Penn Jillette (the speaking half of Penn & Teller) gives Vanity Fair a bit of inside commentary looking at magic performed in major TV and motion pictures including The Prestige, The Illusionist, Arrested Development and more — that is actors portraying magic tricks on camera, regardless of whether they’re actually performing the magic or using camera tricks. In addition to contrasting how magic in real life differs from its on-screen portrayal, he gives a look at the philosophical and ethical choices that go into presenting magic.
This Saturday, July 22, at SpiritHouse in Toronto, we're having a very special Magic & Martini. I'll be joined by two special guests The Evasons.
Jeff and Tessa Evason are the world's premiere mind reading duo. Having seen them work their magic live, that's a title that doesn't even begin to do them justice. Their abilities will leave your minds blown and your gasts flabbered.
They work primarily in the United States now, but are originally from Canada. My entire life in magic I came up hearing about what they could do and it always sounded too good to be true. (Then I saw them live and they surpassed the hype.)
Magic & Martini doesn't normally feature guests a special opportunity presented itself, and I couldn't turn down the honour. This is truly a one-night-only opportunity that will never come again. I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it!
If you don't now who the Evasons are, you can take a look at their appearance last year on Penn & Teller: Fool Us. The non-silent one declared their performance "Just Breathtaking!"
There are a very limited number of seats remaining,
so reserve your seats now:
The show is at SpiritHouse, located in downtown Toronto at the corner of Adelaide and Portland. Before the show, you have a chance to sit down and explore their amazing cocktail menu
And if you're managed to read this far, use the code secrets when booking your tickets for an discount!
There are a few Canadians appearing on this season of Penn & Teller Fool Us. Mahdi Gilbert is perhaps the most remarkable among them because he performs magic despite being born without hands. As a result, all of the magic he performs is done with techniques he devised himself. Actually, all of the everything he does is based on techniques he devised himself, from things as simple as taking playing cards out of their box. Being from Toronto, I've known Mahdi for several years and have watched as his magic has evolved over that time. It's been a remarkable journey to observe and this brief national television appearance is, hopefully, just another step on the path.
So take a look and see if he manages to fool the great Penn & Teller:
I've been listening to the episode of Discourse in Magic on "ethics". The episode is an extended interview with my friend, Ben Train. The episode is over an hour long so I'm not sure how many people would be willing to sit through it. It raises some interesting points including ones with which I disagree.
Ben Train demonstrates mindreading on Magic Tonight.
I was interested in hearing the episode because while Ben and I have discussed this topic previously, I have no idea what the hosts of this program thought about it.
The episode is slightly misnamed. It's titled "ethics and morals for the modern magician" although the entire episode is focused around one fairly specific concrete example which was actually a piece of mentalism.
Mentalism is a proper subset of magic but in the past decade has undergone a kind of grass-roots rebranding. A traditional mentalist was (ostensibly) reading minds and seeing into the future. The current mentalist tends to be more of a Sherlock Holmes-style character that gathers information by making very detailed observations and spinning those tiny clues into full fledged theories about whodunnit. One of the reasons that Holmes was so impressive was that he was a fictional character and he had the benefit of an omniscient author who could secretly feed him the right answer. Similarly, the mentalist has the tools of a magician at his disposal to secretly gain access to the requisite information and most of the "observation" is just to keep up the pretences.
The ethical problem they were obsessing over was, "What happens when the audience accepts the red herring?" Ben actually gave some specific examples that I found troubling — people who saw his show and were legitimately misled into believing untrue things. At the same time, I was also surprised by the realization that in my own work, I don't have these problems at all and I couldn't explain why.
I've been a life-long skeptic, inspired at an early age by the writing of Douglas Adams and Richard Feynman, and later by Penn & Teller's Bullshit. I believe (deeply) that false beliefs are harmful and we have a moral obligation towards others not to spread them if we can avoid it. That makes performing magic problematic because a magic trick, properly executed, would seem to be spreading false beliefs; namely that something which should not be possible is. Performing magic while not being giant hypocrite is a problem which doesn't appear to have an obvious solution. That's also why I perform so little magic for children, but spend a lot of time teaching magic to them. The idea that an honestly curious young person would ask me to explain something to them and that it should be my responsibility to not do that just bugs me too damn much.
Now it's worth considering the possibility that Ben is simply not doing anything wrong. I know there are people who think that the magic they see on television is undeniable proof that demons are working through humans and that it is being covered up by the networks who are owned by the Illuminati. They are so far down the rabbit hole of wingnuttery that they are certainly beyond my ability to help. (And yes, they're real, I've had conversations with them.) But to design a show with that sort of person in mind would be to lose all perspective.
Ben Train demonstrates advanced Mindreading
But there is probably more to it than that. This specific example is problematic because it implies, at least to some extent, that what is being performed is based in science. The label of science is what cranks and frauds reach for to gain credibility. You're relying on the audience's ignorance of science to justify your practice. For my own personal morality, that is a line I choose not to cross, and I don't perform any material in this vein.
This tradition is not exactly new. Magicians have used science as a cloak for their work for over a century. Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin would claim he could make his son float by drugging him.
There are (at least) two ways around the problem, both of which they danced quite close to on the podcast. The first example they brought up was Captain America. Why is it that people are able to see Captain America without becoming concerned about the black market for Vibranium? Moreover, why can't we bring our audiences to the same place?
Performers seem to have an inner shut-eye charlatan which is desperate to convince people that what they do is real. Not only do I have to read minds, I have to make it "believable" — whatever that might mean. Looking at the example of Captain America, it's possible to realize the obsession with realism is misplaced. In order for something to be interesting, engaging or astonishing, it is absolutely not necessary for it to be real. In one of his Stanford theoretical physics lectures which he had facetiously dubbed "Quantum Mechanics for Old People", Leonard Susskind said, "I never use the term real. I find it very misleading."
You can get much more mileage by demonstrating something which is apparently supernatural and having faith (!) in the audience not to start a religion around you, than you can by demonstrating the same phenomenon with a pseudo-scientific explanation.
Part of that is simply having an attitude of respect for my audience. This comes from the other subject they briefly touched on: Penn & Teller. They follow in the "honest liar" tradition along with performers like James Randi. There is deception, but there is (confusingly) no attempt to hide the existence of the deception. When watching them, there is no pretence of trying to convince you of anything.  They know cool things, you don't, that makes this interesting.
Unfortunately, we get in the habit of underestimating the audience. This stems from a time when we were younger. Most magicians start out primarily performing for children. When you're surrounded by five and six year olds, it's not hard to be the smartest person in the room. But I've seen many people carry that attitude over to their adult audiences. I try and take the opposite approach and when I walk into room and assume that I am average or, more specifically, that half the room is smarter than me.
When someone is watching me do magic, I assume (possibly out of courtesy more then an actual evidence) that this person is scientifically literate and know some basic facts about the universe (magic is not real, astrology is bullshit, the dead to not return as ghosts to help with card tricks). I never have to say anything, but if by nothing other than subtext, I can get that across, that frees us up to enjoy the incredible things which happen without obsessing over fake causes. And if someone really wants to know how I learned any of this, I tell them.
Ethics are extremely important in magic. We do walk a fine line. Lying for money is never easy.
 When not convincing people that Teller is the Saviour of all synthetic fabrics.
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.
In The Books of Wonder (while I object, in principle, to "must-read" lists, if I didn't, these would be on mine), Tommy Wonder wrote about the three pillars. His pillars pertained to method. Briefly they were:
- Sleight of hand/manipulation
- Special apparatus/mechanical principles
- Psychological manipulation (which fall under the popular catch all term "misdirection")
All magic is made possible by these means, either separately in combination and Tommy was among those who regularly made use of all three. (You may argue that mathematical principles have been left out. While they don't fit well under any of these categories, I wouldn't personally grant them the status of a fourth pillar. They're just not that significant.)
The presentation of magic is supported similarly by three pillars. I believe that magic shows (I'm thinking of formal shows that have a given length, strolling or restaurant magic tends to be a bit too improvisational to pigeonhole like this) are based on three forms:
- Rock Concerts
- University Lectures
A magic show is deeply reminiscent of a rock concert. The most important similarity is that bands play individual songs that do not reference one another. Each song is a complete entity and the decision about which songs go in which order is not determined by logic or plot, but instead by other factors like mood, or genre.
Lectures are in there because unlike a concert, where regardless of whether or not you are familiar with the band in particular, you do not require special instructions to listen to a love song or watch a dance number. With magic, on the other hand, the audience requires a lot more catching up. You may have to explain the rules of the Three Shell Game, or point out that you are using Morgan Silver Dollars. There is more exposition required to bring the audience to a point where they can appreciate what's going on.
I could have said theatrical play, but screenplay focuses more on the writing which I feel is more essential. A screenplay has interaction between characters in a natural way (this is usually the magician interacting with the audience. They also incorporate all of the elements of dramatic tension and build and also devices like callbacks.
Every (good) magic show I have seen is based on these three forms. What distinguishes them is the amount to which they contain each. Here are three examples from my own experience. Each are respected the world over, but their styles of performance are quire different. Nevertheless, they still fit into this framework.
For example, Penn & Teller come across most like a rock concert. The tricks they perform are separate units with a lot of flexibility in the order of the tricks. But they still write each as a screenplay and they also provide a great deal of exposition so they are not based exclusively on a rock concert.
Mac King best exemplifies the screenplay, with the abundance of structure and callbacks.
David Ben has the greatest feeling of a lecture with an abundance of historical information and exposition, but tricks are still divided like individual songs with relatively few callbacks between pieces.
In my own show, Lies, Damn Lies & Magic Tricks, I tried to make it more like a screenplay than anything that came before it. With the help of James Biss, I think the result was fairly strong. The downside is that the show feels very much like an integrated unit and it's now difficult for me to take some of those pieces and perform them in other shows because of the way they've been tangled in with the larger whole.