NEW YORK — In the 1980s and into the 1990s comedy clubs, casino hotels and cable TV got a little dangerous when The Amazing Jonathan hit the stage. If there was ever a magician/prop comic act that somehow felt punk rock, this was it. He did a bit where he’d slice his tongue in two, he made jokes about snorting cocaine and he’d vamp with the audience in a way that practically terrorized them. He amassed a small fortune and won the respect of everyone in his field.
Then, in 2014, he announced his retirement. He’d been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, he said, and was expected to die within the year. It’s 2019, however, and he’s still with us. He lives in Las Vegas, is an unrepentant drug abuser, and is back performing.
Ben Berman is a young heimish filmmaker who perhaps foolishly thought an artist documentary might make for an easy first feature. He picked the wrong subject for that.
Jonathan (he has a last name, Szeles, but we’ll just call him Jonathan) gets his kicks out of pushing buttons. As Ben follows Jonathan getting back on the road, he encounters increasing obstacles. An early revelation: After working together for some time, Jonathan springs that another documentary crew, one with a slew of awards to their credit, will be tagging along. Ben begins to wonder if Jonathan is intentionally messing with him.
We in the audience as well eventually ask if Ben is messing with us. There’s a “This Is Spinal Tap” or “Nathan For You” quality to Ben’s dilemma. One minute he seems like an engaged artist, the next he’s spinning in confusion, unsure how to proceed. “The Amazing Jonathan Documentary” quickly becomes less about Jonathan and more about Ben questioning his commitment to his project, looking for his voice. It’s the type of scenario where a good kid — the type who shows his dad the work-in-progress to get advice — decides he needs to smoke meth with his subject if he’s ever going to gain his trust.
I spoke with Ben Berman a day before the movie’s release in a few theaters and on Hulu everywhere. Much as he wasn’t shy confronting Jonathan with his suspicions, I hit him with mine. We also discussed different styles of current documentary filmmaking, and if some of the titles don’t ring a bell hopefully it will set you Googling. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.
How long have you been working on this film?
It was two-and-a-half years from the moment I met Jonathan, which was the first day of filming, to our premiere at Sundance. In 2016 I was working on a project with with a younger magician and comedian. I overheard a conversation he was having with colleagues about meeting Jonathan, and how he was ill and dying, and also into some pretty serious, heavy drugs. I just thought, “Oh, I remember that guy.” So I reached out.
But you could argue it started when I was 12 or 13 years old. I was a fan of him through his comedy specials. He was kind of just everywhere. A young kid like me just took notice; he was very loud and weird and kind of bloody and obnoxious and interesting.
Was magic a thing for you as a kid?
No, but I like entering worlds with strong characters. Making videos was my thing. But there are so many ties between making documentaries and magic. Documentaries are a medium that seeks the truth, and magic is a medium that deceives the truth. I think they are at odds. So, put them together and it can get interesting.
I love the scene when you and Jonathan go to the magic convention in Las Vegas, with all the old timers there.
There were two older people, a man and a woman, in sparkly shirts and matching shorts. I wish I could have kept that in. But the moment Jonathan meets Mr. Lightbulb — no, Mr. Electric [Marvyn Roy] — it was great to see Jonathan interact with him.
Earlier in your career you worked with the comedy duo Tim & Eric as an editor. How would you describe their comedy to the uninitiated?
It’s insanity — irreverent and absurd. It’s an F.U. to typical comedy and doesn’t really subscribe to any school. There’s the Upright Citizens Brigade school, there’s IO, there’s SNL philosophies — and they just do their own thing. Get a laugh by any means necessary.
Tim Heidecker is actually going to moderate a Q&A for us in Los Angeles.
So much of your movie is about not knowing whether Jonathan is pulling a hoax on you. You are going to have Tim Heidecker there, this avant-garde comic. Will you have people accusing you of your movie being faked?
I get the question. “We know about your history, you’re a scripted comedy guy.” And so much of this movie is is like, pretty unbelievable. “Another crew? A chainsaw juggler? How can this be real?”
I love that question. I take it as a compliment. I think that means that we made a really good documentary. Crazy things happened and I was there to capture it. With this question, the movie continues, even after the credits roll. The big theme of the movie is me trying to determine what’s real and what’s illusion. So to have the audience question that after the movie, it’s kind of a beautiful thing.
But I’ll absolutely say this is a documentary. This is real. This stuff really happened.
If you want to go ahead and write ‘this is horseshit,’ please go ahead
Do you have that notarized?
What, notarize that statement?
Yeah! I don’t know if I believe you! I mean, you seem like a nice guy, but, I dunno!
Yeah, I couldn’t even begin to comment further. I guess any press is good press. If you want to go ahead and write “this is horseshit,” please go ahead.
The film kinda japes at the proliferation of documentaries. Have you had the situation where you were watching something, but weren’t sure if it was real? There was the movie recently “Tickled.”
“Tickled” was a bit of inspiration for the third act of this film. I like documentaries that take you on a journey. “Capturing the Friedmans” is another one, a rollercoaster ride of an experience. Another movie I absolutely love is “I’m Still Here,” with Joaquin Phoenix, which was later revealed as basically a prank on on us.
To be honest, I’m kind of bored of documentaries that tell stories in a boilerplate way, ripping off Errol Morris’s style of looking right in the camera – I’m done with that. I want everyone to be done with that. We can do better.
Have you seen “Three Identical Strangers”?
Yeah, I saw it.
Did you question it?
No, I didn’t question it. I questioned the way they withheld information that everyone on camera knew, withholding it for the sake of a manufactured drama. I mean – it’s an interesting way to spin a yarn, but an unusual way to offer a report.
I strongly feel like that is an intelligent way to structure a movie. I always saw my film’s structure as like a “pencil without an eraser.” It opens with a title card that says “this film is strictly based on all the available facts.”
The facts that I had at the beginning of the movie changed.
Yeah, but your movie is different from “Three Identical Strangers” because it is first person. It’s about you being lost at sea. I didn’t particularly care for how this technique was used in “Three Identical Strangers” but I don’t really have that note for you. Not that I’m giving out notes.
Throw some notes at me – the movie is out in a day!
Okay, I do have to ask: What was smoking meth like? I guess I don’t normally speak to the type of people who can give me firsthand descriptions.
The movie does not clearly define if I did it or not. That is not an accident, and I’m certainly not going to define that for you right now on the phone. The big theme of this movie is trying to determine what’s truth and what’s illusion. To this day there are still things I don’t know.
“The Amazing Jonathan Documentary” is currently streaming on Hulu and playing theatrically in select cities.