Abel Raises Cain is an adoring look at the life and work of professional media prankster Alan Abel by his daughter Jenny Abel. Although Jenny's mother Jeanne is also prominently featured, and Jenny's boyfriend Jeff Hocket shares filmmaking credit, this is really a testament of love from a daughter to her father, and an effort for Jenny to come to grips with personal ambivalence over her parents' life choices.
Jenny Abel's narration begins with this question that she hopes to answer: when others of lesser talent are spending their retirement in leisurely comfort, what series of life choices led her own parents to spend their golden years in rented accommodations with no savings?
Jenny Abel begins with her father's childhood growing up Jewish in a small predominately-Christian Ohio town. Alan Abel took up the drums early, showed potential and appeared bent on making a career of it. He parleyed his talent and drive into ever growing success in high school and college, and finally into a spot on the Glenn Miller Band. However, for reasons not explored in the documentary, Abel having achieved success quickly, abruptly changed course and pursued comedy doing a one-man show built around the drums which satirized rigid American musical sensibilities.
Again, Abel achieved some degree of success, and again without satisfactory explanation, he quit to head off in a new direction. This is an important junction, but it's too quickly glossed over. As narrator, Jenny Abel states that her father wasn't cut out for a traditional office job, and she recounts a few missteps in that direction. Fair enough, but when she then muses that he would have done well to become a comedy writer for a television show, but unfortunately he just didn't know how to go about making it happen, she's too quick to pass along this story (no doubt received wisdom from her father) unexamined.
Alan Abel, as we'll come to see, is a man capable of repeatedly manipulating the media wholesale, and yet we're to accept that he just didn't know how to turn his considerable talent into a financially rewarding career that would also suit his sensibilities? There's a deeper story here that's going unexamined.
So having dropped out of careers as a musician and then as a stand-up comic, in 1959 Abel undertook a gag that would consume much of the next five years of his life and would guide the direction of the rest of his career. He launched SINA (Society for the Indecency to Naked Animals) whose purported aim was to pass laws requiring animals longer than six inches to wear pants. SINA's motto was "A nude horse is a rude horse." Despite the oddly-worded organizational name, the silly slogan, and the preposterous raison d'etre of the fantastical organization, numerous newspapers, magazines, and radio and television programs reported the story as fact. Alan hired comedian Buck Henry to play SINA President G. Clifford Prout, and together they appeared on numerous programs including The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and The CBS Evening News. Despite the supposed leadership of the organization that could not have withstood the slightest bit of fact checking and the implausibility of the entire campaign, the media continued to be duped by SINA until Time magazine finally exposed the hoax in 1963.
Abel's aim with SINA was clear enough, to amuse himself and anybody else sensible enough to understand that it was a political critique of moralists who fretted over the effect of popular culture on delicate sensibilities. What is unclear, and which the filmmakers fail to adequately explore, is why Abel put so much of himself into this hoax. How could he devote five years of his life to it in lieu of pursuing paid work, and why after finally being exposed by Time magazine did he not parley the exposure into some kind of financially-rewarding career? Surely, the response provided by Jenny Abel earlier that it was because her father didn't have the connections was no longer true. Alan Abel's friend and fellow SINA prankster Buck Henry went on to a financially and apparently personally rewarding career as a famed satirical writer, actor, and director.
Numerous successful hoaxes followed. Alan Abel enlisted his wife Jeanne to play Yetta Bronstein, Jewish grandmother from the Bronx running for president. Even though the only proof of Yetta's existence was a few pictures of Alan's deceased mother, the press followed the story for four years. Dozens more hoaxes followed including a euthanasia cruise, a KKK orchestra, an international competitive sex bowl, and a school for beggars that was repeatedly reported as truth, then revealed to be a hoax, only to be reported as truth again by another media outlet. In all, the school for beggars hoax continued to dupe media outlets for 14 years.
Abel's hoaxes altered the face of television. To lampoon the trivial subject matter of daytime television talk shows Alan Abel often appeared in disguise to promote absurd causes and advance outlandish schemes. Though he did it to point out the idiocy of his dupes, it drove the ratings higher and demonstrated that audiences prefer the ridiculous to the thoughtful. By pointing the way to higher ratings through ridiculous content, Abel inadvertently is as responsible as anyone for the slate of salacious and silly talk show programming on daytime television today.
Though Jenny Abel and Jeff Hocket do a great job with presenting the hoaxes through archival materials, and they capture a degree of intimacy that would not be possible if the documentary were made by anyone else, Abel Raises Cain is ultimately only partially satisfying for a number of reasons which I'll sum up under two themes: first, the filmmakers fail to penetrate the surface of Alan Abel's persona and in so doing accept the glib answers provided by him to the questions of how he and Jeanne ended up where they did in life; second, they fail to adequately explore the implications of Alan Abel's impact on American media. It's clear that American media is different than it was in 1959, and it's likely that Alan Abel is more responsible than most for that change. Jenny Abel and Jeff Hocket provide us with some of the ways in which Alan Abel contributed to that change, but they fail to consider the nature of those changes, and in so doing leave the larger meaning of Alan Abel's life work in doubt.
Abel Raises Cain is composed of archival materials of various qualities and newly-shot color digital video (1.33:1 aspect ratio). Given the limitations of the archival materials, and the nature of the low-budget work, the image is fully satisfactory.
The 2.0 stereo audio sounds good. Dialogue is clear and the added score makes good use of both channels. Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are accurate, and well paced and placed.
The DVD includes a number of noteworthy extras including a behind the scenes look at a recent Powerball Lottery hoax (16 min.), archival footage of hoaxes from 1969-1971 (18 min.), three bonus scenes (8 min.), and a feature-length audio commentary with Alan, Jeanne and Jenny Abel, and Jeff Hocket.
There was a time in the United States, not so very long ago, when the general public trusted the media implicitly. If it was printed in a newspaper or magazine, or was reported on television it was assumed to be true because it was assumed that the media had fact checked the story. That was before the American media bought off on claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Iraq's involvement in 9-11, and it was before reporters Stephen Glass, Janet Cooke, and Jayson Blair passed complete fictions off as fact as staff writers for The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times respectively. Media prankster Alan Abel is certainly responsible for both providing a warning of, and contributing to, the state of American media. We may still trust the media too much and too often, but, thanks to Alan Abel, at least we can no longer say we weren't warned.
Though filmmakers Jenny Abel and Jeff Hocket fail to penetrate the surface of Alan Abel's persona, and leave the larger implications of his life's work unexplored, Abel Raises Cain is recommended as a welcomed portrait of a fascinating figure.