An Honest Liar

I’ve been a big James Randi fan since I became aware of him decades ago. I’ve read multiple books by him, read dozens of his articles, seen him on TV and in online videos, read about him in other people’s books and magazines, etc.

An Honest Liar is a biographical documentary on Randi and his work, from a largely supportive, indeed celebratory, perspective.

The stuff about his work was very familiar to me. Certainly there were details I didn’t know or had forgotten, but I’d say I knew about 90% of it. The stuff about him personally was more of a mix. I knew the story of his life in broad outline form, but there are plenty of specifics in the movie that I didn’t already know. So maybe I knew 40% of the personal, biographical content.

For example, I of course knew that Randi had been a magician before becoming a researcher and debunker of supposedly paranormal phenomena (a career path reminiscent of that of Houdini), and I was aware, or at least was under the impression, that he had achieved a level of success and prominence in that field beyond just being a run-of-the-mill working magician for a few years before finding his true calling, but from the film I learned that he was a much bigger deal than that as a magician, that even if you subtract all the skeptic/debunker stuff from his career entirely he would have still been a very important figure in his field, one of the top magicians of his generation.

I knew before seeing the film that he had come out as gay at a very advanced age (I think in his 80s), though I have no idea if that was any big surprise to the people in his life or if it was one of those “open secret” things, and the film doesn’t address that. I didn’t know that his long term partner was decades younger than him (apparently when they met and became involved with each other, he was in his teens and Randi was in his 50s), nor that a few years ago he got in big trouble for an immigration thing.

The film does a reasonably good job presenting some of Randi’s better known exposés of charlatans and dupes, including befuddling magician and faux psychic Uri Geller on the Tonight Show (Randi wasn’t a guest on the show that night, but he explained to the show’s personnel how to set things up such that Geller could only succeed if he had genuine supernatural powers, which—surprise, surprise—he didn’t), sending a fake “channeler” to Australia to show how easy it is to fool the media, sending fake psychics to work with scientists researching the paranormal to show how easy it is to fool scientists, and revealing that phony Christian, phony faith healer, and phony psychic Peter Popoff was receiving radio messages from his wife in a device in his ear while on stage that gave him information on the people he was talking to that he could pretend he obtained psychically.

Reliving all those was good fun. (Well, except when you remind yourself that when some specific knave or fool is exposed like this it tends to at most cause some minor hiccup in their career, while the general public’s belief in the most ridiculous forms of unsubstantiated woo is barely if at all dented.)

I’d like to have seen more on Randi’s longstanding challenge to anyone claiming paranormal powers that if they could demonstrate their powers under strict scientific controls his organization would pay them $1 million (the prize money started at $1,000 in 1964 and was gradually bumped up until it became $1 million by 1996). Over the years over a thousand people at least started the process by applying, with precisely zero of them carrying it through to the end successfully and manifesting supernatural powers.

Most of the big name charlatans knew to steer very clear of the challenge, so I take it those thousand plus consisted mostly of the few exceptions who thought that they were such clever magicians that they could outwit even a top rate fellow magician and the scientific protocols he implemented and pull off a successful fake, and sincere muddle-headed folks who genuinely believed they had some kind of psychic powers.

I believe the challenge is mentioned in passing once in the film, but that would have been worthy of extended treatment, with examples of various people failing the challenge.

I’d also like to have seen more about critical thinking and science in general to put this kind of debunking in context and explain why it should be no surprise at all that the paranormal folks always fail to prove their claims.

I appreciated the film’s use of interviews with Randi and other commentators to get at the issue of why a magician would feel especially appalled by the antics of the faux paranormalists.

A magician is, in a sense, an “honest liar” as the film title states. That is, a magician seeks to entertain you by fooling you. That’s what you’re paying for. He tells you, in effect, “I’m going to present to you various illusions that make it seem like I’m doing something magic when of course I’m really not.” You pay him money in the expectation of being entertained by make believe, as you would pay the author of a novel or the makers of a fictional movie.

The Uri Gellers of the world, though, violate that code of honest fakery. They tell you that their make-believe magic isn’t an illusion at all but a manifestation of actual supernatural powers. They’re just straightforward liars, taking your money on false pretenses.

A faith healer or a John Edwards doesn’t tell you, “Come be entertained by my pretending to be able to communicate with God or your dead loved ones”; he tells you “Pay me to get God to cure your cancer,” or “Pay me to tell you the message that your grandmother in Heaven has given to me to pass onto you.” They bilk weak-minded people, gullible people, grieving people out of every penny they can get from them. That’s simply not true of honest stage magicians and the kind of fakery and illusion-making that they specialize in.

Really my reaction to the film in general is that too little is covered and what is in there deserved to be covered in greater depth. In other words, it’s too short. It’s an hour and a half, and I’m confident it would have held my interest and that I’d assess it as a better movie if it were double that. Certainly I think it should have been at least two hours.

An Honest Liar didn’t blow me away, but it warrants a recommendation. If it does nothing more than introduce some young people to Randi and his work, it deserves praise.

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