There’s a sucker born every minute, perhaps, but there are all too few people who try to expose the swindlers, charlatans, and con men who deceive them. Magician James “The Amazing” Randi, the subject of the fantastic documentary “An Honest Liar,” is one such debunker. Directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein show how Randi relentlessly challenged the fake psychic and paranormal claims of folks including mentalist Uri Geller and faith healer Peter Popoff, who use trickery to con people.
Co-director Justin Weinstein knew about Randi from seeing him on TV on programs such as “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” “Happy Days,” and the children’s show “Wonderama.” He said in a recent Skype interview, “I knew who Randi was and about his mission as a skeptical magician. It influenced me as a kid.”
The filmmaker explained that making a documentary on Randi appealed to him because he was interested in “how people could believe things that were demonstratively untrue.”
He also admired Randi because, “He knows how to tell a good story; he’s a showman. But he is doing that in the service of being a truth-teller.”
Randi, who came out at age 81, says, “It is only okay to fool people if you teach them a lesson to show them how the real world works.” When the film reveals a surprising real-world stunner, the film’s message about being taught lessons becomes particularly powerful.
Gay City News spoke via Skype with Randi and his partner, artist José Alvarez.
GARY M. KRAMER: “An Honest Liar" is all about deception, which the film explains can conceal or reveal the truth. You practice it for entertainment purposes, Randi. What can you say about your work versus those charlatans you expose?
JAMES “THE AMAZING” RANDI: Magicians are honest folks — they deceive you the same way an actor fools you. I am an actor as a magician. I play the part of a magician. If you see “Hamlet” and at the end of the play the actor said, “I really am a prince of Denmark,” you would be insulted. But there are folks who say they can look at the stars and tell you the name of your firstborn. Why do people believe one thing and not the other? The psychics don’t say, “I’m going to fool you.” They say, “I’m in touch with Jesus, the spirits, and can see the future and the past.” They take money under false pretenses, and cripple people by causing them mental anguish and deceiving them, without care if they harm them. Tell them to throw away their medicine as Popoff did.
JOSÉ ALVAREZ: People turn to folks like Popoff because they are desperate and think they have no choice. They will try anything, and that’s when these evil people come and take advantage of it. It’s not a lack of intelligence of the victims; they are at a moment in their lives when they want to have their spirits uplifted. They need to believe.
GMK: José, as the film shows, you worked with Randi by pretending to be a channeler named Carlos. What can you say about your experiences with his hoax, which was perpetrated in Australia?
JA: It was done as a vehicle not for duping people, but for the purpose of empowering or informing them about a charismatic figure and how you need to challenge people’s claims — how easy it could be done. It took on a life of its own. It was a hyper-reality. For me, that was what was so revealing — the power of the medium. These folks never heard of Carlos outside of TV, but seeing their faces and how they were not questioning me was shocking. They were enthralled in their own narratives of wanting to believe whoever is on stage.
JR: The reaction in Australia was excellent. We said we’d reveal it when the time came.
JA: It’s interesting that at the same time, the reporters put in the hot seat [by the hoax] got very upset about the project. But they are putting people in that hot seat and questioning them, so the same dynamics should be applied to them!
GMK: Randi, you indicate in the film that people do not want straightforward facts, but would rather have romance and lies. Do you, even with your skepticism, ever find yourself swept up wanting to believe something, or taking something on faith?
JR: I’m willing to take things as they come. I’m not afraid of the truth as reality. I don’t have wishful thinking. I’m pretty free of that. Look me in the eye and tell me.
I’m a professional magician and have been for all of my life. I know how things are done. The signs are right there. I’ve never had a problem solving how they do their psychic tricks.
JA: There’s a lack of understanding, of critical thinking about how things should work.
JR: I am an atheist because I kept asking for proof. The Bible wasn’t enough proof for me. They didn’t have the answers that satisfy me, and I didn’t find any evidence that a 2,000-year old story was true. I have belief in the basic goodness of our species. There are some evil folks, though. Look at the news. But you have to have bravery and courage to face the world as it is. You got to have G-U-T-S.
GMK: Speaking of courage, you came out at age 81. What prompted that?
JR: I was fortunate to see “Milk.” That film affected me a great deal. I didn’t find any real necessity before then. When I was a teen, if you came out you’d be ostracized. You didn’t think about it. Things changed. I’m fully grown up now. The film inspired me.
JA: We were watching “Milk,” and it was a powerful film. I remember that Randi was very pensive. The following day, he handed me a piece of paper and said, “Read this.” It was his coming out letter. It shocked me. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He said, “Yes, I am.” I also think that he was thinking about how his whole life was about truth-telling.
AN HONEST LIAR | Directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein | Abramorama | Opens Mar. 6 | Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves. | landmarkth