The title of Tony Kaye’s epic abortion documentary Lake of Fire is first seen-upside down, in a credits sequence heavy on close-ups of burning candles. It’s the first of many filmmaking choices that seem affected, but which ultimately reflect the film’s interest in the relationship between images and rhetoric, its awe of moral fervor, and most of all, its openness to conflicting interpretations.
If you supported abortion rights before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, it probably seemed as though the world was upside-down; contemporary foes of abortion rights feel the same way today. One side wants to prevent a reversal of secular humanist progress; the other wants to reverse a decision they believe caused untold spiritual harm. On a simpler level, the title is a harbinger of the director’s mission: to suss out your sympathies and flip them.
Lake of Fire is far from a perfect movie. Like Kaye’s first feature, the 1998 skinhead drama American History X, it hails from the Oliver Stone/Spike Lee school of epic anti-Americana. Kaye, who shot the picture over 16 years and financed it himself, borrows glossy, borderline hysterical, at times coercive techniques from music videos, campaign ads and Hollywood blockbusters, and applies them to a film that’s framed as a search for truth. The strategy worked sporadically in American History X; that movie had sort of a graphic novel dialectic, pouring on choral music, blunt sex, graphic violence and sensuous slow-motion, and cutting between its hero’s past as a racist gang leader (filmed in black-and-white) and his present-tense struggle (in living color) to distance himself from beliefs and events that had become a source of shame.
A similar aesthetic proves more effective here—perversely so, because Kaye doesn’t tamp down his grandiose tendencies. Lake of Fire looks and moves like a cross between a D.A. Pennebaker documentary and a Nike ad, and it really shouldn’t work at all. Anne Dudley’s religioso score; Kaye’s graphically striking, at times borderline impressionistic compositions and cuts; the frank footage of abortions, aborted and eviscerated fetuses, self-inflicted abortion casualties, and crime photos of abortion providers gunned down by pro-life fanatics: all these elements should combine to produce a muddled, exploitive and punishing experience. But they don’t. Why?
It might be Kaye’s choice to shoot the movie on black-and-white 35mm film and desaturated video. Monochrome doesn’t just neutralize the rationality-shattering effect of red blood, as Manohla Dargis has noted. Its sheer novelty briefly shocks us out of our preconceptions and nudges us into a more receptive mental state that we’d permit if the film were in color. More importantly, it ensures that every person, location and event reads not as “reality,” but as a representation of reality. Black-and-white foregrounds the film’s unifying theme: the transformation of life into ideology.
The monochrome would be mere a gimmick were Kaye not committed to covering as many aspects of the topic as he can—with all the messiness that ambition implies. Lake of Fire is bracketed by pitilessly graphic accounts of abortion. Their placement vindicates Kaye’s claim that he wants to see abortion through many different sets of eyes, and his conviction that the truth changes when viewed through another lens. During the first procedure, the woman’s face is never seen. She’s a human suitcase. The close-ups of the doctor dumping the fetus’ remains into a pan, rinsing them clean, and picking though them like giblets, bolsters the pro-life camp’s belief that abortion is murder, a sin against God and man, an atrocity on par with slavery. The chill from this sequence resurfaces in scenes where Kaye interviews leaders of the pro-life movement (including Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who proclaims, “Intolerance is a beautiful thing”) and profiles some of the men who assassinated abortion providers. (By coincidence, Kaye interviewed one of the gunmen back in the early ’90s at courthouses and picket lines; the killer had publicly proclaimed that because abortion was the ultimate evil, any evil one committed in the name of eradicating it was permissible by God.)
The film’s second abortion turns our perspective around. It follows a woman named Stacey from her decision to have an abortion through the interview at the clinic and on through the procedure and its aftermath. When Kaye speaks with her afterward, she breaks down on camera. But because we’ve gotten to know her, warts and all—she’s a survivor of abuse and drug problems who has had four other abortions—the sequence vindicates supporters of abortion rights. Her tears put the lie to such constructions as “abortion on demand,” implying that no woman takes this decision lightly. Stacey knows she has no business bringing a child into the world, but the decision still traumatizes her, because by ending the pregnancy, she’s ending one possible future. Because the sequence is told from Stacey’s point-of-view, it reorients the film; it makes us consider the physical and emotional well-being of the mother and think of the fetus as, at best, a potential life.
Lake of Fire is less a statement than an unfinished journey toward enlightenment—a work of political art engaged in violent Socratic dialogue with itself. If you’re of two minds on the subject—as many Americans are—Kaye’s bifurcated perspective is a blessed relief. The film encourages any pro-life leanings one might have to rise up: Who knows when life begins? Who are you to assume it begins after the first trimester? Even if you don’t believe in God or hell, why risk being complicit with a great wrong? Then it pushes you in the other direction: Women will have abortions anyway. What about a woman’s safety and power of self-determination? Why turn back the clock? To support the anti-abortion movement is to condone the vilification and persecution of women, and assist the enemies of reason. Throughout the movie’s two hour and thirty-two minute running time, you can’t help noticing that most of the film’s staunch anti-abortion figureheads are men, while most of its pro-choice advocates are women. The schism reminded me of my dad’s observation that the pro-life movement is headed by men because men are terrified of a woman’s ability to bring new life into the world, a life comprised of one-half male DNA. Abortion therefore represents a repudiation of the father’s essence: a veto power that chills men to the marrow.
Kaye interviews Alan Dershowitz, who expresses absolute support of abortion rights; he also interviews Dershowitz’s friend Nat Hentoff, a liberal, atheist Village Voice columnist who opposes abortion, and who reveals that when Dershowitz saw a sonogram of his pregnant wife’s womb, he referred to its contents as “my son.” Some interviews assert that entrenched Supreme Court precedents are rarely overturned and that the religious right has alienated mainstream America with blatant power-grabs and tacit endorsement of domestic terrorism. Then Kaye gives liberals the willies by listing the legal victories won by the other side, and pointing out the overlap between the anti-abortion movement and the gun-stockpiling, survivalist, racist underground. Kaye believes the abortion battle exposes America’s basic conceptual fault lines. We are a white, Christian nation founded by religious refugees that has moved toward religious and ethnic diversity and a system based on rational, utilitarian thought. On some level, to ask, “Should abortion be legal?” is to ask, “Do we live in a democracy or a theocracy?”
Kaye also gives screen time to kooks, including off-the-grid survivalist types, a homophobic, woman-hating priest and an all-female goth-punk band whose topless lead singer masturbates on stage. I understand why some might feel these people are sideshow grotesques, but their presence, however disquieting, deepens Lake of Fire. This subject doesn’t just obsess well-groomed pundits who know how to talk on camera.
The prismatic nature of Kaye’s topic is embodied by Norma McCorvey, a.k.a. Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade. She’s now an evangelical Christian and an ally of the anti-abortion rights movement. Sixteen years ago, when I was a reporter for Dallas Observer, I interviewed her about her experience. She had only recently embraced her historical pseudonym and the beliefs she helped transform into law; she was an abortion rights activist, a clinic worker and an enemy of Dallas-based anti-abortion protestor Flip Benham. In 1994, while touring to promote a book about her life, McCorvey was confronted by Benham after a signing, became friends with him, fell in with his circle and changed her views. I wouldn’t be surprised if, ten years from now, her world turned upside-down again.