movie review

Documentaries Seymour: An Introduction and An Honest Liar Celebrate Men Who See Beyond the Material World

Seymour Bernstein and Ethan Hawke. Photo: Robin Holland/Courtesy of Sundance Selects

At the risk of sounding fogeyish, I’m soul-sick from living in a culture that worships vacuous youth, which is reason enough to embrace the documentary subgenre I call “Young Whippersnappers Canonize the Aged” — YWCA being easy to remember. Two especially inspiring new specimens are Seymour: An Introduction and An Honest Liar, which celebrate not just remarkable old men but vital ways of seeing beyond the material world. Both movies make you feel, in the deepest sense, young.

Ethan Hawke directed Seymour, and at first I groaned when he inserted himself into the film to explain how he met the 87-year-old former concert pianist and ongoing teacher Seymour Bernstein. Even striving for humility, Hawke is an ac-tor. But his self-consciousness turns out to be a touching lens through which to view his subject, who gave up performing at age 50 to enter into a “translucent dome” in which the self could be transcended — or, more precisely, the “personal self” could yield to the “musical self.” Hawke — who has suffered recent bouts of stage fright — has found a guide to help him contain that “personal self.”

His guru is a gnomish presence, given to quiet rapture. In a master class, he leans over a student — staring down his beak through milky blue eyes — and calls for minute shifts in phrasing, pedaling, and pressure on the keys, to the point where I was thinking, How can they learn if he gives them every note? But then, after a few false starts, the student plays the way Bern­stein dictates, and all at once the piece opens up, as if the composer were speaking directly to us across time and space. Holy moly, he is at one with the music. Bernstein can make room in his philosophy to praise aspects of the brilliant, insane Glenn Gould (shown in footage swaying and babbling to himself over the keyboard), but only as someone who “infused the music with his own eccentric nature” instead of bringing out its essence.

If that sounds woo-woo (mysticism scholar Andrew Harvey extols Bernstein for being “integrated”), Hawke makes sure to show Bernstein talking sternly about craft — without which, Bernstein says, “there isn’t real artistry.” Parents who don’t force their kids to practice an hour a day will have “half-developed children.” If you “feel inadequate as a musician, then you’re going to feel inadequate as a person.” Not accommodating ideas, which might be why he has lived 57 years “in solitude” in the same one-bedroom apartment. (Either Hawke is unusually discreet or Bernstein has had no romantic life.) “The social world,” says Bernstein, “is unpredictable. Art is predictable.” It also offers salvation. In Korea, he played for soldiers on the front line who were so shattered, so hungry for a sense of universal order that they wouldn’t let him leave the stage. He cries at the memory. He says, “Without dissonance, you wouldn’t know the meaning of the resolutions” — which goes for both music and life.

Buoyed by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, and more, Seymour: An Introduction is lyrical without getting fancy, its director plainly rapt. Hawke loses his equilibrium only once, near the end. While Bernstein plays Chopin, Hawke attempts to pull things together with a silent montage of musicians (monks, African tribes, Mahalia Jackson) in the thrall of their art. The images don’t fit with the music, and Hawke’s grandiosity chafes. I wish he’d had Bernstein in the editing room to tell him to put less pressure on that key.

Magician James “the Amazing” Randi, the 86-year-old subject of Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein’s exhilarating An Honest Liar, would scoff at talk of “transcendence,” which can’t be scientifically proved. Neither, he would say, can haunting, mind reading, faith healing, UFO abduction, or, for that matter, God. The showbiz mascot of an increasingly formidable skeptic movement, Randi has spent his life carrying on the legacy of Harry Houdini, who used knowledge of misdirection to expose the early 20th-century plague of bogus spiritualists. (Randi would ask, Is there any other kind?) Randi knows how easy it is to fool the credulous, to prey on their need to believe and get them to part with their money. So he does what they do but calls himself “a liar and a cheat and a charlatan.” Magician Jamy Ian Swiss says it’s “deception to reveal the truth,” as opposed to “deception to conceal the truth.”

The film traces Randi’s beginnings as a lonely boy with an inattentive father who saw magician Harry Blackstone, ran away from home, and set out to top Houdini’s famous escapes. It’s Penn Jillette who best explains what happened next: The feeling of power that came from bamboozling people gave way to rage at those who did the same but claimed to have supernatural powers. We see some of Randi’s Greatest Hits. He advised the staff of The Tonight Show (Johnny Carson was a former magician) on how to keep Uri Geller — who’d dazzled Stanford scientists with his “psychic” powers — from doing more than staring helplessly at objects. (Randi’s book The Truth About Yuri Geller has an honored place on my bookshelf.) He hired a private investigator to locate the audio signal feeding information into the ear of “faith healer” Peter Popoff. I only wish they’d shown him doing one of his splendid takedowns of the late Sylvia Browne, who got rich off telling grieving parents their children were smiling down on them from the Other Side. She was an obscenity.

The filmmakers don’t go into the politics of card-carrying skeptics like Randi, Penn and Teller, and the brilliant Michael Shermer — libertarians with as much contempt for liberals and their social contract as for crusading creationists. But they don’t shy away from Randi’s emotional immaturity. He came out as gay in 2010, and his relationship with a much younger man shows him in a scarily vulnerable light.

There’s a more, uh, skeptical portrait of Randi in Will Storr’s superb book, The Unpersuadables: Adventures With the Enemies of Science, which explores Randi’s politics and the vagaries of his million-dollar prize to anyone who can prove he or she has extrasensory abilities. Fred Kaplan’s recent piece on being an audio snob in Slate shows Randi in an especially unflattering light: “Randi … was offering $1 million to anyone who could identify a particularly expensive brand of speaker cable in an A/B test. My friend and Stereophile colleague Michael Fremer accepted the challenge. Randi backed out, after telling his fans that Fremer had backed out.”

Whatever his foibles, An Honest Liar depicts a great American original — a man who has taught a generation of scientists, magicians, and even certain film critics that our senses must be trained to detect the smell of bullshit.

*This article appears in the March 9, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Reviews: Seymour: An Introduction & Honest Liar