Beyond the Multiplex

An abortion film that will upset you, no matter which side you're on. Plus: What would Jesus do ... if his kid were gay?


Andrew O'Hehir
October 4, 2007 3:00PM (UTC)

You have to be nuts -- or more specifically, you need to have an especially pernicious variety of obsessive-compulsive disorder -- to try to keep track of film releases at this time of year. I guess that's why they gave me the job! Everyone I know in this racket is looking even more hollow-eyed and ghoulish than usual (which is saying something) as we spend the loveliest days of fall creeping from one dark room to another to ingest salutary fables about abortion, homosexuality, religious fundamentalism, suicide and torture. (I don't understand how and why it happens that the mood of Page One infects art-house cinema, or vice versa, but it definitely does.)

I count 12 more-or-less new independent films reaching audiences this week, and that's not counting some intriguing mainstream fare (like George Clooney's star turn in "Michael Clayton"), the launch of a New York retrospective on the terrific French director Arnaud Desplechin and the films that inspired him, or the outstanding array of premieres on offer at the New York Film Festival. Of course I'm not confident that I've made the right choices of what to cover and what to skip; making any choices in the face of this onslaught feels like a moral victory.

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Still, we bush-league obsessive-compulsives must prostrate ourselves before Tony Kaye, the quasi-legendary English-born director who has spent most of the last decade "in the wilderness," as he puts it, after the tempest surrounding his 1998 picture "American History X." Kaye feuded extensively and publicly with New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton Jr. after the studio re-edited the film, vainly tried to take his name off the final cut, and even proposed commissioning a new script from Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and shooting the whole thing over from scratch. Something of a flop on initial release, "American History X" is now a widely revered cult film (it's currently No. 41 on the IMDB users' Top 250), although Kaye succeeded in totally sabotaging his own career.

Five years after botching an opportunity to shoot a documentary about the late Marlon Brando's notoriously eccentric acting classes -- Kaye and Brando had a falling-out, reportedly after the former came to class dressed as Osama bin Laden -- Kaye is back. Kind of. His long-brewing documentary about America's abortion wars, "Lake of Fire," reaches theaters this week. It's in black-and-white, it's almost three hours long and nearly all of it was shot during the Clinton administration. So when Kaye claims that he doesn't care whether people see it or not, he actually might not be bullshitting. (He also insists that, like all his work, it isn't really finished yet.)

This week also brings us a social-issue documentary of a completely different flavor, Daniel Karslake's "For the Bible Tells Me So," a polished, heartfelt, PBS-style exploration of how Christian families deal with adult children who come out as lesbian or gay. A.J. Schnack's haunting "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" might be the most intimate screen treatment of the late indie-rock god, despite the fact that Cobain himself is almost never seen in the film. Lynn Hershman Leeson's "Strange Culture" explores the Kafka-esque odyssey of an oddball artist sucked into our government's vacuum-cleaner approach to fighting terrorism, while Alex LeMay's uneven "Desert Bayou" follows displaced African-American Katrina refugees to new homes in lily-white Utah. Then there's a morose little indie comedy called "The Good Night," written and directed by Jake Paltrow. It displays a few flashes of mean-spirited imagination, and it stars his big sister, Gwyneth.

I should note that another major title opening this week is Amir Bar-Lev's fascinating documentary "My Kid Could Paint That" (about the much-celebrated painter Marla Olmstead, now 7 years old), which I'll cover in a separate feature. Also opening, unseen by me: Justin Lin's post-Bruce Lee mockumentary "Finishing the Game," the family drama "Black Irish" and the decadent neo-noir "Broken," starring Heather Graham and Jeremy Sisto.

"Lake of Fire": A time capsule and a war of words, in black-and-white and shades of gray
It's an accident, pretty much, that Tony Kaye's highly compelling, if overlong and overwrought, abortion documentary, "Lake of Fire," was almost all shot in the 1990s but is being released in 2007. Yet when you sit down with Kaye and listen to him talking about fate, you begin to half-believe that all things in the universe do happen for a reason, even the long-delayed release of a motion picture. Certainly "Lake of Fire," with its focus on figures who seem like ghosts of the recent past -- like murdered abortion doctors John Britton and Barnett Slepian, executed "pro-life" murderer Paul Hill and Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry -- now feels like a peculiarly resonant slice of Clinton-era history, a bitter prequel to the political chaos of the late Bush years.

If antiabortion activists stand today on the brink of a long-awaited judicial victory (it's hard to imagine that Roe vs. Wade will survive the Roberts Supreme Court for long), in the '90s they still seemed like fringe wackos, fighting a losing political battle at best and devoted to murder and terrorism at worst. With his elegantly composed black-and-white images, Kaye frames this bitter warfare, and activists on both sides of the issue, as combatants in a grand rhetorical struggle, unresolvable by its very nature.

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Kaye himself insists that he has no point of view on abortion, or at least none he cares to insist on throughout the film. A lean and ascetic looking fellow of 55, Kaye does not resemble his long-standing wild-man image. He chooses words carefully and speaks slowly, often pausing for several seconds at a time, partly to mask a speech impediment that has troubled him since childhood. "I'm not a politician or a historian," he says. "This isn't a comment. I tell stories with motion pictures and sound. I'm like an empty vessel with no real point of view. I just let these things come through me. Well, I don't let them; I make them. They end up how they end up, and that's it."

Of course, the central ambiguity of Kaye's statement -- he doesn't just let his subject flow through him, he makes it -- is central to the film. One pro-choice interviewee, constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, likens the abortion dispute to the old Jewish joke about the rabbi who adjudicates a marital dispute. He listens to the husband's side and tells him, "You know, you're right," and then hears the wife's side and tells her, "You know, you're right." "But rabbi," protests one of his students, "they can't both be right!" The rabbi reflects a moment and says: "You know, you're right!"

In a pair of sequences guaranteed to unsettle any viewer, Kaye shoots two abortions in intimate detail, one of them a late-term intervention and the other a much earlier, more routine procedure. In both cases, we see exactly what comes out of the women's bodies into the doctor's steel tray, an assortment of chopped-up "tissue" that must then be pieced back together to make sure the entire fetus has been extracted. The principal difference between the two procedures is a matter of size and quantity, but the removed material is recognizably and shockingly human. For much too long, the pro-choice movement has relied on comforting euphemisms suggesting that early abortions result in nothing more than unrecognizable globs of goo. That was always sophistry; when you see tiny severed legs, arms and other body parts in that tray, it seems like something worse than that.

"I was very curious to learn what an abortion actually looked like," Kaye says, "and I quickly became aware, in terms of the structure of the film, that I needed one, and that I needed the story of a woman who goes through one. But I never thought in my wildest imagination that I could film one and that I could get so close. When I did film it, which was after five years of working on the film, I was in" -- here a long pause; he's having trouble getting the words out -- "an altered state when I came out of that place."

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Hold those calls and letters, defenders of choice. Throughout the film, Kaye is extraordinarily sensitive to the painful decisions of women who seek out the procedure. If the abortion scenes are shocking, so are Kaye's interviews with the bloody-minded, Bible-pounding zealots of the so-called pro-life movement. These people constitute an entire universe of loner white guys with pinched faces and extremist interpretations of a few passages in ancient Hebrew religious works, perversely devoted to controlling female reproduction but totally unconcerned about the health and welfare of already-existing women and children. As interviewee Noam Chomsky puts it (he's seen here as a logician rather than a polemicist, and in that role he has few peers), the pro-lifers might have a valid moral point to make, if there was any seriousness or consistency or concern about poverty and human welfare in their position.

It's true that Kaye focuses on the violent outer fringe of the antiabortion movement, but even mainstream pro-lifers share some of that demented, millennial idealism. (Only rarely do antiabortion activists also oppose the death penalty.) They see abortion as an absolute evil but refuse to face the fact that no law will ever stop it from happening; women will cross state lines or the Canadian border if they can, or will seek out illegal and dangerous procedures from unlicensed providers if they must. Kaye's accomplishment here is to demonstrate that no side in the dispute holds a monopoly on morality or truth, but also that the "middle ground" on abortion, occupied by most Americans, is an ethically unstable swamp where nobody's motives are pure and where we face unsavory questions about when and whether it's acceptable to end (or avert, if you prefer) a human life.

Kaye came to America in the 1980s determined, he says, to make films like the classic American works he'd watched on television growing up in postwar London. "When I came here, it dawned on me that abortion was the single most divisive issue in America," he said. "At that time especially, it had just gone into a new violent realm. So I thought, Right, that's what I should make a film about. It wasn't necessarily going to be a documentary film. I didn't even know what a documentary film was. I was making TV commercials and music videos, and that's a different format entirely. Now, I was a fan of Humphrey Jennings and Michael Moore and Errol Morris and the Maysles and Leni Riefenstahl and Andy Warhol, for that matter. So I thought, Well, I'll make a documentary film, but it's not going to be a propagandist film. It's going to be a war of words, a lake of fire."

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Shooting in black-and-white was both an aesthetic decision -- for Kaye, form always comes first -- and a form of ideological analysis. "I didn't do it for this reason, but I hate to think what the abortion footage would have been like in color. That would be completely unwatchable. Black-and-white beautifies everything. It could be the worst framing imaginable, the worst lighting imaginable, on the worst monitor in the worst room with the worst light hitting it, and it would still look OK. When I decided to use it for 'Lake of Fire,' it was more the fact -- it's a little bit deep, but not really -- that black-and-white film is not black and white, there are grays. This is like pro-choice and pro-life, and it's not quite that simple."

Kaye says that "Lake of Fire" isn't finished yet; he describes the audience as "a partner, helping me get to the next bit." And "American History X" isn't finished either. He's patched up relations with New Line and will supervise a 10th anniversary DVD edition, to be paired with his own meta-documentary about the whole mess, "Humpty Dumpty." (That was the directing credit Kaye wanted for the film in 1998; he once claimed he would legally change his name to Humpty Dumpty if necessary.) He even has several new dramatic films in the works, including "Black Water Rising," set in New Orleans after Katrina. (When and if any of those films will ever be finished, or at least released, remains an open question.)

Looking back on his falling-out with Hollywood, Kaye claims to view the whole thing with Zen-like serenity. "Honestly, I believe that as an artist I had to go back to the drawing board. I had to start looking all over again. The situation on 'American History X' couldn't have been better. To go into the wilderness, if you like, was a marvelous opportunity. In a way, my inner soul chose that: 'You're not ready for this. If you want to make a contribution to the film industry, you need to go away for a while. You're not good enough yet.' I don't know whether I'm good enough now, but I'm capable now of working with other people and not being egotistical.

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"All the work of the directors I really liked -- those directors seemed to be tyrannical, egotistical, arrogant, mad. They were my gods, so I thought, Well, I'd better be like that. I'm not really like that. Maybe I'm not as good as them! My own style is not to be that, but just to be nothing. Just to be in position to let everyone else come through me, and put it out there. Spectacle and truth need to get out there in some way, and there need to be people who do that."

"Lake of Fire" is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with wider release to follow.

"For the Bible Tells Me So": What would Jesus do? If his son was one of Judy's friends, that is
Whether Daniel Karslake's admirable and moving "For the Bible Tells Me So" can reach across the gaping wound it documents in American society -- between traditional Christian families and their gay sons and daughters -- is a dubious proposition. Karslake does a fine job of approaching his subjects in a neutral, non-judgmental manner, and even when the parents he interviews are having a really tough time accepting their gay kids, he never presents them as demons or bigots. Liberal mainline Christians will embrace this elegantly structured, TV-ready concoction, with its message that the biblical proscription on homosexuality has been misinterpreted, and its focus on healing and mutual understanding. I doubt many fundamentalists will want to see it in the first place.

Of course they should. Two of Karslake's subjects are more or less celebrities: Chrissy Gephardt, lesbian daughter of former House minority leader and presidential candidate Dick Gephardt, and Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. But in some ways the other families in the film are more critical to its argument, like the Poteats, an African-American fundamentalist family from North Carolina who have never quite adjusted to their daughter's sexual identity, or the Reitans, white-bread Minnesota Lutherans out of Garrison Keillor's universe who have embraced their gay son Jake after a protracted struggle with his coming-out and how it affected their hopes and dreams for him.

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In fact, if Karslake's interviews are to be believed, the Gephardts and the Robinsons ought to be nominated for sainthood. Dick Gephardt is a Southern Baptist, although his wife and kids were raised Catholic, which is a double whammy as far as homosexuality goes. But the former congressman insists he was only concerned about Chrissy's welfare and happiness, and within a couple of years of Chrissy's leaving her husband for another woman, the new couple were included on the family Christmas card. Robinson's parents, who attend a conservative Disciples of Christ church in rural Kentucky, had much farther to travel, but their immense pride in their son's achievement simply blew away their misgivings about what he did, and with whom, in the bedroom.

Most upsetting of all is the story of Mary Lou Wallner, a Colorado fundamentalist whose estrangement from her lesbian daughter ends in irredeemable tragedy. Wallner is a composed woman in late middle age who must live out her life amid prodigious pain and regret, and Karslake handles her story with grace and sympathy. As for the film's detour into theological discussions of Leviticus -- yes, homosexuality is condemned as an abomination, but so is the eating of shrimp and the wearing of wool-linen blends -- of course it will convince those with open minds that 4,000-year-old ritual practice should not govern contemporary behavior.

Similarly, families with gay kids all over the country who are already receptive to Karslake's ecumenical message will clasp this film to their hearts, but those who need it the most may never see it.

"For the Bible Tells Me So" opens Oct. 5 at the Quad Cinema in New York, Oct. 12 in Boston, Lake Worth, Fla., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Palm Springs, Calif., Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Springfield, Mo.; Oct. 19 in Athens, Ga., Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., Dallas, Denver, Houston, Memphis, New Orleans, Rochester, N.Y., Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, N.M. and Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.

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Fast forward: Cobain speaks in "About a Son"; the police-state nightmare of "Strange Culture"; from the Big Easy to "Desert Bayou"; sweet dreams and "Good Night"
I was worried about A.J. Schnack's "Kurt Cobain: About a Son" before I first saw it earlier this year (at the South by Southwest Film Festival): A biopic with no licensed Nirvana music and virtually no images of its subject sounded like a dubious proposition. What Schnack did have was extensive tapes of interviews with Cobain, compiled by journalist Michael Azerrad for his biography. The two edited those into an approximate narrative, and then Schnack went to the places Cobain lived -- his hometown of Aberdeen, Wash., the precious indie-rock capital (and state capital) Olympia and then Seattle -- to create a kind of impressionistic montage to accompany Cobain's self-narrating life story. There's no voice-over, no talking-head interviews and no home-video band tapes, but you'll come out of this knowing more about Cobain's self-destructive talent, and lifelong depression, than a more conventional treatment could offer. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York, with more cities to follow.)

Lynn Hershman Leeson has spent a career making films and videos in the San Francisco Bay Area, as a fearless exponent of the crossover zone where experimental art forms meet narrative filmmaking. She hasn't reached much of an audience, which makes the modest national rollout of her fascinating "Strange Culture" a noteworthy event. A mix of documentary, docudrama and metacritical essay, "Strange Culture" details the terrible odyssey of Steve Kurtz, a Buffalo, N.Y., teacher and artist arrested as a bioterrorism suspect after his wife died at home (of a heart attack) and police found biological specimens in their home. (The microbes were nontoxic but unauthorized elements in one of Kurtz's artistic projects.) Kurtz's story is both a terrible personal tragedy and a penetrating case study in the intolerance and paranoia that still surrounds avant-garde art in America. (Opens Oct. 5 at Cinema Village in New York.)

Just one of the numerous odd and questionable events to follow Hurricane Katrina was the involuntary evacuation of some 600 displaced New Orleans residents to Utah, where the largely African-American group was virtually imprisoned on a military base amid the whitest state in the country. Alex LeMay's "Desert Bayou" can't stay focused on this fascinating story and keeps bumping up against larger issues it can't handle. But LeMay's central narrative about two black families who, perversely or not, decide to make new homes amid the Mormons of the Beehive State, is a fascinating and guardedly hopeful tale about race, class, religion and geography in American life. (Opens Oct. 5 at the Village East in New York, Oct. 19 in Houston and Oct. 26 in Salt Lake City, with more cities to follow.)

Jake Paltrow's debut feature, "The Good Night," has an appealing performance by English actor Martin Freeman as Gary, a one-time '80s pop star who is mired in a decade-long depression, and an even funnier one by Simon Pegg as his former bandmate, gone over to the dark side as a hotshot ad executive. Gary starts dreaming about having a lovely girlfriend who understands him and is hot besides (that would be Penélope Cruz, in a near-cameo), since his real girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) is on his case all the time about being a bum, slob and generally worthless human being. There's a gloomy quality to "The Good Night" I sort of appreciated -- much of it was shot in London, although it's supposed to occur in New York -- but after the initial acerbic setup fades, Gary becomes less and less likable and the movie evaporates into nothing. Family analysis is above my pay grade, but Jake Paltrow isn't doing his better-known big sister any favors here; Gwyneth plays a humorless harridan with an odd brown perm job, and you can't quite blame Gary for pursuing the honeys of dreamland. (Opens Oct. 5 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York, with more cities to follow.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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