The pioneering San Francisco video artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman has made the most flat-out accessible work of her career with the Kafkaesque documentary Strange Culture. “Accessible” is often criticspeak for “sellout,” but not in this case. For one thing, the relentlessly intellectually probing Hershman is frankly incapable of serving up lollipops for the mainstream. But she realized that the urgency of her subject — the Federal government’s chilling prosecution/persecution of respected East Coast artist/professor Steve Kurtz — made it imperative that Strange Culture be seen by as many people as possible. That the film succeeds as both an iconoclastic piece of art and as compelling drama, is rather amazing.

Hershman’s previous films, Conceiving Ada and Teknolust, both starring Tilda Swinton, were visionary but emotionally remote tales of human beings grappling with the possibilities and limitations of futuristic technology. Strange Culture has an immeasurably warmer center, in the persons of Steve and Hope Kurtz, the 40-something cofounders of the widely respected Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). Conceptual artists with a solid grounding in science — or to put it another way, academicians with the ability to hit people where they lived — the Ensemble infused its writings and shows with extraordinary rigor.

In 2004, the Kurtzes were researching and assembling an installation for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art that exposed and questioned biotechnology’s pervasive influence on food production. Steve’s nightmare began when he awoke one morning and found Hope dead. In shock, he called 911. One would expect with the death of a comparatively young woman that the paramedics would be alert to any hints of homicide; one would not anticipate, even in post-9/11 America, that the sight of Petri dishes and scientific equipment would send famously blasé EMT boys into a haz-mat panic. The FBI were summoned, and they quickly sealed off the house and bagged and seized all kinds of materials.

Steve Kurtz was indicted on various charges by an amped-up DA who refused to see reason even after Kurtz’s credentials (his day job is associate professor of art at SUNY/Buffalo) and CAE activities were made public. Strange Culture makes a powerful argument that the case has very little to do with broken laws or public safety, but is part of the coordinated attack on free speech and civil liberties that the Bush Administration has carried out over the last six years.

Steve Kurtz’s saga may sound reasonably straightforward, albeit horrifically nightmarish, but Hershman was constrained in how to tell it on film. Because the case is still crawling through the courts, Kurtz is prevented from speaking about various aspects. Hope is not here, of course, and the only relevant extant footage is the simplistic news coverage broadcast by local stations.

Hershman solved her dilemma by casting Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool in Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool) to play Hope and Steve. She staged recreations of conversations and scenes, and intercut them with the news footage and interviews with the real Steve. In a nod to postmodernist self-reflexism and a wink at her audience, Hershman even includes a joint interview with Kurtz and Ryan (out of character).

Swinton’s legion of local fans will lap up the softest, most casual performance she’s given since The Deep End in 2001. (The brittle lawyer she plays in the George Clooney vehicle, Michael Clayton, is the latest example of directors tapping into her aloof jitteriness.) Ryan’s unshowy acting takes a bit longer to work on us, mostly because we have the real Kurtz right there to compare him to. But Ryan evokes a commitment and humanity that allows us to believe that a couple of his students would be inspired to takes a gutsy stand against the clampdown.

As is the norm with documentaries, Strange Culture (which had its local premiere at the S.F. International Film Festival) will attract moviegoers with its content rather than its form. The average filmgoer will simply appreciate that Hershman’s technique doesn’t obscure the story. But those with a taste for experimentation, and a shared appreciation for an artist’s refusal to surrender to the conventional, will get substantial pleasure from watching Hershman challenge herself.

Strange Culture plays Sept. 21-28, 2007 at the Roxie New College Film Center.

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