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At the Movies: Ain’t That Peculiar?: The Life of Alan Abel ****

Long before Sacha Baron Cohen made a bundle of cash playing Borat, another hoaxer was fooling the media and public with his various identities and outlandish claims.  That man was Alan Abel, media prankster extraordinaire, and now his daughter, Jenny Abel, has made a loving bio of her father called Abel Raises Cain.  The doc has been kicking around since 2005, when it won a few film festival awards, and now will be screened alongside Abel’s hilarious mocumentary Is There Sex After Death? for the Documental series at the UnUrban Coffeehouse (3301 Pico Boulevard) on March 10.

Abel Raises Cain is a fascinating look at Abel through the questioning lens of his daughter Jenny.  The subject of the documentary, therefore, could be interpreted to be Jenny, who uses voiceover, film clips, interviews, and family photos to make sense of her father’s odd history and life.  She remembers her father was on TV sometimes but never as himself.  She remembers he wore masks and hoods occasionally.  She also remembers him as a kind and devoted father, a role that seemed to contradict his obsession with putting one over on the American public time and time again.

While the film is interesting in that way, it is also a revealing examination of the ever-popular tabloid media and the need for outlandish stories and sources to put on the news or in newspapers.  Abel played the media repeatedly simply by knowing them better than they knew themselves.  He knew that you had to have something controversial and that it didn’t hurt to have it be about sex, and certainly sticking a pretty actress as the subject would make the networks eager to put her face on TV.

Abel’s hoaxes ranged from a movement to force animals to cover their private parts, to a protest against women breast-feeding.  He also created a fake lottery winner, a Jewish grandmother running for president, and a man who claimed that eating human hair was a great source of protein.  No matter what it was, Abel never ran out of suckers who took the bait.

The documentary, though, also looks at Abel’s life these days.  He and his wife are elderly, mostly broke, and living on the fringe of society.  These aren’t people who exploited others for wealth; they are people who did something for every reason except money. 

The documentary is especially relevant given the way our news organizations operate.  Perhaps they have caught on to Abel, and thus you don’t see him on CNN or NBC as you might have back in the 70s or 80s – but in a way we need him now more than ever if, for no other reason, to give us pause that what the news media is telling us may not be the absolute truth.  

Playing alongside Abel Raises Cain is Is There Sex After Death, which follows Dr. Rogers (Abel), chief resident psychiatrist at the Bureau of Sexological Investigation, as he investigates and explores sexual mores in America.  The film received an “X” rating when it was released, which automatically made it a must-see film back in 1971.  Audiences today will recognize the satire and might see a foreshadowing of Borat and other comedians who get laughs by playing real people talking about taboo subject matter. 

One of these days Abel will get his proper due.  Until then, his daughter is spreading the word her own way before the rest of the world catches on in hopes of setting the record straight and keeping his memory alive.

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