LEAVING THE FRIEDMANS ALONE
by Shubha Ghosh
The appeal of the movie Capturing
the Friedmans rests on two obsessions in popular culture.
The first is the fascination with family drama, especially ones
involving dysfunction and sexual trauma. The second is the interest
in legal cases, especially ones involving miscarriages of justice
or, at least, ambiguity in the result of a legal process. Director
Andrew Jarecki delivers on both counts and hence the almost unanimous
rave that he has created a masterpiece with his first film. I
are told early on that the arraignment of Arnold and Jesse Friedman
in 1987 was the first time that a television camera was allowed
into a courtroom in Nassau County. And so we witness the beginning
of voyeurism in the courtroom, the birth of law as spectacle.
The need to watch and be watched explains why the Friedmans themselves
recorded many of the family meltdowns and agreed to allow Mr.
Jarecki to include their home movies as part of his documentary.
They may have been motivated by the need to exonerate themselves
or reopen the case, as Jesse Friedman contends. But the need
to be seen seems the primary motivation of this family. The Friedmans
were, on the surface, a typical middle class household in Long
Island that was put under extensive scrutiny as a result of the
hundreds of charges of child molestation brought against the
father, Arnold, and the youngest son, Jesse. In many ways, they
can never escape public scrutiny, and it is understandable that
once the public begins to stare, it is hard to ignore or avoid
the gaze. Only Seth Friedman, the middle son who did not participate
in the documentary, seems to have been able to flee the limelight.
The rest of the family seems captured in a need to constantly
perform and replay the traumatic episodes from 1987-1988.
But what do we get from watching?
Half an hour into the film, when Emily Friedman, Arnold's wife,
describes her revulsion at learning that her husband collected
child pornography and was possibly a pedophile, I felt dirty.
The documentary itself had turned into pornography, not because
of the lurid details or the occasional shots of child rape, but
because this poor family lay emotionally naked in front of me
and I had no idea how to react. At a cerebral level, I knew that
Arnold was guilty of something, perhaps only of possessing child
pornography and possibly having sexual relations with young boys
(maybe even his brother) at some point in his life. I also knew
that perhaps all of the charges against Arnold and Jesse were
the result of either hysteria or hypnotically induced memory.
But at an emotional level, I kept asking myself why do we need
to know all this, why should we be so fascinated.
On one level, Capturing
the Friedmans fits into a line of films that expose the sickness
of middle class suburban life in the U.S. The Academy bestowed
its highest honor on one film in this genre when American
Beauty was given the award for Best Picture in 1999. However,
the films of Todd Solondz, particularly Happiness, are
the true masterpieces. There is much in common between Happiness
and Capturing the Friedmans. Both occur in the weird backwaters
near New York City, Happiness in suburban New Jersey,
Friedmans in suburban Long Island. Both involve a seemingly
stable and respectable paterfamilias exposed as a pedophile.
Both see the social and familial dysfunction as rooted in repressed
homosexuality and a repressive heterosexuality. But Happiness
has so much more edge, largely because it is fictional. In contrast,
Capturing the Friedmans is so real that it simply becomes
creepy to watch or even write about. The real sickness being
exposed is that we are willing to pay and watch this mirror reflection
of what we all may really be.
The mirror reflects not only
the sickness of suburban life, but also the disturbing workings
of the legal system. Arnold and Jesse Friedman were convicted
almost exclusively on the basis of testimonial evidence. Arnold
pled guilty to make Jesse's trial easier, and Jesse pled guilty
because of the fear that he would fare badly in a trial, especially
in light of his father's guilty plea. Post-McMartin, it is easy
to say that they would have been better off going to trial and
pointing out the lack of physical evidence and the implausibility
of the testimony. Pre-McMartin, however, the hysteria that child
sex abuse generated and perhaps the state of lawyering in Nassau
County at the time seemed to preclude that stratagem. As a law
professor, I was disturbed by the ease with which the state was
able to imprison these two men, one of whom was probably totally
innocent, the other guilty of perhaps only displaced and repressed
sexual tendencies. Many commentators have compared the movie
to Rashomon, with its play of multiple perspectives on
a set of facts known to the audience. In fact, Capturing the
Friedmans is not about multiple perspectives; it is about
the elusiveness of facts in the legal system, the slippery line
between what we know as fact and what we think we know as fact.
The best example of this theme
is a five minute or so segment roughly two-thirds of the way
into the film, in which the director cuts between Jesse Friedman
and his lawyer Mr. Panaro. We are shown earlier that Mr. Panaro's
office is a few doors down from what appears to be a strip club
and an adult bookstore in Massapequa, Long Island. He slickly
dismisses Arnold Friedman as a pedophile, child molestor, and
abuser of his son Jesse. Mr. Panaro is clearly replaying his
defense in the case. Cut to Jesse who categorically denies every
one of Mr. Panaro's allegations about child molestation and abuse
by his father. This discrepancy is not simply a matter of perspective.
It is about the plaything of lawyers: facts, perceptions, and
beliefs. Director Andrew Jarecki, wittingly or accidentally,
reveals a great deal of what the legal system is built upon.
There are, however, great movies
that expose the inadequacies of our legal system. Errol Morris'
The Thin Blue Line, about a wrongful death penalty conviction
in Texas, is a classic because not only does the director capture
the confession of the true killer on tape, he also demonstrates
how the mistake could have occurred. Andrew Jarecki, on the other
hand, exposes, at best, sloppiness in the legal system. Instead
of a solid critique of the legal system, we see, presented before
us, a truly dysfunctional family, which , like every family,
is dysfunctional in its own way. What we should see is how hysteria
and facts are fungible commodities in the legal system. In an
age of terror alerts, profiling, and detention of aliens for
possible terrorist activities, it is sad that Mr. Jarecki did
not provide us with a film more reflective of what we should
be noticing in our times.
Posted August 8, 2003