Most of you have probably never heard of Alan Abel, but after seeing the film "Abel Raises Cain" I, for one, consider him a national treasure. He has spent his adult life pulling off elaborate hoaxes and exposing the laziness of the media and their penchant for sensational news. It all started with a tongue-in-cheek article advocating the immorality of unclothed animals that was meant as satire and a critique of modern censorship. After the article was taken seriously, Abel realized how much fun could be had. He created a fictional organization named SINA (Society For Indecency To Naked Animals) and appeared on countless news programs to promote his "cause" which encouraged clothing for horses, cows, dogs, cats - anything more than four inches high and six inches long. From there he had found his calling. I'll let you watch the film to learn about more of his hilarious exploits.
Alan Abel is my kind of guy. By doing what he does, he shows us all why we shouldn't take things so seriously. For him, the most important thing is humor. Through his humor there is also a lesson to be learned. He, along with his wife and frequent accomplice Jeanne, has rejected the security and money of a 9-5 career to do what he loves and what he considers fun. I highly recommend this film. You can:
Get it from Netflix HERE.
Purchase it HERE.
Watch it free with commercial interruptions HERE.
And you can visit Alan's website HERE.
I had originally heard about this film on Dr. Monkey's blog. After seeing it, I e-mailed Jenny Abel, Alan's daughter. She and her boyfriend Jeff Hockett made the film - their first documentary. I asked her if she'd answer some questions and she kindly agreed. Her answers appear in salmon:
You talked a bit in the movie about how atypical your childhood was compared to the other kids you grew up with. You didn’t have a lot of money or a big house. Your dad did these outrageous things. To me, your dad seems like a genuinely fun person who you’d want to be around. Did you feel that way growing up or were there times where you wished your family was more... well... normal? Is there a side to your dad that perhaps we didn’t see in the movie?
I don’t even know what normal is anymore. For me, crazy has always been the norm. With my parents, anything goes. I mean, they REALLY let it all hang out...literally (they used to walk around the house in their underwear all the time). The Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t even come near our property. I know, everybody thinks that their parents are ‘weird.’ Well, I challenge anybody to out-weird my dad! BUT if I had a choice, I would pick the eccentrics over normalcy any day. That’s not to say my dad didn’t embarrass me when I was growing up…like we’d be at a restaurant somewhere and if the service was too slow, he would walk right into the kitchen and start stirring whatever was cooking on the stove. That usually got the manager’s attention. Or he’d signal a waitress by standing up and waving two napkins around wildly in the air as if he were landing a plane.
The side of my dad that we didn’t elaborate on in the film is his id-oriented, impulsive, unpredictable nature, which can be both good and bad! Otherwise, I think that Jeff and I painted a pretty accurate portrait of Alan Abel with the documentary. You get to see his deadpan humor, the weird and perverted side, what he’s like when he’s angry, and the gentle lovable person that my mom and I know well.
As someone who comes from a practical joking family, we were always taught to be a good sport when the joke was on us. It just meant you had to work extra-hard to get that person back. I find it odd that there are people who actually harbor bad feelings about your dad. Does he ever take it personal? Has he ever regretted any of his hoaxes?
My dad’s hoaxes can be a little controversial. I think that the people who get angered or offended by his humor fail to look past the surface of the pranks. If they paid attention to the details and subtle hints, they would understand that what he’s doing is satire. I’m pretty dumbfounded over how some folks can get so riled up over an obviously absurd idea. In general, my dad remains pretty calm and lets things roll right off of him, even when someone is verbally attacking him in public or on TV. His life was actually threatened once, following a TV appearance he did, posing as SINA’s president. SINA (The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals) was a prank that satirized censorship by pleading with everyone to cover up their lewd horses, cats, dogs and cows, however very few people picked up on the true message. But I think that’s my dad’s ultimate goal - to stir up people’s emotions with his pranks. That’s what makes him such a unique performance artist.
I don’t think he regrets any of his hoaxes. If a prank isn’t successful or if it backfires, he just moves on to plotting the next one. Even the pranks that went wrong (like the fake Martian landing, Plastic Surgery for Pets, setting loose a Loch Ness monster, etc.) are still good stories to tell.
I’m really interested in the creative process. At what point did you first think, “Holy shit! We’re making a movie!” How did you decide to make it? What was the best part about making the movie?
The initial idea for the project was conceived back when I was at Emerson College in Boston. Two of my friends were really interested in my dad’s story and they thought it would make a great documentary. We started working together as a team and then I kind of threw a monkey wrench into the works when I moved to LA. After some soul-searching I realized that it was a project that was so personal, I had to tackle it by myself.
So I just started shooting stuff with my parents, following them around with a video camera back in 1998. By the time 2003 rolled around, I knew that I had to stop shooting and start cutting already! My boyfriend Jeff saved the day and helped me tackle post-production. I’m really lucky that he jumped onto the project. There seriously would NOT be an ‘Abel Raises Cain’ without him - I was pretty overwhelmed. Neither one of us had ever produced or directed our own movie before, but we each had some professional experience in the film and TV world - Jeff was a news photographer/editor and freelance cameraman and I was working in Hollywood as a production coordinator for a b-movie film company.
I didn’t fully grasp the enormity of the project until we were in the middle of post-production. While I had anxiety dreams about slowly sinking in a swamp filled with piles of memorabilia and old videotapes, Jeff was solid as a rock and laid down the foundation. I guess for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, my parents had a really prolific pranking career. Many of their stunts lasted for years and garnered worldwide press coverage. So their archive contains thousands of newspaper clippings, photographs, letters, scrapbooks, memorabilia, books, records, audio reels and tons of films and videotapes. Unfortunately for us, none of it was organized!
After we dug our way through all of the material and finished logging everything, we knew that we wanted the style and structure of the documentary to mimic my father’s unpredictable nature. So we decided to cut between crazy archival clips and modern personal moments to make the audience wonder where the characters end and my father’s ‘true’ persona begins. We also wanted the audience to experience my dad’s hoaxes as if they traveled backwards in time and just settled down onto the couch with a cold beer and flicked on the tube to some random channel. Obviously our mission with the movie was to document my parent’s lives and their pranks, but we also wanted to make people question what’s make-believe and what’s real…conveying a subtle message about the media - its complicity, fallibility, gullibility, hunger for sensationalism - without hitting people over the head with it.
The best part about making the film was seeing the finished work screen before an audience. It was cathartic...totally surreal...all of those years I had spent working on the movie before I had met Jeff and the years we worked together in my apartment, wondering if anyone would ever see it! And now, people keep rediscovering the movie and everyone seems to enjoy it. We didn’t make a ton of money, and we haven’t even come CLOSE to recouping our film’s budget, but the fact there’s a renewed interest in my parent’s work is pretty cool.
Had you watched many other documentaries before you made the film? Was there anything you saw that was influential? Any other personal favorites?
We became documentary junkies! Unfortunately, many of them taught us what NOT to do with our movie! I’m a pretty harsh critic. It takes a really powerful, funny, well-crafted film to move me. We were definitely influenced by Alan Berliner, especially the documentary that he did on his father, called ‘Nobody’s Business.’ We like Ross McElwee’s works, Jeff and I both really enjoyed ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ and, of course, ‘Grey Gardens,’ which is like watching a train wreck in slow motion - verite filmmaking at its best. We also watched mockumentaries like ‘Zelig’ and ‘Forgotten Silver’ for inspiration.
I always like to know what creative-types like you guys are into, like music, TV, hobbies, sports - anything besides filmmaking?
The only things on the tube that I get sucked into are old B&W movies, ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘The Office.’ In general, the TV could catch on fire and I wouldn’t shed a tear. I’d much rather listen to music. I love playing random (and sometimes corny) records that we’ve found at thrift stores. My new hobby is learning web design. I’d really like to get back into photography and music. I miss both, but it’s hard to juggle creativity and self-distributing a film. I’ve kind of been in business mode for the past 4 years.
Do you have any plans for future films, anything you’d like to do? I know there was talk of a sequel.
We are really anxious to get moving on a new project, although we don’t know what it is yet. My Dad is the one who wants us to do a sequel! Jeff and I would like to see ‘Abel Raises Cain’ take on new forms instead, such as a fictionalized version of my dad’s life story. I’m looking forward to my dad finally finishing his autobiography and my parents are actually talking about doing another film together.
One other thing I was wondering was whether you are generally more skeptical of things in general as a result of spending a lot of time with your dad/Alan? Did he ever pull any pranks on you?
I’m definitely a skeptic and a cynic as a result of growing up with my parents. I think that most of what we consume is total garbage and that the media spews out superficial crap. I don’t believe anything that I read or hear unless it’s from an alternative source like ‘The Nation’ or ‘Mother Jones’ or KPFK Pacifica Radio. With all of the political and corporate agendas mixed with non-stop ads and pop culture mania, I’m pretty put off by mainstream media in general!
Any pranks directed toward me usually involve my dad showing up somewhere and surprising me...like the 8th grade dinner dance when he arrived wearing a paper bag over his head with ‘Unknown Chaperone’ written on it. Lately, he’s been sneaking into screenings of our movie and we’ll have no idea that he’s there. At the Egyptian Theater in LA, I found him hiding in the shadows wearing a Top Hat. I guess I always have to be on guard with a prankster for a father.