Monday, August 18, 2008

Strange Culture

I've been waiting a long time to see the film Strange Culture, about Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble. I followed the story of his arrest, including the film, on Mercer Union's blog here, here, here, here and here. Kurtz is a professor of art at the University at Buffalo and a founding member of the CAE, whose work for the last two decades has explored the intersections between art, technology, and political activism. The projects they were working on at the time of the arrest were critical of the bio-genetic food industry, and patents on living organisms that would allow incredible food monopolies in the future.

In May 2004 (or 5/11, as it's called in the film) Kurtz awoke to discover that his wife of 27 years had died in her sleep. He called 911 and when the police arrived they discovered materials they considered suspicious and alerted the FBI, who quarantined the block and searched his home in hazardous material suits. At a time of deep mourning, he was detained for 22 hours and questioned about arabic texts, petri dishes and tin foil covered windows. He was prevented from returning to his home for a full week, during which his cat (who had been locked without food or water in the attic by the agents) nearly died as well. His wife's body was twice moved and autopsied without permission.

The Commissioner of Public Health for New York State determined that nothing in the home posed any sort of threat to public health and that Hope Kurtz had died of natural causes. Two months later a grand jury rfused to bring any "bioterrorism" charges against the artist. However, presumably to save face, he was indicted on federal criminal mail fraud and wire fraud charges. It is, as is pointed out in the film, likely the first time someone has been charged with fraud, where no party feels defrauded. A judge threw the case out last year, but the film was made while Kurtz was awaiting trial.

It's an utterly compelling story, with incredible political implications for all of us, and the film received a 94% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. But it may be the worst documentary I have ever seen. Tilda Swinton was brought in (for what looks like an afternoon of shooting, presumably as support for the artist) to play Hope, Kurtz' wife. Thomas Ryan Adams (probably the reason I hated Hal Hartley's Henry Fool so much) plays Hurtz himself in a few dramatic recreations. It's difficult to play a living (even somewhat) public figure, but even moreso when the actual person is interviewed in the film, extensively. Kurtz' lawyer had suggested that there were certain areas he should not discuss, so the filmmaker switches over to Adams for these scenes, all of which are about as believable as an after-school special.

The film would have been quite watchable if it were a straight interview with the artist. He tells some great stories including the fact that he covers his window with tin foil to help him sleep (a trick he learned from Elvis) and that the arabic writing found in his home was on an invitation card for an Atlas Group exhibition at the MASS MOCA. Best of all is the time he was approached by FBI narcs who first tried to buy drugs from him, then attempted to goad him into admitting he wanted to kill the president.

The New York Times called it, I note in the poster above, "a near perfect alignment of subject and form." This couldn't be further from the truth. The music, by the Residents, is appalling and obvious. The actors portraying the students, moralizing about our responsibility to stand up and do something, feel worse than an after-school special. They feel like the after after-school special, where the actors try to open up a dialogue with the viewers about what they've learnt. Even the choice of newscast footage was misguided - the film opens with Keith Olbermann (the left's answer to Bill O'Reilly) discussing the story on MSNBC, his voice dripping with its usual vitriol, as a kind of pre-indignation for the viewer.

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