An Honest Liar
In my younger years, I could count myself as one of those who got sucked in to the kind of performances that psychics, ESP artists and other paranormal exhibitioners put on. But the time comes when, as you grow older and develop a healthy scepticism, you have to apply some rationality to such things. Or, at least, that’s what you should do. By the time I hit college, I was free of any notions that spoon bending, faith healing, divining or channelling was in anyway mystical, and interactions with like minded people reinforced that view. And it was in college that I was introduced to the life and times of one James Randi, a former escape artist whose life has been dedicated to the struggle against “flim-flam”. A documentary on his works was enticing, but such projects can easily fall too far into the realms of hero worship. Did directors Tyler Meason and Justin Weinstein avoid this pitfall, or is An Honest Liar, like many of its subjects, all about promotion over substance?
Once a stage magician, then one of the pre-imminent investigators of the paranormal, a now elderly James Randi looks back on a career where he repeatedly butted heads with and outed the purveyors of paranormal hoaxes and religious trickery. Once a master of deception, a significant part of Randi’s life is also a lie, and he might not even know it.
Lacking any outside narrator, James Randi himself opens up this documentary, with a stern lesson to his audience and, maybe, himself: “No matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived”. And perhaps no better man to expound that lesson. Randi built an early career on deceiving an audience with magic tricks and escape art, before becoming a man synonymous with “outing” those who claim to have any kind of psychic or supernatural power, usually doing so with a bluntness and biting wit that made it all the more satisfying, with tonnes of excellent curated archive footage doing the trick to showcase this part of Randi’s life. But in An Honest Liar, through present day handheld follow-arounds, we see sometimes a very different James Randi: an old man in the final years of his life, whose relative serenity is torn apart by some troubling revelations.
Those revelations, and much of An Honest Liar, revolve around Randi’s partner of many decades Jose Alvarez. For a man with a life like Randi, it should come as little surprise that he was, for a long time, a closeted homosexual, and early sections of the documentary portray his partnership with Alvarez in wholesome terms. But it doesn’t take long for things to take a certain direction change, as An Honest Liar recounts how Alvarez was used by Randi as a honeypot-style scam to discredit various media platforms, by pretending to be a conduit of the supernatural.
Such activities go to the heart of the film Meason and Weinstein are making, asking the simple question: “How far do you go with such deceptions before they start to become immoral?” Randi is straightforward in his assessment of those who allow charlatans the platform to sell their deception, or those scientific minds whose methods of analysing the same are less than rigorous. But one can’t help but feel a bit queasy as a recounting is done of some of Randi’s more audacious schemes, the most notable being the infamous “Project Alpha” stunt, a two year deception undertaken by a pair of street magicians, claiming to have psychic powers, who were able to successfully fool a team of scientists on Randi’s instructions for a long period of time. The divide between those out for a quick buck and those attempting to construct a viable, if badly performed, study of paranormal phenomena is starkly portrayed, and figures like Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards seem uncomfortable with the memory of deceiving people they grew to like for so long, all in the name of Randi’s crusade. Was Randi overly-manipulative with them? Perhaps (they were only teenagers at the time), and it adds a shade of grey to his legacy.
But I suppose we can forgive Randi, considering some of the terrible treatment he’s had to put up with. Early in his life and career, he came to understand that being a good magician, and being able to pass yourself off convincingly as a psychic or wielder of supernatural powers, was a powerfully seductive thing, as lines of people suddenly start treating you as some sort of demigod. Some face such a revelation and decide that they can use this power to make money. Randi decided otherwise. A mission to discredit Uri Geller, despite numerous instances of proving him a fake over and over (most notably on the Johnny Carson Show, where Randi’s advice to the producers left Geller completely unable to perform his act), never seems to land properly, with Geller himself, a late interviewee, still blithely insisting that the “belief” of his audience proves his claims, or something, his act so far gone that it is impossible to tell anymore whether Geller actually believes it himself or not, as he namedrops the National Inquirer as a publication in his favour without a hint of irony. The Geller interview is amazingly entertaining really, with the Israeli psychic sounding like a deranged supervillain.
Archive footage shows Randi putting up with dogs abuse for the crime of telling people what they don’t want to hear, whether it is in exposing Geller, or the much worse “faith healer” crowd like Peter Popoff, the investigation into which is similarly impotent: despite Randi’s work in proving definitively that Popoff was a total fraud, he still continued to operate with impunity, despite a brush with bankruptcy. Very few people that Randi enlightens seem happy to be corrected, with the best reaction usually being just surprise and disappointment, and the worst being outright anger and rejection. It is a hard thing to accept, that many people in this world will happily forgo the blindingly obvious in favour of false, yet comforting, tricks and sleight of hand, but An Honest Liar makes the point well.
Those moments form the meat of An Honest Liar, but the production team had to cast the net wider to find a story worth telling. Recounting the life and a career of Randi seemingly wasn’t enough, and through a tangled web of false identities and American immigration law, An Honest Liar moves on to an unexpected conclusion. I’m always wary of biopic documentaries that feature a dramatic ending, and An Honest Liar is one where the whole thing seems rather forced: an attempt is made, somewhat botched, to portray Randi as a man easily fooled himself, who is struggling to deal with a certain level of deception in those close to him. But it doesn’t quite work out: a confessional style interview late on with Randi in his home seemed framed to show a negative side of a man seeking some privacy, but only come out as uncomfortable and a little bit unprofessional from the filmmakers, overegging what I felt was a fairly minor existential crisis within Randi’s mind, a temporary lessening of his innate confidence. Discussing Randi’s homosexuality and how he and others were forced to hide this is one thing, but that is taken to an extreme late on.
In the end, An Honest Liar suffers from a common enough flaw in films of this type: the filmmakers successfully avoid hero worship, but most of the film is basically preaching to the choir. There are no really substantial and incisive attempts at challenging Randi’s message or career here, nothing to make you ponder about whether it was all worth it. Certainly, there is a discussion to be had over whether Randi went too far on occasion, but while those moments are probably the best that An Honest Liar; has to offer, they are disappointingly fleeting. I feel like an entire documentary about “Carlos” or Project Alpha might have been a bit more worthwhile. An Honest Liar won’t be getting any kind of wide release after all, and will probably be sought out by those, like myself, who are already firmly on the side of James Randi and his stated work.
Meason and Weinstein have managed to craft a film that hits the right notes at points and contains a few moments here and there of genuine interest, and the narrative that they have put together is at its highest quality when shining a light less on the psychics Randi has debunked, but more on the audience that sees the debunking and then ignores it, with further discussion of morality in the debunking process also to be enjoyed. But the apparent necessity of present day drama, so that the audience can feel more attached to Randi I suppose, didn’t wow me, with portions of it passing into truly clumsy territory. While admirers of Randi will find much to enjoy here, I do feel like An Honest Liar was, in some respects, a missed opportunity. Still recommended, but with those strings attached.
(All images are copyright of Abramorama).