At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

AN HONEST LIAR

By • Jul 21st, 2015 •

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AN HONEST LIARwell maybe

It is the perfect time to review AN HONEST LIFE. TAM13, The Amazing Meeting: A Celebration of a Reasoned Life, produced by The James Randi Educational Foundation will be held at the Tropicana Las Vegas from July 16-19, 2015,

For truth in advertising, first you should be aware that my wife Victoria and I know many of the people interviewed for this documentary about James Randi, a Canadian-American retired stage magician. Randi is best known for his challenges to paranormal claims and what he considers pseudoscience. Many of the incidents described are familiar to me and some have additional back stories not seen in the film and thus this review may seem a bit biased.

From a documentary film perspective, the mechanics are pretty good. Obviously a lot of research went into making the movie and a great deal of archival footage is included. Working with an egocentric personality such as Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, aka “the Amazing Randi”, must have been challenging. As an example of his self-indulgence my first contact with him was by letter many years ago. The return address was simply RANDI in one-inch letters along the left side of the envelope. The letterhead was again RANDI, but in three-inch high font. He advised me to ‘just read his book and I’d understand the error of my way of thinking’.

Viewers might be surprised to learn that Randi’s sexual orientation plays such a prominent role in the film. For decades there were rumors, but at the time the world was less forgiving. What is displayed in the documentary is brutally honest and taken to a surprising degree. Randi’s relationship with his protégé – known as Jose Alvarez – should cause even his detractors to consider the personal angst and ultimate humanity of the man.

Photo of the author with Ray Hyman and James Randi

In 2010, influenced by MILK, the story of the first openly gay city manager in San Francisco, Randi came out and acknowledged Alvarez as his life partner. Then in 2013 Alvarez was arrested and it was learned his real name was Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga, an illegal alien from Colombia, not Puerto Rico. Following Pena’s release from federal prison the two were married.

In 1976 Randi was instrumental in the creation of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal better known as CSICOPs. As an “honest liar” Randi purports to be a “skeptic” whereas his adversaries would place him as a “debunker”. The difference being that skeptics have an open mind, which does not appear to be the case with Randi or CSICOPs.

While the documentary generally avoids a discussion of religion it is fundamentally germane to understanding the motivations of Randi and most CSICOPs members. With a diehard materialist worldview they generally espouse atheism. As a consequence, if some of the reported phenomena were real, their entire belief system would collapse. Randi’s dodge slips by quickly in the documentary when he notes, “I never said these things don’t happen.” In a brief discussion with his ardent supporter, Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller) told me, “I’d die for Randi.” My response was, “That is an option.” While he hasn’t followed through, Penn is known for his anti-religion rants. Imagine his surprise if the near-death experience research was on to something real.

It is significant to note that there is an important point of agreement between Randi and me; that is, that charlatans can cause severe damage and should be exposed. This is especially true in health care circumstances when knowing medical frauds extract money from desperate families. Unfortunately, the practice does happen with alarming frequency, but Randi’s broad-brush approach paints all faith healing as fraud. He has specifically attacked Jaõa de Deus, of Abadiânia, Brazil, an acclaimed healer with an established track record. For questions of authenticity just ask world renowned motivational speaker Wayne Dyer about his spontaneous remission from leukemia after a remote session conducted by Jaõa de Deus. Having visited Jaõa de Deus twice in Abadiânia, I was very impressed that there was never a request for money for any treatment given, not even a passing of a collection plate, common in American churches.

Uri Geller plays interesting – albeit disparate – roles in the documentary. One is arch rival to Randi, and another as a commentator about the activities included in the program. Of course, the famous Uri Geller appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson is recounted. Uri failed to find an object hidden among several sealed canisters.

Over the decades they have contentiously, yet even symbiotically, interacted, at times in court. To appear to diminish Geller’s success, the documentary is edited to include a segment of him selling items on the QVC television channel as if that was the level to which he had fallen. There is a brief mention of his efforts in searching for minerals but it fails to include his prodigious successes. As an example, for assisting Pemex in offshore oil exploration, the president of Mexico made him a citizen of their country.

The ad hominem denigration is used with others as well. Specifically, it is mentioned that Russell Targ, a laser physicist then working at SRI, was legally blind and disparaged his ability to observe the psi experiments. Like the QVC clip, while technically true, it is far from an accurate portrayal of Targ and his work at SRI. Both Targ and the other principal investigator, theoretical physicist Harold Puthoff, followed very strict control protocols when testing Geller. Also not mentioned are that many, but not all, of the feats accomplished by Geller, were later replicated by other subjects in several laboratories, but without as much notoriety.

Photo of Victoria Alexander, Uri Geller & the author

Of course, the infamous spoon-bending experiences were depicted. There is no doubt that Randi adroitly demonstrates a form of prestidigitation when physically manipulating spoons on camera. The inference is that spoon-bending is simply a trick.

Not mentioned are the extensive efforts of aerospace engineer Jack Houck who took the concept to a whole new level. Houck used Geller’s experience as a model then created what is popularly known as spoon-bending parties (PKMB) in which random people (i.e. off the street with no training) would experience the effects. While most of the bending can be written off, there were numerous instances of anomalous macro-psychokinetic events that defy the known laws of physics. As one who learned spoon-bending from Jack Houck, I have personally witnessed several such theoretically impossible events. In another point of mutual agreement with Randi, I encourage and support observations by unbiased magicians. During the U.S. Army research into PKMB we had several of them involved.

Regarding a related effort the documentary covers Project Alpha in considerable detail. This entailed the efforts of two young magicians functioning under Randi’s guidance, to deceive researchers at a paranormal laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis that was funded by James McDonnell, then chairman of McDonnell Douglass. In fact the two magicians were quite successful and managed to get the researchers to validate their demonstrations as legitimate PKMB when it was not. According to Randi the researchers ignored the proposed protocols he submitted to the lab, that if strictly implemented, should have prevented the magicians from fooling them.

Photo of Hal Puthoff & the author

Praiseworthy in Randi’s debunking efforts was exposing televangelist Peter Popoff as a complete fraud. Drawing huge crowds Popoff was making a fortune from his naïve audience. Seeming to know information about them, Popoff would surprise his marks by calling their name and describing their current medical conditions. With a little electronic surveillance equipment it was determined that Popoff’s wife was backstage feeding him the information taken from cards the members had filled out on arrival. Randi’s agents were even able to tape record the radio transmissions and then played them publicly, bringing shame to Popoff and labeling him as a fraud. This expose is included in the film. What may be even more surprising is that Popoff is back on television today and still attracting large audiences.

For the “skeptical” point of view, AN HONEST LIAR, is worth the time. It is unapologetically biased and only part of the story. For those predisposed to belief in various phenomena this serves as an appropriate warning, caveat emptor. There are dishonest charlatans in the world.

Produced, written and directed by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom,
Running time 93 minutes.

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