Monday, September 26, 2016

Fact and fiction

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2003)

Dirty Pretty Things ought to be a slam-dunk – great concept matched with great execution. It’s directed by Stephen Frears, the British veteran who seems to be gaining increasing currency as one of the great directors – for instance, he was the subject of a special tribute at the film festival a couple of years ago. The lack of a recognizable visual style used to be a potential kiss of death under the auteur theory, but for Frears it’s generally cited as a strength – he’s engaged, committed, meticulous and funny, but ultimately allows the material to breathe in a way that, say, Oliver Stone doesn’t. I don’t know why Stone came to mind there, except that for a while he was at the top of the heap with two directing Oscars and another nomination within five years, the subject of huge scrutiny and debate, until he all but wore out his welcome. In a classic tortoise-hare reversal, it now seems clear that his place in the history book shrinks while that of others grows.

Dirty Pretty Things

Frears’ pragmatism has sometimes seen him smothered by unsuitable material (particularly Dustin Hoffman’s Hero), but one has to admit that My Beautiful Laundrette, The Hit, The Grifters, High Fidelity and Dangerous Liaisons form quite a resume. Except for The Grifters, and unlike a number of Stone’s movies, I haven’t seen any of them more than once – I guess I just like the auteurist excesses. But I’m sure Frears steered those works as close to maximum pay-off as anyone could have done. I don’t think that’s quite the case with the new film though.

It’s about immigrants in modern-day London – and it’s not about anyone else: there are no major white characters here. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a Nigerian doctor who fled from his country to avoid a trumped-up murder charge and now drives a cab by day. At night he works at a faded-grandeur hotel where the manager (Sergi Lopez) trades in human organs on the side: a fake passport in return for a kidney. It’s a horrifying premise, rendered all the more so through Frears’ unforced, matter-of-fact presentation. The movie’s early stages unfold this plot while painting a panoply of intriguing, marginal characters in a world where everything is a compromise: jobs, sexual pride, ownership over one’s body, love.

The film benefits immensely from Ejiofor’s sympathetic charisma, which compensates for Lopez’ rather by-the-numbers villain and Audrey Tautou’s rather pinched damsel in distress (her Amelie appeal isn’t particularly evident here). But in the end, the movie takes on the shape of a familiar thriller, grappling with the situation by a melodramatic reversal and, ultimately, by allowing its main characters to escape from it. That’s not unsatisfying as plotting, but you suspect the film could have accommodated a more penetrating analysis of what it depicts. Still, it’s refreshingly unsentimental, and it looks great, with a slightly tawdry look to the visuals, ably symbolizing the faded promise of the Britain that’s on display here.

Capturing the Friedmans

The story behind Capturing the Friedmans is stranger than most fictions. Andrew Jarecki made his fortune as the founder of, and then decided to become a filmmaker. He started making a documentary about New York City clowns, which brought him to David Friedman, one of the top children’s party entertainers. He stumbled in turn onto Friedman’s tortured personal history – fifteen years earlier, both his father and his younger brother had been imprisoned on multiple charges of child sex abuse. The father killed himself in jail after two years; the brother, who was only nineteen when he went into prison, served thirteen years. And it turned out that Friedman had videotaped many of the family’s conversations during this period, and was willing to make them available to Jarecki. Thus the project evolved into something more ambitious and darker than clowns could ever have yielded.

In part, Jarecki’s film is a relatively straightforward effort to understand what happened, constructed through interviews with detectives, lawyers, alleged victims, family members and others. Without ever seeming like an overt exercise in rehabilitation, the film casts severe questions on the adequacy of the police investigation and the credibility of the witnesses (the incident now seems like one of the notorious “false memory” cases). I think most viewers will conclude that the two men were certainly innocent of the bulk of the charges, but that there might have been something to the “no smoke without fire” view expressed in the movie.

This applies particularly to the father, who admitted to pedophilic incidents while denying the specific allegations. Based on his wife’s testimony, he sounds like a reluctant heterosexual who might have fared better in less strictly defined times – not that the movie traffics in overt sympathy. In one of Jarecki’s few striking misjudgments, the film only tells us at the very end that his 65-year old brother, who testifies to camera throughout the film, is a homosexual in a stable relationship. The timing suggests we should read this as a meaningful revelation (presumably as a window into the road that the father should have followed), but it struck me as manipulative.

Sadder than fiction

The film is generally far subtler than that though, and it’s overwhelmingly sad and disturbing. The home video footage, inevitably, is particularly painful and fascinating, as the family members strategize and accuse and yell at each other. The sons gang up not against the accused father but rather against their mother, who they regard as under-supportive (and more generally as a nagging woman who doesn’t share their intelligence or sense of humour) – this is another sense in which the film somehow seems almost to be about maleness. Even on the eve of imprisonment, anger and frustration coexist with goofy humour and occasional camaraderie, confirming human resilience but also showing how little they understood what was really happening to them. And of course, it’s impossible to know how much the fact of being filmed affected the family’s behavior. Some of the scenes, if they were being acted, would seem clumsy and not very well written. Maybe that’s life for you.

Of course, Jarecki was incredibly lucky to stumble on this material, and to some extent you might find yourself admiring his work more as assemblage and research than as art. That’s not fair though, for Capturing the Friedmans is extremely subtle and ambiguous. And it’s one film in which you categorically feel relief for the happy ending (or as happy an ending as the circumstances make possible), in which the brother is finally released and reunited with his now remarried mother. Although in a way you’d like to know what they do next, it’s better that the movie ends, before things turn dark again.

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