View Full Version : WILLING SUBJECTS (spoilers)

oscar jubis
07-10-2003, 01:11 AM
On Thanksgiving 1987, Arnold Friedman, a Long Island schoolteacher who gives computer lessons in his basement, was arrested for posession of child pornography. Subsequently, Arnold and Jesse, the youngest of his three sons, were charged with sexually assaulting preteen boys. The Friedmans recorded their lives on film and video before, during, and after the arrest and prosecution. These family videos, as well as interviews with the family and many involved in the legal case, are used by Mr. Jarecki to chart the complex and shifting relationships between them. It is a valuable tool for illustrating a variety of topics not easily understood and rarely regarded in popular culture:

The uses and meaning of performance for the Friedmans specifically and for society in general. The oldest son states at one point that he is videotaping so he "doesn't have to remember what happened" in the future. Arnold and sons' constant performing in front of the camera antagonizes and isolates mum Elaine. Jesse dances and prances in front of the camera prior to incarceration, which I interpreted as tension-relief but cops see as proof he has no remorse. "Performance seems both a symptom of the family's complex misery and a form of treatment for it" (Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader).

The family videos provide an opportunity to observe the dynamics of dysfunctional family interaction; what happens when the primary alliance within a family is not the adult couple but parent-child(ren). We witness Arnold, who admits being a pedophile, behaving as though he was "one of the boys" to the detriment of his marriage and overall family stability. We ponder the generational transmission of behavioral pathology when Arnold writes to a journalist about witnessing his single mother having sex with men in the next bed. The film also shows how the human mind, when confronted by traumatic events, is capable of "forgetting" something that happened (through repression and compartmentalizing) and "remembering" something that did not. Like Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (Ingmar is currently editing its sequel!), the film is of great value to anyone interested in psychology and human behavior.

The film documents how the justice system is often more interested in obtaining evidence leading to a conviction than to actually attempting to find the truth. The use of leading questions and other interview techniques often results in false testimony, as it happens here (which does not prove Arnold and Jesse are innocent). Several cases like the Friedmans have resulted in changes in the ways these investigations are currently carried out, at least in several States. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS illustrates the development of community or mass hysteria (just like Carl Dreyer did in his classic DAY OF WRATH).

Jarecki's presentation of the material presents an opportunity to monitor how opinions are formed based on partial, insufficient information. We see something that "confirms" that something happened (or didn't). Later something is shown or said that shakes our confidence in our initial impression. Jarecki seems to be warning us against rushing to form firm opinions.

07-31-2003, 02:27 PM
I don't know if I want to see this film.

I don't mind being uncomfortable in a theatre seat (Irreversible, anyone?) but domestic sexual abuse?
It's one of those crimes that makes me seeth with rage...

oscar jubis
07-31-2003, 08:24 PM
I understand your trepidation, but the film is not designed to evoke seething rage. Unlike the brilliant BOYS OF ST. VINCENT, the focus here is on the accused, not the alleged victims. For instance, there are no scenes showing anyone being sexually abused. The only kids we see are Arnold's sons(in their home movies) and kids being entertained by the first-born son, a professional clown. It was a lot more difficult to watch IRREVERSIBLE and I'm very glad I did.

08-01-2003, 12:13 AM
This film made me very confused but intrigued. It truly stirred my curiosity.

What I admire Jarecki for is the fact that he went with what he had. It's obvious that members of the family didn't reveal everything that happened in the house, and we didn't even get anything from Seth. But Mr. Jarecki crafted the information that he did get and turned it into something very thought-provoking.

I think the home movies made everything so surreal. While everything seemed so staged within the super-8s, it was incredible to know that the happenings were real, and everything they said was genuine. I say "genuine" because I don't want to go as far as "true."


I think that the really unbelievable thing is what the boys put their mother through. It was obvious that Arnold was fine with the fact that his wife didn't trust him, but the sons just wouldn't let go! I found it very disturbing to just break out like that at joyous events like a seder.

All in all, though. I found this to be a very likable and ponderable film.

oscar jubis
08-01-2003, 12:43 AM
Originally posted by HorseradishTree
everything seemed so staged within the super-8s, and everything they said was genuine. I say "genuine" because I don't want to go as far as "true."

Excellent observation. The men are clearly aware they're performing for the camera. It complicates our decision whether to believe them or not. The show they put on in the home movies is still useful material for analysis of family dynamics. It illustrates the wide divide between the men and Elaine, who is excluded from the "stage" and avoids the spotlight.

I think that the really unbelievable thing is what the boys put their mother through.

Arnold created a Boys' Club within the family early on, isolating Elaine. The boys' antagonism towards her is another consequence of Arnold's teaching. It's the clearest symptom of the Friedmans' dysfunction.

08-01-2003, 10:44 AM
Forgot one thing:

I don't want to make this look like a flawless movie, though it was pretty darn close.

Jarecki didn't touch on the fact that there was really no hard evidence of sodomizing those boys in the computer class. I concluded with some friends that this was due to the fact that Jarecki really didn't want to take a side.

But was that the right course of action? Should he have displayed the facts in a manner to either accuse or victimize the Freidmans, or was he right in staying pretty much neutral in the matter?

oscar jubis
08-01-2003, 12:50 PM
Originally posted by HorseradishTree
Jarecki didn't touch on the fact that there was really no hard evidence of sodomizing those boys in the computer class.

If Jarecki "didn't touch on" it, how come you are convinced there was no hard evidence? Or did you have information about the case beforehand, from other sources?

08-01-2003, 01:14 PM
Oh, I did a little more research on my own. That's how I found out.

oscar jubis
08-01-2003, 05:20 PM
The film establishes clearly that there was no physical evidence and that no child is known to have complained to parents and other authorities about abuse, prior to the police investigation. Jarecki interviews one alleged victim who remembers being raped, then implies the memory could have been planted via hypnosis. One father reports the detectives were aggressive: "They kept repeating to my son that they knew what happened and that he should tell".

Jarecki's approach is to sit the viewer in the jury room. What the film shows led me to conclude the prosecutor failed to prove allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, which is not to say Arnold and Jesse are innocent. A point of departure for my exploration of truth are the unsolicited letters written by Arnold to journalist Diane Nathan, describing himself as a pedophile, who had abused two boys while on vacation with the family and sodomized his younger brother when they were 8 and 13 years old respectively.

Chris Knipp
08-31-2003, 04:10 PM
I have stated in my separate review of the documentary that I don't approve of Jarecki's method of withholding judgment; I also disapprove of his withholding information, like the fact that the brother was gay, till late in the film. I think it sensationalistic and wrong to advertise the documentary as representing a conundrum. What is made clear in the film is that, as Oscar Jubis has pointed out, the two men were clearly sent to jail without the case having been proven, due to the hysteria of the times and the police's desire to railroad suspects in a case which they essentially cooked up. This very important fact is not a conundrum.

First, Fiiedman père was caught in a sting operation ordering kiddy porm. There's no doubt about the fact that he did that and that he was turned on by the idea of sex with underage boys. Then the police looked more closely and discovered that Friedman gave a computer class at his house for young teenage boys. They saw this as a wonderful opportunity and then got the names of the boys and went to work on them. There is plenty of evidence that children can be pressured into giving whatever testimony police want out of them. The alternating vagueness and incredibility of the boys' testimony as revealed in recent interviews shows that the evidence was highly suspect. The most forthcoming witness in the recent interviews is one who seems titillated by the stories he is telling, says things that are incredible, and then says it didn't come out till he was hypnotized. Nonetheless the witnesses were used to bring an astronomical number of charges, typical of this kind of hysteria-driven case at the time.

There is no way of knowing what really happened during the computer classes, but pretty obvious that some of the outrageous and fantastic things mentioned couldn't have happened. It's possible that something, albeit minor, did happen of a sexual nature. But if so, how could the majority of the boys return home every day after the class and say nothing to their parents prior to the police investigation? And how could have Friedman father and son get away with anything with the rest of the class watching?

It's not entirely clear that Friedman pere was ever guilty of any child sexual abuse. It is clear that he would have fantasized about it. Perhaps he ultimately pleaded guilty and allowed himself to be sent to jail because he felt intense guilt for his desires and wanted to be punished for them.

I was disappointed that there wasn't more from journalists or investigators given in the film about the atmosphere of hysteria surrounding child abuse during the Eighties, when all this happened, and about the various cases around the country which later were found to have been fabricated by police. There is the one woman journalist who is a voice in the piece and does present this information in outline, but this is a far more important aspect of the subject than is made clear in terms of screen time.

It is my feeling that the fact Jarecki started out to make a movie about party clowns and then came to this story because the eldest son was the top NYC party clown is indicative that this story was more than Jarecki could really handle. He went into the making of Capturing the Friedmans with virtually no experience as a filmmaker, and this is a sensitive, complex subject that demands an experienced documentarian, preferably, of course, one who has a prior interest in and knowledge of the subject.

Jarecki, in contrast, merely stumbled on the subject. Of course not only was it a juicy one, but he also was fortunate enough to sbumble on all the home movie footage the Friedmans had made and preserved, and to be allowed by them to use it. I am not saying that the resulting film is a a slapdash piece of work. Jarecki clearly did work hard for three years putting together the film and gathering other data and interviews for it. He made a sincere effort. But he lacked the documentary experience to produce a really satisfying film.

Jarecki's material is so sensational and disturbing that, given the sincere effort that he put into it, he was bound to succeed -- but only in the limited sense of gaining an audience. To go so far as to call Capturing the Friedmans a "masterpiece" as some writers have done, I think is totally mistaken. It is, in fact, a highly unsatisyfing film, as well as a total downer, and it is more of a downer because the filmmaker is not really up to the subject.

NOTE: I am not writing this to refute any comments by Oscar or any of the others who have contributed to this discussion, but only to make clear my evaluation of the film itself, as distinct from the subject matter. There are many subjects that the film brings up. One is the tragedy of the disintegration of a family (one which, perhaps, was already "dysfunctional," but that is a rather vague and catchall term). Another is the issue of a family with a perhaps excessive proclivity to self-recording and self-revelation. At the core of the story is the issue of pedophilia, what it is like, how it arises, and what effects it has on people's lives. And finally there is the hysteria surrounding pedophilia as practiced, or imagined to have been practiced, on groups of children during the Eighties in a number of cases which later turned out to have been trumped up. I think it's fair to say that Capturing the Friedmans is not up to dealing with all these subjects adequately or even of keeping track of them.

09-04-2003, 06:39 PM
Wow, I really like your take on things.

I just have one question though: Will Jarecki EVER actually do the documentary about clowns? It sounded like a fun subject to me; I would watch it.