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Burn, Baby, Burn: An Essay on Lake of Fire

An addendum to Episode 334.

On April 5th, 2011, I sponsored a screening of the film Lake of Fire on the Winona State University campus. Directed by Tony Kaye, Lake of Fire is a documentary on the abortion debate. Shot in black and white, Lake of Fire caricatures the discourse on abortion through interviews with academics, health professionals, and activists on both sides of the issue. But the significance of this film is not just in its attempt to present the complex issue of abortion in a single film; its greatest and most frightening insights are in the documentary’s transcendence of that debate.

Lake of Fire is the second film I have publicly screened on behalf of Sounds of Cinema, my weekly radio program on 89.5 KQAL FM (the first being Cannibal Holocaust, which I defended here) and I hope to continue to do these screenings once a semester. When I’ve selected a film I’ve generally looked for three things. First, I look for films that are cinematically interesting. Lake of Fire is a technically impressive film; the black and white cinematography appears as shades of gray on the screen and suggests the moral ambiguity of the subject. The skilful editing cross cuts footage of protests and narratives of women accessing abortion services with expository speakers providing arguments and counterarguments. This packs each section of the film with theoretical commentary while the real life events play out.

Second, I’ve tried to pick films that are off the beaten path, rather than rehashing pictures that potential viewers have already seen or have easy access to. Although Lake of Fire was released in 2007 to mostly positive reviews and even made several major critics’ top ten lists, it never received¬† wide enough distribution to break into the mainstream national consciousness, perhaps because more immediate issues like the deteriorating economy and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq held the audience’s attention.

Lastly, I look for films that are challenging. Much of the media we are presented with appeals to the lowest common denominator. Films that break through the malaise of formulas and remakes need to be recognized and even celebrated, even if they are problematic or flawed. At 152 minutes, Lake of Fire may be overlong but critics will be hard pressed to make a case that it is boring or that any scene is without merit. And the subject matter is certainly worth the time; Lake of Fire uses its considerable length to broadly address a topic that Americans have literally killed each other over. But the most extraordinary feature of the film, and in my estimation the key element that makes Lake of Fire distinct and important, is that the film, while ostensibly addressing abortion, is really about what we talk about when we talk about abortion.

Before screening Lake of Fire at Winona State I introduced the film to the audience and read a short excerpt from The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements by Eric Hoffer. He writes, “The true believer is everywhere on the march, and both by converting and antagonizing he is shaping the world in his own image.” This quote could well play as an epigraph to Lake of Fire as it encapsulates the underlying theme of the film. It also answers one of the main criticisms of the film: that it focuses on the extremists, particularly on the anti-abortion side of the debate.

It may be true that most people who hold opinions about abortion one way or the other (which accounts for the majority of Americans) are not violent nor do they approve of violence toward those who hold opposing viewpoints. But the loudest voices have been those who have declared the abortion debate a holy war and their battle cries drown out the rational or moderate voices. In that respect, the extremists are setting the tone. Because the moderate voices cannot get a word in, they are like a television program that no one watches or a blog that no one reads. This source may have the best material or the most accurate information but if no one receives it, then it may as well not exist at all. Perception is reality and the extremists, by dominating the discussion, are in the process of reshaping reality, for themselves and for the rest of us, to fit this holy war perspective.

This creates a conundrum for evaluating Lake of Fire. The film intends to provide a caricature of the abortion discourse, so naturally a bulk of screen time is devoted to violent radicals. But by giving less screen time to the moderate anti-abortion opinions of law professor Douglass Kmiec or writer Nat Hentoff and more time to hysterics like Randall Terry and Paul Hill, the film reinforces the authority with which they represent the anti-abortion side of the issue. It is a troubling cycle but it is excusable or at least understandable because Lake of Fire’s role as a journalistic piece is to capture a panoramic snap shot of the debate rather than intervene in it.

Lake of Fire also suggests something amiss about the pro-abortion side of the debate. Most of the pro-abortion speakers come across as rational and calm and speak from seated positions with academic props like books and chalkboards behind them. These images of calmness and rationality contrast with the visceral sights and sounds of the abortion clinic in which the remains of aborted fetuses are shown. While reactions to this footage may be dismissed as entirely pathos-baiting, in the context of the film this footage occurs alongside admissions of ignorance by the pro-abortion advocates, such as Alan Dershowitz who claims that he saw his own unborn child as a person but did not see someone else’s fetus as possessing the same personhood. This is consistent with the general absence of a definitive answer from the pro-abortion advocates, who consistently admit that they don’t know when life begins or what the moral or legal status of a fetus is or ought to be. That creates a vacuum in the marketplace of ideas in which the anti-abortion campaign presents moral absolutism against the relativism (or nihilism) of the pro-abortion argument. In the panoramic view that Lake of Fire offers, a cynic could describe the debate as waged between insane religionists who claim certainty and rational academics who do not claim to know anything. Neither side is particularly comforting.

And this is where Lake of Fire is most penetrating. As the film exposes the subtext of the abortion debate, it reveals that the dispute is not really about abortion at all. Rather, abortion is a symbolic issue for something that runs deeper. While many of the film’s anti-abortion advocates discuss returning to the Bible and renewing or reestablishing Christianity’s place in society, they also talk of abolishing social programs that that would protect the lives of the living. As Noam Chomsky and Nat Hentoff argue, an anti-abortion argument made on the basis of protecting the sanctity of human life cannot be taken seriously if it exists independently of concerns for other immediate threats to human life such as war, capital punishment, poverty, and starvation. The rejoinder to this hypocritical stance is the apparent intellectual impotence of the liberal academic establishment; the best retort it can muster is a “lesser of two evil” argument, ignoring that the lesser of two evils is not necessarily good. (What exactly constitutes good or evil and whether they actually exist is another matter, too broad for this essay.)

What this demonstrates is the superficial philosophical and intellectual fortitude of our culture. Americans, as they are presented in Lake of Fire, want answers to their questions about abortion and about life. But they also want those answers to be simple, preferably etched in stone and issued from on high. In lieu of a holy order, we might accept a reasoned and rational answer that can fit on a bumper sticker. But as bioethicist Peter Singer observes, the philosophical discussion with the public has not gotten very far because it requires us to reevaluate our entire conception of the value of human life and why we believe killing, for whatever reason, is or is not morally justified. That would require a reevaluation of our entire identity as Americans. That is just too scary, too far-reaching, and too abstract to behold. But without this kind of fundamental revision, we are doomed to a philosophical limbo in which the same arguments for and against abortion will continue to be made with no progress toward a resolution.

At the opening of the film, anti-abortion advocate John Burt explains that the lake of fire is a pit of everlasting torture in which the souls of the damned roast in agony for eternity. For him this is not a metaphor or a parable. It is a real place that he is certain exists and he has cast his lot with those who are determined to ascend to the light while others fall into the flames. But what people such as Burt cannot see is that the light is often confused with the fire and in their march toward heaven the righteous often create hell on earth. This is what the film Lake of Fire captures. Hell is the abortion debate and we seem resolved to burn in it for the foreseeable future.  

*A note about terminology: For simplicity I have decided to use the terms “anti-abortion” or “pro-abortion” rather than pro-choice, anti-choice, pro-life, or anti-life as the former labels most clearly enunciate one’s position on the issue at hand.

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