Another look at “Capturing the Friedmans”, or Re-evaluating the American Family Unit

This is the type of shit makes you want to give up fiction. Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki’s debut film is a multi-layered piece that can be discussed from a number of different angles. So much so that the essential meaning of the film will be different for different people. It’s a film that says just as much about the audience member as it does it’s own subject. With that much said, keep in mind I’m writing this perspective as a fiction writer and not as a film critic.

The film is a documentary about an upper middle class family living in Great Neck, New York – an affluent Long Island suburb. The basic family unit consists of the father, Arnold Friedman, the mother Elaine Friedman, and the three boys Jesse, David and Seth.

The father, a pedophiliac, is unmasked by a police undercover operation. From there shit escalates rapid-fire until the situation gets completely out of hand. A stash of hidden kiddie porn found in his study leads to a full investigation of this Arnold Friedman – an award winning, well loved and respected computer teacher – that leads ultimately to charges of horrific sexual abuse performed on children in his own classroom.

I went to the film thinking Friedman was guilty as sin. I really didn’t know much about the film one way or the next before seeing it except that it was about some child molester who lived in Long Island. But Jarecki likes to play with the audience’s conviction about the innocence or guilt of Arnold Friedman and his son Jesse (also brought up on charges of child molestation). It looks at first like Arnold Friedman is just a closet pedophile – a guy who doesn’t actually act on his desires. And maybe that’s all he is. I mean the best angle in this film is the actors – or rather, the family. It’s hard to say if the family members are acting or being honest interviewees. No one in the family is able to tell the truth. Half the time not even to themselves. When Jarecki uses Buck Owens’ version of the song Act Naturally to open the film, it’s a brilliant choice. The family’s immersion in their own fictions, lies, fantasies and denials paint these characters much better than actors could have done. It’s already a family of actors.

Capturing the Friedmans is also a reflection on film itself as a medium. Jarecki pulls this off naturally and confidently. The Friedmans after all, are a family obsessed with watching themselves on camera – particularly David, who does most of the home filming. It’s an aspect of the family that makes a lot of sense alongside their inability to grapple with reality. David admits that some of his memories he doesn’t remember at all outside of the camera, like “a picture your mother takes of you as a child. You don’t remember the moment, just the picture.”ª The film weaves layers of present day interviews, home footage and sensationalized media footage to create a multidimensional work capturing the perspectives of each of the family members from the start of the scandal to present day (excluding Seth, who refused to be interviewed), the media and community and to a lesser degree, the filmmaker himself.

Jarecki seems to be of the opinion that Friedman is innocent – and as an audience member, it’s the impression I got as well. Who’s to say if this is because of Jarecki’s direction or simply the facts of the case. But the charges against Friedman are so outrageous, and there is so little actual evidence against the man that to believe him guilty is to buy into the hysteria of a community terrified of anything outside the norm. Is Friedman being prosecuted because he’s an outed homosexual pedophile with an upstanding position as a teacher in the community, or because he’s actually guilty of molesting children? It’s a hard call. Even his family is divided: his wife loses faith in him early on, but his children don’t; especially David, who even now argues his father’s innocence to the point of fanaticism.

But how are we supposed to understand innocence? Clearly Friedman’s guilty of being a pedophile; moreover he’s guilty of raising his children and living with his wife under a curtain of deception that immediately makes a happy, well adjusted family an impossibility; but most importantly he’s guilty of feeling guilty. Well shit, he probably should feel guilty. After all, he ruined his children’s lives before they were born, he ruined his wife’s life because he couldn’t be honest with her and he ruined his own life because he couldn’t be honest with himself. In the film Arnold comes off as a friendly, charming, intelligent and thoughtful man it would be difficult not to get along with. It doesn’t change the fact that he’s also selfish and cowardly. He may hate himself for it, (which it really appears he does) but he doesn’t hate himself enough, because he does nothing to change. Everything he does, right up to his last decision on the planet, is a glaring testament to his cowardliness and selfishness. When he kills himself to get his son the $250,000 on a life insurance policy, is this supposed to be an act of redemption? Besides the uncertainty of whether or not Friedman molested Jesse as a child, Friedman was also responsible for Jesse’s thirteen-year incarceration. To atone for this, he doesn’t try to become a better man – a man that his children can look up to, get answers from later in life, and maybe even learn to understand and respect; instead he kills himself to buy everything off for two hundred fifty grand. I mean, shit. That’s not even all that much money.

As it turns out, Friedman isn’t exactly innocent. You feel like you’re getting hints at this throughout the film, just from the way interviewees talk about the man. Regardless of whether or not Friedman touched any of the children in his computer class, he did molest two children at another time and place. This is serious information. It changes the man from a pedophile to a child molester. It’s one thing having fantasies; it’s a whole other thing to act on them. In this light it’s hard to feel bad for the man even if he’s not guilty. Most folks (and I’m right there with them) feel that molesting one child warrants a lifetime of suffering, and if it had to be the result of trumped up false charges, well fuck it; what goes around comes around. In fact, throughout most of the film, even though I realized I’d probably never find out for certain what happened in that classroom – whether the charges were a hundred percent accurate, grossly exaggerated or altogether false, I really hoped I would find out. As soon as Jarecki revealed that Friedman molested two children – one the child of someone he has the audacity to call a friend – it didn’t matter anymore. Good riddance. By any means necessary.

So what is this film about? Is it about film and America’s preoccupation with watching itself? (One of the funniest, creepiest scenes is David in his bedroom looking into the camera, explaining that unless you are him, you have no business watching the footage that you’re watching.) Is it about family? Is it about lies, denial, deception and the blurring of the lines between reality and make-believe? Is it about the media, community, hysteria, America, pedophilia, homosexuality?

I mean, shit, it’s really about all these things. It doesn’t really say anything about any of them, but it confronts us with a lot of questions we don’t ask ourselves on a day-to-day basis because we aren’t looking at ourselves. Which is just to say that Capturing the Friedmans, more than anything, is about the audience. And not the audience on a communal level either, but each audience member individually; the way a good book can be about how each individual reader discourses with it.

Most films aren’t like that, just like most people aren’t like Arnold Friedman – at least on the surface. But beneath the surface is precisely where Jarecki wants to go with this film. The American family unit is an interesting phenomenon, and it probably hasn’t been explored as fully as it needs to be. Since the advent of television the United States has understood family in two ways: Family on Television and Family in Real Life.

Everybody knows families in the fifties weren’t all Leave It To Beaver and The Brady Brunch; that’s just the way television depicted the middle class American family, and it was an ideal to aspire to. This mentality of making a distinction between real and ideal persisted for a long time in American culture. The blaxploitation sitcom families of the seventies and eighties portrayed an ideal for African American families to work towards – case in point The Jeffersons. Even the far less affluent Evans family in Good Times, despite living in desolation, managed to maintain a relatively upbeat, positive and happy household, where issues arose, were confronted and resolved. This is a role Hollywood continues to support, and it always has been and always will be a popular vehicle for entertainment: showing things how they should be as opposed to how they are. As wealthy America gained more affluence in the eighties, the standard of the ideal continued to rise. Sitcoms like The Cosby Show, Silver Spoons and Family Ties depicted families where affluence and healthy homelives were the norm. But somewhere in the early nineties the American public began to develop a cynical attitude toward these kinds of shows. They were lacking authenticity. Strong expressions of disaffected family life were coming into mainstream culture through youth culture, which was disenchanted with the fairy tale reality their parents grew up striving after. This led to a basic formula of change that has repeated itself in the arts time and time again. The first step is satire. Shows like Married with Children, The Simpsons and In Living Color spoofed the concept of the healthy family by creating gross exaggerations of the opposite. The concern wasn’t with getting closer to reality, but getting as far away as possible from the absurd picture perfect family portrait. The second step is a move away from satire into a new vision. That new vision was reality. Gritty television shows like NYPD Blue and Law and Order led to grimier and grimier realism. And then of course, the advent of Reality Television which, ironically enough, is less realistic than Leave it to Beaver ever was.

Capturing the Friedmans on the other hand is very real. When we watch the Friedmans – certainly a gross exaggeration of the average person’s situation – the grotesque falls away just enough for us to recognize ourselves in these people. For example, why didn’t the wife believe her husband and why did the children?

My guess is that in this documentary, as in life, the relationship between husband and wife is essentially the relationship between two strangers. The relationship between parent and child is not – or at least, it’s a lot less so. Elaine defends her position by saying that Arnold “has never been honest with [her].” That’s undeniable. She wakes up one morning, looks at her husband and realizes she’s given thirty some odd years of her life to a man she doesn’t know. How can she unconditionally believe he’s innocent? The children never think of their father that way, because they are him. You see Arnold in David and Jesse. You see a lot of Arnold in David and Jesse. He molded them, and the man they understand him to be is as much (if not more) a part of themselves as it is him. David says it at the beginning of the film: “despite the fact I know my father did all these things, I don’t think he was a different person than the warm, funny man I knew him to be.” Well, he was and he wasn’t; but that’s not the point. The point is that David is really just talking about himself.

Elaine was never good enough for her own family. The most thought provoking thing she says in the whole film is that “children latch onto the abusive parent.” I don’t know if that’s true or not – for myself, both of my parents were abusive – but it’s a line I’ll probably think about for a while. Of the two Arnold certainly was the more abusive. The fact that he raised a family in the first place is testament to that – a man who had to go to therapy because he couldn’t trust himself to have male children. His behavior once he had the children continued to be abusive. In the end he landed one of his sons in jail. The children’s attitude toward their father is therefore, understandably ambivalent: they love and respect him, but they hate him and don’t respect him. Jesse says, “I’m certainly not going to end up like the old man, throwing chairs around the room…” – and the brothers laugh. They laugh their way through a lot of things – frantic antics that work as distraction from an ambivalence they feel for their father, and ultimately themselves.

I think a lot of families have a similar dilemma, and this is what’s at the heart of the dysfunctional family. It’s not necessarily that dad slipped out or mom was screwing around or Uncle Funky molested you. The family unit is a war. And it’s a brutal one. Anyone who sees Capturing the Friedmans can tell Elaine Friedman was on the losing side, and can see what that does to a person and what that in turn does to the children. Husbands and wives stay strangers; children are free game – and the children become weapons of war in a battle the parents themselves don’t understand. The children learn to identify themselves with both parents, but lots of times they take sides. The problem is that being raised in this type of situation comedy breeds sickness. The symptoms of this sickness are a strong duality of self-love and self-hate. The war after all between husband and wife is sexual. And the child must be either male or female. Layers of complicated sexuality develop in the child without the child realizing it. And when it comes time for the child to get married, he or she inadvertently brings some freaky shit to the table. This has always happened, and will continue to. What really warps the game is contemporary American culture’s tendency to think of family as Family on Television and Family in Real Life. The objective used to be to make the two things synonymous. Then, realizing we’d never realize that, Family on Television focused on spoofing the idea of Family on Television and that was supposed to be closer to the spirit of Family in Real Life. The thing is, in the process we’ve forgotten to look at family for real. It will never be accurately portrayed on a sitcom, cuz honestly man, family ain’t funny. It’s fucked up. But we learn to heal ourselves by looking at ourselves – and Law and Order and Reality television and Al Bundy and Family on Television and Family in Real Life – that’s not looking at ourselves. It’s looking the other way. They fuck you up, your mum and dad. Should we continue to be the victims of strangers?

* All quotes in this article have been paraphrased.

(Whit Frazier, From Strawberry Press Magazine, August 2003)

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