I recently watched Werner Herzog’s latest masterpiece, “Family Romance LLC”, a documentary set in modern Japan where one man’s business involves hiring out a collection of professional actors who are paid to play crucial roles in people’s lives and make their worlds more complete, or more in line with how they wish their lives could be. A mother needs a husband to walk her daughter down the aisle at her wedding because her own husband is an unreliable drunk. An older woman who won the lottery many years ago is desperate to relive that same experience again; a knock at the door, a group of revellers all smiling and cheering and holding a huge novelty cheque with her name on it. Another person wants more Instagram followers, so pays this company to become paparazzi photographers and demand her photo as she walks the streets, catapult her into the stratosphere of mega-stardom…and get the likes she craves. It’s a crazy world after all, nowhere crazier than Japan, the best place to visit for sure.
Most importantly, the story focuses primarily on the man whose business it is, as he is contracted to step in and be the father of a teenage girl who’s never met her dad, a man who ran off soon after she was born never to be seen or heard from again. The mother feels it’s imperative her daughter has a relationship with her father, she’s becoming shy and withdrawn. This young girl doesn’t know the relationship is fictitious, that this father figure is indeed an actor, and as this relationship between father and daughter blossoms with true loving bonds and allows the girl to grow out of her shell and become a more rounded and confident young woman, the actor faces his own existential crisis, seeing himself as a fraud, offering innocent people false hope, nothing more than an illusion. But this is precisely where the bizarre magic of life is…it’s not a lie if you believe it. And our actor is consoled by a friend that his work brings people hope and it is something to be proud of in a world where so many people are desperate to rob you of precisely that wonder. The film doesn’t finish with any closure, simply that the man is offered the opportunity to indeed become this girl’s father and move into their family home. Werner doesn’t let you see how this story ends. Bastard. Smart. I love it.
Now, even more recently, I saw “Mistaken for Strangers”, another documentary, this time tracing the band “The National” as they embark on their first global tour. The twist is, the lead singer, Matt Berninger, invites his 9-year-younger brother Tom along to be a roadie for this epic trip. Tom is an aspiring filmmaker who’s made some sincerely horrendous horror movies, a slacker who lives at home with his parents in Cincinnati, and someone who’s spent his whole life very much living in the shadow of his ultra-successful and seemingly never-put-a-foot wrong older brother. On tour, Tom invariably cocks everything up that’s required of him in being a roadie. He’s hopeless, always drunk, gets his knickers in a twist that people say he’s only on tour because he’s the lead singer’s brother. Something which is of course 100% true but infuriating to Tom all the same. Sure enough, he’s fired from his role, and returns home to Cincinnati to wallow in the woe-is-me heartland that so many of us find comfort in. Once the tour winds up, Matt calls the younger bro he adores, tells him to come to New York and finish his film, stay with him, edit all his footage, make his movie maker dreams come true.
Nothing we’ve seen from the younger brother Tom until this point has done anything to comfort you towards a belief that this lovable goofball could ever achieve anything in this world, least of all make a great movie, but this is precisely where things get interesting. Tom talks to the camera with unnerving honesty, tells of how much life sucks to have Matt for a brother, “because Matt’s a Rockstar…and I’m not.” He then goes on to remember a time years earlier when Matt called him late one night to tell him he’d just had a horrible nightmare, he was walking down a street in New York when a crazed lunatic came for him and was going to kill him, but Tom turned up out of nowhere to save his older brother’s life. No matter how harshly this world may have written Tom off, no matter how lowly Tom may think of himself, his Rockstar brother sees something in his little bro that is so powerful it has the ability to save his life. “I knew that my Rockstar brother saw something in me, something great, something powerful, something that I guess I often can’t see in myself.” With this renewed wind in his sails, the knowledge that his brother has full faith in him, Tom goes on to focus, commit wholeheartedly to the project, to make something really moving and powerful and become a Rockstar filmmaker in his own right.
Beautiful stuff, right? Well, this is exactly where I smell a very perfectly placed rat. Perhaps this nightmare story Matt has told his brother is the truth. I can’t possibly know for sure. But I don’t think Rockstar Matt ever had that nightmare, no more so than our Japanese actor is actually a teenager’s dad…I think Matt, like Werner, sees the power in placing precious fictitious gems of hope in people’s lives, knowing the objective truth of anything is nowhere near as important as the subjective emotional truth of strength and hope that a positive boost of confidence offers a fragile soul who needs so desperately to hear and feel and experience something uplifting in order to get their life on track.
I don’t know what’s real, what isn’t. I’m just wandering around the universe like everyone else. What I do know though is that placebos often seem somehow more effective than prescription medicine, that the power of the mind to manifest your destiny is always stronger than we dare imagine, and that we can never really prove any of this stuff, we can just plant seeds of potential where ever we see the opportunity for them to help those in need, people who crave one fleeting moment of wonder, a moment that could transform their existence forever. That’s not too much to ask. And it’s not a lie to bend the truth if it means giving someone a little boost when they need it. After all, this whole world is a simulation anyway, just ask Brother Elon.
*Liam Carroll is the author of Slippery, a story about capitalism on steroids in the oil trading world of Southeast Asia. His second novel, Sweet Dreams of Fanta, is a sentimental ride back to the Sydney of 1988, seen through the eyes of a freckly, moon-faced, 7year old Fanta addict.