Sunday, July 27, 2008

Lake of Fire Film Review - Burn, Baby, Burn! (Originally written July 28, 2008)

Lake of Fire: Review

Vanessa and I were back in our apartment in Plano, TX while we prepared to move back to CA this past week, and the only film we still had from NetFlix that we hadn't watched was Lake of Fire, Tony Kaye's two and a half hour documentary on abortion. Outside, the Dallas weather was hot and steamy, but not nearly as muggy as it can feel; however, inside we were doing our part to hurt the environment by blasting the AC. I mention this because it was pretty damn cold in our apartment, but the whole time I watched this film, I sweated. Air conditioning was useless. This, in my mind, is the epitome of a horror film, and an authentically frightening one at that. No bullshit bogeymen. Real bullshit bogeymen like Paul Hill, a religious zealot convicted of murdering a doctor who performs an abortion, and a man who believes those who simply blaspheme God by uttering a "God dammit!" should be executed. Still, while I watched with a mixture of revulsion, sadness, shame, pride, and curiosity, I barely spoke to Vanessa. It's not as if I had nothing to say during the duration. The film provides you with a surplus of material including new and archival footage, interviews with various talking heads, and the sight of two actual abortions, so if someone had nothing to say on the abortion subject after this film, they're either mute, mentally retarded, or they passed away during the viewing. I just didn't want to speak; the film's black and white imagery (a nice ironic touch considering a subject with so many shades of gray) did nothing to soften the impact of some of what was presented. Lake of Fire is a declaration of fervent topicality since Roe vs. Wade might be overturned in our near future, and the film doesn’t shy away from provocation as long as it stimulates honest dialogue and not merely bullshit rhetoric.

My perspiration and silence was due in large part to the graphic nature of some of the footage; I’m not usually squeamish, but when you are witness to a real, filmed abortion and you see clearly a miniature hand, fragments of skull, and eye, the clinical detachment of it all, a seeming indifference to what’s just essentially been vacuumed out of a woman’s body, makes for a viewing experience that literally made me shake. I don’t care what your belief system happens to be; an aborted fetus looks like a Goddamn (oops, I just blasphemed) person, and while I was not surprised this was the case, it still took my breath away and made me question my mindset with regard to this issue. If that’s not enough for you, how about a black and white photograph of a woman hunched over on all fours, clothes hanger jammed up her vagina, her blood pooled around her figure? In lesser hands, these images would be used merely for shock value or exploitation, much like the way many pro-life proponents use images of aborted babies on picket signs outside of clinics. These individuals use these pictures to manipulate or shame people, very often the women who least need their perverted judgment. Parasitic creatures, these (mostly) men would never walk a mile in a woman’s shoes, but they have the gall to prey on women during moment’s of intense emotional distress. However, director Kaye does an admirable job of using the images to merely present facts from both sides of the divide. Depending upon one’s frame of mind with regard to abortion, you might inclined to disagree, but I think Kaye did well in his selection of this grisly footage. You cannot make a film about abortion, a topic with literal and figurative blood on its hands, and attempt some artful slight of hand by refusing to show that which the film's foundation lies upon. Otherwise, it crumbles from poor construction. I will say this: Kaye has the power of his convictions.

After the film was over, I tried to gather some of my thoughts, process the various opinions and reactions, and, most importantly, be honest with myself. First, I wondered if Tony Kaye was honest with himself. Abortion is a sensitive subject, and I think Kaye is admirable to keep his perspective out of the film to a degree. Kaye never appears once, grandstanding, ala Michael Moore, and he doesn't employ voice-over stating any opinions of his own. That being said, he's not absent from the film entirely. You cannot simply separate yourself from your subject matter, especially subject matter that can be this inflammatory. Whether it be the choice of music, the editing, the choice of individuals to be interviewed and included in the finished product, Kaye's fingerprints leave a trail, and I believe he leans more towards the pro-choice side than the pro-life one.

My belief in Kaye's pro-choice leanings exist because of the emphasis and focus he puts upon the religious zealots, mostly Christian fundamentalists, who use terms like "pro-death and baby killers" to describe the other side. Let me be perfectly blunt: these people are fucking crazy. They are so blinded by their religion they refuse to accept that life doesn't exist in a vacuum, that any choice one decides upon can be valid to one person and completely horrific to another. To them, there is right and there is wrong, and only God can decide when to take a life (or, one of their many hypocrisies, fundamentalists can decide as well with weapons ranging from guns to bombs). These are the (mostly) men who abhor birth control, who view abstinence as the key, whose moral compasses are so skewed it would be laughable if they weren't so prominent and dangerous. The subtext also exists throughout their arguments that they basically believe in the subjugation of women to men; women who have abortions, they seem to believe, aren't thinking rationally. Who can protect them, save them, help them find Jesus? Men, of course! Why, who knows better than a man what goes on inside the mind of a woman?

This latent chauvinism, which borders on misogyny, is pathetic; these men simply want to dominate women in any and every way possible, while preaching protection and compassion. Perhaps most frightening of all is some preacher (I forget his name) who spews hatred at the sexualization of our nation (a rich topic in greater hands); this man somehow houses young women, shown on film, and declares his vile views right in front of them, but the camera does the most justice--these young women look absolutely dead inside, their eyes lifeless, their body language slack and weak like they've had the bones removed from their bodies. Not once do they perk up to talk when this man is discussing abortionists and how some abortionists will dangle the aborted babies over barbecues. Can't we help these girls get away from this crackpot? How did this guy get authority to take care of these women?

Also, Kaye depicts the hypocrisy that exists within these Christian institutions. The obvious one being how many of these "compassionate" people ridicule, taunt, and degrade the women they supposedly wish to help. The precarious extension to this vitriol, as these fanatics fight for the unborn child's right to live, is to murder abortionists. I'm betting these individuals have obviously never heard of Gandhi. But what about the viewpoint of the "seamless" garment" discussed by Nat Hentoff? Are these people also against the death penalty? War of any kind? Laws and legislature that could potentially lead to lives being lost because not enough money is provided to developing nations for vaccinations that would safe the lives of millions or money that could be spent to help countries have sustainable agriculture? If these individuals claim to care about life so much, why aren't they also spending so much time, energy, and money on the children who are alive, but live in less than ideal circumstances? The simple answer to that question is they aren’t doing anything.

Kaye spends a significant amount of time with these people and their exploits, and I wish he has spent more time with more moderate anti-abortionists, people like writer Nat Hentoff, who disapproves of abortion not because of God or the Bible, but morally and logically, for him, when sperm meets egg, life is created and the taking of a life is wrong, no matter if the life form exists inside or outside of the womb. Religious fundamentalism has no place to be taken seriously in a civilized, secular society. Most people will understand this, so I really wanted Kaye to focus less on their exploits and mad-dog fanaticism. However, I do see his rationale. Fundamentalists like Paul Hill, not people like Nat Hentoff, exert more influence because their vitriol and acts of violence frighten and intimidate people, and while I wish it weren’t so, they have been successful. An author rattles off some statistics regarding the staggering drop in medical programs that even offer doctors the option to learn how to perform abortions; a decrease in the number of abortions performed over the years; and a decline in clinics that provide women their constitutional right to have this procedure.

Two opposing sides frame the abortion issue: life versus choice. Watching the film, I also asked myself about the pro-choice side. For the women and men who support abortion and the right to "choose," do they also extend that belief towards other forms of choice? Drug use, for example. I know I'm heading down another rabbit hole here, but if abortion is about the right to do what one wants with one's body, shouldn't the same rationale apply towards people who use drugs (illegal or otherwise)? Addicts who become hooked on a drug/s of choice once upon a time made a decision to try that drug. Most people in today's society understand the harmful effects that result from drug abuse, but that doesn't erase the fact that those men and women originally made a conscious decision to snort/inject/etc drugs into their bodies. Shouldn't we be as respectful of that right as we are the right to women doing what they want with their bodies? Is there a point at which the concept of "choice" must be eradicated for a greater good? If so, where is that line?

However, the issue becomes murkier when you start discussing “life.” My definition might be different than yours. And since so many people might have various perspectives with regard to when life begins, how do you legislate such a thing without your own biased agenda clouding your reasoning? Most people are in agreement that when the sperm penetrates the egg, this collision results in the embryonic form of a human being. But what defines “life”? Is it the ability to think rationally? Conscience? A soul? Do children in the womb have these abilities? What about the fact the heart pumps blood through the baby’s veins like an engine? That’s mechanics, that’s not something that should be sacred. To me, what makes humans have “life” is their ability to think, reason, love, hate, etc, and do so knowingly. I’m not sure unborn children can do these things.

Still, we can take it further. Let’s say for the sake of argument we agree that “life” starts when sperm meets egg. If we allow for birth control, we’re impeding the ability for sperm to successfully meet egg. As such, we’re stopping the creation of life. Should that be considered murder? Some of the fanatics believe so; even some who aren’t so rabidly fanatical, but they are devout in their religious beliefs believe birth control to be against God’s law because you’re stopping the possibility of life. So maybe birth control should just be considered an accessory to a murder. What about abstaining from sex? Every opportunity for sex is an opportunity to create life. You are denying the chance for life. How about if a man masturbates and comes? You have now just gotten rid of that which is needed to create a human being. At the very least, I’d go for second degree: it’s not pre-ordained, but you know what you’re doing. The point is “life” is constantly being thwarted, avoided, and abandoned in one way or another. Again, where is this line drawn? Personally, I do think a clear separation exists. For me, a living, breathing human being in the belly of a woman and the theoretical concept that a human being could be created is a very large gap, and the divide creates a clear distinction between what constitutes the taking of a child’s life.

So watching Lake of Fire and viewing the abortions, seeing the dismembered fetuses, I can’t help, but view an unborn child as a human being. If we simply look at the end product of a recipe, not the ingredients, the morality of abortion is clear to me: murder. But since most of us know unwanted pregnancies consist of a series of cause and effect relationships, morality becomes a tax when in an ideal world it exists as luxury. People who fight against abortion cling to that luxury with the stubbornness of a pit bull. They want a black and white world, where right from wrong is easily distinguishable. Sometimes pragmatism supersedes morality; if abortion becomes illegal in the future, we open the floodgates again to back-alley or do-it-yourself abortions. Instead of unborn children dying, the mother and the child would end up dead from the botched abortion. Personally, I would rather have one death on my hands rather than two. I’m not saying that’s justice, I’m simply saying it is what’s most practical in matters of unwanted pregnancies. Not only that, but I think most intelligent people know abortion doesn’t just stem from a woman not wanting to have a child. It often stems from the woman not being able to have a sustainable life with that child. Because let’s be real, abortion is more than just the decision to have a child or not have a child. For many women, abortion is implicated in the greater crime of socio/economic murder. The majority of women who have abortions live difficult lives due to a number of issues: broken homes, lack of education, poor healthcare, etc. The crocodile tears shed by those individuals who oppose abortion revolt me because those very same people never seek to address the issue systemically. Their myopia blinds them to other culprits that contribute to why women seek abortions in the first place.

The last section of the film follows a woman named Stacy as she undergoes an abortion; I believe she mentions it is her fourth or fifth. I felt palpable anger towards this woman. Christ, hadn’t she ever heard of birth control? Couldn’t the dude use a condom? What the F? Four times? Five times? But Kaye follows her through the entire ordeal including a questionnaire session with a clinic worker, who asks Stacey several questions that helps to illuminate Stacey’s fragile psyche and again shines light on the unequivocal fact that many factors were at play when this woman chose to abort her pregnancies. When the film nears its’ end, the director holds his camera on Stacey post-abortion. While she discusses how she feels, seemingly strong, her resolve fractures and this poor woman began to sob. And I realized, since I was a man that I had overlooked the most obvious bias against women concerning abortion: men who oppose abortion find it so easy to criticize the women because they have it easy. We don’t need to carry through to term for nine months. We don’t need to deal with endless doctor’s visits. Our bodies don’t need to provide nutrition for two. We don’t’ have to worry about taking a leave of absence from our jobs and dealing with crazy hormone levels or anything else. It is all on the woman. So, really, who the fuck are we to tell a woman like Stacey what she can and cannot do with her body?

But enough about me. See Lake of Fire for yourself. For some, the film will be utterly worthless. Some people just refuse to bend in their beliefs. But for others, myself included, I think it’s absolutely vital that a film like this exists in today’s marketplace because it provides rich, satisfying cinematic food for thought instead of the usual fast-food shit that is shoveled into the multiplexes. Watch the film and decide for yourself.