PARK CITY, Utah - For awhile there, Andrew Jarecki was in pursuit of a huge clown. In the 1990s Silly Billy was the hottest birthday party performer in Manhattan. Silly Billy had become so popular with affluent New York parents that he became his own franchise. If Silly Billy was booked for a specific date, if your son or daughter absolutely had to have Silly Billy perform at his or her 7th birthday party and it was not going to happen, you could have your choice of Silly Billy associates, including Silly Dilly, Silly Milly, and Silly Willy.
But the closer Jarecki got to Silly Billy, whose real name is David Friedman, the more he learned about him, and the more Jarecki was convinced that there was something inexplicably mournful and dark about the guy. Jarecki, who has the instincts of a fine journalist, realized he was going to have to abandon the film about professional birthday clowns for something far more unsettling.
That film, Capturing the Friedmans (HBO, $29.95), just released on DVD and nominated for a best documentary Academy Award, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and went on to become a surprise art house hit and critical smash.
Jarecki returned to the festival this year with Just A Clown, that short, abandoned film he had been making about professional birthday party clowns and David "Silly Billy" Friedman. It's included on the Capturing the Friedmans DVD, along with outtakes and updates and Jarecki's interview on Charlie Rose's television show.
I met up with Jarecki at Sundance for a cup of coffee. "There was a period of time when we thought, 'Well, we're going to at least have a very strange back story for one of these clowns,' " Jarecki remembered. "Then the more complicated and fascinating the Friedman story became, the more we realized that it would eat the clowns alive. So that story, the one about David and his family and their background, became the story."
And what a story.
Richard Hankin, Jarecki's producer and editor, jumped in. "The pivotal moment for us came when David showed us the home video he had shot that night when the police first showed up at his home."
For those who haven't heard yet: Capturing the Friedmans is about a Long Island family shattered by a disturbing charge. On Thanksgiving Day the police break down the front door and arrest Arnold Friedman, a retired schoolteacher who taught computer classes in his basement. They say he molested and raped dozens of students. Then they arrest David's younger brother, Jesse. And through it all, through the family arguments and the doubts, through the brief conversations in the kitchen where the mother claims to have never felt close to her own family, and through the short breaks between trial dates - David hovers nearby, videotaping everything.
Jarecki uses those home movies, along with contradicting and damning interviews with the family and the judge who tried the case and the police who pursued the Friedmans, to tell a story about the fluidity of truth. That uneasiness spills into the DVD extras: Included is a compelling confrontation at the New York premiere between the film's subjects, who stand up during a question-and-answer session with Jarecki and go back and forth about what was not said and what was left out and what Jarecki got completely wrong.
"Everybody has a feeling about how the film should have played," Jarecki said. "In the past year I have heard every reading and angle: The judge isn't happy but he's an intelligent guy. He realizes that intelligent people can disagree about some of the points. The police detective is very angry. The Friedmans themselves would rather that the film was more of an exoneration piece. How I feel is, if we played it right it should feel very close to the bone for everybody. Jesse, who is a thoughtful and bright person - his attitude is that he'd rather have a balanced film that leaves people with a mix of impressions than a propaganda piece that no one believes."
The DVD is great example of how home video can be used to expand our understanding of a documentary, and deepen its story. Just a Clown is a minor 20-minute masterpiece that perversely puts you right in the mood for Capturing the Friedmans. We meet Silly Billy's competition, clowns named Marsha the Musical Moose and Professor Putter and Kosmic Ken; we meet Friedman's droll girlfriend, who admits to be jealous of Silly Billy's ex-lover, one Pinky the Clown. There's a smug parent who tells Jarecki that birthday parties are very difficult for her, "and they cause a lot of stress for the parents. I'm a licensed psychologist and I play the game as if I'm a nothing housewife."
"When we first went out and did discussions at theaters," Jarecki said, "we found ourselves doing so many Q&A sessions that we realized there were issues audiences wanted us to expand on. So we eventually came up with a list of 15 to 20 things that people wanted to know more about. When we started cutting the DVD, answering those questions became our entire focal point. And it was helpful to me from a filmmaking standpoint; doing the DVD becomes a way of getting some closure on that whole strange experience."
"This guy," Hankin says, pointing at Jarecki, "this guy has spent every waking hour thinking about these people, and I don't think it's too much - it never is when real people trust you enough to expose themselves."
Girls Gone Wild and Then Some: Of all the movies that never reached the inside of a Toledo theater last year, Catherine Hardwicke's thirteen (Fox, $27.98) is without a doubt the title that readers and friends of mine told me they yearned to see the most. The buzz on this Sundance favorite was red hot - as overheated as the film itself. It opens with unsettling business: two teenage girls sit on a bed and proceed to giggle and punch each other in the face. They're numb and bloody, stoned on fumes from a can of condensed air; we flash back to four months earlier and see fresh-faced Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), happy and smart, only moments before her descent into teenage debauchery of a distinctly un-Cosmo Girl sort.
thirteen is a crock. Not the scenario (yes, kids can get this out of hand, at this early an age), but the hysterical Reefer Madness-esque tone that virtually screams: "Fathers, lock up your daughters!" Fans of 1970s TV melodramas with Valerie Bertinelli and Linda Blair know what I mean. Tracy meets the wrong friend; then she shoplifts; next she smokes; then come the piercings, the drugs, the cutting school, the inevitable breakdown, and the long road to recovery and de-programming.
The film gives kids no credit, moves Tracy through a series of troubles too quickly to be believed, and makes its points with jittery cameras and glib rationalizations. Whatever power it holds is entirely the work of newcomer Wood, who tears into her mother (Holly Hunter) and placid life with scary intensity. The rest is standard Hollywood corruption-of-innocence stuff, delivered with a heavy hand, and one difference: the screenplay was co-written by actual 13-year old Nikki Reed (now 15) - which lends it more credibility than it deserves.
I'll tell ya, kids today, with their loud music and the crazy screenplays . . . whadayagonna do?
Girls Gone Wild Through the Looking Glass: Alice in Wonderland: The Masterpiece Edition (Disney, $29.99) gets a ton of mileage out of what was often regarded as the Pocahontas of its time - colorful but slightly stiff, especially considering the richness of its source material. Maybe Walt Disney shouldn't be faulted for not having the clairvoyance in 1951 to predict the psychedelia of the coming 1960s. Or maybe he would have much rather left the wild flights of absurdism to their rowdy low-art competition, those Looney Tunes. But watching Alice again, for the first time in many years, I'm struck by two things: it is indeed both bland, and nowhere near as inventive as the Lewis Carroll classic.
Hollywood truism No. 1,262: We tend to take the classic status of most Disney animated features for granted. We also glean from the wonderful pile of rich archival films and TV specials included on the second disc that Disney himself was apologetic about his Alice. What's odd about that timidness is that Disney was good friends with no less than surrealist Salvador Dali. They even collaborated on an animated short that was abandoned and just recently completed by director Dominique Monfrey using notes from Disney and Dali (and the blessing of Disney's brother, Roy). She screened the results at Sundance and it was everything you'd expect: Doe-eyed Disney ballerinas twirling like the tutued elephants in Fantasia, only against a canvas of melting pocket watches and cracked landscapes. Now that would have been an extra.
NEW ON VIDEO: Le Divorce (Naomi Watts looks sheepish, Kate Hudson looks radiant, and nobody looks like they're having any fun in James Ivory's precious attempt at an erudite adaptation of the Diane Johnson comedy of manners about two sisters and romance in Paris); House of the Dead (Breathtakingly dumb. Spun off the best-selling video game, this zombie flick is so lazy it just gives up periodically and shows us images of the game itself, as if to say, "We understand this movie is bad, but, hey, the game waits for you at home."); Radio (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Cuba Gooding, Jr., Cuba Gooding, Jr. - what are we going to do with you?)