[13 December 2010]
It may be possible to make a documentary that both mocks panhandling and also provides a thoughtful examination of the practice, but Why Lie? I need a Drink is not that movie. Director and star Keith Lowell Jensen sets out to see what panhandling is like by trying it himself, but because the stand-up comic can’t resist playing the experiment for laughs whenever possible, he can only treat the subject in a superficial, at times even flippant, fashion.
Sure, it’s funny to see Jensen panhandle in a banana suit, or, swaddled in mummy rags, hold up a sign full of hieroglyphics, or dressed as a mime, clutch a blank placard, or parade in front of a church with a sign reading “will convert for food”. However, this out-of-work CEO panhandling shtick rankles, and the time Jensen spends on his dress-up antics is time not spent on an in-depth exploration of this serious issue.
Why Lie is organized by a series of topics: “The Myth of the Affluent Panhandler”, “Have You Ever Panhandled?”, “Do You Give to Panhandlers?”, “The Exciting World of Internet Panhandling”, “It Can Be Done” (re: making a good living from panhandling), “Free Speech?”, “Drugs and Alcohol!?”
Jensen belabors the first point—his own unprofitable attempts at making money panhandling convincingly debunk the myth—without reaching any conclusions about why so many people assume that it’s possible to make a living panhandling. He includes far too much footage of Sacramento persons on the street—some panhandlers, some passersby—making free with their opinions on the topic. Why Lie would have benefited here and elsewhere from research and statistics, or at least some expert discussion of the typical panhandler, or the psychology behind the persistence of the myth of the affluent panhandler.
Here emerges the central problem with Why Lie: Jensen seems to want to play with the documentary format, to create a guerilla filmmaking alternative, yet he structures his film like a traditional documentary, complete with interviews with experts and a revelatory moment of self-discovery halfway through. Unfortunately, Jensen’s experts—a public information officer with the Sacramento City Police Dept. and a county sheriff’s media officer—offer very little enlightenment with respect to the legal status of panhandling, or the psychology of panhandlers themselves.
The revelation—Jensen confesses that dressing up puts distance between himself and the act of asking strangers for money—makes psychological sense: if he panhandles as himself he’s being dishonest (he doesn’t need the money), and risks both the humiliation of being perceived as needy and the threat of violence from potential donors (a danger defused by the gag routines). The admission also suggests that the film will segue into a more substantial analysis of the realities of panhandling.
In fact, Jensen sacrifices the coherence and import of his documentary because he can’t ever really panhandle in earnest. The balance of the film includes still more footage of Jensen gag-panhandling (as Uncle Sam, or, as the credits roll, Santa Claus), or panhandling without a costume, but armed with a gag sign (hence the title of the film).
While Why Lie opens with a brief glimpse of one panhandler’s spiel, the film contains very little footage of actual panhandlers plying their trade. When he interviews panhandlers, Jensen gets some eye-opening testimony, but only one sequence shows in detail what life is like for panhandlers when they’re not asking for change. A homeless couple speak frankly about surviving in Sacramento, even broaching the topic of their drug use. In an extras interview, Jensen says he has received criticism that the sequence is too long, but wanted to leave it intact to avoid the accusation of “creative editing”. It’s a very effective segment; Why Lie would have benefited from more like it.
“It Can Be Done” profiles Toronto’s notoriously successful “shaky lady” Margita Bangova, whose disabled homeless person act evidently enabled her to afford a well-furnished home. This is the one part of the film that utilizes the expertise of an interviewee, Mike Strobel of the The Toronto Sun, who exposed the shaky lady’s scam, but since Jensen remains skeptical of the myth of the affluent panhandler, this segment seems misplaced. Why include the exception, since it seems to obscure rather than prove the rule?
Jensen seems to understand the complex factors surrounding panhandling, and the conclusion he reaches is pragmatic and humane: in deciding whether to give a panhandler a dollar, “look them in the eye”, he recommends; if in doubt, set the dollar aside, and give it to a charity you can trust, instead. If he had spent more time looking real panhandlers in the eye and less on conjuring clever slogans or costumes to deploy on the off ramp, Why Lie might have gotten at the truth.
Deleted scenes and promotional clips round out the DVD extras.