August 15, 2020

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Plenty of tricks and treats in magical documentary



Toronto-born magician/escape artist James Randi took on  a sideline  of debunking psychics and charlatans.

PURE MUTT PRODUCTIONS

Toronto-born magician/escape artist James Randi took on a sideline of debunking psychics and charlatans.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/2/2015 (2002 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The first amazing feat performed by this documentary is to show why we should be grateful for corny Canadian television of the 1960s.

The opening credits unfold over a black-and-white show wherein the Toronto-born magician/escape artist the Amazing Randi escapes from a straitjacket while suspended upside-down. While doing that, a chanteuse sings The Magic Touch to provide a little additional audio entertainment. It's CBC cheese at it's cheesiest, but it's also undeniably sublime.

And it kicks off a documentary portrait of James Randi that is both entertaining and provocative. Like escape artist Harry Houdini, Randi took on a sideline of debunking psychics and charlatans by showing their feats of telepathy and psychokinesis as simple variants of tricks from the magician's toolbox.

Most famous and justly celebrated was Randi's takedown of evangelist-faith healer Peter Popoff, who seemed to know a lot of information about the crippled and ailing individuals who came to him for a miracle cure during his revival meetings. With the help of a private investigator, Randi determined Popoff was being fed radio transmissions by his wife giving him the details of the gullible, desperate individuals seeking a cure, right down to their home addresses. He exposed Popoff's methodology for all to see on an episode of The Tonight Show that was sufficiently impressive that Carson was compelled to utter an unseemly expletive during the segment.

Randi also set his sights on "psychic" Uri Geller, a celeb of the 1970s who claimed to be able to bend spoons and keys with nothing more than the power of his mind. For every talk show on which Geller bent a spoon, Randi would show up, and perform the same feat... without claiming mystic powers.

More controversially, Randi was behind an elaborate hoax exposing the "channelling" scam in which a young man went to Australia and managed to convince much of the country that his body housed an ancient spirit. That young man, one Jose Alvarez, had a very personal link to the magician that exposed Randi himself to accusations of deception.

Of course, there is a difference between a lie and a secret, and when Randi came out of the closet at the age of 81, it was at least an indicator that he wanted to put his own secrets behind him. But that didn't really come to pass until one day, the FBI came calling on his Florida home to arrest Alvarez.

The directors interview many of Randi's admirers, including magicians Penn and Teller, scientist Bill Nye and Mythbusters' Adam Savage, as well as a couple of foes -- Popoff and Geller.

It all amounts to a fascinating glimpse into the life of a man whose obligation to the truth caught up with him -- a wizard who may have initially discouraged a glimpse at the man behind the curtain, but ultimately pulled back the cloth himself to invite everyone take a hard gander.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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