Thursday, July 9, 2015

An Honest Liar - Movie Review

I got excited when I switched on Netflix last night to see that An Honest Liar was available to stream. It's a documentary featuring one of my personal heroes, James Randi. I've written about his role in my journey from theist to skeptic/atheist before, so he's obviously an important person to me. I've read most of his books, and I saw the old NOVA special that featured him, so I did have some concern that it was merely going to tell me stuff that I already knew. While there certainly was some overlap, I was really impressed with the insights given into the master debunker/magician's life.

If you've never heard of James Randi, he started off as a magician, and he had made several television appearances as "The Amazing Randi" going back to the mid 1950s. By the 1970s, he started to become famous for being a master debunker. It all started with so-called "psychic" Uri Geller, who could supposedly bend spoons with his mind (although he suspiciously always needed to have them in his hands). Randi showed that he could duplicate all of Geller's feats using pure magician's trickery. From there, he went on to debunk psychic surgeons, dowsers, faith healers, etc., even offering a one million dollar prize to anybody who could demonstrate paranormal/psychic phenomenon under proper test conditions. (Many have tried, nobody has succeeded.)

Anybody who knows me can see why this man is one of my heroes. I love a good debunking, and while it's probably not an admirable trait, I enjoy bursting people's bubbles. (This is why I would just LOVE IT if global warming was a big hoax, but as a proper skeptic, I have to go with the evidence and admit that it's happening.)

Without spoiling any specifics of the movie, here are the things that I found enlightening:

1. Exposing somebody as a fraud doesn't ruin their careers. There are several cases, including the time Randi ensured that Geller wasn't going to be able to use any magician's tricks on The Tonight Show, which resulted in Geller failing miserably and making excuses as to why he couldn't perform his "psychic" feats.

There was also the time that Randi exposed Peter Popoff, a supposed faith-healer who seemed to be getting messages directly from God, only to have it turn out to be Popoff's wife talking to him through a wireless set.

In both cases, if we lived in a world that made sense, both of those men would have seen the end of their careers. And while their stars faded a bit, they still managed to continue on selling their snake oil to the masses.

The sad truth that Randi had to learn - as did I - is that most people don't really want to know what's true. If you ask them, they'll say that they do, but if somebody wants to believe something, nothing will stop them from believing it, and they'll keep finding excuses as to why they should keep believing it.

This is something that has taken me until fairly recently to make peace with. I remember when I read Randi's book, Flim Flam!, which exposed all kinds of frauds; I lent it out to a relative. I'm not even sure if that person read it, because she insisted that she wanted to believe in the things he debunked. For me, when I find out that I might be genuinely wrong about something, I want to know. And when I find out that I am wrong, I want to tell everybody about it. The assumption that I had to get over is thinking that everybody else cares, but they don't.

2. We get to learn about Randi's personal life. I had never known this until he came out a few years ago, but Randi is a gay man and has been living with his partner (now spouse, as the two were legally married) for the past couple decades. Their relationship takes up a fairly large portion of the film, as it turns out that Jose Alvarez, Randi's spouse, was convicted of identity theft. It's ironic in many ways considering that Randi is a man who's devoted to exposing the truth. And it's doubly interesting because Jose was a part of one of Randi's biggest tricks, where Alvarez pretended to be able to channel a spirit and managed to fool many people before revealing that it was all a hoax.

There's a really contentious scene in the movie where Randi seems like, in at least one aspect of his life, that he was more of a liar than an "honest liar". This didn't bother me, as I never think of my personal heroes as being perfect, and I know that everybody can be dishonest in the right situation. Still, by the time it's all over, Randi comes out as once again being the most honest guy who's really good at lying.

3. Uri Geller is interviewed. - This really surprised me. At first I thought that it might be some archival footage, but it seems pretty clear that he was interviewed just for the documentary. I tell ya, the most talented writer in the world couldn't create a more fitting character foil for James Randi than Uri Geller. The two of them really are flip sides of the same coin, and you get a great sense of that in the Geller interviews. It actually made me despise Geller a little less as a human being, but I still think that what he did was pretty deplorable.

Overall, it was a pretty moving film, and it wasn't shy about delving into the potential problems when it comes to debunking miraculous claims. Randi is often the mastermind, and he employs others to go about tricking people only to later reveal that it's all a trick. It's a bit easier for him to be behind the scenes of the whole thing, but it's harder for his accomplices when they have to actually deliberately deceive their fellow human beings.

People don't like being tricked, and most of us like to think that we're too smart for that sort of a thing. Perhaps the first step is to convince people that no matter how smart you are, you can be fooled. From there, we need to get people to value truth, which is easier said than done. At least we have guys like James Randi to help show us the way.

1 comment:

Give Measom said...

A really great review of An Honest Liar. Thank you - Tyler Measom (co-director)