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Review: The Amazing Johnathan

James Hudson reviews The Amazing Johnathan, a meta documentary that borders on being noxiously smug

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Image Credit: Hulu

Director: Ben Berman
Starring: The Amazing Johnathan, Eric André, Benjamin Berman
Rating: 15

With the promotional tagline ‘magic, meth, and mayhem’, the documentary The Amazing Johnathan, faceless fad marketers had won the race for my attention – and money – how could I resist the promise of the triple M hit, all in one film! The first M, magic; The Amazing Johnathan, a magician; subject of the documentary. Successfully hitting an artery of mainstream success during the 90s and 00s,  lingering on the late-night tv talk shows and the Las Vegas Casinos like a magical fart, Jonathan, whose name is John Edward Szeles and is now 61, has done well for himself and is living in a big house with a big pool with his wife, Anastasia Synn, and seems to be a big name in America. Unfortunately, in 2014, in front of a live crowd, Johnathan announced he had a year to live, subsequently retiring from performing to live out his days in the hedonia of a celebrity magician. Miraculously still alive four years later, Johnathan has plans to get back into the limelight and perform again.

The second M, Meth; Johnathan has a notorious drug habit, and as we find out through the documentary through some lay psychoanalysis, he associates his drug habit with his success. Stopping, in some Freudian late-capitalism voodoo-spell way, would bring the rickety card-fiddler to his knees, and maybe even his death. The final M, Mayhem; the documentary. The documentary itself is mayhem, and meta. Director Ben Berman is perhaps more central to The Amazing Johnathan documentary than the Amazing Johnathan himself, in fact this documentary isn’t really about the Amazing Johnathan at all, or at least not in the way you may think.

The Amazing Johnathan is a documentary about the making of a documentary, the ethical dilemmas of representation and exploitation, and the increasing market clambering for the best 'stories' or 'characters'. In this regard it is fascinating. Without revealing too much – I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns of the documentary because I do think it is a very interesting film -  Ben, the director is not the only one making a film about Johnathan, and in salvaging his film decides the most interesting way to make it is to document himself in the process. This is nothing new. Nick Broomfield’s Driving Me Crazy (1988) takes a similar approach to meta-documentation of the documentary process. That said, The Amazing Johnathan is meta to a level that borders on being noxiously smug.

Of course, the decision to turn the camera on himself was a good one, the most interesting story to tell was Johnathan’s interactions with the cameras and Ben himself, but it is done in such a way that smothers any sense of sincerity; I was left with the feeling that it was all one big joke and I wasn’t sure if that was the intention or not. One example, Ben’s reflexive 'backstory' sequence using home-video archival footage while he reminisces about his obsession with the macabre, and with the dying amazing Johnathan maybe link in some way to his mother dying. He reads out a letter that she left him. This sequence is perhaps my problem with the film, but also what makes it so fascinating. I don’t doubt Ben’s sincerity, about his mother’s death leaving a mark on him as a person and a filmmaker, but there is something offish about it. I think this might be because fundamentally, the film is exposing the effects of market logic, a meta-reflexive narcissism within western society, but is also a product itself. It is a race for whom can make the most heartfelt, moving documentary, i.e. the most marketable.

Johnathan, surrounded by cameras, his dying wish is to has his legacy and narrative seared into history as he bows out of life performing magic. His narcissism is clear to see, he must have as many documentaries as possible, made by the best people. A natural performer, it’s as if he’s performing with the knowledge of what makes the most heartfelt documentary. Tellingly, in one scene he remarks, 'I Like to stay relevant, even if I’m not'.

In a sad and perhaps unintentional way, Ben is similar. To 'win': to make the best documentary, the most interesting, the cleverest, he must sell his soul to the camera. The business of documentary is filming stories from the real-world. at best they are entertaining and transformative, making you see things in a new way and leaves a mark on you; at work they are unentertaining, and exploitative. The Amazing Johnathan is entertaining, is transformative to the extent it is exploring the documentary industry itself, and exploitative only in leaving you, the viewer, feeling exploited. A similar feeling of how watching adverts, especially heart-warming ‘narrative cinema-standard’ adverts leave you feeling as you are being unconsciously manipulated.

A documentary is still a product, and it needs to be sold. What The Amazing Johnathan is, is the most marketable version of a documentary about The Amazing Johnathan. This does not mean it’s bad. ‘Magic, Meth, and Mayhem’ is a very good tagline, and it didn’t fail in it promise of seduction, like a good noir detective story. I do recommend you see it for yourself, see what you make of it, though in many ways the film didn’t really feel like it ended. After my screening there was a live broadcast Q&A being held in London between Louis Theroux and Ben Berman. The experience was horrifically nice and chummy. Sat in an almost empty cinema watching another, seemingly packed, cinema on the screen was a strange experience that I don’t want to have again. There was nothing wrong with the Q&A in itself, it was insightful. It was more to do with the fact that it felt like a marketing exercise. Maybe it’s because of this it left an, intriguing, but bad taste in my mouth.

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