Last night I attended a screening for An Honest Liar, one of the many films featured in this years Hot Docs Festival here in Toronto. For those unfamiliar, the festival is the largest of its kind in North America to feature documentaries of all variety with contributions from around the world. This film, one helped greatly along through a grass roots Indiegogo campaign, chronicles the life and career of The Amazing Randi.
A Toronto native, James Randi began his career as a magician and escape artist and went on to become a world famous "debunker" of those who would employ the skills of illusionists under the guise of genuine psychic, telekinetic, or other paranormal ability.
My earliest memories of Randi came as a youngster watching Larry King stoke a confrontation between him and the infamous Sylvia Browne, self-professed psychic and a regular staple of the Montel Willam's Show. I had seen Sylvia Browne on the Montel Show offer shoot-from-the-hip psychic readings of guests, often telling grieving mothers the spirit of their dead child was "standing right beside you, hon..."
Ironically, this was under my door when I got home.
Montel and those in the audience never challenged the veracity of what she said, and I remember thinking that there must be something to her because of her sheer conviction in what she told those people. How, I thought, could anyone lie to the face of a a bereaved parent?
Well into my adulthood and with the explosion of internet video sites like Youtube, I watched Randi's exploits throughout the decades from appearances on Johnny Carson to take down bogus faith healer Peter Popoff, to demonstrate how so called psychic surgeons apply their trade, and his dogged attempts to expose the parlour tricks of spoon-bender Uri Geller.
In a world of sensationalized reality TV, info-tainment, and some misplaced faux-journalistic instinct to always present both sides even when it's a matter of verifiable reality against outlandish, unsubstantiated nonsense -- it is so heartening to have a strong beacon of critical thought, love of education, and enthusiasm for science in James Randi. Heartening further is the long list of scientists, entertainers, and people from all walks of life who have been inspired by The Amazing Randi, from Penn & Teller, to Bill Nye and even Adam Savage (who affectionately refers to Randi in the film as the original Myth Buster).
So it was appropriate that a screening showcasing the work of a man with such charm, humour, wit, and spirited trickery, would include an appearance by the man himself who rose from his place in the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinema and joined the film-makers on stage for a Q&A....and of course, a couple magic tricks. A complete surprise to me that the 85 year old conjurer had made the trip for the screening in Toronto, you better believe I used the opportunity to meet one of my greatest heroes. And, of course I got a picture to prove it:
Seizing the moment, I recalled one of the most striking demonstrations he presented in a TED Talk back in 2010. To emphasize the hokum that is homoeopathic medicine, the man downed an entire bottle of sleeping pills...just as he has done in numerous presentations, and never suffered a single effect from the chemically inert product. Expressing my love for that always evocative demonstration, a gracious and beaming Randi winked, "gets 'em every time!"