Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Twenty-Seven


#27 — Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)
Back in the spring, I finally watched Grey Gardens, the acclaimed 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers and a trio of other collaborators. The more I think about it, the more is seems like the quintessential documentary of the seventies, capturing seismic shifts in social moorings and cinematic language as they were happening. Glamour is giving way to seediness and delusion as the American Century enters the dismay and descent of its golden years. It coincides with a growing expectation that cinema will capture life in all its messy authenticity, eschewing traditional narrative and other established filmmaking techniques that get in the way, if necessary. Grey Gardens is a vital document of its era, not just for what it depicts, but for how it depicts it.

It’s too early to say whether or not Capturing the Friedmans is a similarly definitive document of the decade it resides in, but it sure feels that way. Andrew Jarecki’s documentary tells the complicated and troubling story of a middle class family in New York that is rocked when the patriarch is accused of child pornography possession and then actual molestation of neighborhood boys. In relaying the main story, the film is appropriately journalistic, digging into the details in a way that is thorough but discreet. Despite the subject matter, Jarecki never lets the tone veer towards the lurid or sensationalistic. He proceeds with his revelations in a manner that mirrors the evolution of the case itself, new information emerging to cast doubt on conclusions, and then more information that cast doubt on those doubts. The film offers no absolution or condemnation, takes no sides. It examines everything imaginable, bringing the whole confusing morass to the screen.

That could have been enough. The case is adequately tricky. It would make for a compelling story just by going through it with procedural meticulousness. But Jarecki has material that is far more fascinating at his disposal. One of the sons, David Friedman, relentlessly videotaped himself and his family as they went through this ordeal, and that footage is seen throughout the film. These aren’t happy home movies, either. Certainly sometimes the camera was rolling as the Friedmans tried to enjoy each other, playing around on the household piano or grasping for the last vestiges of familial togetherness that was stripping away like ancient paint on a weather-ravaged wall. More commonly, it’s on as the family rages at one another. David tears into his mother for her disloyalty as his father meekly asks for calm, or they stand around the kitchen voicing their apoplectic confusion over the smothering darkness that’s been visited upon their house.

This isn’t a manifestation of a Jon and Kate Plus 8 culture, where relentless and repugnant exhibitionism and self-promotion swamps out any hints of sound judgment. There’s no reason to believe that David or any of the Friedmans ever expected that these tapes would be seen outside the confines of their own residences. Indeed, watching the raw emotions get exchanged, it’s hard to believe any of these people hoped or planned to revisit these scenes in any way. Instead, it sometimes seems that the camera becomes a necessary party for having the hardest conversations, dealing with the toughest emotions. When David sets up the camera while he’s alone in his bedroom specifically so he can weep and wail and vent his anguish, it’s a moment of startling intimacy that seems especially pertinent for our time. Is it that we’ve all been so trained by the confessional interviews on an endless stream of reality shows that we feel this is the most appropriate means to find a gateway to our inner pain? Or have we simply reached the point where our capability to document the highs and lows of daily existence has grown to such all-encompassing proportions that things don’t even seem real anymore unless we’ve got some sort of digital copy for later review? Does David set up that camera out of self-preservation or some other sort of necessity? If a tree falls in the forest and no one puts it on YouTube, does it even make a noise? Did it even fall?

There are so many more elements that speak to who we are now, maybe who we’ve always been: the fragility of the family unit, the deceptions we engage in when we can’t deal with the most damnable parts of ourselves, the eternal elusiveness of hard, definite truth. The movie doesn’t do this by pressing in on those sorts of big questions, by putting forth heavy, portentous thoughts on the nature of our ongoing challenges. It does it by focusing with fierce precision on its story, Andrew Jarecki seemingly aware that the best route to the universal is through the specific. Capturing the Friedmans doesn’t provide answers. Like any great documentary, it’s too busy raising more, larger, broader questions.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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