At the conclusion of The [Untitled] Amazing Johnathan Documentary, I was reminded of the beginning of another movie about magicians, The Prestige, and specifically, it’s opening lines:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.
As befits Amazing Johnathan and his lifetime dedication to the magician’s craft, the film follows this format of Pledge, Turn, and Prestige. But to write about this film is to attempt a magic trick. I wish I could write about the intricacies of it without showing the secret of how it’s done, but I doubt I can. But here it goes.
The “what happened?” of this film has been on my mind since late February/early March 2019. At True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, my girlfriend and I attended a screening of the film. We were immediately sucked into the story, the charm, the mystery of it all. But we soon had a dilemma on our hands: We also had tickets for Apollo 11 (also on Hulu), the incredible film reconstructed from large-format archive footage of the mission, and I was dead-set on making it. So despite our infatuation with Amazing Johnathan, we got up and left early. And just like that, we didn’t know what happened. But in the hour of the film we saw, there were enough twists and turns to make us wonder what we’d missed.
After Hulu announced it had purchased the film, the wait began, and it was just recently released. I finally saw the rest of the film, and now I still wonder, “What exactly happened?”
On its surface, The Pledge is Amazing Johnathan, the comedic magician known for insane gags and hilarious use of props. He’s diagnosed with a form of heart disease and given one year to live. At the start of the film, he’s outlived that prognosis and wants to resume performing his act. Within that gripping premise, there is much too unpack. Johnathan is funny but in a way tinged with sadness; the reality of his impending death seems to sap the joy and electricity out of his jokes, but laughs are unavoidable. His wife seems tragic as the dedicated lover of one who’s sick, the unbearable toll such illness must take out on those closest to him, but she too is capable of razor sharp wit and deadpan delivery, and it’s easy to imagine the two falling in love. Johnathan’s life has been fueled by drugs for so long that he sees little point in stopping after his diagnosis, and in truly sad moments, interview subjects note that he’s long attributed his own success to the drugs rather than in spite of them. He’s moody and tired and seemingly just like any of us would be if we were very sick, yet he’s determined to be the showman he once was (or at least as close to that as he can get in his state).
But quickly the film enters a hall of mirrors – The Turn – and viewers are struck with the sense that something is happening to them, the wool is being pulled over their eyes, but how? And then it gets weirder, by increasing magnitudes, and it seems surreal, unreal, outright staged, fake. Paranoia sets in at this point, where nothing on screen is beyond scrutiny, and everything is doubted. The filmmaker and his closest friends and family reinforce this feeling, and it becomes just one element of meta narrative throughout the film.
The meta elements are what makes the film so much fun. Director Ben Berman dives deep into his subject, into the strange circumstances that seem to plague every turn of the process, into his own past and motivations for the film, and all along the way, he’s showing his work and explaining the project.
Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.
But Berman is looking, and he seems to really want to know. As a result, the ending is a truly sweet, touching moment, captured on film, and everything that felt like deception during the film seems to feel like a big misunderstanding. And that adds to the sweetness.
Or does it? The third act of this film – The Prestige – comes moments after the end credits start to appear on the screen. It’s only a few lines long, but it will leave you wondering, “What did I just see?” More than anything, I think Amazing Johnathan would be proud of that.