Strange CultureReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/15/07 13:48:51
SCREENED AT THE 2007 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: I hate reviewing this type of movie. There's a tendency to judge documentaries based upon the merit of their topics, and the merits of "Strange Culture"'s subject matter are darn near unassailable. Nearly everything about how Lynn Hershman-Leeson takes this material and fashions a movie out of it is subpar, though, which makes it difficult to recommend. This is a bad movie about a good topic, but it can be tough to separate the two.Let me repeat: This is information that the country would do very well to absorb. It tells the story of how David Kurtz was arrested and denied his civil rights after his wife's sudden death in May 2004. She passed quietly in her sleep, but when the police arrived on the scene, they found bacterial cultures and the equipment to cultivate them. Kurtz had legitimate reason to have these supplies - he was creating an interactive installment for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA) that used them - but once the authorities saw research equipment in an unexpected setting, their thoughts leapt to "terrorist", and after that, everything went wrong.
At the time of filming, the case was still pending, so there's no resolution to be had. That can be justified; the filmmakers are partly looking for people to rally to Kurtz's defense, and it turns out that the lack of a definitive ending may be the least of the film's problems. The film tells us that Kurtz and company aren't allowed to discuss the ongoing investigation and prosecution, so it uses re-enactments, with Thomas Jay Ryan playing Kurtz and Tilda Swinton playing Hope. Ryan and Swinton are good actors, but their scenes are dry at best - most of the "re-enactments" are just two people talking about how right they are and how wrong the government or the pharma companies that the installment targets are. Most of the cast isn't very good, and Ryan mostly succeeds in making Kurtz look pompous. Being pompous hardly justifies malicious prosecution, but if the filmmakers' intent is to build sympathy for Steve Kurtz, they're undercutting themselves badly.
As bad as the re-enactments are - my personal favorite is the one where, directly after a scientist talking about how carefully Kurtz and his colleagues followed all safety procedures, Ryan rips his latex gloves off with his teeth, because there's nothing wrong with the stuff you don't want touching your skin getting into your mouth - the standard documentary work might be worse. What initially looks like one of the scenes of Steve and Hope Kurtz is instead an awkward information dump from Tilda Swinton about how, in her native England, genetically modified food must be clearly labeled and there's a move to outright ban it; if that's not awkward enough, it's intertwined with self-congratulatory discussion of how important the topic is and how great it is that they're making this movie about it. Hershman-Leeson harps on how the film's subjects aren't allowed to speak for themselves so much that it took me a while to realize that one of the talking heads is, in fact, Steve Kurtz, grinning like he's talking about something other than how the government put him through hell right after his wife died. Okay, I think, maybe they're just repurposing an interview done for another medium, but no, there he is comparing notes with Ryan. What the heck?
It's not that I object to him being able to laugh a little when discussing the absurdity of what the FBI did two years earlier - it's probably the only thing that would keep me from repeatedly breaking my hand by punching concrete walls - but the impression it creates as part of the film is far from positive. The film does make the point that there's something very wrong with the country when Kurtz can be persecuted like this, but in doing so it led me to doubt its own sincerity and take a dislike to its subject. I'm not going to make the claim that Steve Kurtz doesn't deserve civil rights because a seventy-five minute movie made him come across poorly when it was going for "noble artist", but it does keep the film's defense of him less stirring than it could - and should - be.Which is a shame. I wouldn't be surprised if "Suspect Culture" - an entry in a comic anthology frequently used to illustrate the film's events - does a much better job at getting the point across. Steve Kurtz the man and the causes of free speech deserve a better advocate.
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