**½/**** Image A Sound A-
directed by Tony Kaye
by Alex Jackson I'm all over the map on Tony Kaye's epic abortion documentary Lake of Fire. I suppose the first thing that bothers me is that the film purports to be about a controversial issue, as I don't perceive any controversy on the issue of abortion: anybody trying to take away women's access to safe and legal abortions is a moron. It's not that the pro-life movement is immoral and it's not that they merely have values that differ from my own. It's that they are idiots. There is only one right answer and if you can't see it, it's because you are a moron and haven't really thought the situation through.
Approximately 1.3 million abortions are performed every year in the United States. A pro-lifer would tell you that that is 1.3 million children murdered annually. A thinking person would tell you that that is 1.3 million unwanted children kept out of poverty, potentially abusive families, and, most importantly, the already-overtaxed foster care system. Not to mention the fact that making abortion illegal would result in back-alley abortions, causing harm to the mother and miscarriage besides. Plus, we would have a new crime to prosecute, leading to additional law enforcement, trial, and prison costs.
In their infamous 1999 paper The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Legal Crime, economists Steven D. Levitt and John Donohue report a correlation between the legalization of abortion and the reduced incidence of violent crime. The two authors include the priviso that this argument will only count if you believe that a fetus is positively not a human life. If you think of a fetus as even a small fraction of a human being, more lives will be lost than saved in permitting the legalization of abortion. Well, I can concede that many pregnancies carried to term will result in productive, well-functioning adults, the kind of people we would be glad were not aborted. Yet I believe that many more will be a burden if not a threat to American society, and I would prefer these people were aborted while they are still fetuses. Yes, human beings are free agents, but so much of our future behaviour is pre-determined by our environment. If abortion were made illegal, our social service system would be that much more unsuccessful in re-directing those predisposed to criminal behaviour. The way I see it, the social savings of permitting abortion (reducing crime and the workload of foster care/adoption agencies) significantly outweigh the social costs (killing off people who could have contributed to society). Frankly, I don't understand how any rational person can look at this and NOT agree that permitting abortion is the most socioeconomically responsible decision.
I realize that I probably sound sociopathic in advocating this type of thinking. Comparisons of my utilitarianism to the eugenic practices of Nazi Germany are hardly unwarranted. (I'm thinking specifically of Action T4, which advocated killing the mentally and physically disabled under the reasoning that each such person costs the state 60,000 Reichmarks over the course of his or her lifetime.) Read me carefully, though: I don't necessarily feel all pro-lifers are idiots, just those who want to make abortion illegal. I think it's perfectly acceptable for a pregnant woman to carry her child to term regardless of her circumstances. Hell, I think it's permissible to try to persuade those contemplating abortion to choose life. I believe it is categorically wrong, however, to institute a law taking that choice away. The personal sense of morality dictating our day-to-day actions and the social morality dictating what people should and should not be free to do are completely separate things; an action can be moral but necessarily illegal, just as an action can be immoral yet legal. It's a poignant and beautiful thing when an unwed teenage mother decides to have and raise her baby--I'm genuinely optimistic about it. But if she were forced by law to carry the child to term, well, that significantly cheapens her decision.
In his interview with THE A.V. CLUB, Kaye states that the pro-choice position is very intellectual and well-reasoned, whereas the pro-life position is based on an emotional response. The statement is true enough, but a debate where only one side is using reason is not a debate. I'm reminded of Paul Schrader's comment regarding the problem of faith-based religions: "They can say to you, for instance, that women have three breasts. And when you line up 100 women and show them that they only have two breasts, they still say that women have three breasts because they were told it in a dream. And there's nothing you can do about that." The vast majority of pro-lifers we see in Lake of Fire are Christian fundamentalists whose position on abortion doesn't make much sense, in large part because their idea of morality and spirituality is not something we are free to choose or reject and as such has little merit.
We hear from people who believe that blasphemy is cause enough for execution, never mind abortion. Blasphemers, like abortionists, will of course go to Hell. Presumably aborted fetuses will not go to Hell, although if they were carried to term and became adults they would have the opportunity to sin and go to Hell. So if they were all aborted they would not go to Hell, and if they weren't then some of them would surely go to Hell. Therefore, by preventing abortion, we are in fact sending more people to Hell than we would in permitting it. I don't know, that's an assumption I'm making that aborted fetuses don't go to Hell. Maybe they do, since they haven't been baptized and haven't accepted Christ in their hearts. This is me applying reason where reason isn't welcome.
There are interludes throughout the film featuring intellectuals like Harvard Criminal Law professor Alan Dershowitz and Australian ethicist Peter Singer. Few concretely declare their position on abortion and mostly stir the pot by giving us more food for thought than real answers. This is a bit annoying, but not nearly as annoying as knowing that their (respectfully nonchalant) provocations are likely to fall on deaf ears. Hearing Dershowitz and Singer speak is nothing short of a breath of fresh air amidst all the breast-beating of the pro-life fundamentalists--and that's precisely why these scenes are so bothersome. I don't relish the idea that a civilization can have professional philosophers, that thinking is something we need a professional to do. Ethics and arguably theology are the two most important schools of philosophy, because they are the two that have the most to do with our everyday lives. They are hardly ever just a classroom exercise. And yet so many people are ethically and theologically illiterate--to the point where the responsibility of day-to-day life seems to be too great a burden on them.
Kaye, it must be said, works hard at portraying the pro-choice movement in an equally unfavourable light. We see a gaggle of drag queens dressed up as church ladies, the better to prey on the Christian fundamentalists' homophobia and denigrate their religion. Later, Kaye interviews a female punk rocker and pro-choice advocate who performs a mock coat-hanger abortion as part of her act. The pro-choice side is shown to be every bit as theatrical as the pro-lifers, only with a more sophisticated grasp of irony. Watching the protesters and counter-protesters, I found myself getting angry with Kaye. Like Sacha Baron Cohen and his Borat character, this is an Englishman who has come to the United States, found the very worst the country has to offer, and attempted to pass these extremists off as characteristic of America. Like Cohen, Kaye is both a populist and an elitist. He despises, or at least made me despise, the middle-American working class for their troglodyte anti-intellectualism and backwards religion. Then he turns the hatred onto the liberal elite for reducing social problems to their abstract form and standing smugly above the fray.
Kaye implies that the very people who support the right to abortion are also the least likely to utilize it. In the beginning of the film, he interviews a young woman who states that the pro-choice movement is the only side actively trying to decrease the number of abortions--through comprehensive sex education and birth control--while the pro-life movement will only support abstinence-oriented sex education and does not believe that birth control should ever be used. So if you support abortion, you probably also support birth control, thus you are less likely to get pregnant in the first place.
The comment is made elsewhere in the film that illegalizing abortion will only really affect poor women--wealthy women will have the means to procure a safe abortion. (I believe that theoretically, if Roe vs. Wade is overturned and our Idiocracy doesn't push through a constitutional Amendment protecting the life of the unborn fetus, the abortion issue will be within the jurisdiction of the state and there will be places within the Union still practicing them.) The conclusion one draws from this is that the pro-choice movement is intrinsically impersonal. They're fighting on behalf of the poor and downtrodden and perhaps on behalf of a feminist ideal. While they don't like the notion that the state is governing what a woman can do with her own body, they certainly aren't fighting for the right to abortion self-servingly.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Kaye actually shows us abortions being performed as well as their immediate aftermath. This is a major talking point in discussion and in the publicity surrounding the film and Kaye apparently believes that this is the principal rebuttal from the pro-life movement to many of the pro-choice arguments. Based on this film and his ridiculous directorial debut American History X, I feel pretty safe in saying that Kaye is a callow, pretentious filmmaker who tries to pass off sensationalism as profundity. (I'm reminded of Pauline Kael's takedown of El Topo: "That this film has impact, doesn't make it art.") This is evident in everything from the apocalyptic title to Lake of Fire's two-and-a-half-hour running time and stark black-and-white cinematography.
Ergo, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the abortion footage isn't exploitive, but rather basic and matter-of-fact. We watch a doctor filter out body parts and reconstruct a fetus just to ensure they got all of it. This is what an abortion looks like, folks. Kaye also excerpts from an anti-abortion propaganda video, which of course is more gruesome than what he himself has captured on film (I'm sure it was culled from only the very "best" footage), but it's clear that the point in showing it isn't to directly influence our perspective on abortion but instead to give us more cold, hard visual data. This is what anti-abortion propaganda looks like, folks.
In the first abortion sequence, one can discern arms, legs, hands, feet, and even fingers and toes, while in the propaganda, we clearly see a baby's head with eyes, skull, and mouth; what Lake of Fire purports to ask, kinda sorta, is whether or not our intellect can or should surpass our instinctual aversion to the abortion procedure. This question is one of great significance to anyone considering having an abortion: if you think that this looks like a baby and you don't want to be killing babies, that's enough to justify the decision to carry the pregnancy to term. The question, however, is sub-moronic with regards to public policy. You see, I'm pro-choice even when operating under the assumption that abortion is killing human life. If you have to kill a million people to save a billion, it's always immoral to simply let the billion to die. This is honestly not something with which I struggle.
TH!NKFilm brings Lake of Fire to DVD in a striking 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Grain levels are appropriate and contribute to a filmlike image, contrasts are potent, and the 35mm source print is clean. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio is a little uneven at times but always intelligible. There are no extras save some forced trailers for War/Dance, Taxi to the Dark Side, Nanking, and Ghosts of Cite Soleil in addition to an optional one for Lake of Fire itself. Originally published: May 6, 2008.
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