Monday, November 12, 2007

Diving Into Hot Water

A young black woman lies wincing on an inclined metal table. A tool that looks like a vacuum appendage or a dentist’s instrument is inserted into her pried open vagina. Liquid material is sucked up through the tool and down a hose, finding its resting place in what appears to be a coffee pot. A doctor dumps the contents of the coffee pot-like container into a metal tray and begins sorting amongst the bloody parts. He finds legs, hands, an ear, and a misshapen head complete with two fishy looking eyes. It was a baby. Or was it a fetus? Does it matter? Was it a human? Did it think? Did it feel pain? Does it have rights? Did the young black woman defy a vengeful God? These are the impossible questions asked in Tony Kaye’s brutal and unflinching “Lake of Fire”, the director’s long-awaited follow up to 1998’s “American History X.”

Produced over a span of 17 years out of Kaye’s own pocket, “Lake of Fire” is a documentary that displays in stark black and white perhaps the grayest issue in the moral spectrum. From start to finish of its 152 minutes, “Lake of Fire” is incredibly stimulating, dynamic and, most importantly, thorough. Perhaps no aspect of the abortion debate is left untouched. The documentary oscillates between interviews with pro-choice intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Alan Dershowitz to footage of conservative pro-life extremists, including convicted murderers and abortion clinic terrorists, such as Catholic fundamentalist John Salvi and former Presbyterian minister and Army of God member Paul Hill. From the gut wrenching footage of abortions being performed to the mind numbing photographs of murdered abortionists lying in pools of blood, “Lake of Fire” presents a disturbing face-to-face encounter with the true depth of the abortion issue.

One of the more interesting arguments in the film comes from Alan Dershowitz’s close friend, writer Nat Hentoff. A fervent pro-lifer, yet a member of the ACLU and a staunch liberal, Hentoff came out as an opponent of abortion in the 1980s and was alienated from his fellow writers at The Village Voice. An atheist, Hentoff argues that abortion violates the civil rights of the child, which he describes as human, since once the zygote is formed the single celled organism is on an undeniable path toward becoming a “human.” Hentoff believes that since this being is in process to becoming a human, it should be given the same rights that its eventual teleology would allow it: the right to life as granted by the Constitution. His argument is intriguing and serves as one of the lone voices on the left against abortion. It’s especially resonant considering Alan Dershowitz’s claim that when he saw his own child on a sonogram he realized that it was a human, a living person. Dershowitz clarifies his statement, however, pointing out that his defining of his own child as a person was subjective and that for someone else, this classification may be completely different, and that the state has no right to legally enforce an opinion on a certainly arguable point.

Another beautifully crafted sequence details the path taken by Norma McCorvey, also known as Roe from Roe v. Wade. McCorvey, after a long period of depression and experimentation with drugs, turned to the evangelist anti-abortion group Operation Save America, where she continues to work under the tutelage of activist Flip Benham, who baptized her in his backyard on national television in 1995. McCorvey’s sequence illustrates an irrational, but completely understandable stance on abortion, one that is informed by a new hope in life that she attributes to God and the purity she sees shining through two young girls she became acquainted with at the Operation Save America ministry. Her transformation is seemingly miraculous and is treated sincerely and without condescension by Kaye.

Editing defines a documentary more so than a fiction film and Peter Goddard’s editing throughout “Lake of Fire” is absolutely jaw dropping. Goddard, no doubt in cooperation with Kaye’s overseeing vision, manages to transform a sprawling, tangent-ridden, back and forth issue into a cohesive visual research project illuminating each argument by contrasting it with others and placing it in new contexts. The high level of the philosophical, theological, political, and sociological discourse in the film validates the incessantly shocking aspects of the film by rooting them within an academic setting that verifies their necessity. Grisly scenes that could make even Cormac McCarthy blush are portrayed with subtle sympathy and humanism, circumventing the easy path of detachment that could’ve wrecked their presentation.

Almost as impressive as the tour-de-force editing is Kaye’s unfailing success when it comes to choosing iconic, haunting images. One scene involving a group of anti-abortion activists hammering crosses into a knoll in front of the Washington Monument is impressive in its ritualism, sticking in the mind like scenes from some of Ingmar Bergman’s most devastating works. Another iconic scene depicts a liberal man’s reactions to an anti-abortion protester’s statement that everyone who says “Goddamn” should be executed, as well as all homosexuals, fornicators, and blasphemers. The stunned man’s face hangs in disbelief, a symbol for universal liberal astonishment at such oppressive authoritarian mentalities.

Most importantly, “Lake of Fire” leaves no audience member untouched or unchallenged. When leaving the theater, viewers will undoubtedly be digesting a week’s worth of intellectual, ethical, and spiritual questions that will swish and throb in heads like moral migraines, begging to be nourished by serious thought. Even if Kaye never makes another documentary, his legacy as a great documentarian will be secured by the brilliance, originality, and sheer visceral power of “Lake of Fire.”

by Brandon Colvin


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Excellent review. This film sounds harrowing, as well as fascinating.
I admire Kaye a lot, and he has been on my mind lately with some random viewings (he pops up on some of the new Kubrick bonus discs, and he also directed a memorable video for a re-release of Elvis Presley's IN THE GHETTO back in August)...AMERICAN HISTORY X is a film I have been meaning to revisit as well.
Anyway, great look at this film, which sounds like an important one. I really admire a director who attempts to present two sides to an issue in our increasingly one sided minded world...

Brandon Colvin said...


It's definitely worth a watch. I'm not sure how much longer it will be in theaters though. You should absolutely try to catch it on DVD. I anticipate it will at least get nominated for, if not win, Best Documentary at the Oscars. Thanks for the comment