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?”