Doc of the Day: Abel Raises Cain Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Abel Raises Cain

Posted in Days of Docs by - July 07, 2012

Alan Abel made a living out of fooling the media. Learn more about this master clown.

Dir. Jenny Abel & Jeff Hockett, 2005, 82 min

Alan Abel is many things. He started the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, and agitated for animals to wear clothes. He ran a series of classes to teach ordinary people how to panhandle. He directed a mondo film called Is There Sex After Death?, featuring Robert Downey Sr. (Yes, Iron Man’s father). He backed a Jewish housewife’s campaign for President, three elections in a row. He has protested against the practice of breast feeding, claiming that it leads to deviancy. He died of a heart attack in 1979.

Some of those things are true. Others are truthy. Still others are not at all true. I’ll leave it up to you to discover which are which, because I wouldn’t want to ruin your fun. Abel Raises Cain is about one man’s fifty-year campaign of hucksterism against the media. Alan Abel wasn’t interested in a 9-5 job of any sort; he made a living out of concocting situations that were completely absurd, and yet seemed real enough to catch the attention of the evening news. He’s a gonzo social critic of the screwiest order, Abbie Hoffman and The Yes Men rolled into one.

For such a colorful life, Abel is a surprisingly sedate personality. This film, co-directed by his daughter, Jenny, shows him as a mostly sane, reserved man. He’s like The Joker wearing Batman’s façade. That staid appearance conceals a keen ironic wit that can zero in on relevant social issues with unerring accuracy. He created Omar, the beggar teacher, in response to the rising rates of unemployment in the 1970’s. He started SINA as a parody of the moral crusaders of the 1950’s. And Abel was dedicated to his craft. People very, very rarely understood that anything was a joke. There were many retractions from newspapers and TV shows, but people kept falling for his stunts.

This doc is equal parts memoir and biography. This is Abel’s life, but as filtered through Jenny Able’s memories. For every memorable incident, there’s what happened, and then there’s what she remembers of it. We don’t always see the personal impact that famous personalities’s lives have on their loved ones. The Abels were often nearly destitute, barely scraping by on what Alan was able to make. He could have channeled his many talents into something that would have earned him easy money, but he was and still is devoted to stretching people’s brains.

The saddest thing is that it’s actually gotten easier for Abel to do what he does the more time has gone by. One godsend for Abel was the advent of the talk show. He created all kinds of fake freaks to trot out for audiences, a way to critique their vapid obsession with stupid diversions even as he indulged said obsession. Paradoxically, it became increasingly difficult to pull off a quality prank, since the real subjects of those shows became so extreme that the bar for insanity kept rising.

Today, although mostly retired, Abel primarily works as a fake protestor for his old anti-breast feeding crusade. I’d love to see what he could pull off if he had a proper grasp of the possibilities afforded by the Internet. The world could use more people like him, since the news itself has become almost a straight joke these days. Yeah, there are a few comics who do a great job of skewering the media, but I’m not aware of any truly underground, punk-dangerous people who are genuinely raising rabbles (although if there are, please let me know). Abel Raises Cain is a sweet little biography of a man and his unusual work, and it will make you want to scrounge up old news stories to check out his stuff.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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