"Let's face it, he liked pictures," Elaine Friedman says about her husband Arnold in Capturing the Friedmans, Andrew Jarecki's real-life account of a family coming apart at the seams. The pictures that Elaine's referring to include the hours upon hours of film and video with which the Friedmans ' Elaine, Arnold and their three sons ' recorded the large and small moments of their lives in the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s. Alas, they also include the stack of man-boy pornography that the Nassau County Sex Crimes Unit found hidden behind the piano in the basement of the Friedmans' Long Island home. For it turns out that Arnold, in addition to being a loving father, a distant husband and one of the juicier hams in the history of home movies, was a pedophile.
He admitted as much after the police broke down the Friedmans' front door and carted him off to jail on the day before Thanksgiving, 1987. What Arnold refused to admit, except during the brief moment when he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual abuse, was that he had molested the young boys who took computer classes from him in the basement, next to the piano. Arnold's son, 18-year-old Jesse, who helped out with the computer classes, also refused to admit ' except during the brief moment when he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual abuse ' that he had molested the young boys. And the reason Arnold and Jesse refused to admit they had molested the young boys, we come to believe, is because they didn't molest them.
Nevertheless, they both went to prison, where Arnold died in 1995, perhaps from a self-induced overdose of antidepressants. (Jesse was released in 2001 after serving 13 years.) And Capturing the Friedmans, as its title suggests, is partly about a miscarriage of justice. "The film sort of functions as the trial that never happened," Jarecki has told one interviewer. But if that were all the documentary did, it would belong on "Court TV." Instead, Jarecki himself has captured the Friedmans ' painted a portrait of a disturbed family living in disturbed times. Perched somewhere between "My Three Sons" and "The Osbournes," the Friedmans were neither strong enough nor famous enough to withstand the social forces arrayed against them. Under pressure, they imploded.
Ironically enough, the recovered-memory movement of the 1980s is itself becoming a distant memory ' the reports of babies being sacrificed to the devil, of toddlers being fondled and raped by daycare providers. Today, it all seems like a bout of mass hysteria, a witch hunt straight out of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. But for those who were accused, it was closer to Kafka, like waking up one morning and discovering that you're now a bug. What made the accusations especially difficult for the Friedmans was that Arnold was in fact a pedophile, although more a looker than a doer. Racked with guilt, he was unable to defend himself. And the family split along lines that had been there for years: Arnold and his sons versus Elaine, the boys against the girl.
If Arnold's the tragic hero of Capturing the Friedmans ' a beloved father with a fatal flaw ' Elaine's the villain. For understandable reasons, she wasn't able to rally around Arnold, but you get the impression, while listening to Jarecki's interviews with her ' and while watching her interact with her family in the video footage ' that she was always the odd woman out in this glorified boys' club. And Arnold was, above all else, one of the boys. No wonder his sons adored him, standing behind him all the way; the club was under attack. But it was this clubbiness that may have spelled Arnold's doom. There's a sense, during the trial phase of Capturing the Friedmans, that Arnold doesn't appreciate what he's up against. It's all like some dreadful home movie.
So is Capturing the Friedmans, given that so much of the documentary consists of footage that the Friedmans shot of themselves. "They were really on the cutting edge of self-documentation," Jarecki has said, and maybe they were, but mostly they just seem like members of the Click-the-Shutter Generation ' "An American Family," as PBS dubbed its original foray into reality television. The Friedmans liked to amuse themselves by horsing around in front of the camera, and it was only after Arnold got arrested that the videotaping began to seem a little weird. Suddenly, they weren't just putting on a show, they were recording, either for themselves or for posterity, the destruction of their whole way of life. They, too, were capturing the Friedmans.
"Maybe I started making the videotape so I wouldn't have to remember it myself," says Arnold and Elaine's oldest son, David, whose day job as Silly Billy, New York's favorite children's-party clown, provides a whiff of irony. Capturing the Friedmans shows David making an entrance in full Bozo regalia, but it also shows him sitting on the side of his bed, in T-shirt and underwear, wailing about what's happened to him and his family. It's a video diary recorded in 1988, and as David makes clear ' "Fuck off" are his exact words ' we're not supposed to be watching. But we are watching. And the fact that David has opened his video memory banks to us suggests that he thought it might do some good, might help vindicate his father and his brother.
Capturing the Friedmans does help vindicate Arnold and Jesse, in my opinion ' especially Jesse, who pleaded guilty only to reduce a sentence that he thought was a foregone conclusion. Jarecki doesn't club us over the head with Arnold and Jesse's innocence; he just lets the arguments pile up in their favor. For instance, the trial judge looks straight at the camera and says, "There was never a doubt in my mind as to their guilt." So much for justice being blind. Also, several of the computer students retract their testimony, and the one who doesn't seems suspicious, sprawled provocatively over a chair, his head shrouded in darkness. Jarecki gently picks apart the guy's stories of naked leapfrog and more onerous forms of sexual assault.
Paradoxically, being convinced of Arnold and Jesse's innocence lessens the movie's impact, sends it in a more straightforward let-justice-be-done direction Ã la Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line. Compare that to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which delved into a case of "satanic panic" in West Memphis, Arkansas, and left us wondering whether the three devil-worshipping teenagers convicted of brutally slaying three 8-year-old boys had actually done it or, for that matter, were all that interested in devil worship. Utterly compelling, Paradise Lost embraces the ambiguity of life ' the way people, depending on what they know and what you tell them, will believe just about anything.
Jarecki forswears ambiguity in favor of novelistic breadth and depth. When the movie's over, we feel we understand the Friedmans, but we also have a renewed appreciation for Tolstoy's belief that all happy families are alike, each unhappy family unhappy in its own way. Plus we have a renewed appreciation for the camera's ability to both tell the truth and lie. In the early home movies, everything's peachy; luxuriating in their very own spotlight, the Friedmans could be any family in America. In the later home movies, everything turns dark. There's so much screaming and shouting that you feel like you're watching a community-theater production of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, except not even the Tyrones had to deal with pedophilia.
"We were a family," Elaine says at one point, as if even that very basic thought couldn't be taken for granted. And yet who ever had more proof of a family's existence? It's all there on the tapes. Just press the play button.