Wednesday, August 24, 2016

An Honest Liar

Year 8, Day 237 - 8/24/16 - Movie #2,432

BEFORE: As I did the other night with the cartoonist films, I'm going to drop in a short one tonight before the main feature.  But I don't think this one should count toward the total, because it's technically not a film - it's an episode of the "American Masters" show on PBS, called "Ricky Jay: Deceptive Practice".  I recorded it and put it on a DVD with "An Honest Liar" because it filled the space, and also went along thematically.  "An Honest Liar" also aired on PBS around the same time, but that aired as part of the "Independent Lens" series, which is a showcase for films.  So maybe I'm drawing a fine line between the two pieces, but that's where I've chosen to draw it.  One counts because it was meant to have a theatrical release, the other was made for TV.

I like Ricky Jay, and not just because he's been in a fair amount of David Mamet films - he does some amazing things with playing cards, and although I've never caught him in one of his off-Broadway shows, he seems like the type of magician I prefer, from the sort of Penn & Teller school.  But Ricky's been around longer, I think - the "American Masters" episode shows him appearing on a lot of older talk shows, with Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin and such.  And he was hurling cards into watermelons since before it was cool.  He also has great stories about getting into magic as a young boy and meeting or being trained by many of his idols, so he's become this sort of fountain of information about circus sideshow performers and the great illusionists of the vaudeville age, and even before. 

He didn't reveal how any of his tricks are done, of course, because that's more of a Penn & Teller thing, and also the focus of tonight's film, James Randi, aka The Amazing Randi.

THE PLOT: The life and career of the renowned stage magician turned scientific skeptic of the paranormal, James Randi.

AFTER:  You'd better sit down, America, because we need to have a serious conversation about magic.  And by that I mean magic tricks, the art of illusion.  I worry about you, America, because we've sort of reached the point as a country that our politicians can lie right to our faces, and many of you don't bother to fact-check or even think about what you're hearing, whether it makes any sense.  Because it's loud, and said with urgency, and seems to touch on some commonly held belief about Mexicans, or black voters, or missing e-mails, then you tend to believe it.  Do I really have to remind you that a little research, just a tad, would confirm whether a "fact" is true or not?  (Damn it, but we have a name in our language for these little things, factoids, which are supposed to entertain or enlighten, but don't necessarily have to have any truth in them.  We should not even have a word for such a thing.)

Because, really, what we're talking about here are magic tricks - and you tend to fall for those too.  Remember David Blaine?  And that time David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty "disappear"?  Come on, you KNOW that's not possible, but you want to hold on to that piece of your childhood, that time in your life when anything was possible, and you want to believe it's true.  But that Copperfield thing?  Turns out that he, and the audience, and the TV cameras and everything were on a rotating stage, and instead of genuinely making a giant statue disappear, they merely rotated the entire stage and audience so that when the curtain opened, they'd be looking at a place where the Statue of Liberty wasn't.  Because the statue can't move, so there just HAD to be another explanation.

So, specifically now I want to address the four judges on "America's Got Talent", who when presented with the simplest of magic tricks, have their minds completely blown - when if they would just take a minute and THINK about the trick in front of them, like I do, they could probably reason out a valid explanation for what appears, at first, to be impossible.  That guy who's doing tricks with the Rubik's cube?  I hate to burst your bubble, but he's not REALLY moving one cube around to match another.  He's taking advantage of the fact that one scrambled Rubik's Cube looks pretty much like another, and then he's got two cubes that are pre-scrambled to be identical, and when you're distracted, he switches out the cube YOU scrambled for one of the two matching dummy cubes.  

And that mentalist act, where there was a blackboard covered by a curtain, and in the end reveal the curtain drops to show words that seem to be uncanny predictions of random selections.  No, there couldn't POSSIBLY be a little person behind the curtain who wrote on the blackboard during the trick, and would then be covered by the curtain on the floor when it dropped, or be hiding behind the blackboard?  Please, please, THINK about how the trick is done - almost always, there's a simple answer.  Just because the magician implies that the writing was done on the blackboard before, that doesn't make it true.  And just because the guy with the cube TELLS you that his cube matches yours, that doesn't make it true either.  

Point of order, all of these mentalist acts, like "I'm going to write down my prediction on this paper" are B.S.  Let's say the guy writes down 4 predictions - and you CAN NOT see his clipboard or notepad.  Well, during the first prediction he's probably just scribbling, and during the second prediction, he's writing down his answer to the FIRST prediction, which he then knows, because he saw it happen.  Then it's just a simple matter of switching the envelopes, and you judges fawn all over him like he's got real mystical powers.  What a bunch of suckers.     

The reason I am so comfortable being a spoilsport or a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to magic is simple: I grew up.  I took what I knew about the world, about physical law and other sciences, and I made a judgment call - magic in the supernatural sense, does not exist.  Come on, you know that even "movie magic" is just computer special effects, now make that next mental leap with me.  I think that's what drew me to Penn and Teller when they hit the scene, they were upfront about the fact that what they were doing was merely distraction, sleight of hand and things like card forces - but dressed up in a new spectacular fashion.  They were honest about the fact that they were about to deceive you, that's what all magicians (and politicians and evangelist preachers) do, but those other folk aren't nearly as upfront about it. So I know that Teller didn't REALLY just fire a bullet that Penn caught in his mouth, but the trick still works and is impressive, because I can't figure out what they did instead. (But I'm working on it...)

Enter James Randi, who, like Ricky Jay, had many appearances on the talk-show circuit in the 1970's, often duplicating the escape tricks of Harry Houdini.  And like Houdini, who was obsessed with debunking the mediums and spiritualists of his day, The Amazing Randi went on to take on mentalists like Uri Geller, religious faith healers (whose messages from God seem to be transmitted via earpiece) and those despicable psychic surgery phonies, who used animal organs stuffed into a fake thumb to make people believe that they could remove cancerous tissue without a real operation, while they were instead removing all of the patients' money from their wallets.  There ought to be a special place in hell for those people, if hell exists...

Which is why I agree 100% with Randi's definition of an honest liar - he's very upfront about the fact that he's a fraud, a cheat, a charlatan with no special mystical powers, as opposed to those who pull off similar deceptions in an attempt to get people's money.  And his feud of sorts with Uri Geller went on for decades, with him following right after him on the talk-show circuit, bending metal objects in the same way, but making no claims about psychic powers, just informing everyone that it is, in fact, a trick.  

At notable times, the Amazing Randi pulled a number of frauds himself, setting up a fake mystic to "channel" the spirit messages from thousands of years ago, and also sending two teens with fake psychic powers to be studied at a paranormal institute - all the while telling them how to mimic psychic powers, while also telling the staff at the institute how to prove that they didn't.   

There's more to tell, particularly about James Randi's personal life, but I'll leave that to the film itself.  I did find this fascinating, largely because I'm glad that the Amazing Randi is part of the world, and I sure wish we didn't need him, but obviously we do.
Also starring Deyvi Peña, Penn Jillette (last seen in "Tim's Vermeer"), Teller (ditto), Uri Geller, with cameos from Bill Nye, Alice Cooper (last seen in "Dark Shadows"), Adam Savage.

RATING: 7 out of 10 bent spoons

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