Documentaries are taking over my life. Lately, everything I wanna watch is either true or the next best thing. So it was only a matter of time before I'd cross paths with Docurama, a DVD label that handles documentaries exclusively. Good ones, too, including The Staircase, about a high-profile murder trial in my home state of North Carolina. My big plans for the near future are to sit down and watch The Staircase in its entirety (all six hours of it -- seriously, y'all, this is the shit that curls my toes). I caught a few grisly, gripping segments during its Sundance Channel airings. Good times.
Docurama's most inspired venture is its Docurama Film Festival -- the idea is, they "program" a film fest in the form of a DVD collection available for purchase. Then you and your housemates and the family dog can hole up and watch 'em at your leisure. The fest's second go-round is out now, and the line-up includes some real keepers.
Already familiar to local audiences: The Education of Shelby Knox, an inspiring story about the intellectual awakening of a Texas high schooler who believes in sex ed -- even though her conservative community most certainly does not; The Lady in Question is Charles Busch, about the pioneering drag performer; and the Nickel and Dimed-esque look at the working poor, Waging a Living. Fans of Jesse Moss' Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (every bit as good as the title would suggest) should peep out his earlier film, Con Man, also part of the Docurama Film Festival II collection.
Undated mug shot of James Arthur Hogue.
Filmmaker Moss went to high school with the subject of Con Man -- or so he thought. Turns out, the man he knew at Palo Alto High School, a track star named Jay Huntsman, was actually 26-year-old James Arthur Hogue. Incredibly, even after Hogue's high school ruse was discovered -- and while he was serving time for theft in Utah -- he was accepted to Princeton University (and given a $15,000 scholarship) under yet another identity, Alexi Santana. "Alexi," who had to defer his admission for one year because his mother was dying of cancer in Switzerland (translation: Hogue was finishing up his jail term), duped everyone he met at the Ivy League school.
Besides the dying mother, his elaborate backstory included time spent working on a ranch, worldwide travels, and the fact that he was self-educated after growing up on a commune. Oh yeah, and he ran on the Princeton track team too -- probably the dumbest thing he could have done, since that was the surest way he'd be found out. (Indeed, a former high school teammate spots him at a collegiate meet, and is not as shocked as you'd expect: "I just knew he'd done it again," she shrugs.) Con Man suggests that Hogue was no dummy -- in fact, he did quite well in his Princeton classes -- but couldn't stay away from the track and the chance to recapture his teenage racing glory.
After his Princeton cover was blown, Hogue was arrested and charged with fraud. After some maneuvering, Moss tracks him down; he's now a drifter, and hardly seems the silver-tongued phony we've come to expect. Somewhat unsuccessfully, Moss attempts the impossible: to make a born liar tell the truth. The only thing Hogue'll cop to is "having a different moral standard" than everyone else. He's nervous, inarticulate, and shy about meeting the camera with his eyes.
Despite his deceits, Hogue's Princeton years were no doubt the happiest of his life. He likens his time there to playing a character in a play -- and though he may have wished for it then, you can tell he now realizes that "the play" could never have been his real life. Con Man is ultimately a sad story; Hogue is clearly an intelligent guy (he had to be, to keep all those fabrications going for so many years) who made some odd and misguided choices that ended up ruining his life. When Moss presses him to explain why he did what he did, Hogue is at a loss. "I can't put it into words," he says. "I can't describe the indescribable."