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Exposing the charlatans

by Brian Bromberger

Exposing the charlatans

We live in the age of alternative facts, a euphemism for falsehoods. The same distinction could be applied to the honest fakery work of James "The Amazing" Randi, whose life and mission are profiled in the entertaining documentary "An Honest Liar," first released in 2013 but given new life on PBS' "Independent Lens" series to commemorate Randi's 90th birthday. The movie can be streamed for free until year's end on PBS' website. It deserves to be rediscovered in the era when the U.S. President lies about events and a portion of the U.S. electorate believes him. Randi's decades-long campaign to expose shameless charlatans and frauds seems more crucial today than during his heyday in the 1970s and 80s.

Randi, born in Toronto in 1928, was inspired by the magician Harry Blackstone, who ran away to join a circus at age 17 to become an illusionist, following in the footsteps of his idol Harry Houdini. Vintage archival clips show the charismatic Randi performing daredevil tricks such as hanging upside-down trying to squirm his way out of a straightjacket while a chanteuse sings "You've Got the Magic Touch," timing his escape with the end of the song. He became known as the man no jail could hold, becoming a pop culture institution, appearing on TV's "Happy Days" as himself.

Randi came close to out Houdini-ing Houdini with record-breaking breakouts from caskets and cages, but had a close call that almost killed him, trying to get out of a closed milk vat. Realizing he was getting too old to continue in the escape business, again following Houdini's lead, he dedicated his life to exposing fakery. Randi was fine with magic as entertainment, observing, "Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they're going to fool you, and they do." But deception by people using trickery for their own gains was unacceptable.

So Randi began exposing people like evangelical faith healer Peter Popoff, who claimed to heal ill people through God telling him the names and addresses of sick audience members. In fact his wife was feeding him this information through a tiny radio earpiece. Randi loved to go on "The Tonight Show" and publicly embarrass people like Popoff. His nemesis was telekinetic Israeli psychic sensation Uri Geller, who claimed to be able to bend spoons and keys with his mind. Working with NBC's prop department, he rigged Geller's live "Tonight Show" appearance so he couldn't do his act "because the energy was weak." In one of the great exposures in TV history, Randi showed audiences he, too, could bend spoons with "magic."

Randi also wanted to foil spirit channelers like Ramtha, allegedly possessed by a 30,000-year-old spirit. He arranged for a Venezuelan teenager, Jose Alvarez, to become Carlos, a channeler coached by Randi, inventing false press articles about his psychic powers. Carlos became a sensation in Australia, then appeared on their version of "60 Minutes" to admit it was all a hoax. The intergenerational relationship between the two men has lasted for 30 years, culminating in their 2013 marriage. Randi publicly came out in 2010 at age 82.

Randi's "Project Alpha" grew out of his being upset at Stanford University studying and legitimizing Uri Geller. He convinced two associates, Michael Edwards and Steve Shaw (the mentalist Banachek), to pose as psychics who had telekinetic powers, to convince researchers they were authentic. At the study's conclusion, Shaw and Edwards admitted they had cheated. Directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein interview Shaw and Edwards, who show remorse in leading on the researchers for two years. They raise the issue of whether Randi used unethical methods to deceive these well-intentioned scientists. There lies the deeper question about whether people care they're being deceived. Randi says it's easier to convince people of what they want to believe than of what is the truth.

Randi is fond of commenting that everyone can be deceived. This is illustrated poignantly when the filmmakers reveal that Randi's partner Jose was not who he said he was, and had adopted a stolen identity. Viewers are left wondering whether Randi was himself duped.

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