James Randi, AKA "The Amazing Randi," Subject of Feature Film by Writer/Editor of Being Elmo | The Daily Pulp | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


James Randi, AKA "The Amazing Randi," Subject of Feature Film by Writer/Editor of Being Elmo

Though he lives quietly in Plantation, Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, AKA "The Amazing Randi," has a cult following around the globe.

In one of the greatest about-faces ever performed, Randi was a nationally famous magician (he appeared on the Today Show, broke at least one of Houdini's records, and toured with Alice Cooper) who saw that charlatans were using industry-standard magic tricks to con people. So, he made it his life's mission to become a professional debunker and reveal to people how they get duped. As he employed his powers for the forces of good, he ruined business for "psychics" (including Uri Geller), was featured on shows with Barbara Walters, started his own foundation, and attracted legions of brainy admirers in the skeptic community who rally around this sort of thing. (For more on Randi, see our 2009 feature profile of him.)

But another crazy plot twist came in 2011, when feds learned that Randi's longtime boyfriend, Jose Alvarez, had perpetrated identity fraud; his real name was Deyvi Pena. Randi is now 84, but he's let documentarians follow him for two years -- and their cameras were rolling at the time Penna was busted.

In the resulting film, An Honest Liar: The Amazing Randi Story, directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom dust off some incredible archival Randi footage that most people under 40 have never seen, interview a bunch of celebrities, and bring us up to speed with Penna's legal sitch and Randi's underappreciated contributions to the world.

As you can see in the trailer, the filmmakers have so far interviewed Alice Cooper, Adam Savage from Mythbusters, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Penn & Teller. They've also interviewed Penna and Randi extensively (Randi's caterpillar eyebrows steal the show).

But the filmmakers say there are still scenes that need to be shot, not to mention postproduction work, distribution, marketing, etc. So they've started a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising 148,000 smackeroos. Sound ambitious? Well, as of Saturday, they were $64,000 into that goal and still had 26 days to go.

That's partly because Weinstein is a credible industry guy who's worked on lots of films and TV shows, including Being Elmo. (As an aside, Weinstein says he is sad to see what happened to puppeteer Kevin Clash as a result of his being accused of having sex with minors and doesn't know whether the incident affected sales or downloads of that film.)

Weinstein said he became interested in making a documentary about Randi because "I have been both a filmmaker and a scientist and had always been aware of the skeptic movement and that clash between worldviews -- mysticism and religion versus science." Weinstein said he's fascinated with how "people can continue to believe things that are demonstrably untrue."

His filmmaking partner, Measom, "is a former Mormon and was raised into a religion where he was only taught things they wanted him to know. But as he got older and saw the world more, he began questioning the dogma of what he was taught. [Measom made a film, Sons of Perdition, about boys who escaped a polygamist community.] So both of us came to the subject with very personal reasons, [but beyond that,] as filmmakers, we both knew that Randi is such a charismatic person and has such history that it would be a great subject."

Weinstein thinks there's a huge potential audience that's "frustrated with the way magical thinking, or [a lack of] scientific critical thinking, is holding back society... There's a lot of harm that is done by people promoting ideas -- even laws -- that have no basis in fact."

For example, he says, Randi and Penna's "whole legal situation is the result of the fact that there is no marriage equality, and the basis for that is biblical. And they've paid a price for that. There's no real justifciation for it except for a 2,000-year-old book and the moral structure that's arisen from that. Davey had to break the law because of persecution of gays in Venezuela. If they had the same rights as heterosexual couples, the crime wouldn't have been necessary."

Likewise, he says, "creationism being taught in schools is medieval. I think there's been a real upsurge in secular groups, and people are tired of being pushed around by that type of thinking."

Weinstein is hopeful the film will see a wide audience. "Distributors have already come to us," he says, and "we've already presold it to television markets in Europe." Stateside, it'll do the film festival circuit and ideally land on an outlet like PBS or HBO. There's a good chance it will play in independent theaters, but, he adds, even documentaries that are less cerebral "don't make it to shopping malls."

If you want to donate, here's the Kickstarter link.

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Deirdra Funcheon

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