Things are not always as they appear in An Honest Liar, a film in which misdirection and a carefully constructed series of narrative revelations result in the film’s structure emulating its subject matter. This wonderful documentary, directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, provides an insightful look into the fascinating life of famed magician and debunker of supernatural scams, James ‘The Amazing’ Randi.
For those not in the know (like me), James Randi started out his career as a Canadian “mentalist” and “psychic” in the 1940s, after being inspired to learn the tricks of the trade by the performance of well regarded magician, Harry Blackstone, as a teenager. Randi we are told, had an incredible talent for the art of misdirection, and gained a significant degree of success early on, performing widely across Canada and writing regularly for the press. But it was only after his profile began to grow, and people started approaching him in the street to ask for his insights on their personal lives, that he had a revelation: “People actually believe this crap.”
The thought horrified Randi, and the moral implications of his actions weighed heavily upon his shoulders. The idea that people were placing their faith in psychics and mentalists, and making life choices based upon the advice they were being given, outraged Randi. As a result, he made a change, and dedicated a large part of his life to the debunking of claims by mystics, psychics, mentalists and other alleged miracle workers. It turns out that this was a good career choice for Randi, who went on to become one of the most successful magicians of the twentieth century, and the greatest escape artist since Harry Houdini.
It is Randi’s work as a debunker that makes up the primary focus of An Honest Liar, along with elements of misdirection that surround his personal life and his relationship with long-time partner, José Alvarez. Randi’s career is fascinating, and the film’s real joys come from watching him in action. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing him expose the truth about evangelical preacher Ted Popoff’s mentalist epiphanies; demonstrating the trickery of famed psychic, Uri Geller; scientifically proving the fallibility of parapsychological testing; and fooling entire nations in the interest of making a point. At times, the ethics of Randi’s methods are problematic, and the filmmakers should be given credit for making these issues clear – but it’s clear whose side they’re one.
An Honest Liar nicely juxtaposes Randi’s career and personal life, which, in many ways, mirror each other. Both, it is suggested, are fascinating achievements by an imperfect but impressive master of deceit. There is an air of melancholy about the film, as Randi notes the seemingly unwinnable nature of his mission. Very few of the individuals that he has debunked have actually stopped their actions as a result – Popoff now sells miracle spring water, and Geller appears on numerous TV shows, including to sell jewellery on shopping networks that “channels the power of the cosmos”
The appearance of high profile magicians, associates, scientists and debunkers like Penn & Teller, Bill Nye, Alice Cooper and Adam Savage lends the film a significant degree of weight that might otherwise be missing. Randi is clearly the magician’s magician, and the enthusiasm of these interviewees is obvious. An Honest Liar is an unmissable look at the art of misdirection, and a reminder that even the smartest individuals can be misled by a master of deceit. Thankfully, James Randi is out there to keep an eye on things.
A capsule review from the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.