A Commentary & Review of
AN HONEST LIAR
By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Volunteer Director
A Film by Tyler Measom and
Documentary - Biography - Comedy – NR – 90 min.
This was the Society's selection for June 2015
[Spoiler Alert! This commentary exposes some elements of Randi’s story!]
“Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re going to fool you, and then they do it. No matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived. It’s OK to fool people as long as you’re doing that to teach them a lesson, which will better their knowledge of how the real world works.” - James Randi
Such is the premise that begins this bio-documentary about the life of the honest liar, James “the Amazing” Randi. It’s not only a true life tale of a masterful deceiver’s crusade to expose the fakery of charlatans who claim to possess amazing powers, but a very human story about a man caught up in his own self-deceptions, as well.
In the psychological world of Carl Jung, the “trickster” is one of 54 archetypal figures; those outward images of our cultural, collective unconscious. As in mythology, folklore and religion, the trickster is depicted as super-human, or half-human/half-animal, semi-divine, and possessing certain inhuman and extraordinary powers. In actuality, the trickster is accorded these attributes out of an unconscious, human need to believe in the existence of such powers. The trickster is the outward, anthropomorphized image and manifestation of just such a willingness to be deceived and believe.
The “trickster deity” is perceived as having the ability to break the rules of nature and rationality. Hence they can magically bend rigid spoons with only a transfixed stare, pull a rabbit out of a hat, or defying the law of gravity with levitation. But similar to the role of the king’s court jester, the fool and clown, the trickster is also perceived as possessing otherwise-elusive truths and answers that the wisest and most trustworthy advisors cannot discern or conjure up. And therein lies the danger for the trickster to use their powers of deception for good or ill.
“To be an honest liar,” Randi says, “is the difference between using deception to conceal the truth or using deception to reveal the truth.“ The flim-flam man, the con artist, the snake oil salesman and faith healer all have one thing in common. Like the telepathic clairvoyant with ESP, the prophetic soothsayers and fortune-tellers, they all use cheap tricks to manipulate people into believing they possess powers they actually do not have.
For James Randi, that’s the truth, but not all of it. A healthy skepticism about the paranormal is all well and good. But Randi also wants people to replace what is only illusory with human reason and scientific rationality. But when even the scientific community can be duped by one of his hoaxes – not unlike the phony faith healer that not only survives but thrives after being debunked – the hard line between truth and falsehood becomes blurred with the realization of that human longing to believe in the unbelievable; despite the tomfoolery in which it is enacted by the trickster.
Living the Lie
Through the first half of the film, James Randi shows himself to be strong, assertive, and full of self-confidence, waging a war against deception by means of deception. Randi is quick witted, with keen perceptions and a sharp tongue. But he himself waits until he is a bent-over octogenarian before he finally comes out with a truth about himself.
When younger, the escape artist could slip out of a straight jacket while hanging upside down with ease. But it took him 81 years to free himself from an untruth he’d been living with since childhood; when he described himself even then as being unlike the other children, and a bit strange. At sixteen he (literally) ran away to the circus, and didn’t stop running until he could only walk with the aid of a cane.
Once freed, however, it comes with a double whammy, when he discovers he is not the only one who’s been practicing self-deception in the one honest relationship he’s found in his adult life. Ironically, it is this double deception that evokes for the viewer of this film one of the first empathic responses to the personal, emotional side of the trickster. It would seem even truth-tellers can lie, like everyone else, when all any of us really want is the honest truth.
In the end, the “Amazing” Randy is just another human being who wants to not only believe, but know, there is a “magic touch” to be found in another. Jb
Above: “You’ve got the magic touch”: Randi with his life partner, the artist known as José Alvarez.