The New York Times critic A. O. Scott might call it like he sees it, but he wasn’t being kind when he called the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, which hit theaters Friday, September 9, an “infomercial” and that the film, like its subject, can’t be trusted.
For me, it’s a difficult decision when I use Doc Soup to take a harder look at a documentary. The amount of work, sacrifice and vision it takes to create a solid nonfiction film deserves a gold medal in itself. But when I do, as has been the case with such films as Oxyana, Blood Brother and, more recently, Vaxxed, I like to believe I am giving the films a fair shake and I always encourage readers to watch them and to decide what they think themselves.
Those films mentioned just didn’t—as is popular to say these days—pass the smell test. And after watching Author: The JT LeRoy Story, I thought I smelled something. I felt much the same as Scott. But then I watched it a second time. And I think there’s more going for the film than Scott gives it credit.
For a quick primer, JT LeRoy was a literary phenomenon, a young, male truck stop hooker-turned soulful and twisted writer. He published books and amassed a hipster following that included people like rocker Billy Corgan, film director Gus Van Sant, actor Matthew Modine, writer Dennis Cooper and everyone in between. “He” was very press shy and few could engage with the wunderkind because LeRoy wouldn’t sit long, always wore sunglasses and a wig and was generally elusive, which of course was part of the allure.
Incredibly, the JT LeRoy phenomenon lasted about a decade until 2006 when some intrepid reporters revealed that LeRoy was actually a pseudonym for a woman named Laura Albert who had her partner’s half-sister, Savannah Knoop, play the part of LeRoy when “he” appeared in person. Albert had written all the books. It was a big, fat, hoax (a term Albert seems to resent but its definition being “a humorous or malicious deception,” I think it more than applies) and a big, fat, crazy scandal that everyone in media and literary circles delighted in for a while and then moved on.
It took another decade for the doc world to try to capture what happened. First, there was 2014’s The Cult of JT Leroy, a good film that frames what happened and shows the impact on some of the people who were hurt by LeRoy’s creation but never gets inside it because Albert never gave director Marjorie Sturm access. And now we have Author, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, an established filmmaker best known for his fantastic doc, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
I was curious about this because it matches a strong filmmaker with a powerful subject. And, like many members of the media, I had some connections to LeRoy including two interactions with him. I spoke with him one night on the phone when I was an editor at Premiere magazine. I forget why and I don’t recall much of what was said other than his saying that he’d always loved the magazine. I later interviewed his avatar, played by Knoop, with filmmaker Asia Argento, while covering the Toronto International Film Festival.
I wasn’t a big fan of the work or got in too deep with LeRoy, so I wasn’t personally bothered by the revelation. I was more intrigued. And amazed that someone could flout the fundamental social agreement most of us abide by by lying so baldly to people and allowing them to adore or love or respect a mirage.
I got Feuerzeig on the phone last month and he told me that he hadn’t even heard of LeRoy when it was all happening. But when a friend told him about the phenomenon, he was interested partly because of his interest in southern gothic literature, which resonates in LeRoy’s writing.
He also thought, “there has to be more to the story than we are hearing,” so he approached Albert. He asked her to watch Daniel Johnston and insisted on final cut, he said, and Albert agreed.
She handed over loads of taped interviews and writing and he interviewed her extensively. “Her story is filled with a massive amount of deceit and what you see in the film is her being entirely forthcoming about all of that deceit,” he said.
Feuerzeig insisted that he wasn’t manipulated by LeRoy, despite the fact that her entire tale is rooted in her being a life-long pathological liar. Apparently, she decided to tell him the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I find that hard to believe. Anyway, he claimed, “I love subjective storytelling. This film is a subjective film and it’s her story, her telling it.”
Feuerzeig aligns himself with the New Journalism of Truman Capote and other writers who emphasized their creative recreations of facts over any pretense of objective reporting. The truth lines get blurry, which Feuerzeig seems to revel in (as do I). Feuerzeig aims, through subjectivity, to get to the “deeper truth” that filmmaker Werner Herzog has described as “the ecstatic truth.”
I’m down with all that. But it’s a slippery slope. Robert Greene takes a more cerebral approach to this approach in his film Kate Plays Christine, which forces the viewer to think deeply about truth, performance, the power of the image and that sort of thing. With Author: The JT LeRoy Story, Feuerzeig isn’t asking us to think about those themes as much as become immersed in them.
I think director Brett Morgen has toed this line best, especially in his (co-directed with Nanette Burstein) The Kid Stays in the Picture, about producer Robert Evans. That film provides a clear nod to the fact that it’s being told by an unreliable narrator by not only opening with the drawing of a curtain (read: enjoy the show!) but also the quote, “there are three sides to every story: My side, your side and the truth.”
I mentioned this quote to Feuerzeig, who replied that he opened his movie with his own, which comes from filmmaker, Federico Fellini. “A created thing is never invented and it is never true; it is always and ever itself.”
The quote is illuminating because it reflects the elliptical thinking that kept JT LeRoy afloat for ten years. It is thought-provoking but it obscures more than it clarifies.
When I say Scott is missing the whole picture here, I mean to say that I think he’s missing some subtleties to Feuerzeig’s film, which contains its own book chapters to frame Albert’s storytelling. It is a neat way of blending Feuerzeig’s creative nonfiction filmmaking with her narrative. One chapter is tellingly entitled, “the art is deceitful above all things.” We are being immersed in a story.
There’s also an interesting moment when Albert is recalling an event in Italy when Knoop is so freaked out, she recalls, that she did a reading under a table. But, and I’m trusting here that Feuerzeig is using footage from the mentioned event, she’s not literally under a table, she’s sitting behind a bench. It’s not a big lie but an enhanced bit of storytelling that Feuerzeig displays without comment, which allows the viewer to think twice about the woman telling the story.
The film also begins with a dramatically shot, breathless actor Winona Ryder, who is talking at a JT LeRoy book event. Her adoration is so intense that it raises questions. It’s a moment that screams about the power of celebrity and the search for authenticity. It’s a wink, I think, to the underlying themes of the film and a masterful bit of image making.
And yet, and yet. What ever subtleties Feuerzeig is layering in his film, the notion that he can make a documentary about a liar and con artist and then let her tell her story without more clearly challenging her or confronting her is just bizarre. And when Albert tells of the collapse of her charade and just as we are coming upon her comeuppance, Feuerzeig cuts to a tragic reveal from her childhood that putatively explains why Albert is the way she is. He cripples our judgment by tugging at our sympathy. Is it true? Who knows! Is it the same way LeRoy played people for years? Definitely.
Whether it justifies the hoax she put on isn’t Feuerzeig’s concern, he says. He’s not moralizing. And yet, by dropping it right at the moment is a clever way to expunge Albert from condemnation.
In our conversation, Feuerzeig said he believes that the facts relayed by Albert stated in the film are factually accurate. He says he verified her assertions of abuse and mental illness. He refers to his relationship with her as “journalist and subject.” But this isn’t journalism. Maybe he misspoke.
As writer Mary Karr and LeRoy discuss in the film, memoir isn’t meaningful because it is factual but because it’s emotional. So don’t look for the facts here. Look to be immersed in a story. Just go with a critical mind lest you be lulled into swallowing it whole.
I’ll echo what he said—there has to be more to the story than we are seeing here, but Feuerzeig has told the one he (and, it seems, she) wanted to tell.