Right at Your Door

When Daily, starting Fri 9/7

Where Piper’s Alley, Wells at North Ave.

Strange Culture

When Daily, through Thu 8/30

Where Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton


Written and directed by Chris Gorak

With Mary McCormack, Rory Cochrane, Tony Perez, and Scotty Noyd Jr.


Written and directed by Lynn Hershman-Leeson

With Thomas Jay Ryan, Tilda Swinton, Peter Coyote, Josh Kornbluth, and Steve Kurtz

Franklin Roosevelt made a lasting contribution to the American character when he declared in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But the years since 9/11 have shown us that fear itself can be extremely dangerous. Four months after the terror attacks a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that a whopping 56 percent of Americans thought some personal freedoms would have to be sacrificed to fight terrorism. Taking them at their word, the Bush administration has used fear of terrorism to leverage such controversial activities as domestic spying, indefinite detention, and rendition of suspects to be tortured by foreign governments.

Two new independent features–one dramatic, the other documentary–show how badly fear eats away at the national psyche and how easily the government can become as threatening as any terrorist. Right at Your Door, the debut feature from writer-director Chris Gorak, imagines what might happen if terrorists detonated a series of dirty bombs across Los Angeles, releasing a lethal virus and forcing people to duct-tape themselves into their homes. It’s pretty scary stuff, but not nearly as unnerving as Lynn Hershman-Leeson’s Strange Culture, the true story of a mild-mannered conceptual artist whose purchase of harmless bacteria got him fingered by the FBI as a bioterrorist. Watching them side by side, you realize how unprepared we are for a genuine bioterror attack, partly because the feds are so willing to squander time and money prosecuting an innocuous left-wing artist.

Right at Your Door premiered in 2006 at Sundance, where it was snapped up by the canny exploitation distributor Lions Gate (Saw, Fahrenheit 9/11). But the movie’s odd release schedule–it opened in Britain last September and begins its U.S. run next month–suggests that even Lions Gate couldn’t figure out how to market something this nightmarish. The movie opens with a married couple, Brad (Rory Cochrane) and Lexi (Mary McCormack), enjoying a quiet moment together as she dresses for work. Later that morning Brad learns from an emergency news bulletin that explosions across the city have sent clouds of toxic ash into the air. Unable to reach Lexi by phone, he hops in his car to chase after her, but police block the streets, and when one driver bolts from an ash-coated car, the cops shoot him down. Back at home Brad seals the doors and windows and stares in disbelief as ash flutters from the sky, coating the house and yard. When Lexi arrives back at the house on foot, traumatized and covered in ash, Brad is too scared to let her in.

This doomsday scenario takes up the first third of the movie, after which the tension dissipates badly and the husband and wife, now separated by plastic sheeting, wait for help to arrive. Unfortunately for them, the cops’ shooting of the unarmed motorist turns out to be an accurate barometer of the government’s response to the crisis. Deputies of the LA county sheriff’s department sweep through the neighborhood in hazmat suits, handcuffing people on the streets and tossing them in the back of a van. Information is sketchy, rescue centers are overwhelmed, and the federal government’s solution to the lethal virus now loose in the city is to distribute medicine through the postal service (I feel safer already). After Lexi sets off for the nearest hospital, soldiers interrogate Brad, hang a mysterious red tag on his front porch, and disappear without a word.

Right at Your Door is just speculation, but the real-life events chronicled in Strange Culture support the argument that the federal government is more inclined to create fear than contain it. Steve Kurtz, an associate professor at SUNY Buffalo, and his wife, Hope, were both members of Critical Art Ensemble, a performance art group that focuses on issues surrounding the biotech industry. In May 2004, Hope Kurtz died in her sleep of heart failure, and when Steve summoned paramedics to the couple’s home, they took one look at the bacterial samples and scientific equipment on the premises and called in the Joint Terrorism Task Force. Law enforcement officials in hazmat suits cordoned off the house, confiscating the samples and equipment as well as computers, manuscripts, books, and Hope’s body. The bacteria was harmless, and the feds’ bioterrorism case against Kurtz quickly fell apart. Yet he and Robert Ferrell, the University of Pittsburgh genetics professor who sold him the samples, still face mail- and wire-fraud charges that could send them to prison for 20 years.

The documentary doesn’t explore those charges in depth, though the Critical Art Ensemble Defense Fund portrays them as an unprecedented attempt to redefine a simple contract discrepancy as a criminal act. Director Lynn Hershman-Leeson offers several theories as to why the case is still being prosecuted when there was no threat to public health and neither party in the transaction feels defrauded. The most obvious reason would be to save face: without a conviction the feds would have to own up to another pratfall in the war on terror. But some of those interviewed characterize the case against Kurtz, who’d been working on a project involving genetically modified food, as pure intimidation, an attempt to frighten artists or academics who question the agenda of global businesses.

At the classroom level, it certainly seems to have had an effect. Because Kurtz has been advised not to speak publicly about the case, some of the events have been dramatized, with Thomas Jay Ryan playing him, Tilda Swinton as Hope Kurtz, and Peter Coyote as Robert Ferrell. One early scene shows Kurtz in class, where he appears to be liked and admired by his students. But after he’s busted, a colleague asks the same students to sign a petition in Kurtz’s defense. Nearly all of them balk, afraid their names will wind up on an FBI watch list. The colleague tells the class, “The thing that frightens me the most is that I’m not totally shocked that most of you won’t sign this petition.” As anyone in Al Qaeda could tell you, a little terror goes a long way.

For more on movies, see our blog On Film at chicagoreader.com.