July 12, 2008

Only a movie...

...and only a movie review, even if both seem to disappoint (I haven't seen the film, but I trust the review accurately describes it).

We fool ourselves when we believe we live in a rational age, or that we have sloughed off superstition -- that our religious beliefs are grounded in unchanging truths (which our fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers viewed quite differently) or sound rational theology and exegesis (neither exists). Far more grounded than theologians, mystics and other cranks are sleight of hand artists who deceive, but well know how precarious their miracles are. From this, I believe, they derive a certain intellectual rigor when looking at the supernatural. Harry Houdini was such a man:

...in the final analysis, Houdini's great claim to permanent fame lay in his crusade against fraudulent mediums and other charlatans who preyed upon the public. Fearless of hazard or threat, he worked ceaselessly in the exposure and suppression of such fakery. The publicity he gained was tremendous, but it did not compensate for the risk he encountered. Today, many people have forgotten what an important factor spiritism had become in American life shortly after World War I when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and other famous personages were conducting an all-out campaign on its behalf. It is now considered as much as a crank phenomenon as was proved by its merely spasmodic revival after World War II.

As a professional magician, Houdini could spot a trick from a mile away, and successfully debunked fakes. For a time, he served as a consultant to Scientific American evaluating and exposing the claims of mystics (but nearly quit when the august publication published an article suggesting that one fake, Mina Crandon, was a real medium; Houdini was determined to expose the "vivacious" Ms. Crandon as a fraud, something he managed to do without much difficulty.

Testifying before Congress, Houdini explained, in part, why he pursued the phony mediums and mystics, and why he favored Congress outlawing psychics in Washington, D.C.:

You will stop people being robbed under the guise of mediumship. It is time to do something in this regard. If you were to die and your wife went to to a medium, they would rob her of every penny by claiming to bring your spirit back.

At that same hearing, Houdini issued this challenge:

I will give $10,000 to any clairvoyant in the world that will do one test. ... Tell me the name my mother called me when I was born. Tell me the pet name my father used to call me.

Houdini issued the challenge in a crowded Senate committee room, well attended by professional mediums, psychics, and clairvoyants. None took up his challenge.

In the Slate movie review, Dana Stevens writes,

Watching a movie newsreel, Mary and Benji learn that the great American escape artist Houdini has offered $10,000 to any self-proclaimed clairvoyant who can guess his mother's last words. (Though this contest is fictional, the real Houdini did have an obsession with exposing mediums as frauds and a fixation on his mother.) Mary decides that when Houdini (Guy Pearce) comes to town for an upcoming engagement, they'll sneak into his hotel room, dig through his personal effects, and piece together the mystery of that final maternal utterance.

Mary and Benji's half-baked scam is soon exposed, but Houdini takes a shine to the scruffy, resourceful pair and even believes (or is he just pretending to believe?) in Mary's paranormal gifts—a faith not shared by his cranky manager, Mr. Sugarman (the ever-welcome Timothy Spall). Houdini sets up the McGarvies in a posh hotel suite near his own, encouraging them to spy all they want, confident that they'll never uncover those last words. Meanwhile, he expensively courts the dubious Mary, who can't figure out the great magician's motives. Surely it's not possible that he's actually falling for her?

Let's hope not -- Houdini and his wife by all accounts had a warm, deep, enduring love. It is hard to imagine he'd fall for a faker. Houdini of course did issue the $10,000 challenge.

Why not a more interesting movie? On Houdini as monogamous hero, exposer of frauds, running against public sentiment which desperately wanted to believe the dead could be contacted -- Houdini, the sane man in a mad world? The sane man who made his money by wrapped in chains and straitjackets and sunk underwater and "miraculously" escaping.

Posted by Ideofact at July 12, 2008 01:26 AM