James Randi has nothing against lying — at least under the right circumstances.
“It’s OK to fool people,” he says, “if it’s to teach them a lesson in how the world works.”
Under the name of The Amazing Randi, this 86-year-old stage magician (born Randall Zwinge) has devoted most of his life to debunking claims about the paranormal. Randi doesn’t say that faith healing, ESP and telekinesis do not exist. That sort of certainty is reserved for the true believers.
What he does claim — and he’s proven it in instance after instance — is that he can use his knowledge of stage magic to detect the deceptions practiced by metaphysical snake oil salesmen eager to exploit the gullibility of their fellow humans.
A magician is honest, Randi maintains, because he tells you that he’s going to fool you — and then he fools you. And you love it.
“An Honest Liar,” Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom’s documentary about Randi and his long crusade for scientific and critical thinking, is both gleeful good fun (it’s satisfying to see charlatans exposed) and touching as the tale of a man who on occasion has practiced his own deceptions.
While still a teen the magic-obsessed Zwinge ran away from his Toronto home and literally joined the circus. Over time he developed a stage act as The Amazing Randi. His strongest suit was as an escape artist — some experts claimed he surpassed Harry Houdini (the documentary opens with a real-time TV broadcast from the ’50s of Randi being hung upside down in a straightjacket and wriggling his way out).
In the ’70s and ’80s Randi became known as a debunker. He took on professed miracle workers like the spoon-bending Uri Geller and the faith-healing evangelist Peter Popoff (who was able to “diagnose” the health problems of total strangers thanks to an earpiece through which his wife read details off the information cards attendees filled out before each “service”).
“A man who heals the deaf doesn’t need a hearing aid,” Randi observes.
Randi, a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and the designer of the gory stunts employed in rocker Alice Cooper’s stage show, has on occasion fought fraud with fraud. In 1988, he coached young Puerto Rican artist Jose Alvarez in how to pass himself off as Carlos, a supposed channeller and clairvoyant. Randi organized an Australian tour for Carlos, complete with massive press kit filled with blatant lies (Randi claimed that not one media outlet bothered to check on the veracity of the press kit’s outlandish claims).
Years later Randi coached two talented teenagers, Steve Shaw and Mark Shaffer, on how to duplicate Uri Geller’s metal-warping tricks. The two ringers were chosen as the subjects of a legitimate scientific inquiry and spent months being examined by — and fooling — a team of scientists. Randi points out that the researchers so wanted to believe in the young men’s psychic abilities that they undermined or ignored their own protocols to get positive results.
In both of those instances Randi, after hoodwinking the public and the experts, came clean. After all, the whole point was to show how anyone can be taken in. Shaw and Shaffer now say they were extremely uncomfortable at some of Randi’s instructions for manipulating and deceiving the researchers. They believe their operation resulted in psychological damage to at least one of the scientists.
“An Honest Liar” reveals that for much of his life Randi practiced a very personal deception. For more than a quarter century Randi and Alvarez, who portrayed the mystical Carlos, were secret lovers. Randi only publicly acknowledged his homosexuality in 2010. One of the last shots in the film is of Randi and Alvarez’s same-sex wedding ceremony.
But in a massively ironic development, Randi learns that he has been deceived. Turns out that the man he has been living with all these years isn’t Jose Alvarez after all.
The doc has plenty of talking heads — like magician/comics Penn and Teller, both big Randi fans — and tons of old TV footage of the mischievous Randi in action.
But even our uber-rational subject admits that in the long run it’s extremely difficult to burst people’s bubbles. We humans believe what we want (or need) to believe. Facts really can’t compete with that.