The war in Iraq seems to have supplanted abortion as the hot-button issue du jour in political campaigns. Maybe that means we can finally talk about abortion without so much anger.
Or maybe it just means that director Tony Kaye’s sense of timing is off.
Kaye, who pushed his audience’s buttons with American History X, tackles the issue of abortion in America in Lake of Fire. The film is 2 1/2 hours long, but it doesn’t feel padded or slow.
When asked to define his own position, Kaye has said that he is “confused” by the issue. That could be true, because the film never speaks in an omniscient voice; there is no narrator. Instead, Kaye asks Americans of all stripes go on-camera and say what they know. Kaye covers speeches, protests, and counter-protests, and he also interviews people like Randall Terry and Alan Dershowitz one-on-one.
The most striking footage is of an actual abortion (two, actually). We see little hands, a little severed foot, and part of a little head and eyeball. It’s quite disturbing, and even for pro-choicers, it’s a visceral reminder not to take abortion lightly.
A close second is footage of various hateful and ignorant Americans who do not deserve the label “pro-life.” One of my countrymen apparently believes that blasphemy ought to be punishable by death. When someone points out that a quarterback saying “god damn” on the field after a bad play is committing blasphemy, our man says summary execution would still be a-ok. A man wearing a Catholic collar, Father Westin, tells us about the four types of pro-death people: Satan worshippers, homosexuals (?!), those paid by the baby killers, and, tautologically, the pro-death people.
The movie is presented in black and white. The footage is of varying quality. Sometimes there are gorgeous shallow-focus closeups of the interview subjects, and sometimes the footage looks like blurry home video. I suspect that in addition to the stylistic reasons for choosing black and white, Kaye uses it to give all the footage a consistent look.
That footage is so different because it was shot over the course of twenty years. The film opens on North Dakotans talking about that state’s recent ban on abortion (2006), and there is also footage from before the Clinton presidency. The movie feels most at home in the 1990s, though, and Lake of Fire would have probably been more timely a decade ago.
Fire and Water
Kaye’s film really does try to be neutral, and I suppose I’m a little disappointed — not because I wanted him to choose sides, but because the movie seems ineffectual. After twenty years and 150 minutes of finished film, you might hope for some answers. Kaye doesn’t present any research, he seems to do no checking of facts, assertions, or logic. He merely reports what others tell him in the interviews.
Newsweek made a revealing mistake about the film. In trying to convey that the film is balanced, they said that the film presented extremists on both sides of the issue. But they are wrong. There are no pro-choice extremists — not in Lake of Fire, and none that I can call to mind. What would a pro-choice extremist do, anyway? Murder activists like Randall Terry? Bomb the headquarters of Right to Life? There are people in this film who might assert that being pro-choice is an extremist position, but these are the same people willing to commit murder — and unwilling to condemn it — for their own cause.
Newsweek’s mistake might spring from a fear of the zeal and volume of the anti-abortion movement. What surprised me most in Lake of Fire is just how religiously motivated anti-abortion activists are. Those in Kaye’s film are almost universally Christian — overtly and staunchly. And they almost always link their opposition to abortion to their opposition to homosexuality. There is a valid secular argument against abortion. My mistake was believing that the anti-abortion movement was at least as secular as it was sectarian. If you only read Newsweek, you’re likely to think abortion is a debate between equals.
Maybe that’s Kaye’s greatest achievement with Lake of Fire: instead of imposing some sort of mainstream-media ideal of “balance” onto his story, he lets the sides balance each other in their own voices.
Maybe in another twenty years he can tell us what Iraq was all about.