Fwd: review of 'Capturing the Friedmans'

From: Wade T. Smith (wade.t.smith@verizon.net)
Date: Fri 13 Jun 2003 - 13:24:17 GMT

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    "Maybe I shot the videotape so I wouldn't have to remember it myself."

    - Wade




    'We were a family'.

    'Capturing the Friedmans' masterfully plumbs a disturbing suburban tale

    By Ty Burr, Globe Staff, 6/13/2003

    The new documentary "Capturing the Friedmans'' reveals its secrets with queasy reluctance. David Friedman, a portly, intelligent man who happens to be the top children's party clown in New York City, faces the camera and discusses his family: H is father, Arnold, was a ''cool guy'' who died some years earlier of a ''heart attack,'' after his wife, Elaine, had divorced him. ... David falters and looks away, saying, ''There's a lot of things I don't want to talk about.'' His mother, for her part, will only say, ''We were a family.''

    The more Andrew Jarecki learned, the more he realized that his innocuous documentary about party clowns paled next to those ''things'' David wouldn't talk about. So the director pulled an about-face, fashioning instead a devastating and tragic tale of one suburban family's meltdown as played out on the 6 o'clock news and in private home videos.

    Arnold and Elaine Friedman and their three sons - David, Seth, and Jesse - lived in the upscale Long Island, N.Y., hamlet of Great Neck. Arnold, a former musician, was a schoolteacher who also gave computer courses out of his home. On the day before Thanksgiving 1987, the police broke down the Friedmans' door and arrested Arnold and the 18-year-old Jesse on charges of sexually abusing young boys in the computer class over a number of years. Jesse alone faced 91 counts of molestation. Bail was set at $1 million.

    So far, this is the stuff of ''20/20'' - Jarecki interviews detectives in the local sex crimes unit that built the case, talks to Great Neck parents and now-adult victims (some of whom recant their testimony), and shows courtroom footage of the arraignment. He also has access to a wealth of home movies; the Friedman men, born showoffs all, were the sort who left no moment undocumented.

    Including, it turns out, the aftermath of the arrests. Almost as if the Friedmans couldn't not play to an audience, oldest son David videotaped the ensuing dinners, the late-night strategy sessions, and the screaming matches.

    These scenes form the pained heart of ''Capturing the Friedmans,'' and they are astonishing - a dark, unwitting twin to the earlier horseplay. Not only do they show a family caving in under unimaginable stress, they rebuke the notion that any family has a defining identity. As the Friedmans split apart like fissile neutrons, their story becomes five stories, none of which is remotely like the others.

    David builds a hostile wall against the outside world, insisting that nothing happened and that anyone who says it did is a traitor. Jesse posits his innocence with the doomed futility of a Kafka hero. We don't know what Seth thought; because the middle son wouldn't give Jarecki permission to use his image, his agony remains invisible. Arnold, the nerdy patriarch, moves through the footage like a ghost, numb and ashamed, accruing guilt through silence.

    The most fascinating of the five may be Elaine, whose passive-aggressive rage slowly turns her, before our eyes, into an archetype of the Ignored Mom. A drab nonentity in a house full of darling men, she has nursed her grievances for years, but the revelation of her husband's secret life washes away all restraint. Appalling as it is, there's a freedom in Elaine's vengeful refusal to play the good wife anymore. She won't say Arnold is innocent because she just doesn't know - this instantly makes her an enemy in David's eyes - and when, toward the end, she tells Jarecki that ''there was really nothing between us except these children that we yelled at,'' you're shocked at the quietly brutal honesty of the moment. Expose one lie? Hell, Elaine seems to say, pull them all down.

    ''Capturing the Friedmans'' won the award for best documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and the hype since then has almost made the film sound like the product of dumb luck. Jarecki is a dot-com maven who cofounded MovieFone and sold it for many millions in 1999; this is his first feature film. It's anything but a rich man's fluke, though. The director asks the right questions and casts the appropriate doubts; he entwines the public and private records so that they comment eerily on each other; moreover, he shapes his film with the hand of a showman and the eye of an artist. A black-and-white home movie of Arnold's sister, dancing a child's ballet on a sunny rooftop sometime before her early death long ago, becomes a crucial image for the director: a last grainy moment of grace before a family's fall.

    Did Arnold and Jesse do it? Far be it from me to spoil the film's secrets, even if ''Capturing the Friedmans'' is more interested in human mysteries than in criminal ones. Still, there is an answer, or answers, and Jarecki makes a convincing case for them. The theme that runs beneath it all is the helpless human urge to exploit: the alleged crimes themselves, the media's use of those crimes for ratings and headlines, the detectives' use of the kids, Jarecki's use of the Friedmans.

    ''Capturing the Friedmans'' asks, too, whether its subjects' knack for self-exploitation isn't just a tortured way of avoiding reality. Even David Friedman admits at one point: ''Maybe I shot the videotape so I wouldn't have to remember it myself.''

    Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

    Capturing the Friedmans Directed by: Andrew Jarecki Starring: Arnold Friedman, Jesse Friedman, David Friedman, Elaine Friedman At: Kendall Square, Copley Place, Coolidge Corner Running time: 107 minutes Rated: Unrated (language, discussions of sexual crimes)

    This story ran on page C1 of the Boston Globe on 6/13/2003. Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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