Strange Culture

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Posted November 8, 2007 in Film

On May 11, 2004, artist and professor Steve Kurtz’s 45-year-old wife Hope died of a heart attack in her sleep. It was an unexpected tragedy that needed answers—and the FBI thought they found them. Stacked up around the Kurtz home were petri dishes loaded with mail-order bacteria and a paper with Arabic writing. That both were for Steve and Hope’s upcoming gallery show with the Critical Art Ensemble (a group dedicated, ironically, to their paranoiac but now confirmed fears about the government and its collusion with the biotech industrial complex) didn’t stop the feds from accusing him of everything from murder to the possession of WMDs. Kurtz’s outlandish indictments deserve telling. But the hurdle for Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s documentary is that everyone’s tongues are still tied up by lawyers. (Kurtz has yet to go to trial for his downgraded charge of mail fraud.) Hershman-Leeson sidesteps the issue by adding in scripted reenactments of Steve and Hope (Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton) with such phony dialogue (“It’s surreal . . . I think I’m going crazy,” Steve 2.0 croaks) that they weaken her already-disorganized inquiry. And the choppy argumentation is further diluted with X-Files-style music and outrage overkill that gives as much weight to the government trashing Steve’s house with pizza boxes and locking his cat in the attic as it does their desecration of the First Amendment. A straighter documentary would have dug deep into issues of conspiracy and dissent; this is so confident that it’s right (which it is) that it aims for nothing more than hisses at The Man and incredulity at the FBI’s clumsy attempts at entrapping Steve to admitting he buys drugs and hates the president. (Amy Nicholson)


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