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Abel Raises Cain

Abel Raises Cain
Crashcourse Documentaries
2005 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 82 min. / available at / 25.00
Starring Alan Abel, Jeanne Abel
Cinematography Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett
Original Music Alan Abel
Produced by Jenny Abel
Written, Directed and Edited by Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Everybody and their dog Spot is now an independent documentary maker, but the rules haven't changed. One either needs to be a brilliant stylistic innovator like D.A. Pennebaker or Frederick Wiseman, or have a killer subject to exploit. The Iraq war may have to step aside, because Abel Raises Cain has the subject of the decade, a world-champion 'hoaxer' who has been fearlessly plying his odd trade for over fifty years.

Thoroughly researched and hilariously illustrated, Alan Abel's life is almost beyond belief. Lasting only one day as a salesman, Abel found that when he wrote things intended to be outrageous satire, readers more often than not took them at face value. Discovering that newspapers were desperate for space-filling stories of interest, Abel began pulling off whopper hoaxes, both to comment on society and to embarrass a media too lazy to properly check its sources. Aided and abetted by his wife Jeanne, Abel started SINA, a full-on mock society dedicated to the proposition that naked animals are indecent, and need to be clothed. SINA was covered in hundreds of news stories. Abel appeared on television talk shows with drawings of animals with pants on, etc. Abel Raises Cain illustrates this with dozens of photos and news clippings. Abel enlisted young actor Buck Henry to be a spokesman for the non-existent society. Chapters of SINA appeared spontaneously. The SINA hoax worked all the way to the top -- even the CBS Evening News fell victim to Abel's jest.

Abel kept his hoaxes a non-profit activity; if he asked for money or accepted donations his schemes would probably be legally actionable. He instead chose to become quietly notorious, fooling people to point up society's hypocrisy and prudery, and to demonstrate that people shouldn't believe something just because they see it on TV or read it in their newspapers.

Abel Raises Cain broadens with coverage of more hoaxes, large and small. Possessed with an ability to maintain a convincing, sober sincerity no matter what nonsense he is saying, Abel appears on radio and TV, often in disguise, as a proponent of insane or irrational causes. He proves time and again that a well chosen lie given the right presentation will be swallowed by almost anyone. Journalists taken in by Abel agree that hungry media outlets are easy prey for convincing, amusing news bites.

Abel tailors and times his ploys perfectly, and is the master of the fake news conference and convincing talk show appearance. At one elaborate news conference, Abel had the country on tenterhooks waiting for him to play a tape recording of what was supposed to be the missing 18 minutes of Nixon tapes! He and Jeanne promoted a "Yetta Bronstein for President" campaign in which Jeanne appeared on radio shows using an accent (a really good one) to pretend that she was the indomitable Yetta. Her motto: "Vote Yetta, watch things get better!" Abel Raises Cain documents Abel's longer-term hoaxes, like the "Omar's School for Beggars" ploy where a disguised Abel taught the unemployed how to work the streets. Outraged New Yorkers overrun by panhandlers never doubted the hoax. Another somewhat less palatable project promoted the idea of banning all breastfeeding because it encouraged incestuous feelings between mothers and children. Abel introduced that one at the Republican National Convention, a point lost amid the furious response from those who didn't get the (rather thin) joke.

Abel Raises Cain includes video tape highlights of many of Abel's best moments. He appears on shows hosted by Tom Snyder, Morton Downey Jr., Mike Douglas and others. He famously pulled off a disruptive stunt on Phil Donahue's show. Audience members approached by Phil fainted on cue -- several in a row. Fearing some kind of health problem, Donahue had the studio cleared! The docu also includes a couple of clips where hosts or guests see through Abel's disguise, or called his bluff.

Just about the only piece of Abel Raises Cain that's not constructive is when Abel and an actor / co-conspirator appeared as husband and wife on 'confrontation' talk shows openly pretending to have a salacious difference of opinion which develops into a studio audience participation shout-fest, etc.. When such fake nonsense became the norm on daytime TV, their appearances were rendered irrelevant. The questionable part is Abel's doubtful claim that his antics touched off the phenomenon. I hope not, as the saving grace of his hoaxes are their essential harmlessness.

The show touches only briefly on a pair of movies made by Alan and Jeanne Abel in the 1970s, Is There Sex After Death? and The Faking of the President. Alan caught the filmmaking bug from appearing in his friend Robert Downey Sr.'s Putney Swope in 1969. The docu does contain some profanity and brief nudity in this sequence.

Abel Raises Cain is completely professional and well constructed. Producer Jenny Abel is Alan's daughter, and her voiceover puts a personal touch on the proceedings. We're shown a young Jenny being used only once in one of her father's scams: she refuses to cooperate in eating a hair sandwich. (Don't ask.) She describes having a hard time grasping what her father did for a living, illustrated by some delightful stills of father and daughter together. Early on we see Alan Abel becoming an award-winning professional drum musician, tiring of that to turn his drumming into a comedy act, and tiring of that as well. Abel's eccentricity extended to his desire to cater to his daughter's needs: he had a railroad caboose installed in his Connecticut yard to serve as Jenny's playhouse! Visiting Jenny in California, Alan plays his drum on Hollywood Blvd.

Abel Raises Cain isn't the story of a strange extrovert; Alan Abel was a conceptual performance artist before the term was coined. As the package copy explains, his hoaxes and schemes "were designed to provoke and amuse ... while at the same time, make people question everything that they see, hear and read." Today's media is so packed with non-news, fake reality and twisted politics that Abel's shenanigans seem wholly benign. The docu pulls its own bit of trickery by documenting the death of Alan Abel on a ski slope in Utah -- only to reveal that Abel's 'premature demise' was one of his own hoaxes. This guy is just fearless. Mark Twain would have been amused, Clifford Irving shamed and Orson Welles impressed!

Crashcourse Documentaries' self-distributed DVD Abel Raises Cain is a professional production in a quality DVD presentation. Hundreds of images appear in well-organized graphic montages. Abel's media hi-jinks are documented on good-looking news video, or rescued from adequate home tapings.

The disk includes a friendly commentary with the not-quite retired Abels and the filmmakers Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett. Bonus scenes include longer video documentation of some of Abel's hoaxes, including his elaborate Howard Hughes hoax.

The biggest extra is a featurette-docu also by Jenny Abel of her father's carefully orchestrated 'Powerball Hoax', in which an Abel confederate shows up at a diner in Omaha to buy everyone lunch, announcing that he's just won a huge lottery prize. Within an hour the actor is surrounded by reporters and calls are coming in inviting him to appear on Good Morning, America. This stunt seems a bit shady, though, in that it was bankrolled by Joe Vitale, an author seeking to promote a book. It does make us wonder if any of the other stunts had more of a profit motive than is disclosed. In any case, seeing Abel's actor pull off such a beautiful con is better than anything in The Sting or 100 nauseating 'reality' shows.

The disc is available from the Abel Raises Caine website. Neoflix is their fulfillment house and web orders are said to be processed through a secure server.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Abel Raises Cain rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent / Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, longer hoax clips, docu on 'Powerball Hoax.'
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 15, 2008 (Alan, have you paid your taxes?)

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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