I’m gonna’ fess up to something. Come out of the closet, actually. Reveal something about myself that might be patently “uncool.” Believe it or not there are aspects to my personality that aren’t suave and sophisticated. I have my own set of hidden secrets. Certain passions I might have been unwilling to confess to. So in keeping with the spirit of the topic of this review, I’m going for broke, just gonna’ throw my cards on the table and say what I need to say.
I… Am a magic geek.
Phew. Felt so good to get that off my chest! Yes, I am a hardcore fan of legerdemain. Of trickery and con artistry. One of my prized possessions is an out of print edition of Edwin Sachs’ seminal Sleight Of Hand, one of the earliest publications detailing the art of misdirection and complex finger acrobatics. Created for the sole purpose of object concealment and reappearance resulting in some astonishing trickery. To master just a few of these moves enables the ability to pull off almost any magic trick out there. Whether it be with cards, coins or anything else. Next to that I have a copy of Jim Steinmeyer’s Hiding The Elephant, a history of stage misdirection albeit on a larger scale. And next to that I have copies of Rikki Jay’s Killing With Cards and Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. That last title also ties into the earlier history of our film’s subject in how it examines the carny life of sideshow attractions and circus freaks.
I have friends who are accomplished magicians. I have gone through many store bought magic sets and lost quite a few of the pieces along the way. I am a magic geek.
Now I never said I was good at practicing magic. And to be terribly honest with you, I’m not. But I do have an extensive enough knowledge of the nuts and bolts where I can watch an act and marvel at the magician’s dexterity even if I know how the trick was done.
Thus I entered the Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein documentary AN HONEST LIAR with some eager anticipation. The subject at hand is James Randi aka “The Amazing Randi,” magician par excellence and debunker of frauds everywhere. And I am pleased to say that the film is indeed amazing.
For the first half of his life, Randi was an avid student and successful practitioner of stage magic and escape artistry. For the second half, Randi dedicated his life to exposing mediums, so-called psychics and evangelical faith healers. And his efforts were pretty damn famous. The most notorious of his targets was the ESP proponent Uri Geller, a man whose abilities were vouched for by scientists. The way Randi casually catches Geller off guard during an appearance on the Tonight Show is both hilarious and uncomfortably awkward (for Geller). But more to the point, the embarrassment displayed by the public at their willingness to be duped suggests a larger picture at work. And calls attention to the possibly unethical lengths Randi would go to reveal the proverbial men behind the curtains.
AN HONEST LIAR is not about magic per se or about James Randi as a magician but it is a fascinating look at the willingness to deceive and be deceived. To the extent where there exists a pretty jaw dropping deception going on within Randi’s life. And when he is confronted with this, he finds himself in the very position he had placed his targets once their fraudulence was exposed.
James Randi (born Randall Zwinge) left his family at a young age to join the circus and never looked back. Inspired by the performer Harry Blackstone, Sr., Randi honed his skills to become a popular performer right up to his mid fifties. Realizing he was getting too old to handle the physically demanding escape acts that rivaled Houdini, Randi then focused his efforts on exposing the charlatans who stood to fiscally gain from the desperate naivete of a faith seeking public. Some great stories are presented here. And not just the stuff involving Uri Geller (who surprisingly appears as a talking head later on in the film. He offers up some observations on why people want to be deceived in ways that almost reveal a cynical philosophy behind his thinking. It’s kind of shocking after witnessing his earlier attempts at defending his “powers” against Randi’s debunking). There is the evangelical faith healer who offers false hope to what had become an incredibly devoted fan base of believers. Only to be exposed as a con artist quoting established factoids from his wife though a hidden earpiece. And for awhile, we applaud Randi’s efforts. He makes us understand that the difference between a magician and a hoaxster is that the magician tells you he is going to fool you. It’s never presented as “real.”
What complicates Randi’s mission is in the way he would entrap otherwise innocent people caught up in the cons. For it’s one thing to set out to expose an individual who is duping the innocent for financial gain. It is altogether different when those victims become the target of that exposure as well. Where it starts to become a game of “see how gullible you are?” The same scientists who vouched for Geller’s authenticity are then examined under Randi’s critical eye. He plants two trusted sleight of hand experts within an ongoing ESP research project while consulting the very same scientists on how their experiments should be conducted to avoid any chance of fraud. So this slapstick scenario ensues where the more Randi’s undercover agents impress the scientists, the more Randi recommends stricter rules. Thus Randi’s plants are forced to come up with increasingly clever ways at fooling the scientists just as Randi is making it more difficult for them to do so. Both magicians were in their late teens at the time and are now interviewed as adults. And their take on what happened there is not only interesting but kind of chilling: these were human beings they were messing with. People they actually grew to like. People who trusted them. How would this effect established dynamics once the con was revealed? It was a personal realization they came to dread whereas Randi demanded it was a means to an end.
Other notables turn up to give their two cents including Penn and Teller and Alice Cooper of all people. Which supplied an additional surprise for me as I had just seen the rock documentary SUPER DUPER ALICE COOPER. In that doc you see footage from Cooper’s stage act where he is brought to a guillotine and has his head lopped off by a masked executioner. But in AN HONEST LIAR you find out the executioner was actually James Randi, who consulted on the illusions Cooper used for his show.
No less fascinating is the man himself. Impressively candid, James Randi is indeed an “honest liar.” Still spry and alert at the young age of 86, he comes clean on his ongoing relationship with a man whom, many years earlier, was regaled as an authentic medium only to have been unmasked as yet another actor in another Randi perpetrated hoax to prove how gullible we are. Even when Randi is confronted with a personal deception that has potentially tragic consequences, and pleads with the filmmakers to not record his confession or use it in the completed film (a moment not only confounding and incredibly sad but also a stunning example of documentary film making), we are told that Randi eventually gave his blessing to include everything. Which says a lot for a man who spent the majority of his adult life exposing deception. Even when the tables are turned against him, rather than let you believe a lie James Randi will insist on showing you the truth.