifiers set to Andrea Morricone's (son of legendary composer Ennio, and representing another meta-critical pass) affecting, subtle score.) Capturing the Friedmans is vertiginous, heady stuff, haunting in both its charge and implication; the charge and implication not of two men damned by their foibles (the flawed products of domestic mendacity, circumstance, and tragedy), but the charge and implication that nothing, not even the memory of a moment ago, can ever safely be taken at face value. It's dangerous, incandescent, and essential, a picture that exhausts and stimulates. Originally published: June 27, 2003.