Saturday, April 25, 2015

Honest Liar (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

An Honest Liar

Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom are directors known for their hard hitting subjects. They both have provocative documentaries under their belts, from The Latter Day Saints (Sons of Perdition) to the dynamic puppeteer Kevin Clash (Being Elmo).

In "An Honest Liar" they give a vivid portrait of the legendary magician James Randi.

Known as "The Amazing Randi,"he is the consummate showman. He popularized magic in much the same way as Carl Sagan made science accessible. He became legendary in the 1970s and  80s, appearing on everything from Johnny Carson to "Happy Days". A famous Randi byline became "The Man No Jail Can Hold".

Randi began his TV career in the late 50s with a children's show, then evolved into a "conjurer," an incarnation of Houdini as a household name.

With colorful segments and interviews, the magician emerges as a wise and charismatic person who in his later years bears a resemblance to the iconic poet Allen Ginsberg. Although much of the narrative focuses on Randi's battle with believers of the paranormal, more interesting perhaps is his romance with Carlos Alvarez, a painter, whose psychedelic landscapes seem to smile and propel in forward motion. Alvarez joined Randi in a performance of supposed spirit possession in order to prove that most all supernatural phenomena are in reality dreams in scarlet smoke. Alvarez went in front of many cameras as a omnipotent spirit who knew all. The two formed both a partnership and a romance that was to prove unbreakable, even in the face of Alvarez's troubled past due to bigotry that at one point has all the qualities of a film noir drama.

Much of the film highlights the vivacious magician pursuing his quarry: a theatrical Uri Geller who states he is a genuine psychic. Geller achieved worldwide fame bending metal with his mental capacities. Comical and riveting it is to see The Amazing Randi stalk Geller like a starry eyed vampire hunter. On The Tonight Show, Randi advised the prop-master to put rubber cement on the bottoms of his moving canisters.  Suddenly Geller felt "weak". He couldn't perform telekinesis.

Uri Geller remained undaunted, becoming a mineral dowser for corporations.

Randi too, is just as irrepressible, however, locating unscientific trickery and the duping for dollars wherever and whenever he can.

For him psychics who use illusion for commerce and wisdom are dangerous. A con-man or magician is okay only if he teaches you a lesson," he says. To Randi, when a magician presents his elements as hard science, as in spiritualism or healing acts, the person becomes toxic and a personal war is declared. When he brings his findings to Carson, the host is near speechless and this vignette is one of the film's best and most topical moments.

But who has the last laugh in "An Honest Liar"? Perhaps that distinction goes to Uri Geller, gloating on the the imagined defeat of this illusionist's quest for science: "Look at all the TV shows and movies...UFOs and "Paranormal Activity." You have billions of believers, no one can touch that," says Geller, flashing a Hollywood smile.

While James Randi, an entertainer who employs the whimsy of Robin Williams with the logic of Sam Harris accepts that point, he offers without any sleight of hand that a more knowledgeable choice does exist and it remains ours to make.

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