Vimeo // Justin Weinstein
Vimeo // Justin Weinstein

Monday on PBS: James Randi in An Honest Liar

Vimeo // Justin Weinstein
Vimeo // Justin Weinstein

Monday night on PBS's Independent Lens: An Honest Liar, the story of The Amazing Randi. My three-word review: Please watch this. More details are below, of course. You should check PBS showtimes to find out when it airs in your market, but Monday, March 28, 2016 is the air date. Check the bottom of this post for more, including non-PBS places to watch the program.

Here's a trailer:


Randall James Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. He quit school at age 17 to join "the carnival" and devote his life to becoming a magician, styling himself after Harry Houdini. Eventually he arrived at the stage name "The Amazing Randi," and went by "James Randi" in other professional contexts. He's a magician, an author, a prestidigitator, an intellectual, and his facial hair is fantastic.

An Honest Liar describes Randi's early life, showing plenty of black-and-white TV footage of his amazing escape acts. Later in Randi's life, he gave up the derring-do of extreme escapes and focused on a rather more profound topic: exposing paranormal fraud. The James Randi Educational Foundation famously offers a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, offering a million bucks to anyone who can prove paranormal or supernatural abilities under controlled testing. The challenge has been around since the mid 1960s in various forms, and no one has taken the money.

There's much more to Randi's life, and his interests, but I'll leave that to this excellent documentary to relate. I'd like to move onto the most interesting aspect of the film: issues of deception.


“Magicians are the most honest people in the world. They tell you they’re gonna fool you, and then they do it.” –James Randi

Randi is famous for opening most of his magic acts by freely admitting that he's about to deceive the audience—for the purpose of entertainment—and then masterfully engages in the deceit. As a person, Randi appears thoroughly obsessed with the issues of deception: When is it okay to lie? When does a lie begin to do harm? How can we protect the gullible from these lies?

It would be enough for a documentary simply to examine these issues, and this one does. But what makes An Honest Liar such a triumph is that it finds Randi at a moment in his personal life when a great deception is being uncovered. (No spoilers here; don't read other reviews if you want to avoid massive spoilers!) The raw fact here is that there's one major deception Randi did not tell the world about. So how does that fit with his fanatical devotion to exposing lies? That's what makes this documentary sing, and turns it from a mere biography into a serious intellectual work.

I want to be clear: This film is not an indictment of Randi. Like the best documentaries, it contains enough ambiguity to allow viewers to confront the issues and decide what to believe. In the days since I watched the film (I actually watched it twice in one day, because it was that good), it keeps popping into my head. In addition to being fun to watch, educational, and generally well-made, this documentary has made its way into the back of my brain, challenging me to make judgments and consider it over and over. This is what I want documentaries to do.

Here's a set of quotes from the film that articulate some of the most important points in it:

Jamy Ian Swiss: "People think they believe what they choose to believe. We don't. We mostly believe what we need to believe."

James Randi: "The public really doesn't listen when they're being told straightforward facts. They would rather accept what some charismatic character tells them, than really think about what the truth might be."


PBS stations differ, so check showtimes to find out when it airs in your market. If PBS isn't your thing, the documentary is currently streaming on Netflix (at least in the US), and is available on the major video-on-demand services. You can also learn more about the film from its website.

Getty Images
Watch: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes
Getty Images
Getty Images

In 1996, author/documentarian Jon Ronson received a phone call from someone representing Stanley Kubrick, requesting a copy of Ronson's Holocaust documentary. Ronson figured that was a bit weird, but it was Kubrick, so he'd go along with it.

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Ronson gained access to Kubrick's legendary boxes, the more than 1,000 vessels of ephemera hoarded by the master. So, uh, what's in the boxes? Lots of photographs, memos, letters, you name it.

Ronson made a 45-minute documentary about the boxes, including a tour of Kubrick's estate and the various box storage locations. He even interviews the writer of one of the "crank letters" sent to (and kept by) Kubrick. Kubrick had simply written "crank" on it and filed it away.

This is a terrific watch for anyone interested in filmmaking, Kubrick, or—let's face it—storing stuff in boxes. There's even a segment about half an hour in about how Kubrick worked out the optimal size for a box and its lid, then had them custom-made. Enjoy:

If you're not into the whole video thing, check out Ronson's feature for The Guardian on the same subject.

[h/t: Kottke.]

YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
Tuesday on American Experience: Tesla
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS

Airing Tuesday night (October, 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Tesla, a documentary following Nikola Tesla's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. (It will also be on PBS's streaming channels starting October 19.) Here's a 30-second preview:

In American Experience's new hour-long documentary Tesla, we see a portrait of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who is now known as "the patron saint of geeks."

As a lifelong geek, I went into this documentary with a sudden realization: I don't actually know much about Tesla as a person. Sure, I've seen Tesla Coils and I've read about all the wireless energy stuff, but who was this guy? Where did he come from? An hour with this PBS special answers those questions and many more. Here's the first seven minutes of the documentary, just to get you started:

The first thing that jumped out at me while watching this film is that I've been pronouncing Nikola Tesla's first name incorrectly. Watch the clip above—it's properly pronounced "nih-COLE-uh," though some of the experts in the film use the more typical American pronunciation stressing the first syllable.

Aside from learning the man's name, I was surprised to learn that his first invention was a hook designed to catch frogs (and an invention soon after was a "motor" powered by June bugs). But his first breakthrough invention was of course the AC (Alternating Current) motor, and much of the AC-related infrastructure to go with it.

The documentary paints Tesla as a man of great talent and vision, but with fundamentally flawed business sense. Time after time, he makes bad business deals or wastes money, then finds his technical progress stymied by lack of funding. Perhaps as a consequence of this frustration, he goes off the rails mentally from time to time, as in his later years claiming to have received communications from Mars, or falling in love with a pigeon. It also seems clear that he suffered from psychiatric disorders that today could probably be treated, but in the 1800s and early 1900s forced him to engage in repetitive behavior and avoid much human contact.

In any case, Tesla is a fantastic exploration of the human story behind the legend. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. (Okay, one more complaint: I would've loved to learn why he often posed for pictures with his right hand to his face.)


Tesla premieres Tuesday night (October 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S. It will then begin streaming on October 19 on the PBS streaming apps.


You should really watch Edison online (for free, legally!) for a counterpoint. Edison and Tesla were contemporaries, and Tesla actually worked for Edison early on, both in Paris and the U.S. These two films together give us a view of the importance of an inventor's vision paired with his ability to run a business. The two men are fundamentally different both in their approach to invention and business, and it's worthwhile to compare and contrast. (Incidentally, Open Culture has a roundup of the 23 American Experience documentaries you can currently stream online—that's one way to fill up your lunch breaks for the next month!)


More from mental floss studios