A documentary about the Amazing Randi and his hunger for skepticism.
I don’t know how I never heard of the Amazing Randi, a magician who modeled his acts after Harry Houdini, escape artist and master of illusions. Born Randall James Hamilton Zwinge in Toronto, Randi left home in his teens and joined a carnival show.
Apparently, to see how comfortably he lives now, Randi made a handsome living for himself as a master magician, outdoing Houdini on some of his most famous stunts, such as lying naked in a cake of ice, or topping him completely by breaking out of a straight jacket while suspended by helicopter over Niagara Falls. In the 1980s he won a MacArthur award for his work in dispelling myths surrounding hucksters and con artists. The movie shows his career, primarily through his visits to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. As he saw psychics like Uri Geller tread on his territory and sully a perfectly escapist entertainment by claiming something more for it, he got sore, and then he got even. He set out to debunk the hustlers who would pretend that an illusion was anything more than a carefully practiced craft.
Uri Geller was everything Randi was not: young, tall, suave, charming. Even his hair was better. How infuriating. It seems that Geller made Randi a little mad in both senses of the word.
Randi took his debunking mission to extremes. He coached a man named Jose Alvarez to play a psychic named Carlos in order to show how easy it was to pretend to be channeling past lives. He hired two young men to pose as psychokinetic mentalists and participate in the same kind of research Uri Geller did at the Stanford Institute, a legitimate scientific institution that gave Geller a seal of approval. At Stanford, the two “psychics” proved that even at a revered scientistic institution, magicians can fool you.
Most satisfying is the portion of the movie that recounts how Randi hired a private detective to determine how Peter Popoff, the faith healer, could name people in the audience, their addresses, and the ailment they came to be cured of. I wish that the filmmakers had gone a bit farther, and found some of those shown cured by Popoff on camera to see if they remained cured.
But the directors are not investigative journalists. Their intention seems to be to show how Randi’s technique of exposing fraud is fraudulent itself. As often happens in documentary films where the filmmakers spend so much time with their subjects that they get to know them deeply, it is revealed that Randi’s partner, artist Jose Alvarez, he of the Carlos hoax, was not really who he said he was. This leads to a thread of the story that could be a whole movie in itself.
An Honest Liar made me reflect first on authenticity, then on identity. How many names do we use from cradle to grave? What is the difference between a magician and an illusionist? A card sharp and a prestidigitator? A mentalist and a psychic? Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and the Amazing Randi? What does it take for us to set up a legitimate career? How much truth are we willing to sacrifice to make a living? For Uri Geller now, that means selling jewelry on the shopping channel.