Local residents are subjects of the film
South Florida residents James “The Amazing” Randi and his partner, Jose Alvarez (one of his names) are the subject of the fantastic documentary, “An Honest Liar,” which opened March 20 in Miami. 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.
“An Honest Liar” smartly chronicles Randi’s career and his life with Alvarez, along with the various deceptions they exposed and perpetrated such as a hoax they performed in Australia in which Alvarez posed as a channeler named “Carlos.”
The couple spoke via Skype about their life, work, and “An Honest Liar.”
How did you decide you were going to learn to become an expert escape artist, and get out of a straight-jacket while hanging upside down?
“The Amazing” Randi: I was a child prodigy and I had a lot time to myself. I decided I wanted to be a chemist or archaeologist. Along the way I went to the Casino Theatre [in Toronto, where Randi grew up]. They had vaudeville there, and I saw Harry Blackstone do the levitation trick. I was in the balcony and I decided to find him after the show. We became friends. We used to get tickets from him when he was in town. I was bitten by the conjuring bug and I got to know local magicians
How do you recognize—what’s that technical term you used in the film—bullshit?
Randi: 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 folks do their psychic trick. I spot them right away. [Psychic] Sylvia Browne’s methods were so transparent. She was a reader who could diagnose illness—an illegal action. She was just so wrong so many times she did a lot of damage to families. It was obvious to me, but not the average observer.
Jose, 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”?
Jose: It was done with the purpose to empower or inform people. I was not prepared to the [degree] of how big it got. It took on a life of it’s own. For me that was what was so revealing—the power of the medium. These people never heard of [Carlos] outside of TV. It was a hyper-reality. Seeing their faces and they were not questioning they were enthralled in their own narratives of wanting to believe whoever is on stage. It was shocking.
Randi: The reaction in Australia was excellent. We said we’d reveal it when the time came.
Have you worked with Randi on other deceptions, or was that not possible after Carlos?
Jose: This was only event that we worked on together. I’ve seen documents of Randi’s investigation, but this was the only one involved personally.
Why did you get involved with “An Honest Liar,” and how did you come to trust the filmmakers?
Randi: I saw [Measom’s film] Sons of Perdition. That did it for me.
Jose: We felt they treated their subject with respect and care in telling their story.
What can you say about being a “skeptical magician”?
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.
One of the film’s themes is to question authority. How did you come question authority, Jose?
Jose: I developed that after meeting Randi. I came from a mystical background. Early in my life I followed a guru. When he started challenging my assumptions, I questioned my own proclivities to believe. How are they damaging me or keeping me from moving forward? I used some of the guru techniques as Carlos, when people faithfully followed me for no reason at all…. I’m not as hardcore as Randi is but we traverse the same cultural milieus. I don’t see myself like that. We built a life together being so different. Randi’s compassion—people see him as this cantankerous guy, or a strident voice, but they don’t know how compassionate he is. That’s a big part of my attraction to him. He has an immense understanding for human frailty, not the people who prey on them, but the victims.