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Capturing the Friedmans

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"Arnold liked pictures," says Elaine Friedman of her former husband, Arnold Friedman, long after Arnold went to prison for allegedly molesting teen-age boys, and died there of a heart attack or a drug overdose, depending on whom you ask. "Let's face it: He liked pictures."

She's probably talking about the family's Super-8 home movies and videos, which the benignly narcissistic Friedmans shot at parties and Seders and breakfasts and recitals and outside the courthouse before sentencing, and which survived to allow filmmaker Andrew Jarecki to attempt to understand this once-affluent Long Island family's strange story.

But in one of the myriad ironies that haunt Capturing the Friedmans, and make it such a thrilling documentary, Elaine Friedman also could be talking about the boxes full of child pornography that the police found hidden in the Friedman basement one afternoon in 1987, when they came to the home with a search warrant, pursuing a postal inspector's lead.

Your first instinct after you've seen Capturing the Friedmans will be to discuss what "really" happened. But Jarecki defies such a comfortable approach, and from scene to scene in his film, you never know when he'll introduce a disorienting fact, or present an interview that makes you chuckle anxiously at the madding complexity of human behavior.

Should we believe the eldest son, David Friedman, a New York birthday-party clown now in his 40s, who's buried in bottomless denial? He maintains that his father -- a Columbia-educated chemical engineer who (David says) heroically chose to become a high school teacher -- did not force dozens of sex acts on the children to whom he gave private computer lessons in the basement of their home. David wonders why none of these children said anything about the sex and kept enrolling in his father's classes if the lessons were truly a Sodom of grotesque abuse: for example, a leap-frog game where each set of naked, raised buttocks in the daisy chain got penetrated by the teacher.

Or can we believe Elaine, Arnold's wife, whose children vilify her in private interviews and at the family dinner table? She believes her husband did -- something. Clearly, she's a handful, but when she speaks of her husband's absent libido and her own years of denial, she's a powerfully credible witness to Friedman family history.

And what of Jesse, Arnold's youngest son, 18 at the time, and charged along with his father? (Middle son Seth refused to take part in the film.) Jesse admits in court to having abused children and claims that his father molested him -- tells the story, in fact, through a stream of tears -- and that his lawyer made the story up and advised him to tell it to lessen his sentence. What about the police, who say (years later) that when they raided the Friedman home, looking for child pornography, they found piles of magazines stacked up all over the house?

But wait. Police photos from the day of the search reveal no such piles, only magazines safely hidden in the basement. And Jesse later accuses his supposedly corrupt lawyer, whose own recollections are precise and startling, of refusing to suborn perjury. And David readily forgives his father for looking at pictures of anal sex between children. And the witnesses against Arnold seem. And Arnold only touched boys when. And a journalist reveals that. And the family's home movies show. And on and on and on and on.

"This is private, so if you're not me, you really shouldn't be watching this," David tells himself in a 1988 video diary that he kept of the tumultuous time. Then, in a rage: "If you're the fucking cops, then go fuck yourself because you're full of shit."

And yet, here we are: watching it all with David cooperating as Jarecki, precise and thorough, opens every imaginable old wound. It's fascinating, and chilling in so many ways. What happened in the Friedmans' basement? What do people know about their intimates and about themselves? Why would the family want to revive all of this so many years later? Sometimes you think Jarecki believes Arnold's proffered innocence, at least on the molestation charges involving the Friedman basement. And then we learn that the family had a summer home, where Arnold (says Elaine) admits to having done some inappropriate things with a few boys over the years.

And then, just when you think a story like this can't have a surprise ending, Jarecki presents it with a blink: Howard Friedman, Arnold's younger brother (now in his 60s), who simply can't believe Arnold did these horrible things, reveals something so small, so indisputable and so positive about himself that it allows you new insight into what Arnold may have done and why he may have done it.

Even so, understanding the secret of Arnold Friedman does little to answer Jarecki's absorbing questions about the workings of all this complex psychology. It merely gives us a place to begin understanding one comprehensible sequence of cause and effect.

Jarecki offers virtually no cultural context for this tale and no talking heads to explain it. That's only occasionally a problem -- for example, when he misses opportunities to ask more probing questions, as if he'd rather just let his subjects be (or hang) themselves. So in the end, it's hard to know how much of this story simply tells itself, and how much Jarecki's adroit editing constructs a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. *** & 1/2

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