David Blaine

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

Another Top Ten List

I think it's important in my industry — and many others — to keep an eye on how the rest of the world perceives us. What they think, rightly or wrongly, will shape how we interact with them. 

As I've mentioned before, it's not good to put too much stalk in anything on the internet that has some sort of countdown or top-ten-ish quality to it. An important lesson from con artists is that lies are most effective when they are specific. (They're much like jokes in that respect. That's why adding a descriptor like "a construction worker", "a priest" or "a black guy" focuses attention even though the semantic content of the joke would have been the same without it.) So the fact that someone has sorted something in order as a top-ten makes us more likely to accept that they're qualified to do so than if they had just presented us with a list.

And, equally important, "top" in the language of the internet doesn't have any connection to quality or value and usually just means "what came up fastest as I was searching google".

With that in mind, I watched this countown of the "Top 10 Craziest Magic Tricks Ever Performed" produced by WatchMojo.

My thoughts in order:

10. Paul Daniels: The Chop Cup

I've had the opportunity to see Paul Daniels perform this live before he passed away last year. It was a brilliant execution of a modern classic trick, and something I've looked up to for years. The blend of manic speed and crystal clarity is something which is extremely difficult to achieve. 

The label of "godfather of modern magic" is probably apt since Paul most likely performed more magic on television than any other person in history.

9. Thomas Blackthorn: Jackhammer swallowing

I had never even heard of Thomas before seeing this clip. Sword swallowing isn't really a magic trick since (normally) you are just doing exactly what you say you are doing and putting a sword down your throat. Magic has roots in shamanistic traditions so activities that demonstrate what we would now call "mind over matter" or dramatic demonstrations of people overcoming dangerous or fear-inducing things seem to be intertwined with magic.

8. Criss Angel: Coin In Arm

I've never been a fan of particularly gory magic tricks. Generally you can just the quality of a magic trick by the way in which the audience reacts. This feels like a bait and switch. You get a visceral reaction from the bloody gross bits and try and pass that off as it being a more impressive trick. But Criss did define magic for a generation of magic enthusiasts (slightly younger than me) and that look on a magician of dark goth-light outsider is still popular years later.

7. Lance Burton: The Dove Act

Lance portrays the perfect archetype of the twentieth century magician with complete with tuxedo, top hat, cane and doves. Dove magic is supposed to represent the creation of live — a symbol of fertility and freedom conjured from thin air. (And when you see this performed live, YES, the birds do really seem to come from thin air.)

6. David Blaine: Spitting Up A Live Frog

David Blaine also played a significant role in defining magic in the public imagination for the twenty-first century. Before him, most TV magic specials were essentially Las Vegas theatre shows captured on camera and broadcast. By taking close-up magic outdoors and spending as much time focusing on the the audience as on the performer, it gave people a new sense of what it was like to see magic live. 

Later in his career, he focused on creating a sense of realism with his magic. Well, it doesn't get more real than this.

5. John Armstrong: Tiny Plunger

I've also had the chance to see John perform this life (at the same conference where I met Paul Daniels, actually). And, I can honestly say I still have no idea how it's done.

Here the definition of "crazy" seems to have been temporarily extended to include "strange and whimsical". Nothing against the trick, it's certainly an outlier on this list that was most likely the result of someone's itinerant googling.

4. Harry Houdini: Chinese Water Torture Cell

Houdini was always more famous as an escape artist than he was as a magician. He was probably the world's first superhero and the world's first superstar. 

3. Cyril Takayama: Head Removal

The two recurring themes on this list seem to be taking the human body and putting it in physical danger and treating it as a stage prop. The way magicians used to break a cigarette in two and merge the pieces seamlessly back together, Cyril sections of his body and restores it. It's a very jarring effect. Although when the editors say they have no idea how he did it, I believe they're just being polite. 

2. David Copperfield: Invisible Man

Undeniably the most successful living magician, David Copperfield knows a good idea when he sees it. One of the greatest secrets is that he doesn't work alone. He is constantly surrounded by a team of brilliant creative consultants who are always pushing the boundaries of what's possible on stage. 

1. Penn & Teller: The Bullet Catch

I had a feeling this would be number one. The most important secret to remember — and what only adds to the mystery when you're lying in bed at three o'clock in the morning staring at the ceiling wondering how it works — is that there is no danger in this trick. (Penn has commented there is danger, but that's from someone who is mentally ill not realizing it's a trick and asking him to catch a bullet from a real gun out on the street.)

Pretend danger is a celebration of life. Real danger is for stupid people

Having gone through, I'm much more impressed with the list than I thought I'd be. Granted they don't seem to have a coherent definition of "crazy" but who has that ever bothered. The honourable mentions (the Pendragons, Harry Blackstone Jr. and Richard Ross) are also interesting and worth some further investigation.