To call James Randi divisive would be something of an understatement. As far as his adherents are concerned, the retired stage magician known as the Amazing Randi is a symbol of rationalism in a world beset by fools, charlatans, and magical thinking. To his critics, he’s a cantankerous bully and a pseudo-skeptic whose tactics have become an affront to true scientific inquiry. Even though the documentary An Honest Liar hews strongly to the first position, it deserves to be seen by both sides. As the title implies, while James Randi was very publicly debunking—with a true showman’s flair—such figures as fraudulent faith healer Peter Popoff, he was also concealing a few heavy truths about his own life. And for the first time in a long career, the legendarily arrogant 85-year-old conjurer appears vulnerable.
“He does have skeletons in his closet. As everyone does, if you will,” says codirector Tyler Measom, speaking to the Straight from Salt Lake City, Utah. “I think he definitely went through a hard period, but over the years, of late, he’s really softened. He’s not what he once was. He’s not the angry man that he was in the ’70s. But for a while it was kind of his shtick, and in a lot of ways it turned people off. He questions everything people hold dear, and when you do that, you’re bound to piss a few people off. And they’re bound to piss you off a little bit.”
Measom and his filmmaking partner Justin Weinstein spent two years with Randi, unexpectedly capturing an event that brought cosmic-size irony crashing down on a life that had been dedicated to exposing liars, cheats, and scoundrels. “It took this incident for us to see not just the Amazing Randi, but James Randi,” says Measom. All is revealed in the film, which screens at the Vancity Theatre on Saturday (June 21) and Thursday (June 26) as part of this year’s Best of Hot Docs series. But Measom and Weinstein fold the story into a sort of greatest-hits package. The epic, decades-long battle between Randi and spoonbender Uri Geller gives the film its arc, sitting among archival footage of such other stunts as “Carlos”, a fake channeller who was coached by Randi and sent to Australia with a slew of faked press notices. Everyone fell for it.
Measom’s own exile from the Mormon faith in which he was raised has left him, he says, with “my own vengeance against deceitfulness”. It’s to his credit that An Honest Liar doesn’t shy from questioning some of Randi’s ethics over the years. The extremely elaborate operation he ran against Washington University’s McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research in the late ’70s comes off as cruel and unnecessarily humiliating, not to mention basically unfair. But Measom and Weinstein also avoid the harsher criticism Randi and his James Randi Educational Foundation have faced from the scientific community. Notably, a recent dustup with parapsychological researcher Rupert Sheldrake left JREF looking particularly shabby. “We couldn’t get into every person or thing or incident,” Measom offers in defence. We’re still left with a humanizing portrait of a man whose legacy is much greater than most people probably realize.
The Best of Hot Docs kicks off on Friday (June 20) with 112 Weddings. Other films in the series include I Am Big Bird (June 20 and June 26) and Slums: Cities of Tomorrow (June 22). More info is at www.viff.org/.