An Honest Liar amazes at Best of Hot Docs
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/.
Jun 22, 2014 at 11:09am
a parapsychological researcher is NOT a member of the scientific community. its pseudo science at best.
Jun 22, 2014 at 10:28pm
James Randi in an email to Rupert Sheldrake, February 2000: "I overstated my case for doubting the reality of dog ESP based on the small amount of data I obtained. It was rash and improper of me to do so."
Jul 12, 2014 at 12:57am
"a parapsychological researcher is NOT a member of the scientific community. its pseudo science at best."
I am sorry but this is simply wrong. Here are SOME of Sheldrakes credentials
"He studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honours degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize (1963). He then studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow (1963-64), before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry (1967). He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge (1967-73), where he was Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. As the Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society (1970-73), he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University. While at Cambridge, together with Philip Rubery, he discovered the mechanism of polar auxin transport, the process by which the plant hormone auxin is carried from the shoots towards the roots."
So yes Rupert Sheldrake IS a member of the scientific community and I hope others come to challenge you before you go round spreading more outright lies.
Randi on the other hand has no scientific credentials and according to his wiki page did not even receive a normal education dropping out of school after highly sporadic attendance.
I will also leave this here for anyone who is interested in exactly how 'honest' Randi actually is.