James Randi has been called many things: magician, illusionist, skeptic, cynic, jerk, grumpy old man. To some, he is an idol in his own rite worthy of praise and adoration for his tireless pursuit of exposing pseudoscience as “flim flam.” In the opposite camp, he’s been lauded as an ill-spirited debunker who doggedly refuses to allow for the possibility of anything beyond the scientifically-accepted view of the world. Perhaps he is both, which makes the title of a new documentary on his life–An Honest Liar–a far deeper revelation of the truth of the man they call “The Amazing Randi”.
Known for so long as an exposer of hoaxes and trickery, even his name is a work of fiction. Born in Toronto in 1928, Randall James Zwinge fell in love with magic at a young age after watching a performance by Harry Blackstone, but it was Harry Houdini who became the greatest influence of the man who would soon perform under the name The Amazing Randi after dropping out of school at 17 and running off to join a carnival. From sideshow act to television illusionist, Randi made it a point to let his audience know that he was about to deceive them. “A good magician has to be a bit of a conman,” he said in one filmed interview for the documentary. “Magicians are the most honest people in the world… they tell you they’re going to fool you and then they do.”
By the 1970s, Randi shifted his focus from illusions to exposing fraud on a grander level. He co-founded the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and immersed himself in what could be described as a witchhunt for psychics, faith healers, mediums. His tireless pursuit of Uri Geller became the stuff of legend. Along the way, Randi orchestrated many elaborate hoaxes of his own, duping many many scientists and media personalities using methods which not only damned some reputations but arguably caused psychological damage as well.
But it’s the strong loving bond between Randi and his artistic and imaginative husband José Alvarez which proved to be a sort of Achille’s heel. Desperate acts to preserve life and liberty became the crux of a great deception. A man who prided himself on exposing the deceit and lies of so many people was suddenly thrust into the limelight again as a man unaware of the biggest lie of all under his own roof. Houdini is often quoted as having said, “There is nothing that a man can make that I can’t get out of.” But escaping chains is a far easier endeavor than escaping truth.
This isn’t a film about whether ghosts, UFOs, psi phenomena, and other fringe subjects are real or not; it’s a film about a mortal man, though some may argue that in some circles, Randi is almost deified by his adoring fans. As with any good documentary, this film approaches everything with an unbiased, unfiltered, and truly honest camera lens. The viewers personal beliefs are not put on trial nor are Randis. It is Randi and his life, behaviors, and influence that are dissected for public view. Randi is a man haunted by something far worse than ghosts: his own words.
As a writer of Fortean phenomena, lover of mysterious oddities, and ghost investigator, you might think I would hate a film on a man such as James Randi. As we see through the films progression, Randi is as human as the rest of us. If you expect to watch An Honest Liar and see the cheerleading idolization of an “amazing” man, you may want to leave your expectations at the door. And there is no better person to analyze with an unbiased scientific lab-condition level of scrutiny than James Randi.
Expect a bit of the unexpected. Uri Geller speaks candidly in a new interview and is given a chance to speak for himself on their long-lived feud. The ethics and morality of some experiments are questioned, and the ending holds a few unexpected surprises dripping with raw emotion from a man too often seen as an actor stoically playing himself as a role on stage or screen.
Whether you love or loathe James Randi, An Honest Liar is a stellar production and a fascinating look into Randi filled with thoughtful interviews with a myriad of interesting people. An Honest Liar premieres in select theaters beginning in New York and Los Angeles in March 2015.