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For 91 tiring minutes, director Ben Berman sort of tells a story that is sort of interesting but maybe not really, padding the film with selfie footage of his own chaotic production problems. It is about the veteran Vegas comedian-slash-magician Johnathan Szeles, AKA the Amazing Johnathan, who once had a cult following for his gonzo act – like appearing to eat his own eyeball. In 2014, he announced he had a year to live due to a heart condition, before performing some sold-out farewell shows. He remains alive. Was he faking? Is this an ongoing professional illusion, or could he die at any moment?
To Berman’s understandable dismay, Szeles has apparently invited a number of other documentary crews to cover his twilit existence and the bleary, secretive Szeles does appear to be complicit in an entirely spurious claim, appearing on the web, that one of these documentary teams is associated with Simon Chinn, Oscar-winning British producer of Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man. Berman interrupts the story of the Amazing Johnathan to tell us a bit – but not nearly enough – about his late mother, to whom he was very close, whom he videoed quite a bit in her last illness, and who may be psychologically bound up with his need to make films and with the idea of death itself. Perhaps he should have made a documentary about her.
Now the balding and clearly ill Szeles wants to get back out on the road, and wears a weird headband with wig attached to make him look the way he did in the glory days of the 1980s and 90s.
Berman gets reasonably close to his subject, even offering to smoke meth with him if that’s what it takes for him to open up about himself. But Szeles evades capture; what also evades capture is any proof that he was worth capturing. And Berman is guilty of one of the most tiresome cliches in documentary – solemnly playing the audio of a phone conversation, with subtitles, over an exterior shot of the building where it is taking place, giving the impression that this is smoking-gun proof of something sensational, or at any rate interesting, when it is pretty ordinary.
• The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is released in the UK on 19 November.
Source: The Guardian
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