ABY- PRODUCT of the September 11 attacks in the US has been increasing scrutiny of religion. The rise of religious scepticism is most obviously seen in the writings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and will next be seen in US comic Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous , directed by Borat ’ s Larry Charles.
Maher’s Michael Moore- style romp through religion is already garnering terrific reviews in the US, despite the comic’s colourful reputation, and may be seen in cinemas here as soon as November.
Such probing works tend only to inflame their subjects and reassure their viewers. Even sceptics preach, so to speak, to the converted.
It has always struck DVD Letterbox as strange that scepticism is often used as a pejorative term, yet belief or faith, words that suggest investing in something unknown or unprovable, are invariably positive terms.
I’m a journalist and I believe in things — my family, the Geelong Football Club, the Easter Bunny — but I was attracted to the job, perhaps subconsciously, not just to experience things but to question them.
Which is a circuitous way to get to magicians Penn & Teller and the DVD release of their television series Bullshit!
Trust me, there is a connection. The American duo made their name as an off- Broadway magic act with an edge. They transferred to Broadway and TV with an irreverent demeanour led by the bolshie Penn Jillette ( Teller has not revealed his first name) that contrasted with magic’s normally cheesy milieu.
They repackaged some basic trickery into compelling acts, including one that formed the basis of an episode of The West Wing , in which they made a US flag disappear by setting it alight within a copy of the US bill of rights. Normally, they restore the flag; in The West Wing they did not, setting off predictable hysteria.
Penn & Teller became even more interesting characters, though, when they began explaining magic, a practice that, at least in performance terms, is all about
bodeym@ theaustralian. com. au
Show and tell: Penn Jillette, left, and Teller illusion and technique, not about the supernatural or ethereal gifts.
In fact, magicians frown on those, such as Uri Geller or so- called psychic medium John Edward, who claim their magic is supernatural, inexplicable or anything other than a clever deception. Which brings us to
, which is into its fifth series on the US Showtime network.
is the natural extension of their act, a for blind believers. Penn’s description of the show is probably best: We’re going to hunt down as many purveyors of bullshit as we can.’’
The first episode of the first series ( the second series is just out) takes on psychic mediums, which is like shooting Harry Houdini in a barrel, but entertaining nevertheless. And for once Penn is quite heartfelt; you expect all his monologues to end with a slash of cynicism, decrying the nefarious practice.
We don’t give a rat’s arse about the money these bastards are making,’’ he says. It’s about the desecration of memories.’’ Later episodes shoot down everything from the benefits of bottled water, fad diets, baby products and feng shui to alien abductions and end- of- the- world theorists, including Nostradamus, who nothing more than a bad poet with a paranoid streak’’.
It’s all very funny primarily because the subjects and advocates are so unblinking in their enthusiasm and ( this is being generous) numb- skulled. And Penn & Teller are showmen.