×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Abel Raises Cain

Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett's docu about world-class hoaxer Alan Abel applies a disappointingly soft touch to the no-holds-barred satirist. More a love letter from daughter Jenny to her father than a worthy portrait of Abel's caustic, media-savvy and mind-bending social comedy, pic will nevertheless gain a boost into upscale fest and theatrical play from winning the top Slamdance docu prize.

With:
With: Alan Abel, Jeanne Abel, Lee Chirillo, Frank Murgalo, Paul Hiatt, Lou Colasuonno, Bill Boggs, Phil Reisman.

Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett’s docu about world-class hoaxer Alan Abel applies a disappointingly soft touch to the no-holds-barred satirist. More a love letter from daughter Jenny to her father than a worthy portrait of Abel’s caustic, media-savvy and mind-bending social comedy, pic will nevertheless gain a boost into upscale fest and theatrical play from winning the top Slamdance docu prize.

Before explaining who Abel is to auds too young to recall his widely publicized “naked animals” hoax or his 1971 X-rated mock-docu, “Is There Sex After Death?”, “Abel raises Cain” starts by revealing how Abel and wife Jeanne — now in their senior years — are so financially adrift they’ve had to sell their house and live in a neighbor’s basement. Jenny, whose ubiquitous voiceover commentary has diminishing returns, puzzles over how the daddy who gave her so much adoring attention could also be a man who spent most of his time hoodwinking people with elaborate stunts.

Abel’s bio is quickly sketched in, from his growing up Jewish in rural Ohio to setting off on a jazz drumming career (including a stint with Glenn Miller) that suddenly ended for reasons never explained here. Instead, Abel parlayed his drum chops into a stand-up act that spoofed professorial pomp and stuffy attitudes to music. These 1950s routines appear to have set the Abel style of using deadpan for satirical effect.

Abel also found that his taste for Swiftian satire was taken literally by Americans, which led to his mock-campaign in the early ’60s to stop animal nudity. Pic details this astonishing piece of hoax-meets-performance art so that it’s easy for clueless viewers to glean what Abel is getting at.

With cameras in tow, Jenny and Hockett are also able to get inside the thinking behind her father’s more recent “campaign” to stop breast-feeding in public. But explaining Abel’s intent to spoof Puritanical attitudes deadens its comic impact.

Docu avoids questioning how effective Abel’s hoaxes have been, seeing as they often do little more than anger the progressive (if literal-minded and humorless) folks he’s actually in agreement with. Those who helped Abel with his acts on shock-chat shows (such as “The Morton Downey Show”) admit that once TV producers were on to his stunts, they simply hired actors, effectively putting Abel out of the TV business.

Still, Abel’s more successful stunts fooled the press, particularly local evening news. The filmmakers cull some terrific clips of reporters seriously covering such hoaxes as an Iranian arms dealer admitting his role in the Iran-Contra scandal; the U.S. marriage of exiled African dictator Idi Amin; and, most famously, Abel running a how-to school for street begging. Such stunts show that Abel’s skill for creating colorful characters and attention-grabbing storylines fed the media’s unending hunger for oddball reports.

But the pic’s archival research is inconsistent: Interviews with Abel’s collaborators don’t include Buck Henry, who worked with Abel for more than a decade, including serving as co-writer on “Is There Sex After Death?”

Popular on Variety

Abel Raises Cain

Production: A Crashcourse Documentaries presentation. Produced by Jenny Abel. Directed, written, edited by Jenny Abel, Jeff Hockett.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Abel, Hockett; music, Alan Abel; sound, Abel, Hockett. Reviewed on videocassette at Slamdance Film Festival, Jan. 28, 2005. Running time: 82 MIN.

With: With: Alan Abel, Jeanne Abel, Lee Chirillo, Frank Murgalo, Paul Hiatt, Lou Colasuonno, Bill Boggs, Phil Reisman.

More Film

  • David Goodman

    WGA West's David Goodman on Agency Strategy: 'We'll Start Meeting as Soon as Possible'

    David Goodman, who was resoundingly re-elected president of the Writers Guild of America West on Monday, said the guild plans to meet with several talent agencies soon in an effort to ease the impasse over packaging fees and affiliated production. “Many agencies had indicated that they wanted to wait to see the results of the [...]

  • Australian Outback

    Legend Media Seeks Trio of West Australia-China Co-Productions (EXCLUSIVE)

    Perth, Australia-based production company Legend Media is preparing a slate of three feature films to be produced with partners in China. The company styles itself as one that recognizes the opportunities for Asian engagement that have fallen to Australia, through geography, trade and culture. The company aims to make use of the bilateral film co-production [...]

  • David Goodman

    David Goodman Re-Elected President of Writers Guild of America West

    David Goodman has been convincingly re-elected to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America West, beating Phyllis Nagy in a bitter contest that became a referendum on the guild’s ongoing battle with talent agents. Goodman received 4,395 votes to Nagy’s 1,282 in an election that yielded record turnout among the WGA [...]

  • Issa Rae Portrait

    Issa Rae Developing Re-Imagining of Crime Thriller 'Set It Off'

    “Insecure” star and co-creator Issa Rae is in early development on a re-imagining of New Line’s crime thriller “Set If Off,” which starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. Rae will produce with plans to star in the project. Syreeta Singleton and Nina Gloster have been hired to pen the script. [...]

  • Thomas Golubic8th Annual Guild of Music

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

  • Gay Chorus Deep South

    Film News Roundup: Documentary 'Gay Chorus Deep South' Bought for Awards Season Release

    In today’s film news roundup, the documentaries “Gay Chorus Deep South” and “Tread” find homes, Tobin Bell’s latest horror film completes production and Emilio Insolera joins “355.” ACQUISITIONS MTV Documentary Films has acquired “Gay Chorus Deep South” for release during the fall for awards season consideration. Directed by David Charles Rodrigues, the film world premiered [...]

  • Bad Education

    What 'Bad Education' Taught Us About the Slow Toronto Film Festival Market

    “Bad Education,” a dramedy starring Hugh Jackman as the embezzling superintendent of district of schools in Long Island, N.Y., was set to be this year’s “I, Tonya.” The movie has the same biting tone, shifting between comedy and tragedy. It received strong reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival. And like “I, Tonya,” it even [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content