Sex, Lies, and Videotape in Capturing the Friedmans and American Splendor
When Tolstoy wrote that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," he didn’t know to add that unhappy families who relentlessly document themselves belong to a category unto itself.
My father Bernie bought a video camera in the early ’80s, and from then on, rare was an unfilmed moment in what we called the "Rosmaniac Family". We may have joked that the camera’s omnipresence in our lives bordered on creepy, but looking back at the footage of my 13-year-old self dirty-dancing with my grandfather, I realize we didn’t glimpse the half of it. What compelled us to so thoroughly document our craziness? Was it a desire to glamorize our family ways? Neutralize them? Or simply immortalize them for generations of Rosmaniacs and their respective therapists to come?
Two very fine movies released this summer investigate such domestic self-documentation from two sides of the same coin. In Capturing the Friedmans, a Long Island family manufactures a PG-sitcom version of their lives until a tawdry underbelly of sexual deviance explodes the storyline’s slick surface. By contrast, in ,American Splendor, hapless hospital clerk Harvey Pekar paints himself as the "anti-superhero" of an autobiographical comic book series, sparing no mundane detail of his lousy Cleveland, Ohio existence. At core the of both films are the stories struggling middle-class American families tell themselves—and others—to survive.
By now, Capturing the Friedmans has already garnered much well-deserved attention, including this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Originally intended as a trifle about professional party entertainers, Andrew Jarecki’s documentary veered into darker terrain when he unearthed the 1987 child molestation charges leveled against NYC’s "number-one party clown" David Friedman’s younger brother Jesse and his father Arnold. The result intersperses interviews with the family and its accusers with footage from the enormous store of home video and film that the Friedmans themselves shot over 30 years to poke at both the accuracy of the charges and the elusive nature of memory.
What’s most intriguing about Capturing the Friedmans, though, isn’t the question of whether the sexual abuse allegations are accurate. Evidence produced by both the family and false memory syndrome experts makes a convincing case that the Friedmans fell prey to a hysteria provoked by a coercive police investigation. Nor is it the question of whether Arnold was in fact a pedophile—by all accounts, including his own as recorded in letters he sent to journalist Debbie Nathan, he was. It’s the question not just of how much Arnold’s tortured sexuality impacted his family, but of how the family’s relentless documentation aided them in disassociating from that impact.
Although a genuine humor and affection inflect many of the family’s early home movies, a shrillness undercuts shots of the sons’ hijinks and of Arnold kissing his wife Elaine, intimating at the disturbances later exposed. Shockingly, the family continues to videotape itself when Arnold and Jesse’s trials commence, even during the bloody battles they now wage with each other and the nights before Arnold and Jesse go to jail, when they mug for the camera. Though whistling in the dark makes sense under the circumstances, a disproportionately chilling blankness haunts these scenes. In a later interview, David actually says, "I think I was making videotape so that I wouldn’t have to remember anything myself."
Most crazy is the diary David recorded, on videotape in 1987, when Arnold and Jesse were accused (the Friedmans apparently shunned all off-camera activity not involving reading Jailbait and Chickenpickins). In it, he denies any apprehensions he may now harbor about his father, railing instead against his mother’s repudiation of the husband she, after all, has just discovered to be a pedophile. David’s take is utterly black-and-white, just like on TV or in comic books: Mom is arch enemy to his superhero dad. The more this family films itself, it seems, the less it can actually perceive clearly: camera as funhouse mirror, rather than sooth-seeker, in other words.
By contrast, actual comic book writer Harvey Pekar treats self-documentation with both a greater gravity and a greater levity—the type of levity borne of almost implausible levels of honesty. In telling his story, he carves the only constructive path available out of the loneliness that plagues his life because he, unlike the Friedmans, is so patently incapable of feigning to be anything but himself. Which is, unfortunately for him, a messy, pessimistic college dropout who’s already screwed up two marriages and is wallowing in a terrible isolation.
His friendship with underground comics movement founder and artist Robert Crumb, grounded in a shared affinity for Rhythm and Blues (R&B) and a mutual disavowal of social niceties, provides a welcome reprieve from that solitude. In fact, Crumb agrees to illustrate and help publish his first autobiographical, "real naturalist" graphic novel. In it, Pekar writes, "Life seems so sad and so sweet. But just keep on working and something’s bound to work out in the end."
And sharing his dour little ditties does seem to work out for him. It gains him a general audience that relishes his sour candidness, and a specific audience in Joyce, the wife who sticks because she’s as honest and as crazy as he, and in Danielle, the daughter whom they adopt together. And it gains him spots on The David Letterman Show, a theatrical production of his comic book series, and, ultimately, this movie— in which he is depicted at different points by himself, actor Paul Giamatti as his film alter ego, actor Donal Logue as his stage alter ego, and by several different animations, to boot.
Surprisingly, as irritatingly meta as this sounds, the resulting movie gels. Underneath all this schtick pulses a restrained, pensive take on how the terrific loneliness of the modern human condition can be ameliorated through its narration. Misery loves company, in other words, especially if it’s comically described.
Near the film’s end, when Pekar is diagnosed with cancer, Joyce decides they’ll survive it by making a comic book together "so [he] can remove [himself] from the experience until it’s over." For Pekar, this dissociation, perhaps because it’s so uncharacteristic, proves a healthy impulse. He lives long enough to retire from his job at the Veterans Hospital, and there the film ends, even as he continues to rasp out a litany of complaints about his life and family. But we’re not fooled, because the camera simultaneously pans over an impromptu family hug between real-life Pekar, Joyce, and their Danielle that betrays the peevishness of that final voiceover.
The Friedmans, too, ends with a family hug: Upon Jesse’s release from prison, he reunites with his estranged mother. As the camera rolls, Jesse knocks on Elaine’s door, asking with that characteristic Friedman wit, "Did someone order a son?" She closes the door in his face, vaudeville style, but then opens it again. He’s still waiting, wearing a very tired but real smile, and they embrace.
Generally, if I catch myself crying at the end of a film, I often feel manipulated by the strings of the Hollywood machine, as if someone’s just peeled an onion in my face. But I teared up at the end of both Capturing the Friedmans and American Splendor, and it felt as okay as it does these days when my old man and I wink at each other across a room. When crazy families manage to celebrate connections that endure despite being scrubbed raw of any artifice, it’s worth crying about. Moments like that are what I call my kind of Kodak.