After serving ten years in director's jail for declaring war on New Line Cinema over final cut of his debut film, American History X, Tony Kaye has been released for good behavior and gone back to his favorite subject: American extremism. His new documentary, Lake of Fire, is ostensibly a balanced look at the abortion debate in America, and two sides are certainly represented, but when you have Noam Chomsky in one corner and a snake-handling, chromosome-missing, relative-of-Leatherface type in the other corner, is that really a fair framing of the debate? Perhaps you think so, but either way, Kaye's film places such an overwhelming emphasis on abortion-clinic shooters, beady-eyed Biblical literalists and other non-negotiable types that his film ultimately comes across as pro-choice even if it's not intended to. In a film that lasts 150 minutes, there are perhaps five minutes devoted to exploring the position of, say, pro-life liberal Nat Hentoff, who lays out what I would consider a perfectly defensible argument for his beliefs. Couldn't we have had more of that?
Even though the film doesn't present the best possible argument for both sides in the debate, it also can't be denied that Kaye's natural strengths as a filmmaker -- his uncompromising eye and willingness to shock the audience -- are at full-tilt in this film. Specifically, he doesn't shy away even one iota from showing us exactly what an abortion is, what it costs everyone involved, and what is left behind after it's over. In what may be some of the most gruesome footage ever contained in a theatrically-released film, and boy am I not kidding, Kaye takes his small crew inside of abortion clinics and then points his camera (and our faces) directly into the medical waste that remains when an abortion is completed: fully-formed and dismembered hands, feet, heads, torsos, eyeballs, and all the rest of it. If you go in to see this film, know in advance that you'll have to see something that, whatever you choose to call it, is indistinguishable from a small baby cut up into pieces and floating in a pan of liquid gore.
Compared to that kind of shock to the system, the film's other pursuits, such as re-telling the story of Norma "Jane Roe" McCorvey -- specifically, her melodramatic, 180-degree conversion from pro-choice saint to pro-life activist -- come across as flaccid. Is there anyone who doesn't know that story already? The staging of the McCorvey saga and the film's decision to provide us with full biographies of a couple of abortion-doctor murderers are certainly interesting from a 'historical document' point of view, but they could have been edited significantly to reflect the passage of time. With a subject so hotly political, keeping the feel of timeliness and relevance is critically important, and that's an angle Kaye seems to be less than cognizant of. It's easy to surmise that certain segments of Lake of Fire only made the cut because Kaye spent over sixteen years filming in bits and pieces, and this is what he has to show us:an amalgam of what was most relevant at different points throughout the years. The result is often compelling, but also uneven.
A more random criticism: Kaye's camera is prone to commentary, or seems that way. At various points during the film, a religious pro-lifer who is waxing ridiculous will suddenly have the camera zoomed in so close to their face that it's practically up their nose, as if the director is squinting hard at this person. Noam Chomsky isn't forced to suffer that humiliation, and that's a telling distinction. Kaye has said in interviews that he has no personal axe to grind in the abortion debate, which is probably true, but his fascination with America's dead-enders colors his point of view and shapes it as aggressively as it would with a fiction film. There's an early scene in the film in which a clean-cut young pro-lifer stands and gives an impassioned, outdoor speech to his troops as they listen quietly. The scene, filmed in glorious 35mm black and white, is so reminiscent of Ed Norton's speech-making in American History X that you would make the association even if you didn't know the two films shared a director.
When it's obsessing over fifteen-year old, abortion-criminalizing House bills that no one, not even their advocates, thought would ever become law, or detailing the personal journeys of clinic-shooters already long-since-executed, the film is on something akin to autopilot. On the other hand, when it's showing us the realities of the subject we're discussing, it's riveting and sometimes heartbreaking. Kaye was wise enough to save his best footage for last: in a closing half-hour segment that beats everything that's come before it for sheer power, he follows a young woman called Stacey through the entire abortion process, from the beginning of her day until the day is over. He spares her no privacy and chronicles everything he possibly can inside the clinic, to the point that the one thing every audience member is sure to be feeling after watching the film, no matter what their beliefs, is exhaustion. Lake of Fire pulls no punches and reminds us that, among other things, Tony Kaye is a true artist and a cinematic talent to be reckoned with.