Abel's target is not the general public specifically, but rather a point somewhere between the public and the media where lines of believability, responsibility and truth, are confused and always shifting.
Abel Raises CainDirector: Jeff Hockett
Cast: Alan Abel, Jeanne Abel, Jenny Abel
Distributor: Abel Raises Caine / Netflix
MPAA rating: Unrated
Display Artist: Jenny Abel, Jeff Hockett
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2008
Abel Raises Caine can be purchased at Abel Raises Cain.com
It's not well remembered now, but back in the late 1950s, America was threatened by a vast scourge of immorality that festered in the heart of this good nation. Hiding in plain sight because of its ubiquity, this sub-rosa plague of indecency presaged the worst excesses of the Sexual Revolution by a decade: cavorting in the nude; epidemic promiscuity; libertinism; copulating in public – all the symptoms were there. And these outrages were just harbingers of worse to come, unless the tide was turned.
Fortunately, desperate times give rise to great men and great deeds. One day in 1959, concerned upright citizen Alan Abel happened to find himself stalled in traffic. Upon discovering the cause of the hold up, and seeing the same look of disgust and moral outrage on his face reflected in those of his fellow motorists, he decided enough was enough. He went home and founded SINA, a grass roots organization formed to wipe out this filth once and for all.
Now, SINA is an acronym for the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and the two parties that so offended Abel were an ox and a cow fornicating in the middle of the road. Abel was struck with the horrifying revelation that throughout the country, hundreds of thousands of animals were all going about completely in the nude and having public sex with impunity. This was a problem absolutely no one was addressing -- thus the desperate need for SINA, because, as everyone knows, a "nude horse is a rude horse".
Abel sent articles out to Time magazine and major national newspapers, outlining his program to clothe all animals for the sake of general morality and decency. Rather than being dismissed as patently ridiculous, members of the media went wild with the story (why wouldn't they?), and his idea started to gain traction and support to the point where local chapters of the organization were springing up spontaneously all across the country.
Abel and his cohorts appeared on major TV programs of the day to proselytize for their cause, and even got the attention of First Lady Jackie Kennedy. By the time it all petered out in 1963, SINA had become a national phenomenon.
I wrote "petered out", but I probably should have written "by the time the whistle was blown". Because, of course, the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, cooked up by Abel as a satirical commentary on the ridiculous moral priggishness of the day and the censorship that went hand-in-hand with it.
While most levelheaded folks simply dismissed SINA as outright lunacy (the hints to its satirical nature lie in the prepositions between the capitalized letters), an equal number eagerly fell under the spell of Abel's own mock moral outrage, seeing in this campaign against animal nudity an extension of the moral mania to ban books, music, movies, etc. And the truly brilliant thing? Even after Abel had come clean, even after Time revealed the whole thing to be a ruse, people were still forming their own SINA chapters – the idea had taken that much root.
Thus began the colorful career of Alan Abel, professional hoaxer and scourge to the media for the last 50 years. As portrayed lovingly here by his daughter Jenny in her documentary Abel Raises Cain, Abel comes across as an avuncular, mostly level headed, if somewhat impish, eccentric, fighting the good fight in a war against gullibility and junk news.
His pranks, which he likes to call "allegorical satire", have never been done with malicious intent, or with any idea of fiduciary gain, but rather, much like the SINA campaign, have been carefully designed both to amuse and to provoke critical thinking about the media. His target has never been the general public, but rather a point somewhere between the public and the media where lines of believability, responsibility and truth, are confused and always shifting.
As much as I'd love to go into Abel's work in detail, a mere catalog of his legion of pranks would probably not do them justice, and would probably also detract from the surprise and enjoyment of the film itself. But general patterns do emerge among them, as the film progresses. Abel's singular genius lay in his impeccable timing and delivery. He always knew exactly when and where the media would be most vulnerable -- slow news days, weekends, during a dearth of sexy stories. This was when he'd pounce, with pranks that were, to be sure, outrageous, but just believable enough to be taken as truth.
The key, as Abel says, was always to have a good back story and a welter of details to so overwhelm the media with excess verbiage that they would never bother to check the facts. He marvels, reminiscing back over his pranks, about how easy it was to sell anything to anyone, even with minimal funding and props, so long as he kept a straight face at all times.
And here Abel's talent in his ability to lose himself in the assumed roles that he took to populate his pranks shone brightest. Whether playing an unctuous moral maniac, or a self-serious self-proclaimed scientific expert, or a motor mouthed huckster (the latter typified by the character Omar the Beggar, who became notorious in New York City during the '70s for purportedly offering classes in professional panhandling), Abel was able to lose himself completely in his character. He would never break, never cave in to the prodding of suspicious media, and they generally bought it hook, line, and sinker. Other times, when his notoriousness had him on watch lists at all the papers and TV stations, he would have actor friends pulling off the pranks, but his signature touch was always evident.
Abel's heyday stretched from the '60s, beginning with SINA and then the "Yetta For President" campaign (Yetta being a fictitious Jewish housewife Abel concocted and got on the ballot for two national elections) through to the '80s, climaxing with Abel's staging of his own death (which he proudly points out is the only time the New York Times retracted an obituary) and a brilliant lottery hoax. The '70s in particular were a fertile time for him, when TV and print media seemed especially ripe for the picking. The papers and TV were always desperate for a ludicrous story, it seemed, and they were not nearly as rigid and "professional" as news reporting would become.
As the media became more serious, though, so did Abel's hoaxes, commenting more and more on social and political issues (see especially the bogus wedding of Idi Amin, who Abel had marrying a WASP girl from Long Island to be able to stay in America, a commentary on the State Department's shady dealings with the exiled warlord).
During the '80s, Abel turned his sights on daytime television talk shows which were becoming more and more outrageous, and almost siphoning off the tricks of Abel's trade. He would find ways to get himself on them, posing as ridiculously over the top offensive characters, but it was almost like he was giving the shows exactly what they wanted.
At what point did critical commentary slide into mere complicity? Abel's stints on these shows dwindled, and these days he's back working in his true métier, concocting bogus outrageous campaigns. Indeed, the present day of the film centers around Abel's SINA-esque organization Citizens Against Breastfeeding, which took a late '90s debate about public breast feeding to its extreme by stumping to ban breastfeeding altogether. The outrage it evoked was no less poignant for being entirely predictable.
If Jenny Abel's film feels a bit slight (at a brief 80 minutes, it's lamentably short, if economical) and maybe even a little vague on certain things (though there are a few hints, the exact financial wherewithal of Abel, and how he gets funding, is never divulged), it is still a rather brilliant portrayal of a true American original who probably hasn't gotten his due, and may never (which is probably fine by him, since he operates best in anonymity).
The tenor and tone of the film is light hearted and playful throughout, complemented by a jaunty score (composed and performed by Abel himself), and comes across often as more of a family portrait than as a straight up documentary, giving the film an extra level of intimacy and emotional depth it otherwise would not have had.
But if there is anything beyond the portrait of the man and his work, it's a somewhat sinister message which Jenny Abel points out towards the close of the film. Abel's key message, for those who would listen, is to provoke critical thinking in the mass public, to get people not to accept what they read and see in papers and on TV at face value, but always to question the source and the story. Abel himself, and what he is doing, is harmless (mostly), but what is coming down the pike in the future might not be, and might actually threaten us in ways we can't yet fathom (WMDs anyone?).
It might have been interesting if the film had gone into this point a bit further, but I doubt it would have been much fun, and as Abel says at the end of the film, that's really what he, and his hoaxes, have been about all along -- a great game, a great performance, a great life spent celebrating life’s absurdities and amusements.
After spending the past couple years tirelessly touring the festival circuit, Abel Raises Cain finally arrives on DVD with a handful of worthy and worthwhile extras. The commentary track is very much a family affair, featuring Abel, his wife and oft co-conspirator, daughter and director Jenny, and her co-director and boyfriend Jeff Hockett. It is rambling and tangential, mostly due to Abel wandering far afield from the film itself, recounting personal anecdotes and episodes of family history. Though often insular and incidental to the film itself, the Abels are so inviting and fun in their banter and bickering, that it adds an extra layer of intimacy to the film. A few deleted and/or elongated scenes add some more details to Abel’s various hoaxes which probably would’ve slotted just fine into the film itself.
The prize of the DVD extra, though, is a short 20-minute feature on one of Abel’s latest hoaxes, which he sprung after production of the film finished. Returning to familiar territory, Abel set up a phony winner of the much ballyhooed 2006’s $365 million Powerball lottery (the largest in US history), having an actor show up at a diner near where the winning ticket was sold, treating everyone to dinner, throwing money around, and then waiting for the news trucks to roll in (which they did, of course, as they were all camped out down the street).
Better than any instance in the main film, this short shows Abel at work and in action, cooking up his plot -- the steps he takes, where he gets his funding, and then orchestrating the whole thing. We get to see it “live” as it were, as it’s happening, and it’s fascinating thing to see just how easily the media falls for it, and the story snowballs as legitimate news with just the flimsiest of evidence on the “winner’s” part (a blurry photocopy of the winning ticket, in this case). It’s brilliant stuff, and if it’s any indication, Abel still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve for years to come.