Movies: An Honest Liar

I don't know how I grew up without knowing of "The Amazing Randi," though I can hazard a guess. Still, I'm glad this film acquainted me with him.

James Randi is a magician who made a name for himself as a Houdini-like escape artist. But his secondary occupation is as a debunker of so-called psychics and faith healers, or basically anyone who uses trickery to deceive the public. One of Randi's biggest feuds has been with Uri Geller. He also went after Peter Popoff, revealing how he and his wife used radio to make it seem like Popoff was receiving information from God during revivals.

Here's the part where I figure I never heard about Randi: I grew up in a religious household. Tent revivals and large Christian conferences were pretty common in my youth, and then . . . They sort of trickled away. Now, looking at Wikipedia, I see the cessation happened around the same time Randi unveiled the truth about Popoff. My guess is Randi was not a welcome name in my family's circles.

So this is an interesting little documentary about Randi's work as a magician and debunker, though we learn very little about him as a person. Maybe that's the great obfuscation here. We do hear of his partner (now husband) and the long-running lie that entails, so there is an interesting juxtaposition of this man whose crusade for truth and honesty is partially rooted in deception. But it's a lie of another kind; Randi does not lie about his work. Nor does he reveal the tricks of his trade. While the movie demonstrates several tricks in order to prove so-called psychics are only doing simple stage magic, it takes care not to tell how the tricks are done.

And the film is remarkably even-handed. Though Randi is the central focus, An Honest Liar does not actively appear to choose sides. Uri Geller is featured, defending his position. Audiences shout down Randi, telling him his disbelief is what keeps him from tapping into his natural psychic abilities. I think the lesson here is that people don't much appreciate having their beliefs ripped away from them.

I do wish there were a bit more cohesiveness, more narrative to the movie. It touches on the Geller thing, the Popoff thing, some Stanford "experiments," but lacks true structure. Rather like a sandcastle, crumbling at the edges.

On the whole, it's an interesting film that runs slightly too long and would have benefitted from more solid content. But I'm glad to have learned (very late in the game) about Randi and his work. Will probably look up a few of his books to see if they have more to offer.

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