From: Wade T. Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Fri 13 Jun 2003 - 13:24:17 GMT
"Maybe I shot the videotape so I wouldn't have to remember it myself."
'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
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
''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 email@example.com.
Capturing the Friedmans
Directed by: Andrew Jarecki
Starring: Arnold Friedman, Jesse Friedman, David Friedman, Elaine
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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