Pop Culture

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Four films explore the terrifying, sometimes hilarious world of hoaxes

Smith Galtney

In this season of fake news and surreal political shape-shifting, it’s fitting that the last four movies I’ve watched involve some kind of identity fraud, mostly propagated by the Internet. All are based on true stories. None of them end well.

In King Cobra, Christian Slater plays a character named Stephen who’s based on Bryan Kocis, a producer of gay porn who was brutally murdered by two hustlers in 2007. Ten years ago, when YouTube was still in its infancy and people still watched porn on DVD, Kocis turned a young boy named Sean Lockhart into Brent Corrigan, star of videos like Every Poolboy’s Dream and Casting Couch 4. “It’s fun to play with who we are,” Stephen/Bryan tells Brent/Sean, toasting their success. But playing around with all that money and web notoriety has a price, and when James Franco shows up in full-on Spring Breakers mode, no one’s having fun anymore.

Inevitably Sean wants to break out on his own, but Stephen locks the “Brent Corrigan” name in a trademark, and Sean learns the cold truth about alter egos: You might have a ripped young body and gifted masturbatory skills, but you’re nothing without your fake name.

Aliases abound in Tickled, a documentary about the shady world of “competitive endurance tickling,” in which straight guys engage in the extremely gay-looking act of getting tied up and tickled. A television reporter from New Zealand discovers a series of tickling videos online, all produced by a company named Jane O’Brien Media, which might be run by someone name Terri DiSisto, also known as “Terri Tickle.” What starts out as a quirky exposé on a peculiar subculture takes a darker turn as the identity behind Jane and Terri emerges.

But not really. Tickled suffers from its own identify crisis, thanks to heavy-handed voiceovers that make you think the filmmakers are on the trail of a serial killer. What they do find is hardly a shock. (The people who say this is “the scariest movie of the year” need to watch better horror movies). I won’t give anything away, but I will say Tickled doesn’t challenge any clichés about trolls who wreak widespread havoc from the privacy of their empty homes.

Never an Internet troll, JT LeRoy—perhaps the great hoax of our time—was created the old-fashioned way: through crank calls. Back in the mid-’90s, a middle-aged woman named Laura Albert wrote several stories in the voice of a gender-fluid teenage prostitute—a character she assumed while cold-calling her favorite writers. As the buzz around Albert’s stories grew and public appearances beckoned, she hid her sister-in-law in a blonde wig and sunglasses, and a hot new darling of the literati and glitterati was born.

This tale is so insane and unbelievable, it took two documentaries this year to tell it. Author: The JT LeRoy Story is basically Albert’s one-sided account, while The Cult of JT LeRoy is told through the authors, agents, journalists and fans who got duped. Both have major axes to grind, with Albert insisting JT wasn’t a hoax but an “avatar” and one journalist laughably comparing her to Satan.

Noticeably missing from both movies are the celebrities who took JT under their self-serving wings. Looking at the archival footage, they do look pretty stupid fawning over someone who’s clearly a fake. “Let’s be honest, JT,” says Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins, conducting a TV interview while reclined oh-so-douchily in bed. “You’re kicking some wicked style.” The hoaxers got hoaxed.

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