In search of the next great hoax

New Bell documentary catalogues the pranks, hoaxes and cons of Alan Abel

by Steven Snyder

Approximately halfway through Jenny Abel and Jeff Hockett’s “Abel Raises Caine,” the documentary starts spinning.

How is it, we wonder, that the documentary’s quiet and humble subject ever pulled off such astonishing lies? And as we grapple with just who Alan Abel is and the scope of what he was able to accomplish, one can’t help but start guessing what mind-blowing fact will come out next. It ceases being a movie and starts to become a guessing game – a game that directors Jenny Abel and Hockett win over and over again.

Alan Abel is, for lack of a better term, a hoaxer. For almost all his life, he has fooled the media, creating lies to highlight both the hypocrisy and silliness of the general American public as well as the shallowness of those in the national media.

He created a fake organization that demanded animals wear pants, in an attempt to mock the country’s moral crusaders. He posed as the founder and organizer of a “school for beggars” to show how gullible the media will be in finding that next great story. He launched a wave of protests opposing breast-feeding and received an onslaught of shocked and offended phone calls.

And just when we think we have his modus operandi figured out, he socks us right in the stomach. His obituary, according to the documentary, was the only one The New York Times ever had to retract.

All along the way, he graced the front page of the nation’s major newspapers, appeared on the cover of Time magazine and earned both the ire and admiration of news reporters who saw him as both a menace to their careers and an essential element to their profession.

In many ways, his cons exposed the flaws in the priorities of both broadcast and print media.

Maybe he even helped keep some journalists on their toes.

Hockett and Jenny Abel deserve recognition, though, for their approach to the material. It would have been so easy, particularly for Jenny Abel as Alan Abel’s daughter, to get bogged down in the cons themselves and to reduce this documentary to a simple overview of his “career.”

Instead, they open the film up to scrutiny and analysis, Jenny Abel’s own narration detailing her parents’ financial struggles and their commitment to keep doing what they’ve been doing. She looks closely at their marriage and digs deeper into not only what her dad did, but why he remained committed to his cause for so long and at so great a cost.

The result is a more complete profile of incredible intimacy, where these remarkably successful hoaxes are made even more amazing because we come to fully understand who was conning behind that mask and posing as that spokesman.

It’s an impressive debut, featuring a story that’s almost too perfect to be true. Here’s a fascinating life that deserves recognition, discussed in a way that enriches and deepens the conversation.

This is a heartfelt, interesting and, above all, entertaining film leaving the viewer bewildered as to whether you’ve heard of this man before. The film can keep you talking, telling others about this hilarious old man who’s still pulling the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting media.