So far, the 21st century seems to be the century of apathy. We ignore so efficiently that it takes something really dramatic for people to pay attention. A news story is no longer nearly enough, even for a really spectacular fuck-up, and for this reason I don’t blame you if you’ve never heard the story of Steve Kurtz. Kurtz, an art teacher from Buffalo, finds himself the target of an investigation into domestic terrorism when EMT personnel happen to see the harmless and legally acquired biological paraphernalia being used for an installation discussing the inherent problems with genetically modified organisms and our food. Eventually, federal agents come along to confiscate all his things, trash his home and, in an impressive display of callousness, lock his cat in the attic without food or water for three days. Oh, and the whole thing starts when he wakes one morning to find that his wife has died in her sleep. So, there’s the tale of Steve Kurtz.
Clearly, at the heart of Strange Culture, there is story worth telling. It’s refreshing that the impetus for the film is real, that this documentary/drama was made for the right reasons. Still, whatever the driving force behind Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s attack-minded take on free speech and our government’s everyday attempts at restriction, the end result is just plain clunky.
The film jumps off with a reenactment, a stilted and poorly directed take on the events prior to Kurtz’s arrest and questioning. Thomas Jay Ryan plays the awkward but passionate Kurtz, with Tilda Swinton as his wife, Hope. The performances are fine, but the presence of actors is just confusing. There’s little to be done, and Swinton in particular brings much more to the film with her name than her performance. Hershman-Leeson seems to know what she wants but hasn’t the means or ability to get there. The original soundtrack leaves each scene with a residue of “indie” on it, and not in the good way. Outside of the two faces you recognize, the performances are weak. Ultimately, it’s simply not a very well-directed film. Bridging the gap between narrative and documentary without your final product feeling at least slightly like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries is no small feat, and unfortunately for Steve Kurtz and his harrowing story, that feat remains unaccomplished here.
Eventually, the film arrives in the documentary proper and settles in. The format of a documentary is more workable for Hershman-Leeson. Though she could still benefit from a more talented filmmaker helming her script and production, she at the very least tells her story and it becomes impossible to avoid the frustrating and significant situation Kurtz has found himself in. The interviews with Kurtz are awfully endearing and if Strange Culture has a saving grace, this is it. I don’t feel sympathetic to an actor, whether playing a part or imposing his or her opinion about freedom of speech, (In a moment where the gawky assemblage becomes unavoidable, Tilda Swinton waxes philosophical on the “uber-context of the gesture of art.” A moment where one can’t help but ask, “Who cares what Tilda Swinton thinks?”) but it’s impossible not to feel sympathetic to poor Steve Kurtz.
Ultimately, Strange Culture forces us to ask some questions we’d all like to think don’t need to be asked. Questions about free speech and the freedom of the artist and most importantly, what can’t we do today that we could the day before? But this film is not effective because it’s well made, nor is it effective because of its innovation, it’s effective because it cannot not be. The story of Kurtz is just too dramatic, too important not to appreciate. And yet, Strange Culture will continue to fly under the radar and probably never find a place in the field of mainstream, notable documentary films. In a world where Michael Moore and his undeniable talent are the standard of quality for the modern documentary, Strange Culture will inevitably fall by the wayside. It just doesn’t have the polish.