I shot the video tape so I wouldn't
I remember when David Friedman told me that, how strangely familiar it sounded. When I had first interviewed David, the eldest son in the Friedman family and New York's most celebrated birthday party clown, he had given me a big box of old 8 millimeter home movies taken by his father and grandfather. He told me how much his father loved filming the family during all their happiest moments.
But it wasn't until months later that he finally told me that in addition to all those hours of family memories captured on film, there was also a box of movies he had not shared with me. In these images, shot with a handheld video camera, David recorded the events that took place in his family after the police showed up to arrest his father and youngest brother, charging them with the most awful crimes imaginable.
When I began the difficult and fascinating process of watching David's video chronicle of the disintegration of his family, and he explained to me the reasons why he had videotaped some of the most traumatic events of his life, I found myself oddly reminded of my grandfather Max, a man about whom I never knew very much.
My grandfather's house by the sea was full of narrow hallways and small rooms, each with a television set. One time when I was about eight, I remember going from room to room counting the TV sets (I came up with fourteen, including the one stuck in the little pass-through window between the kitchen and the den, on a swivel so he could see it from either side). In his refrigerator was a large plastic Tupperware container filled with batteries of various sizes. There were double D batteries for his movie camera. There were C's for his tape recorders. Double A's for his little handheld dictating machine. And there were lots of weird-shaped tiny ones for his various cameras. He had literally hundreds of cameras, of every size and shape. Movie cameras and still cameras; Leicas and Hasselblads and Minoltas. Partly out of a fear that someone might break into his house, and partly out of his conviction that his visiting grandchildren would destroy the delicate machinery, he kept the closet locked with a special key. The key came in two pieces. One he carried with him and the other he kept in a hiding place in the house. The only way to open the closet was to fit the two pieces of the key together, forming a single key, and insert it in the lock.
Because he mostly spoke German, and also because where we lived in New York was a long drive from his home in Asbury Park, I always felt at a distance from him. Certainly my clearest memory of him is the way he would raise a camera to his eye at every family event or special moment, to capture it for later reference. It seemed almost as if he couldn't absorb the moment—one of us being born, or learning to walk, or later building sandcastles on the beach near his house by the sea—without putting the glass of a camera lens between him and the event itself. Even as a child, I wondered if he were in some way embarrassed by or fearful of the reality in front of him; if he were somehow shielding himself from the intimacy of an emotional or unique moment in his life. It was as if it were too much for him.
What I did know about my grandfather's history is as follows: that he had grown up in Germany, eventually ascending through the army as an officer and later becoming a celebrated physician; that he had with great charm courted my grandmother (an immensely charismatic woman who counted among her accomplishments success in driving early-model racing cars); that they remained married only for a little over a year, during which she gave birth to my uncle and became pregnant with my father; that he was an excellent saber swordsman, who had half his nose cut off in a duel at the University of Heidelberg (though the missing half was never found, it was surgically replaced with a piece of his cheek, which led to his lifelong habit of shaving his nose with an electric razor); that he was enormously proud of his German heritage; and that eventually he was devastated to learn that despite his military distinction, the Nazis would treat him as an enemy in his own country.
How he ended up in Asbury Park, New Jersey is something of a mystery to me, and it appeared to be one to him too. He never seemed particularly comfortable there, and it never seemed to be his home. Perhaps he was never able to find a home after leaving his first one.
I remember watching my two younger brothers playing at the pool one summer day at our house while he was visiting. In that moment they were perhaps at their most beautiful ever. Innocent and perfectly wrapped up in the hysterical laughter of the afternoon swim. There was something magical about that moment that has kept it etched in my mind. When I looked over at my grandfather to see if he too was enjoying that moment, there he was, movie camera poised at one eye resting on his slightly crooked nose, the other eye in a determined squint to keep the sun from entering. I wondered why he couldn't watch that moment unfold in its way. I wondered why he had to see it through the lens of his camera. I wondered why that image of his American grandsons, in all their color and beauty, so far in every way from the world he had known, seemed too close for him to bear. Why he would restage it all in black and white to view at a later time when it could be reduced to a memory.
It's hard to know just what it was that made my grandfather record everything, and he is no longer in a position to tell me. It may be equally hard for someone to know today why David Friedman used his camera to witness the destruction of his family. And over the past three years I have often wondered what it was about me that made me so certain that I had to capture it.
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