It is always a pleasure to find a documentary where the defining element (in this case deception: purposeful—magicians; profitable—faith healers) and the subject (Justin Weinstein’s and Tyler Measom’s film centres around Canada’s Houdini: James “The Amazing” Randi) veer spectacularly off course during the shoot in a manner that, nonetheless, is at one with the filmmakers’ intent.
The production begins innocently enough as the long-ago feats of Randi making his escape from all manner of ropes, handcuffs and straitjackets provide the historical creds for the conjurer who literally ran away from home at seventeen to join the circus and never looked back.
His exploits were duly noted by the media—especially when he found his true calling: to expose shameless charlatans who use a wide variety of tricks and lies to deceive the unwitting public even as they parted with their cash. These psychics and healers fuelled the magician’s rage to the point that he took great delight in outing their physical frauds on national television (notably robbing Uri Geller of the opportunity to cement his reputation by choosing the ball-containing cylinder on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson). Himself a frequent guest, Randi conspired with the producers to ensure the publicity hound’s appearance would fail. Astonishingly, that botched sleight of hand did not end Geller’s career, merely detouring it.
A better ending awaited Peter Popoff when his techniques for “hearing the voice of God” as he cured eager disciples of cancers, lumps, deafness, et cetera was actually an act of very local broadcast technology. Bankrupt for a time, the unrepentant Popoff managed to salvage his bible thumping ministry, albeit with far fewer miracles.
On several occasions, Randi’s modus operandi consisted of creating a false prophet, sending him out into the unsuspecting world, then unmasking the deception in a very public fashion (of David Wants to Fly cross-reference below). No soothsayer could have foreseen that the young man who fronted the made-up Carlos would fall deeply in love with his creator. Ironically, we first meet the handsome José Alvarez—setting the stage for marvellous ironies to come—on an episode of To Tell the Truth.
Then, incredibly, on September 9, 2011, the 25-year partnership seems about to vanish faster than a playing card in Randi’s hand. This unexpected turn of events provides the cinematic knockout punch of demonstrating conclusively that liars and those generous with the truth abound on all sides of the moral equation. Suddenly the film loses its magic and becomes a cautionary tale for what seems and what is regarding the human experience.
A few questions remain: What have the filmmakers failed to reveal? (Selective narrative can always play fast and loose with the facts.) What really forged the younger/older relationship way back when?
But hold on, let’s not be cynical. As surely as there were weapons of mass destruction, there’s no reason to doubt a single frame of this thought-provoking gem. JWR