My brother and I loved The Amazing Johnathan growing up. The stand-up comedian/magician specialized in oddball sleight of hand and strange props, and we’d often imitate the bit where he sticks a straw into his ear, pulls it out his mouth, sticks the straw up his nose, pulls it out of his mouth, etc. Magic seemed fun and doable, and presented in a mode that wasn’t so formal. In that regard, he was a bit like Penn and Teller, but much angrier, totally high on cocaine, and intentionally shoddy. That last quality—the gimmick of a haggard magician slumming it on the road—was probably the most endearing aspect of the act.
But then The Amazing Johnathan disappeared. He was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and given just a year to live, effectively ending his career.
Three years later and miraculously still alive, The Amazing Johnathan agreed to have director Ben Berman come shoot a documentary about him. That’s where the film starts, though Ben learns that there is another documentary being shot about The Amazing Johnathan at the same time. It’s the first of many acts of misdirection, confusion, and misunderstanding chronicled in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, which eventually becomes more about Berman and the making of the film than The Amazing Johnathan himself.
The Amazing Johnathan Documentary
Director: Ben Berman
Release Date: August 16, 2019 (limited/Hulu)
I feel like saying too much about what happens in The Amazing Johnathan Documentary would give away all of the film’s mortifying surprises. Rather than a straightforward portrait of Johnathan (real name John Szeles), it feels like a portrait of what it’s like to live with and deal with him, which isn’t always pleasant. When the on-stage charm is turned off, John is a complicated addict.
In the past John was a cokehead, now he does meth like it’s multivitamins. He lashes out at people close to him, particularly his wife who grimaces through his outbursts and dutifully hands him a bag of drugs when needed. Other times John becomes maudlin over his mortality and the inability to perform like he did in his prime. He keeps putting down Berman and his film by mentioning the credentials of the other documentary crew. There is an ugly, gleeful passive-aggressiveness about these insults, as if Johnathan is saying, “Hey, Ben, you’re not as good as these other guys. I merely tolerate your camera’s presence. Why are you even here?”
Never meet your heroes—or at least never make a film about them.
While it’s not anywhere near as sinister or conspiratorial, the tone of The Amazing Johnathan Documentary sometimes reminded of David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled. That film starts as a quirky documentary about competitive tickling and then becomes something else that’s much darker. Again, this film is nowhere near as sinister, yet Berman’s own neuroses pervade the film, perhaps unavoidably. The project seemed so straightforward—chronicle the life of a beloved stand-up comic of the 80s and 90s—and has now become a confrontation with major personal issues surrounding self-doubt and death.
Berman trudges on making his movie even though he doesn’t seem to know why. He even brings his dad and stepmom into the film as interview subjects, asking them for advice about what’s happening. In their first appearance on screen, all I could think of is a kid asking their parents how they should deal with a bully at school. Berman cuts to his father asking him, bluntly, confrontationally, what his film is about and what the story of this documentary is exactly. Similarly, I often found myself squinting (and laughing in bewilderment) at The Amazing Johnathan Documentary while mouthing “Why are you doing this?” or “Where are you going with this, man?”
While not always apparent, documentaries can sometimes be as much about the documentarian as they are about the subject matter. This is to varying degrees. The machinery is usually kept hidden from view; like a sleight-of-hand magician palming a coin, a director draws the viewer’s attention to some particular detail in front of the camera. Yet some documentaries can show what the magician is up to, and do so artfully. Orson Welles’ F for Fake is one of the most well-known examples of this, and more recently Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson have shown the potential of documentaries operating as deeply personal cinematic essays as much about the subject matter and the creative process. The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is not as artfully crafted as those examples, which perhaps reflects Berman’s growing uncertainty about completing a film that has gotten way from him. It is earnest, however, and that counts for something even with all the unsightly seams.
The documentary’s shape might be a bit like the trajectory of a boomerang: we go from Johnathan’s comeback shows to Berman’s own hangups and then back around to Johnathan. It can be frustrating (even a little unsatisfying) but that is by design. I may be a bit charitable with this clunky structure since it might have been done out of necessity. How well can a documentary filmmaker really know their subject? There are secrets the camera doesn’t catch. Access to a documentary subject is not the same thing as a genuine relationship. These two people are not friends in real life, so there’s a necessary distance between them, and a reticence from Johnathan to be completely real in front of Berman. Berman, similarly, questions the veracity of so many true things he’s told; the closer he gets to the real John, Berman senses that he doesn’t really know more than Johnathan allows him to know.
We’re left with a film that while imperfectly formed at least tries to consider the awkward simulation of intimacy between a documentarian and the documentary subject. “Subject” is a key word in this relationship. Rather than being a passive object examined, acted upon, and framed for the sake of a tidy non-fiction film narrative, the person on camera is autonomous, complicated, and unwilling to be summed up so easily.
When not berating Berman for his filmmaking, John suggests Berman is waiting for the death of The Amazing Johnathan to make a perfect ending for his film. It’s a cutting insult, but it’s honest—a documentary subject refusing, while they are still breathing, to be rendered a mere object. The Amazing Johnathan might specialize in prop comedy and illusion on stage, but it seems like the John Szeles we see in this documentary is attempting some form of escapology. He’s evaded death for years, and now he’s trying to avoid the reductive narrative impositions of another person who is in some ways exploiting a dying man on film.