Strange Culture

Strange Culture

Strange Culture is the story of college professor and artist Steve Kurtz, told in a quirky combination of documentary and docudrama.

Kurtz and his wife Hope were part of a group called the “Critical Art Ensemble,” which does performance and mixed media art shows opposing the prevailing political and corporate culture from the left, including on issues such as bioengineering, factory farming, corporate patenting of life forms, etc. For one of their shows on the latter issue, they’d obtained by mail off the Internet various samples of bacteria and such.

Then Hope died suddenly at age 45 of what turned out to be heart failure. In the investigation of her death, the various samples were discovered in the house, and the distraught Kurtz was arrested on suspicion either that he murdered her with them, or that the two of them jointly were intending to use them for bio-terrorism and she died accidentally as a result of handling them. (They evidently weren’t swayed when Kurtz frantically grabbed a piece of one of the samples and put it in his mouth to show it wasn’t poisonous.)

Pretty soon it had to be apparent even to law enforcement and the prosecution that Hope died of natural causes and the cultures weren’t toxic substances intended for terroristic use, but the case moved forward anyway.

There are at least two possible explanations why. One is that they were persecuting him for his political beliefs, for the fact that he spoke out in ways that could hurt some very powerful corporations with no shortage of connections in government to do their bidding. Another is that it’s beneficial to the careers of politicians, prosecutors, FBI agents, etc., to be seen as tough on terrorism, regardless of how ludicrously the toughness manifests itself, plus no one likes to admit they’re wrong and the person they’ve been pursuing and calling a terrorist is innocent, so once they were in deep enough, they couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t, pull back.

The movie, as I read it, wants to say it’s a case of the first, or maybe both but more of the first. My inclination is to say it’s more like 90% the second and 10% the first. That’s just a guess though. It’s evil either way, but I find the second kind of evil more plausible.

But anyway, since he’s pretty clearly innocent, they’ve had to scramble and find something else to nail him on. They eventually settled on mail fraud, on the grounds that there was something improper in how he ordered the samples. Like you’re supposed to identify what you’re going to use them for, or they’re only supposed to sell them to certain kinds of people of which he’s not one, or something—I don’t remember the details. Something ridiculous in any case. As he says in the movie, even if it were a legit allegation, it would be a civil matter, not some kind of major felony. But they still want to make it like they nabbed a terrorist, so they have to play it up to be as big a deal as possible.

It’s really pretty harrowing stuff when you think about it. I mean, the guy lost his wife, and now he’s in this criminal justice nightmare straight out of 1970s East Germany.

Not only has he spent time behind bars for no reason (he’s now out on bail as the case winds its way through the courts), but the movie notes some of the petty indignities and injustice along the way, such as trashing his place, and locking his cat in the attic for several days, where it could have died while he was in custody and unable to get home to take care of it.

You don’t think about little stuff like that usually, just about who ultimately “wins” or “loses,” like if this gets dropped eventually or he goes to court and is acquitted, then “no harm, no foul.” But there’s substantial persecution here that’s wrong, regardless of the eventual outcome. So there’s plenty of harm, and foul.

As the film progressed, I came to like Kurtz more and more. He’s an endearingly schlubby guy, not very much like I would think most people would picture some radical highbrow artist. (Nor how most people would picture a terrorist, I suppose.) He’s got a decidedly laidback style to him, almost comically incongruous with the sometimes outrageous elements of his ordeal he’s describing.

Late in the film he talks about how he’s learned a lot about himself through this process, and he’s proud of how he’s stood up to the persecution, how he’s responded to this test of his character. It’s the kind of statement that could easily come across as unappealingly egotistical, as excessively self-congratulatory, but it’s hard to react to him that way. He’s so unthreateningly personable and humble, that it comes across as utterly sincere, and for that matter true. By all appearances he’s conducted himself with courage and honor in the face of the contemptible wrongdoing of his adversaries on the prosecution side.

It’s a compelling enough, and in its way frightening enough, tale to have held my interest reasonably well the whole way. It’s probably slowest early on. Had I not read in advance where this was going, I likely would have been more bored in the early going than I was.

It’s worth saying a little bit about the odd style. Kurtz and some other relevant folks are interviewed in documentary style, but there are also scenes of some of what happened that use actors. Then there are other sequences where the actors and Kurtz and the other real people sit around and chat about the story.

So it kind of goes back and forth among different formats. Once you get a sense of that, it’s not all that confusing. And in some ways it works pretty well. It’s strangely interesting listening to Kurtz talk about himself with the actor who plays him, for instance.

In other respects it doesn’t work so well. The stilted dialogue of the actors playing Kurtz’s students as they debate whether to support him or disassociate themselves from him to avoid getting caught up in his problems is one example.

This style may have been in part an artistic decision to use an unconventional storytelling approach, but evidently it was at least in part a decision based on legal considerations. Kurtz and some of the others are quite limited in what they’re allowed to say by their lawyers, since the case is not settled yet (or wasn’t when this film was made anyway). So as a result they have to put a lot of material in the mouth of the actor playing him instead. And they have to depict certain scenes with actors rather than having Kurtz explicitly say that’s how they happened.

Indeed, they even have a disclaimer at the end stating that Kurtz does not endorse the version of events shown in this film, that this is not his statement of how it all happened. Which is surely completely false. The story is totally sympathetic to him, and he couldn’t be cozier with the folks making the film and the actor playing him. If this isn’t his version of the story then whose version is it? The disclaimer is presumably one of those legalistic fictions where people say certain untrue things just as part of the game.

The story is fairly important and worth being spread more widely, and Strange Culture’s telling of it is decent. I wouldn’t rank this one real high, but it gets a thumbs up.

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