Saturday, November 15, 2014

An Honest Liar - Considering James Randi

{Since first posting this, it's been in a state of evolution, but I think this may be my last edit Wednesday 11/19 
Thanks to Gail at the FCFP I realized I short-changed the heart of this review, the documentary and Randi's debunking career. 
I hope to have fixed that. 11/23 }

Last Wednesday {November 12} I learned about a new documentary concerning James “the amazing” Randi, it’s called "An Honest Liar". Unfortunately, it won't be out until early spring. What a shame, because though I'm no movie buff, here was one I wanted to watch.

You see, I grew up watching the "The Amazing Randi" doing incredible stunts on TV during the ’60s and ’70s, then in the 80s I started paying attention to his other career, that of the stinky eye ferreting out frauds.

That started earlier, as the young magician Randi got better he got sick of seeing others using his same tricks not to entertain, but to gain the confidence of innocents in order to steal hard earned money from then. His life long crusade began in 1964 with a thousand dollar challenge for anyone who could offer proof of the paranormal.  The prize went to $10,000, then to a cool million dollar challenge.

The media attention around his crusade was big and it trickled down to young adults such as myself. You know, we of the happy hippie generation, still in the afterglow of discovering and experiencing a wonderfully miraculous world all around us. Spiritual and chemical energy infused everything and there was so much to take in and wonder about. The spiritual and metaphysical seemed interwoven with everything and now science was starting to find supporting evidence.

Then came Randi to remind those of us who would listen about skepticism and turning a critical eye on amazing claims. While these exposures were sobering for many, they enraged just as many who resisted having their bubbles burst.  It’s telling that over a thousand claimants have failed Randi’s “Challenge” yet spiritual/psychic con artists are raking in as much as ever.

Still for many Randi’s interviews were teaching moments of rational critical thinking and he taught many how to recognize bunk. Skills that helped me navigate a world filled with too many predators hiding behind the smiling mask of the con artist.-But all that’s known to me from snippets, various articles and media stories I’ve read. I actually didn’t know much about the man himself. So, reading the synopsis of this documentary, I knew I wanted to see it.

Life is full of surprises. As serendipity would have it, I was reading the program the very afternoon of the evening "An Honest Liar" (Co-Directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, Produced by Duane Andersen ) was being screened in Yountville, California as part of the Napa Valley Film Festival.

Now, I'm just a working stiff, in the area because of a lucky short job I landed and was heading home the next morning. The last thing on my mind was attending the fancy Napa Valley Film Festival, yet that’s were I found myself. Sipping on some Cabernet Sauvignon that proclaimed to me: Now you see? Taste me... look at me... swirl me and breath me in... take your time, savor the moment. Now you see wise guy… you see why some don’t mind dropping a Ben Franklin for a bottle, or a glass; if they can?

With that boisterous glass of wine in hand, I was ready as “An Honest Liar” began with a review of Randi’s career and fun old TV clips.  The film recalled the unmasking of Uri Geller the “psychic” spoon bender who was investigated by some gullible scientists that judged him legitimate, making him a media sensation, then a bust after Randi exposed his tricks.

There was also Reverend Popoff the minister with miraculous telepathic “gifts” - provided by his wife transmitting information gleaned off the prayer cards visitors filled out - into Popoff’s “hearing aid”.  Using that information he mesmerized his flock and proceeded to “heal” his hapless victims and rake in the donations.

It got fascinating when we learn of the various fictitious psychics Randi created. They managed to fool the world despite Randi liberally sprinkling hints.  When Randi wasn’t all hell and brimstone on frauds, he found time to help Alice Cooper create some on stage.

Then came the plot twists, for those of us who haven’t kept up with Randi’s amazing life. There was the surprise of Randi coming out in 2010 and publicly revealing his 25-year partnership with Jose Alvarez, a fascinating survivor and amazing fellow in his own right. Then, while still absorbing all that, we're hit with an even more startling revelation unfolding in real time, heightened by the dead seriousness of jail time and worse. 

After the film was finished, we were treated to a Q/A with Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, the co-directors. They surprised us by announcing a couple visitors, Randi and Alvarez in the flesh.-Watching Randi walk down the aisle, I couldn't help but think that he looks like Charles Darwin in his later years. That’s fitting, though Harry Houdini would probably deserve it more considering he's the grand-daddy of debunking spiritualists and con artists, as Randi acknowledges.

Taking questions, Randi responded to one with something I'd already jotted down in my notes as the single best line in the documentary, "People need to believe.” Later, I had a chance to shake his hand and speak with him. I asked: “OK, people need to believe. – what can we do with that? Where do we go from there?"

He looked at me with those deep intense eyes, shrugged and shook his head for a beat, then perking up: “Teach the young ones.”  Then he reminded me of his foundation and invited me to check it out: - James Randi Educational Foundation - 
in particular

After watching the documentary, I came to appreciate that Randi had given me more than skills to deal with con artists. He'd helped me learn that I was my own toughest challenge – falling in love with my own notions and refusing to acknowledge my own blindspots, being afraid to be proven wrong. Fabricating bubbles of contrived realities in order to justify rejecting contrary evidence, no matter how valid it is.
Those are each of our worst enemies.

And what of our allies? There's the passion to keep learning about this incredible world I inhabit for a short moment. Appreciating that no matter how much I think I may have learned or know, there’s more to learn. Besides, I could be wrong and need to remain willing to honestly listen to and digest new information – then base my belief on the strength of the evidence presented – not on my tender ego or desires. 

If I’m wrong it’s a learning opportunity and not an excuse to lash out against the bearer of better information.

In closing, what I thought would be an entertaining, informative movie about one of the interesting characters of my time turned into an enthralling, even compelling journey of discovery and reflection. It gets my thumbs-up recommendation, with or without an accompanying glass of fine wine.

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For those that want to learn about James Randi's scholarly work, 
check out the Google Scholar search results:

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Napa Valley Film Festival November 2014
Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature 
presented by Sullivan Vineyards goes to AN HONEST LIAR
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“An Honest Liar was a highlight of what had been a very strong documentary program at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. “

This week has four showings (Nov 12,14,15,16) up and down the Napa Valley during their Film Festival.

For more information about the documentary here’s the website for "An Honest Liar"

Out of a half dozen reviews I’ve read in the past couple days, the most serious and true to the spirit of the film seemed to me:  
Film Review: An Honest Liar

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