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What the Camera Saw
By Laura Leon

Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by Andrew Jarecki

Capturing the Friedmans is shocking. With an unerring eye and a flair for storytelling, director Andrew Jarecki delivers a stunningly deceptive documentary, one that on the surface seems to be a study of a family disintegrating under the pressures of McMartin PreSchool-type scandal and hysteria. But the film also wrestles with the complexities of innocence and guilt and the very nature of truth. What’s more, it forces its viewers to confront our own relationship to documentations—be they via film, videotape or audiotape—of ourselves and our families, and how these representations may be skewed to depict that which isn’t, well, real.

The Friedmans hail from Great Neck, a Long Island suburb known for its pristine front lawns, neat houses, and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality. Father Arnold was a well-respected science and computer teacher, revered not only by his students but by his three sons, David, Seth and Jesse. Home movies—oodles of them—show the Friedman men as being infinitely comfortable in front of the lens, goofing off with ease and abandon. Noel Coward this ain’t; in fact, the Friedmans’ schtick is so corny it makes guilty pleasures like Caddyshack seem Cowardian. Also featured in the home movies is mother Eileen, a sad-eyed sort occupying the periphery of the lens and, seemingly, her male relatives’ lives. That Eileen doesn’t share the guys’ sense of humor is abundantly clear, and the sons, particularly David, use this difference as the springboard on which to base other, more profound complaints and accusations—but more on that later.

The family’s lives are forever changed during Thanksgiving weekend in 1987, when Arnold and Jesse are arrested and accused of hundreds of counts of child molestation and abuse. (A few weeks prior, Arnold had been questioned by postal investigators about having sent and received child pornography.) The resulting media circus is fueled not just by what Arnold’s students told the police, but by a hysteria gripping the nation at that time of notorious mass child-abuse cases à la McMartin. While it would seem that many of the allegations against the Friedman men were suspect, even ludicrous, the case apparently evoked latent feelings of guilt and self-hatred on the part of Arnold. Writing to the investigative reporter Deborah Nathan, whose work largely debunked the “children never lie” mentality that bred widespread and falsely based arrests, Arnold admits to having always been turned on by young boys, starting with his little brother. Jarecki and his editor Richard Hankin piece together the sensational aspects of the case using interviews with the investigating detectives and Nathan, news clips, and, of course, home movies, in a way that underscores the elusive nature of truth.

But Capturing the Friedmans is not a detective story, in the sense of determining whether or not Arnold and/or Jesse molested children. It is, however, a mystery about human frailty and familial relationships. The boys turn on Eileen when, while being filmed, she is unable to unequivocally state her belief in her husband’s innocence. David’s inability to recognize the depth of his mother’s sense of betrayal, hurt and confusion is perhaps understandable; remember, he and his brothers revered their father, and the fact that their mother didn’t share this adoration puts her, in David’s mind, firmly in the camp of the enemy. Their is a disturbing scene showing the family on their last night together before Arnold is incarcerated, and another when Jesse awaits sentencing.

That they thought to bring the video camera to such painful, raw moments seems strange to most of us, notwithstanding our apparent mass addiction to such documentation as evidenced by the popularity of “reality-based” TV. At times David and Jesse blame their mother for the court’s strict sentencing, and yet Jarecki shows us footage in which the young Jesse himself avows his belief in a course of action, only to show Jesse again, moments later, complaining to David about his mother and reversing his earlier opinions spoken to the judge. The utter earnestness with which Jesse makes these disparate statements, within moments of each other, is yet another example of how the movie questions the nature of truth.

In evoking the commonplace observation that first impressions can’t be trusted, Jarecki completely avoids the obvious. With humanity yet necessary detachment, he tells a compelling story that says as much about his title subjects as it does about ourselves. What’s most surprising, perhaps, is that Capturing the Friedmans successfully captures the idea that innocence and guilt, truth and dishonesty, even hope and dismay, are often products of the same seed.


Birds of a feather: African white pelicans in Winged Migration.

The Secret Life of Birds

Winged Migration
Directed by Jacques Perrin

Filmmaker Jacques Perrin, who gave us an up-close-and-personal view of the world of tiny, slimy critters in the amazing Microcosmos, now takes us on a yearlong journey with migratory birds as they travel thousands of miles to find food and to reproduce. The result is an amazing film.

This is a movie about birds—and birds are what Perrin shows, in abundance. There are puffins nesting in Iceland, Canada geese and snow geese flying over the Adirondacks and through New York City, white pelicans in Senegal and Kenya, cranes and storks soaring across France, and intrepid parrots on the Amazon. There are penguins and macaws and egrets; there are more varieties of geese and cranes and storks than one might think could exist. It is the diversity of nature in all its splendor, colorful, fascinating and often startling. (Movie buffs will especially appreciate the image of Canada geese strutting around John Ford’s favorite location, Utah’s Monument Valley.)

As one would expect, there are truly wondrous images of birds in flight. Geese and ducks may waddle comically on land, but in flight, they are inspiring, streamlined creatures of the air. The myriad techniques used to capture these images, including a variety of gliders, light aircraft, remote- controlled model airplanes and helicopters (for long-distance photography, obviously), allow us mere humans to finally enjoy the proverbial bird’s-eye view.

As there is minimal narration and only the simplest labeling of the birds and their paths, the film invites anthropomorphic interpretation and audience identification. (Perrin slyly plays to this with the film’s framing device, a young boy freeing a goose from a net, and the same bird’s return to the same spot a year later.) The score, which is a mix of original music, obscure classical snippets and painfully goofy Europop, comments on the action in such a way as to encourage an emotional response—just like a fiction film.

Mostly, the anthropomorphic urge kicks in when the birds encounter man. Ducks land in a seemingly safe body of water, but when one noses up to a wooden decoy, it’s obvious that the shotguns soon will be blasting. (Finding myself rooting for the birds and wishing hot flaming death from above on the hunters, it’s worth noting that Winged Migration helped me get in closer touch with my inner misanthrope.) Even more horrifying is the encounter of a flock of colorful birds with an Eastern European industrial wasteland; you want to yell “fly away” at the screen.

There are a few grisly death scenes—including the heartrending demise of an injured bird at the clicking-claws of a gang of creepy crabs—but, happily, not as many as in the average cable-TV nature documentary. (A bloody death scene is the Discovery channel’s own version of the money shot.) Perrin knows that the grace, elegance and strength of birds in flight is the real story, and what makes Winged Migration such a great experience.

—Shawn Stone

Yo-Ho-Hum

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Directed by Gore Verbinski

The curse of pirate movies is that for some reason they have to be tricked out as rollicking adventures riddled with campy humor. Blithely ignoring all the true and amazing tales of buccaneering that occurred in the West Indies during the Colonial era, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl takes its inspiration from the Disneyland thrill ride. Self- consciously rollicking it is, adventurous it is not.

Directed with excessive brio by Gore Verbinski (The Ring) and produced with the usual bombast by Jerry Bruckheimer, Pirates has a deliberate—and borderline cheesy—theme-park feel to it. Although the film’s galleons (and costumes, sets, and moonlit backdrops) are visually dashing, they don’t go anywhere except from one big action sequence to the next: This is the most cannily artificial movie since A Knight’s Tale, and has the same wearying mission of keeping viewers flashily entertained every single minute—storyline and any semblance of reality be damned.

The pivotal pirate in Pirates is Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp as an effete seafarer in pancake makeup and more eyeliner than Keith Richards could smear in a month. Capt. Jack also appears to be suffering from a combination of heat stroke and the ill effects of bootleg rum. But once viewers get past the initial irritation (that braided goatee really is an eyesore), Depp’s swishbuckling performance becomes increasingly endearing, as well as subversively sexual—“You’re not a eunuch, are you?” he teases his young rival while giving him the up and down during a sword fight. Jack’s omnivorous flirtatiousness is infinitely more fun than the straitlaced romance between Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), the governor’s daughter, and Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), an apprentice blacksmith who has been pining for her since childhood. Knightly (Bend It Like Beckham) and Bloom (Lord of the Rings) look mighty fetching together, but their romance is a perfunctory sop to marquee matchmaking.

Jack, Elizabeth, and Will cross paths when the governor’s island is plundered by the scourge of the Caribbean, the Black Pearl, a haunted ship manned by undead pirates. The crew’s flesh has been wasted by a blood curse caught from a trunk of pillaged Aztec gold, which turns them into zanily computerized skeletons. The marauders are under the command of Jack’s mutinous first mate, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), whose plumed finery makes him the Liberace of the Seven Seas. Even so, Rush is so delectably depraved that one wishes he were in a movie with some actual scares, instead of this overblown spectacular with its overlong melees between swarms of the undead and legions of the soon-to-be-dead.

Though the film’s lavish production has its moments, as when a phalanx of zombies marches in formation along the ocean floor, it seems that whenever the cockamamie plot works up some diverting skullduggery, the momentum is quashed by tediously unfunny scenes of lowbrow comedy. The most annoying are centered on two Stooges-like swabbies, one of whom keeps losing an eyeball. With only Jack’s hedonistic drollery to enliven the redundant battles and leaky plotting, this high-seas adventure is sunk by a full bilge of Disneyfied silliness.

—Ann Morrow


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