An Honest Liar

I was talking to my friend who is a member of the magic circle yesterday about how I watched a documentary about The Amazing Randi and he surmised that I must have too much free time on my hands. This is true, but I didn’t watch this documentary because of this but rather because it was a Storyville pick, and Storyville sure damn well know how to curate good documentary. An Honest Liar, or Exposed: Magicians, Psychics and Frauds, follows the life and career of The Amazing Randi, a magician and debunker/truth teller.

I quite like magic. When I was young I watched The Masked Magician, and I even went to see David Blaine when he was in a box in London (not worth the journey). I had never heard of The Amazing Randi, but from the sounds of it he was quite a big deal in the magic world.

In short, the film follows his early career as an escape artist/magician/illusionist and then looks at his ‘debunking’ of religious healers, notably Peter Popoff, psychics, and University investigations into psychic powers. It then followed his relationship with his long-term partner.

People like honesty. People like to be impressed.

The reason that people go to watch magic shows is for the latter reason. Most are aware that magic is just trickery and that no real supernatural forces are being applied, but some people still choose to believe that this is the case anyway. Randi was an exceptional magician and escape artist, and without this type of talent the latter part of the film probably would have never been able to occur. Randi made a living for the first part of his life by impressing people with magic, and in the second part by being honest with people, exposing the tricksters.

None of this is real.

What is real?

Randi criticized and eventually exposed a number of psychics and faith healers but still supporters of these people chastised Randi and called him a liar. Belief is a crazy thing, and it’s mildly shocking that even when people are presented with an empirical truth they continue to believe otherwise. Some people use their ability for trickery for bad. As Randi pointed out, when it comes to faith healing you are putting people in a dangerous position as they may decide to forego their prescribed medication or not wear glasses or walk without a stick, thus putting them at risk.

Popoff was exposed as not actually having any psychic powers or being spoken to by God, instead being fed information by his wife. Still, Popoff continued to have a successful career after he was exposed, give or take a bankruptcy or two, because people wanted to believe. The same goes with Uri Geller. Randi was able to perform all of Geller’s tricks and even able to fool scientists that tested Geller by having two magicians pretend to be psychics and pass the psychic test.

The film points out over and over again that Randi was doing these things for good. Of course he was, he was trying to stop people from getting fooled. In the section with Project Alpha, the magicians posing as psychics in a university experiment, it really went to show how far people were willing to go to ‘prove’ that psychics exist. It was surprising that the scientists were willing to bend the rules in order to show that their hypotheses were correct, and the two magicians described how bad they felt about fooling these people as the time went on even if it was for the greater good. People that are successful at fooling people, whether this be by magic, psychic powers, faith healing powers, or whatever, will always be able to make a living out of it once they have reached a level of success as, frankly, people want to believe what they want to believe.

Randi ended his magic career in his 50s after he nearly died doing an escape from a sealed container filled with water. That’s just a fun fact for your enjoyment.

The other part of the documentary follows Randi’s personal life, mostly his relationship with José Alvarez. Randi came out as gay aged 81 having been in a relationship with José for 25 years. Honesty. That’s important. But then, dun dun duuun, Alvarez is arrested for identity theft. His real name is Deyvi Peña who supposedly stole José Alvarez’s identity after his student visa ran out as returning to Venezuela he would be in danger of being attacked for being a homosexual. Peña is arrested during filming, which is a happy coincidence really for the filmmakers. They then interview Randi who admits, after some coercing and promising that this footage wouldn’t be shown (titles at the end say that Randi later agreed for the showing of all interview footage) that he knew that Peña had stolen Alvarez’s identity but was willing to protect him as he would have not been well off if he was deported. In the end Peña has to serve a short jail term and do some community service. No biggy. But the real question here is: is Randi the one that was being fooled all along?!?!

7/10 – solid documentary, interesting subject. The ending dragged on a bit.

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