Reviews

To Mecca by way of Hamilton

Last night, I had the chance to see David Blaine (in concert?) in Hamilton. I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for David, although being tightly entwined with the magic community, there has always been a thing that the cool kids do of criticizing those performers who are immensely more successful than they are, usually for totally arbitrary reasons.

But twenty years ago, his first TV special, Street Magic, redefined close-up magic for the twenty-first century. Through my work with Magicana, I built an online video archive called the Screening Room. The centrepiece of that archive is over thirty hours of footage from an Canadian TV magic series called The Magic Palace where many of the best known magicians of the 1970s appeared as guests. At the moment, I believe I'm still the only person who has watched all of the footage and it's performed in a particular style, appropriate to its time. Now, close-up magic looks nothing like that and I believe that's largely due to David's influence. 

An entire generation took his specials as the model for how magic needed to be done (whether they understood what he was doing or not.) So of someone under the age of 35 now tries to show you a piece of close-up magic, chances are they are "doing" David Blaine for you. 

Now, full disclosure, many of us bought tickets to the show expecting to be disappointed. He is, after all, a close-up performer, and this was a theatre of over a thousand seats. There was some serious skepticism as to whether or not he could pull it off. Either, the show would just be too small, or in order to do larger pieces, he would have to have to present Vegas-style grand illusions which would just ring false. 

Instead of disappointment, we got a religious experience. (And for me that's saying something!) Since the tour continues, I should avoid spoiling things. Although if you have seen the TV specials, you will recognize large parts of the show. Perhaps parts of the show which you thought could only be performed in the extremely controlled conditions of a television shoot, where you can re-shoot and edit to your heart's content. Those people will find out very quickly that David is, in multiple ways, the real deal.

Half way through holding his breath under water.

Half way through holding his breath under water.

This is the only part of the performance where photography was permitted. One of the things that made this evening astonishing was the tremendous sense of calm, stillness and focus that he brings to the stage. Anything and everything he does becomes enrapturing and you find yourself unable to do anything but sit there and watch what he's doing. Even when what he's doing is nothing. I've heard people say they would buy a ticket to go listen to James Spader read a phone book. You could buy a ticket to watch David Blaine just stand there. 

That counter shows five minutes and one second. He did make it slightly past the ten-minute mark. There was a very strange tension in the room. It was, I believe, that the entire room knew they were about to give him a standing ovation, but were waiting for permission to do so. While he was deprived of oxygen, the audience was being deprived of its ability to react. And, as can clearly be seen, part of it was probably the unwillingness to put down the phones. 

Perhaps the sea of lights, is the new standing O. (Unfortunate that it's practically invisible to the performer on stage. 

The other magic trick of the night... thank you Hamilton

The other magic trick of the night... thank you Hamilton

Elementary my dear Watson

I've always been delighted by the magic of Sherlock Holmes. Far from being a detective, Holmes is really a magician who achieves results through deception. He know, exactly what he needs to know at exactly the time he needs to know it and seemingly with no way of possibly knowing it. If that isn't magic, I'm not sure what is. (And his secret secret is hidden in plain sight, he knows the guy who wrote the script.)

Recently the American adaptation of the classic Conan Doyle character Elementary (which took a rather odd twist filling the role of Dr. Watson with Lucy Liu) tried their hand at some magic... with some rather unusual results.  

The episode, The Art of Sleights and Deception (Season 5 Episode 20), follows the quest to uncover the identity of the pseudonymous author of a magic book, The Art of Sleights and Deceptions. Actually, in more traditional Sherlock Holmes style, the story follows a murder related to these investigations, because we must have our dead bodies for good wholesome entertainment.

The story is, in fact, based on a true one. I magic, there is a book written by an unknown author, S.W. Erdnase's Ruse Artifice and Subterfuge; The Expert at the Card Table. Originally published in 1902 it contains some of the earliest descriptions of techniques for cheating with cards. More importantly, it contains descriptions of how to perform the necessary sleights (prior to that, the description of a bottom deal might simply be that it is possible to take the bottom card while apparently taking the top one without any indication of how the hands move to accomplish this.) The book sold very poorly initially, but later became the subject of great study by magicians and the book has remained continuously in print for one hundred fifteen years and has video version, annotated versions and even commemorative playing cards and t-shirts. 

But the author never came forward and identified himself. The illustrator was located, some decades after the fact, but provided only scant details which didn't point to a clear candidate. There have been many proposed candidates, most of which start with the fact that S.W. Erdnase spelled backwards is E.S. Andrews. The most compelling candidate was identified by magic historian and book publisher Richard Hatch, an E.S. Andrews who was in the right place at the right time.

Of course, once it hit American television, things needed to be spiced up. So a wealthy source (probably intended to be a parody of David Copperfield) offered a million dollar prize for unmasking his identity. There are a few twists inside that I did not see coming, probably because I know so much about the real history. But there was, very clearly, someone who knew an awful lot about this story, although no specific person was referenced in the credits.

I always delight in seeing magicians portrayed in mainstream movies and film. They almost never get it right. They didn't this time. (For example, the apartment of the expert card magician contained no playing cards, but was full primarily of kids' show props and a medieval torture device.) I found out a long time ago, that the film industry isn't interested in realism, when a stereotype will do perfectly well. Unless you are in the educational or documentary film business, trying to correct an audience's incorrect perception of how something is rarely worth the time. It's quicker and easier to go with the flow and simply give them what they expect. (I'm sure most lawyers watching Law & Order or The Goodwife feel exactly the same way.)

I remember years ago, I received a casting call for a magician for a role on a television series. The call specifically called for a "real magician". Many of my friends had received the same notice and none of us could figure out what "real magician" meant. The modern audition process is based on ignoring quality, and simply going through enough quantity to hopefully find what you want. Thus casting personnel never really learn to articulate what it is they want. They're able to sit back and wait until they see it and say, "That's it." Actors also aren't generally called upon to have any particular skills, except being able to pretend to have whatever particular skill is required.

It turned out, what "real magician" meant was "owned big boxes" like the kind you would use to saw a woman into halves. They wanted the props for the set and the magician to serve as an extra standing in front of them. You have to learn not to take these things personally.

The Trick With The Gun

The Trick With The Gun is a documentary which chronicles magician, escape artist and juggler Scott Hammell’s attempt at performing “The Bullet Catch”. This most dangerous of magic tricks, where a magician catches a bullet shot in his general direction. The trick has claimed upwards of two dozen lives since it was invented. It’s hard to imagine how a film filled which so many likable and interesting characters could provide such an unpleasant viewing experience, but The Trick With The Gun somehow manages to pull it off in spades. As a self-described documentary, the film crosses ethical boundaries all over the place.

Magicians are drawn to tricks that appear dangerous, regardless of whether or not the danger is real. In the heat of the moment, if the performer can avoid death, or at least a massively inconvenient trip to the hospital, he (it’s always men, isn’t it?) is guaranteed a strong reaction. The same way as for Justin Bieber, there is no such thing as bad publicity; for a magician, there is no such thing as bad applause.

The problem is tricks whose dramatic impact hinges on the risk of physical harm — like the bullet catch or its modern relatives like variants of “Russian Roulette” — make no sense. The performer fails even if the trick works perfectly. That is because the most important step on the path to drama is convincing the audience you are stupid enough or ethically bankrupt enough to point an (allegedly) loaded weapon at a human being for the sake of entertainment. Establishing this conviction is the focus of most of the film.

Let me clarify. Occasionally, my friends will try to get me to try new things and expand my horizons by forcing me to watch reality television. I was watching a program which tracked Amish youth who were exploring away from their parents and naive about most of the world. On a trip to the beach, one of them went out swimming and quickly started drowning. The entire thing was captured by two cameras. Whatever relationship “reality” television has with actual reality, if someone were drowning, you would think that cameraperson would have the courtesy to step out from behind the camera and help. Now either the drowning is fake or the cameraman is a monster. The lesser of two evils is still evil.

Tonight, I spent the first half of the film awkwardly waiting for a grownup to walk by and smack some sense into someone. The film begins with a writer daring a magician at breakfast to do something extraordinary and his first instinct is to say “bullet catch”. His second instinct is to suggest that the writer be the one to fire the gun. If I suggest that anyone who says that the “Holy Grail” of magic is the Bullet Catch should be shot, is that irony or poetic justice?

They discuss the matter at a summer camp, so the kids have the opportunity to weigh in on how cool they think it would be and to place bets on the magician's survival. Then they introduce the consulting team which consists of a theatrical mind reader, a comic variety performer and an expert on card tricks. No one ever comes out and says it, but it’s implied that he has a method of catching the bullet safely in hand… Provided that his co-star with no firearms training doesn’t accidentally shoot him in the head in rehearsal.

Now like any good magic trick, everything is not what it seems. Like with the Amish drowning “victim” there is enough there that the thoughtful viewer can infer there is more going on under the surface. Sadly, the hints come late enough that no amount of winks and nots will salvage anyone’s credibility.

While Scott claims to have been inspired by the Penn & Teller Bullet Catch, he seems to have missed the point. The story of their version of the trick (which Penn tells reasonably often and is not particularly secret) is one of really smart and safety conscious people exploring the aesthetic of simulated danger as a celebration of life. Penn likens it to a roller coaster. Conversely, one of the major drivers of the plot is Scott and his team deciding whether an author with no firearms training is the most reasonable choice to fire an assault rifle in a crowded theatre.

What’s deeply disturbing about the film is that it seems the secondary intent is to be used as part of motivational speaking presentations for students. I'm not sure the narrative of agreeing to do a dangerous stunt on a dare is the best allegory for youth setting goals and achieving their dreams.

It's a shame, because the film itself is well put together and would be enjoyable if the people involved were portrayed as being so morally oblivious.

The Trick With The Gun is produced by Markham Street Films.

For Keira at the Hamilton Fringe

Was at the Hamilton Fringe Festival yesterday and saw For Keira, which is a short one-person piece, part of the festival's "Gallery Series". His company, Broken Soil Theatre, has produced shows in the Hamilton Fringe for the past three years. They seem to be moving in the direction of real life. The first, Jamie's Gone, was a large cast semi-surreal production about an allegedly abducted child in a small town. The second, Places, was a much more straightforward love story (with some interesting nonheteronormative twists).

For Keira is a look at the frightening combination of technology and our legal system, where young people attempting to explore and understand their sexuality wind up unintentionally creating what is legally defined as child pornography. The story is told strictly from the point of view of one of the young people involved. It's a solo confessional delivered into a video camera. It's a point of view on an important issue rarely expressed. The piece isn't offering answers, simply shining light on the issue itself.

As I've mentioned before, the Gallery series is awkward. At 20 minutes, the turnaround between shows is longer than the length of the shows themselves (and this gallery has nothing to look at except some white clay figurines of naked pig-men...)

For Keira has five performances left at the Hamilton Artists Inc. Gallery (155 James Street North, Hamilton) Tickets are available at the door ($8 with a $5 Fringe Backer button). The full schedule is available online.

Why Card Tricks are Important at the Hamilton Fringe

I went to go see magician Chris Bruce at the Hamilton Fringe Festival last night. His show, Why Card Tricks Are Important, is part of the Fringe's "Gallery Series". It's an unusual collection of short shows — this one runs about twenty minutes — performed for much smaller audiences. The show contains — spoiler alert — card tricks. In fact it contains nothing which could not be called a card trick. They are spiffy and well-executed card tricks and fiercely interactive.

The burning question is whether or not the show could succeed in convincing someone that card tricks are, in fact, important. A more interesting question might be could anything convince you that card tricks were important. The answer is, unless you are slightly deranged, no... Unless you accept a perverse artistic meta-definition of important which allows that frivolous pursuits are important as a celebration of their own right to exist. After all, if we have a species have evolved to the point where we have so thoroughly beaten back the threats of disease, malnutrition, predators and war that we have the free time to wonder what exactly Justin Bieber is up to, isn't that a triumph worth celebrating?

For a magic show, or even a theatre presentation, it's an awkward time frame. At twenty minutes it's difficult to say hello and get through two substantive pieces before you're taking your bows. You're also spending more time getting your ticket and sitting in the theatre waiting for the show to start then you are watching the show. it would be better if someone could sit down and curate an hour or 90 minutes of complementary material so it feels like you got a little bang for your buck.

But if you're heading to the Hamilton Fringe festival, engage in something frivolously important and pick a card.

Why Card Tricks are Important has five performances left at Hamilton Artists Inc at the Hamilton Fringe Festival. Tickets ($8 with a $5 Hamilton Fringe backer button) are available at the door or online.

Death and Dating at the Hamilton Fringe

First I'll begin by saying I appreciate any production which allows me to walk up to the box office and say "One for Death please".  I first saw Death And Dating last fall under its original title, The Mom's House Factor, as a recital piece when I did the Soulo Theatre class in Toronto. What began as a 10-minute piece has grown into a forty-five minute extravaganza which mourns breakups and celebrates karaoke and funny hats. I suppose it falls under the category of tragicomedy, which I'm surprised my iPad recognizes as a legitimate word. It's the story, told as a set of reminiscences and flashbacks of a woman subjected to a cruel and in humane break up... At his mom's house. This takes quite a while to get over, as each flash forward in time shows that the pain hasn't really gone away.

Death and Dating is a project to help make light of and put in perspective those unfortunate events which occupy an unhealthy space in our consciousness.  

The venue, which has been confusingly named a hardware store... Is not one. Although somewhat confusingly it contains a bar and the beer is clearly visible in the fridge. Given that large portions of the show take place in a karaoke bar inside the protagonist's imagination, one would have hoped that for added realism, the bar could be open.

Death And Dating has 5 shows left at Mills Hardware (95 King Street East, Hamilton) Tickets $10 plus a Fringe backer button.

Written by Magdelana BB, Directed by Mark Kalzer

All the fun fact-shaped things at www.HamiltonFringe.ca.