Lake of FireReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/26/07 18:44:48
(Worth A Look)
If you are an ambitious young director whose debut film was surrounded by bizarre behind-the-scenes activities as a protracted editing period, a series of public arguments with both the studio and star and a demand that, because of dissatisfaction with the final cut, you want your name taking off the film and replaced with “Humpty Dumpty,” there are any number of paths that you might choose in order to get back into the good graces of Hollywood. In most cases, however, I suspect that most of you would not hit upon the plan of disappearing completely for nine years and then finally reemerging with a 2 ½-hour, black-and-white documentary on abortion that has been designed in such a way that people on both sides of the debate will find things to get upset about. And yet, that is exactly what Tony Kaye, the director of “American History X,” has given us with “Lake of Fire,” a wildly ambitious film that takes a look at one of the most polarizing subjects imaginable in a way that pro-choice and pro-life advocates will find equally fascinating and frustrating.Instead of utilizing such standard tools of documentary filmmaking as a single narrative thread and a narrator to put everything I context, “Lake Of Fire” literally plunges us into the middle of the abortion wars over the last two decades and lets us fend for ourselves. We see moderate pro-life and pro-choice advocates stating their cases in a calm and logical manner without resorting to shock or hyperbole to get their respective messages across. We see zealots on both sides who do go to extremes to make their points–there is footage of a pro-choice rock band in which the lead singer utilizes a coat hanger to simulate what women sometimes resorted to in the years before Roe V. Wade and there are speeches from pro-lifers that are so over-the-top in their words and imagery that they would be hilarious to listen to if the utter conviction in their eyes didn’t make those words so terrifying to behold. We even get the fascinating story of Norma McCorvey, the woman who was the “Jane Roe” of the landmark court decision. As you may have heard, she eventually switched sides and now works for the anti-abortion forces but the details of her conversion are such that her switch now feels more like the profound life-changing experience that it presumably was and less of an opportunistic way to get back into the headlines, as seemed to be the prevailing opinion when the news first broke a few years ago.
There are photos and film footage showing the sad and violent ways in which lives have ended as a result of the abortion debate–we see a post-mortem picture of one woman who attempted to induce one herself at a time when she couldn’t legally get one and there is a sad and horrifying guided tour of an abortion clinic just after it was shot up by a zealot (we can still see blood and bullet casings on the floor). And yes, we even get to see footage of a couple of actual abortions–early in the film, we get to see some completely antiseptic footage from one procedure as well as sensationalized film used to rally the pro-life troops. During the climax of the film, however, we follow one woman throughout the entire process from her arrival at the clinic to her talk in a recovery room afterwards–no matter where your feelings on the subject lie, it will be impossible to watch this sequence without being deeply moved.
A lot of this is compelling, to be sure, but one of the problems with the film is that there is indeed a lot of it–having spent years and years shooting this film, it appears that he was loathe to discard any of his footage and decided instead to stick it all in. As a result, there is a certain repetitiveness to the material after a while that even the most passionate devotee of the subject will find wearying after a while–if the film had either been trimmed significantly or expanded into something like a cable miniseries (in which each episode could have focused on a different aspect), the whole thing might have played better in the long run. A bigger problem with the film as it unfolds is that it soon becomes obvious that it isn’t quite as even-handed and non-judgmental as it claims. For starters, the number of wild-eyed anti-abortion zealots on display proudly declaiming that anyone who doesn’t fit their Biblical ideal of decency should be executed greatly outnumbers the number of equally over-the-top people from the other side. While interviews with pro-choice people like Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky are filmed in respectful medium close-ups, many of the pro-lifers are filmed in intense close-ups that make them look freakish. There may indeed be a case for the pro-life position but for every one person seen in the film who makes it, Kaye includes four others who are just clearly off the deep end and even though I am resoundingly pro-choice personally, this subtle lack of balance in a film that purports to be even-handed is a bit disturbingAnd yet, despite these significant flaws, I am still willing to stick my neck out and sort of recommend “Lake of Fire” to viewers who are actually concerned about the issue of abortion in America–by my calculations, that should be just about all of you. Although it may well come up short in its lofty goal of being a completely unslanted look at the subject, it still provides viewers with a lot to think about and may even cause them to look at some of those with opposing views on the subject in a new light. In the long run, that may be the aspect of “Lake of Fire” that proves to be the most valuable after all.
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