Strange Culture (2007)

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Released 9-Jul-2008

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2007
Running Time 75:00
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Lynn Hershman-Leeson

Madman Entertainment
Starring Thomas Jay Ryan
Tilda Swinton
Peter Coyote
Josh Kornbluth
Steve Kurtz
Shoresh Alaudini
Cassie Powell
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI ? Music The Residents

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
Not 16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    On 11 May 2004 artist Steve Kurtz awoke to find that his wife of 27 years, Hope Kurtz, lay dead beside him. Little did Kurtz know that her death would be only the start of an on-going nightmare. The Kurtz's were part of an art collective that focussed on genetically modified food. They did this with live cultures and displays. Responding to the 911 call the police reacted in horror at the biological equipment in his house and promptly notified the FBI.

In a wink Kurtz was taken into custody, without charge, on suspicion of being a bio-terrorist. The body of his beloved wife was confiscated to see if she had died through biological contamination.

A week after trashing his house in search of weapons of mass destruction, Kurtz was allowed to return to clean up the mess. The Commissioner for Public Health for New York State found that none of the biological materials in his house posed any sort of public or environment health or safety threat and further determined that Hope Kurtz had died of congenital heart failure.

However, the story doesn't end there. Kurtz and a colleague, Dr Robert Ferrell, Professor of Genetics at University of Pittsburg, Graduate School of Public Health, were indicted by the grand jury on charges of federal criminal mail fraud and wire fraud. Although there was no danger in the materials the court found it arguable that purchasing them over the internet, and Ferrell supplying them directly to Kurtz, amounted to a crime.

Strange Culture is a hybrid documentary/dramatisation of the events leading up to the arrest and the prosecution of Kurtz. The title is a nice twist on the oddity of the materials in his house as well as the post 9/11 US society that assumes all too quickly that radical artists are enemies of the State. Kurtz was no terrorist. His long running work on bio-art was designed to show the dangers of, amongst other things, man-made foods including genetically modified food.

Strange Culture is delivered in its own strange fashion. As the case was on-going at the time of filming, Kurtz obeyed his legal advice that he should not talk about the critical events leading up to the death of Hope and his questioning by the FBI. Instead, writer/director/editor Lynn Hershman Leeson uses actors to play Steve and Hope. Thomas Jay Ryan plays Steve and Tilda Swinton plays Hope. Peter Coyote also appears to read a speech by Robert Ferrell. The film takes a turn for the decidedly odd when Swinton plays herself playing Hope and rings the real Steve Kurtz to find out how to play the role. This type of meta-documentary is rare and the only comparison that comes to mind is the appearance of Harvey Pekar in the film American Splendor.

As a documentary the film has its problems in that we are deprived of a sense of balance without any input from the police or the FBI. As ghastly a mistake as has happened, there must have been something in the array of petri dishes and equipment in Kurtz's house, with its windows covered with tin foil that raised the real concern. For that reason I have to add a further question to those posed on the back of the DVD case:
Is this an authorised, or even corporate-backed, attack on Freedom of Speech through the exercise of the PATRIOT Act?
Or right-wing beaurocracy gone mad in a post 911 world?

The further question should be:
Or is it an artist endangering lives with reckless use of biological pathogens?

Of course, I am being a little harsh on Steve Kurtz but it seems to me that the best documentaries don't shy away from looking warts and all at their subject.

Having Tilda Swinton involved in your project must always be an artistic coup. However she is not left with much to do in this film and the acted scenes are a little on the amateurish side. Where the film works best is when you hear from the real Steve Kurtz. He is a goofy hippy artist and it surprises me that the FBI could have kept him in questioning for 22 hours on suspicion of anything other than lacking a decent haircut!

Ultimately this is one of the more "arty" documentaries of recent times. Its points are there to be made and the issues are particularly important to understanding a post 9/11 US but I couldn't shake the feeling of what a great documentarian like Errol Morris or Alex Gibney would have done with the same material. The documentary ends with Kurtz and Ferrell still under indictment. Anyone who wants to know how it all turned out need just check out Kurtz's Wikipedia entry.

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Transfer Quality


    Strange Culture was shot on digital video. It has an original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and was transferred to 35mm film for cinematic projection.

The DVD case of this Madman release describes it as being an Anamorphic Wide Screen 16:9 aspect ratio. That is not correct. In fact, this is a non-anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer with the film being letterboxed on a black background.

Even without the lack of anamorphic treatment I suspect that this was not a cutting edge documentary from a visual stand point. It comprises talking heads, re-enactments and contemporary news footage with some cartoon panels thrown in for good measure.

All of the image on show is a little noisy and the colours are fairly flat. The image is soft although the skin tones are reasonably accurate.

Compression didn't appear to be a problem to me despite the fact that the film is put onto a single layered DVD. There are no subtitles.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The sound for Strange Culture is Dolby Digital 2.0 running at 224Kb/s.

Again, the DVD case is misleading in describing the sound track as being a Dolby digital 5.1 track.

In truth I doubt that it would have mattered much to have a more expansive sound track. The documentary is all centre channel. The dialogue is pretty clear and there are no technical problems with the track. Audio sync is fine.

In keeping with the hard art focus of the film the soundtrack is provided by legendary avant-garde art rockers, The Residents. Since the late 60's The Residents have been playing their brand of odd art rock traditionally outfitted in top hat and tails with giant eye-ball masks over their heads. Their identity remains secret after 40 years. You have to appreciate a band who produced an album called Not Available which was designed never to be released as an application of the "theory of obscurity"!

The score here by The Residents is in fact intermittent and consists mainly of creepy ambient bleeps and burbles which is actually quite a good background to the subject matter and style of film itself.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Theatrical Trailer 2.20

There is only one extra on the DVD which is the theatrical trailer. It provides a pretty good summary of the documentary.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

  The film has been released in Region 1 on DVD in an edition that includes a series of extras including additional interviews with Hershman-Leeson and Steve Kurtz, 7 minutes of outtakes, a filmmaker's statement and biography, and a brief "where are they now" update (still not up to date).

Anyone who really likes the film should perhaps pick up the Region 1 version which is also non anamorphic.


   Strange Culture is perhaps a warning that the price of liberty can sometimes be too high - if artist like Kurtz are seized upon and charged over their work.

The DVD is a little disappointing in its non-anamorphic treatment and entry level sound but these are not really key issues for a film of this type.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Trevor Darge (read my bio)
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer BDP-LX70A Blu-ray Player, using HDMI output
DisplayPioneer PDP-5000EX. This display device has not been calibrated. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 1080p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR605
SpeakersJBL 5.1 Surround and Subwoofer

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