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Training a b.s. detector on 'Unbreakable'

Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

THE AMAZING Randi is not easily fooled. From the surprise endings of movies to the elaborate illusions of stage magicians to the insistent claims of real-life "psychics," James Randi is a master at ferreting out the truth, at recognizing how the trick is done, at guessing, in advance, how the film is going to end.

Once in a blue moon, though, it doesn't happen. "I admit it," says Randi, chatting amiably as he signs a pile of letters in his office at the James Randi Educational Foundation in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I confess. I was unable to guess the surprise ending of Unbreakable. The gimmick at the end is suitably safe from detection."

So there you go.

Unbreakable, in which Bruce Willis learns that he may have comic-book superpowers, is another collaboration between Willis and director M. Night Shyamalan, the same team that brought us The Sixth Sense, the other movie that completely surprised James Randi.

"It really doesn't happen very often," he says with a laugh. "I almost always figure out the ending long before it comes around. That's why I seldom go see magicians anymore. When I see David Copperfield, I'm doing my 'ooohs' and 'ahs' at the wrong point in the show, 30 seconds before the rest of the audience goes 'Ooooh' when they see that the box is empty and the girl is long gone. I saw it when she went."

A professional magician turned author and educator, the Amazing Randi has devoted himself to the debunking of mystical fakery and psychic flimflammery. He's revealed the workings of "miracles" and exposed the tricks of "psychic surgeons." For years he's been offering $1 million to anyone who can prove, under the rigors of solid scientific testing, that they have psychic powers.

Many have tried, but no one has yet claimed the prize.

This is clearly upsetting to that legion of tricksters--be they telephone psychics or full-time "faith healers"--who make their living from people's desperate gullibility.

Well, if Randi's mystical debunking annoys them, they should try going to a movie with him. He's the kind of guy who sees everything that is wrong with a film and is willing, if asked, to point out all the gaffs.

For example (and if you haven't seen Unbreakable, then skip the next two paragraphs):

"I think they failed in one thing during Willis' fight with the bad guy," Randi says. "They have Bruce Willis jumping on this guy and being crashed into walls. And Willis is not hurt by the fact that he caves in the plaster wallboard every time his body is slammed against the wall.

"But that wouldn't hurt me either!" Randi continues. "I've fallen against a wall and smashed the plaster and not had to go to a hospital. I think that if Willis were truly unbreakable, they should have punished him a bit more. Things like that bother me."

Just don't get him started on 2001: A Space Odyssey. "By God, are there a lot of booboos in that one," he says.

Randi is also skilled at anticipating what an interviewer is planning to say. "The belief in ghosts and psychic abilities," I begin, "is a big part of our culture. But the superhero myths are just as rooted into our culture. For some reason we have a real fondness, perhaps even a deep desire, for . . ."

"Fantasy? Mythology. Pretending? Magic? All that sort of thing?" he jumps in. "Yes, I agree. And there are a lot of people out there who don't differentiate between comic-book reality and the fantasy of psychic powers. I deal with them all the time. There was a fellow in here just this morning," he elaborates, "wanting to collect the million-dollar prize. We sat him down for a quick test, and he got zero out of 10. He couldn't believe it. He said, 'At home I always get 10 out of 10,' because he didn't know how to properly test himself. So I showed him how a proper test was done, and he just shook his head and walked out very silently. Guys like this don't understand how the real world works. They want comic-book fantasy to exist in the real world, but it doesn't. It can't."

"Why," I ask, "do so many people want psychic powers?"

"Not only want them," Randi says. "They need them. I've often said that there's no amount or quality of evidence that will un-convince the true believer. I've had psychics' managers come to me and say, 'Oh no. If you prove that it doesn't work, she'll back down on it. If she doesn't have a leg to stand on, she'll be the first to admit it.' And they are amazed after I give the test and she fails it. They say, 'You were right Mr. Randi. There isn't anything that will convince her it's not true.' Because these people are dedicated to the reality of spiritualism. They need it to be true."

Randi has nothing against fantasy, however. "Fantasy is important," he says. "Without fantasy we wouldn't have so much of the art and poetry and beauty that is brought about by titillating our respective fancies. I'm all for it. But don't tell me it's real. David Copperfield would never insult your intelligence by telling you that he really did cut the girl into eight pieces with a buzz saw. He just asks you to sit back and pretend."

Pretending, says Randi, is a vital part of being human. "I remember pretending to be Superman," I confess. "As a kid, being a superhero seemed so much better than being a scrawny kid who has to clean his room."

"I understand. We humans have a powerful yearning to be more than we are," agrees Randi.

That said, he counters my Superman envy with a Randi-esque childhood desire of his own. "I wanted to be Batman," he admits, "because I couldn't accept Superman. A guy that a bullet won't kill? That can leap over a skyscraper? A guy that can fly? Come on, get out of it. But Batman! He used ropes to get over buildings. I could believe in Batman.

"Then along came Michael Jordan and we find out that guys really can fly," he adds. "In fact, if I could imagine anyone today who would make a believable crime-fighter, it would be him. Putting balls through a hoop seems a misdirected talent for Michael Jordan. Basketball made him a multimillionaire, of course, but wouldn't it be great if he took up crime-fighting?"

"What would his costume be?"

"Oh, he'd wear a G-string, I think; otherwise he'd be a little constrained. "

"And he'd wear Nikes."

"Of course. No sandals or anything."

"And what would we call him?" I ask. "The Flying Man? Air Jordan?"

"Good question," says Randi. "I'll have to work on that."

From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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