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Decapitating the Friedmans

If Andrew Jarecki’s extraordinary Capturing the Friedmans — a documentary about a child-abuse case that split an already fractured family into warring camps and rocked the affluent Long Island community in which they lived — were only about pedophilia, it would be merely sensational. But the film is also about the collapse of the boundary between private and public life, often with eager collusion from all fronts. Capturing the Friedmans is about the way families and communities, law-enforcement agencies and the judicial system shape themselves forcefully around unreliable testimony. It’s about the tawdry maneuvers of the “recovered memory” movement and the culture of the victim. It’s about the way the media feed our rushes to judgment, and about the strains of hungry exhibitionism that technology nurtures in the most ordinary people.

Above all else, though, Capturing the Friedmans is a vividly personal, devastating story of a family that was hopelessly compromised years before it was scapegoated for crimes that two of its members may or may not have committed. The movie’s title is freighted with sad, angry and grimly comic meaning. Long before the 1987 Thanksgiving dinner when police battering rams broke down the front door of its comfortable Great Neck house and arrested the father, Arnold, for trading in child pornography and, later, engaging in sodomy, the Friedman family was obsessively capturing itself on celluloid and home video. Before they were captured — first by a Postal Service inspector who tried for two years to trap Arnold into sending him kiddie-porn magazines through the mail, then by the sex police, then by the Friedmans’ own neighbors — their home movies consisted of the banal backyard-and-beach clowning by which most families create their histories in the age of the moving picture.

Still, this was a family unusually given to self-documentation, a reality television show unto itself, directed by a father who had nurtured youthful show-biz aspirations as a Catskills musical entertainer under the improbable name of Arnito Rey. “Let’s face it,” the mother, Elaine, observes wryly in retrospect, “Arnold liked pictures.” So did his eldest son, David, who kept the camera running during and after the arrests, and throughout the trial while the family duked it out over Arnold’s guilt or innocence — and, later, that of his 18-year-old youngest son, Jesse. (Seth, the middle child, is the only family member who would have nothing to do with the making of the film. He works in computers and, all too understandably, is involved with a media-watchdog group.) Following highly contested testimony from former students in Arnold’s home-computer classes, he and Jesse were charged with more than 200 acts of sodomy. The camera became the family’s diary of pain and, in the end, a chronicle of its dissolution.

Which makes it all the more amazing that David — who, notwithstanding Jesse’s 13-year prison sentence, seems by far the most damaged of the three boys — ended up giving the footage to Jarecki, even though he feared it might hurt his career as Silly Billy, Manhattan’s most popular children’s magician and clown. Small wonder that he chose an occupation that allowed him to remain a child. Both in the footage and in his on-camera interviews with the director, David remains unassailably identified with his father and shockingly hostile to his mother, whom he blames for her “disloyalty” in harboring doubts about Arnold’s innocence. Jarecki gives us enough information about the childhoods of Arnold and Elaine to suggest that they never should have married each other. That they did is not unusual for their generation — the pressure to marry in the ’50s was intense. But though it’s tempting to use the film for a cheap gloat over the sordid secret lives of the bourgeois family, not all bourgeois families are this distressed. Elaine comes across measured, reflective and private. Male friends of mine who have seen Capturing the Friedmans found her chilly and remote; what I saw was the flat affect of a deeply depressed woman who had lost a long marriage, however faulty, and had been marginalized by her sons, especially David, who, by contrast, appears engorged with rage and anguish. In one schizoid home-movie scene after the arrest, he sits on his bed in his underwear, head in hands, telling his own camera to go away, insisting that his testimony is “between me and me.” Still, he spills his guts here, and later to Jarecki. So, too, does Jesse, at once naive and camera-savvy as he says, “We should try this case in the media.” We see him in floods of tears as he confesses to certain crimes and tells the court that his father had abused him, too — then clowning with his siblings outside as he awaits sentence. One senses steam being let off rather than any manipulation.

 

Still, never has a family been at once so reluctant and so avid for public attention. Indeed, the film appears to have gone some way toward reuniting them. Several family members showed up together at Sundance last year, where Capturing the Friedmans won the Grand Jury Prize. David was conspicuously absent. Against all reason, he must have hoped that the movie would vindicate Arnold and his own unquestioning loyalty. But Jarecki, though sympathetic and perhaps motivated by his troubled relationship with a remote father, wasn’t about to be suckered into anyone’s special interests. The preternaturally young CEO of Moviefone had originally intended to make a movie about Silly Billy. Struck, however, by the bottomless anger he saw beneath the greasepaint, Jarecki dug deeper and, when he discovered the family connection, altered course. The film that emerges, shuffling the home movies and interviews with all the interested parties, is a fascinating but unsettling merger of tact and prurience. Watching it, one hardly knows whether to apologize for barging in, or beg for more details. I suspect Jarecki felt the same way, and his ambivalence makes the film all the more compelling for mirroring one of the central problems of a media-saturated, voyeuristic public culture — too much information, not enough truth.

Jarecki is not an experienced filmmaker. Visually, he’s at a loss when not showing home movies or talking heads — he gives us doors closing slowly, or meaningful shots of table legs. Still, he has an open mind, a tolerance for uncertainty and enough forbearance — or feel for drama — to withhold information that would prematurely color our judgment. One wishes that those who judged the Friedmans had shown the same appreciation for ambiguity and complexity. Capturing the Friedmans snakes along, confounding us — as it should — with every twist and turn of the “evidence,” every piece of wildly contradictory testimony: from the smug Postal Service inspector, so proud of the sting that first ensnared Arnold; from the well-intended but overzealous sex-crimes unit; from the attorneys pro and con; from the young men who claimed they’d been brutally and repeatedly raped, those who said they’d been gently felt up, and those who stoutly claimed nothing had ever happened; from the parents, some outraged at what they thought had been done to their kids, others horrified at the stampede to condemn one of their schools’ most trusted teachers. None are more divided than the Friedmans themselves, though the one starkly absent opinion is that of Arnold himself, long dead now but prominently featured in the home movies, playful and prankish before disaster struck, hangdog and evasive afterward — except when he halfheartedly tries to stop his sons from ganging up on their mother. In some ways the mild-mannered, nebbishy, bespectacled little man with a bad comb-over is the stereotype of a sex offender — furtive, weak, uncomfortable in his own skin, unable to look anyone in the eye. Capturing the Friedmans acknowledges that Arnold was some kind of pedophile, though the degree to which he acted on his fantasies is far from clear.

 

In a small but key moment in Capturing the Friedmans, Jesse Friedman’s lawyer, a nattily dressed man named Peter Panaro, recalls going to see Arnold Friedman in jail. At the next table a man was visiting with his little boy, and a flustered Arnold asked Panaro to move with him to a table farther away, because the child’s proximity excited him. “I was absolutely disgusted,” Panaro tells Jarecki. Disgusted? By a man who understands his own weaknesses and therefore removes himself from temptation? It’s a crucial distinction, and not only for pedophiles. If we all acted on our more inventive sexual fantasies, we’d be in handcuffs in no time at all.

Necrophilia aside, there is no sexual aberration more guaranteed to breed public fear and loathing than pedophilia. There’s some legitimacy to this, if only because children have less power than adults. I wouldn’t want an active sexual predator within a mile of my 5-year-old daughter, and I’m as spooked as any other parent is by lone men lurking in public parks; but there are gradations of pedophilia, and — notwithstanding the current scandals in the Catholic priesthood — many, if not most, never act on their impulses. As Capturing the Friedmans shows, both the public and policing agencies tend to shoot from the hip at the mere suggestion of the sexual exploitation of children.

In part this is because the media whip up our hatred, but it is also rooted in our abstractions about children and sex: The former are sacred, the latter profane. The dichotomy is false — anyone who lives with little kids knows their animal sensuality and physical attractiveness. Children are beautiful. They’re firm and round and perfectly formed. They’re fresh and fragrant in a polluted world. They have a candid fascination with their own bodies, and other people’s. They’re innocent and knowing and seductive all at once, and, at entirely appropriate stages of development, they have filthy minds. Nabokov, most famously, understood this. Sally Mann’s photographs frankly acknowledged it, which got her into very hot water. We are as sappy about children as we are screwed up about sex, about which American attitudes seem trapped between puritanism and sleaze. Our culture is laden with the lust for firm young flesh; hence the current vogue in movies for liaisons between saggy old men — Eastwood, Nicholson, Beatty, Allen — and lissome young nymphs who could be their daughters, or granddaughters.

 

Still, every now and then a movie comes along that strives to deal frankly, even sympathetically, with the attraction of adults to the young — Karen Moncrieff’s recent Blue Car, for example, or Todd Solondz’s Happiness, or Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E., or Steve James’ Stevie. Capturing the Friedmans faces up to the fact that children have fantasies too, especially when prodded by adult enthusiasts of the recovered-memory school, trawling for hidden dirt. (One young man, sprawled insolently, even suggestively, on a couch and with his face hidden, is clearly enjoying his own lurid accounts of multiple rapes by Arnold and Jesse.) Such fine distinctions weighed little with those good burghers of Great Neck who decided that this immensely popular high school teacher with a string of awards to his name was, in fact, a monster. Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist who appears as a talking head in Capturing the Friedmans and who wrote a recent cover story on the family in The Village Voice, argues that in such cases hysterical communities, fanned by the media, form around the perception that they’ve been victimized. Among its many virtues, Jarecki’s marvelous film raises the possibility that, when it comes to the Friedmans and their neighbors, the shoe was on the other foot.

CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS | Directed by ANDREW JARECKI | Produced by JARECKI and MARC SMERLING | Released by Magnolia Pictures | At selected theaters


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