penn jillette

Pulling Back The Curtain

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.

Why aren't there (again) more women in magic?

Sometimes ideas are just in the air and they keep bubbling up to the surface all a once. Following up on the spoken word piece I shared yesterday, Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) was recently interviewed in Vulture and part of their conversation was about women in magic and he shared the following:

Everybody that I know in magic got in before they were 10 and they have a huge affection for that scene of older men — it was always men — with cigars talking in the basement of a library about magic. I hated that. I didn’t get into magic in any real way until I was 19 and met TellerRaymond Joseph Teller met Jillette in 1974, and they began their trademark show in 1981. Teller normally does not speak in shows or in public, citing early magic shows at frat parties where bros paid closer attention when he was silent. . My whole life up that point was about dirty rock bands. And most of my friends in high school were girls. So the idea of a boys’ club that excluded them — which is what magic was — made me furious. Even now it fills me with rage that people ask if my son is into magic and don’t ask if my daughter is.

So the biggest trend I’m seeing in magic is what we saw in comedy 15 years ago, which is that the boys’ club is crumbling. Three years ago, it was maybe one girl every two years who would come up after a show and say she was interested in magic. Now it’s about three girls a week — 12-year-old girls with a deck of cards in their hands saying, “I’m going to be on
— Penn Jillette

You can read the full article at Vulture.

On the Ethics of Conjuring

It's a strange feeling to stop and consider that you lie for a living.

Magic is make believe, but there's something that separates it from other forms of pretend, like watching a movie or a play. In a movie, you can get swept away in emotion and feel that you're watching the real-time reactions of real people (who just happen to be reading from a script all the way through.) But in magic, emotion isn't enough; I need to bring my audience on intellectually. They need to know what they're seeing and know that it can't happen. The lie is more real.

Seeing a behind the scenes look watching your favourite Stark Trek alien getting into makeup doesn't detract from your enjoyment of Star Trek. But watching a magic show set up and seeing where all of the bits and pieces secretly went would seriously undermine your experience.

If I were trying to be absolutely intellectually honest, and admit that lying is wrong, it's not easy to defend my particular brand of lying.

One person who thought about this a lot is the famed magician and skeptic (and Canadian) James Randi. He was recently interviewed on the podcast of Penn Jillette (who has also thought deeply about this). They chat about this and other things for the better part of an hour. Gave me an intellectually satisfying warm fuzzy feeling: 

Messages of Hope from a Juggler and a Magician

Magician Penn Jillette explains in this video how he converted to Christianity:

And then after a suitable awkward pause and the gotcha moment, he goes on to share a very sincere message of hope explaining what's wrong with the term islamophobia and how to go about helping people you disagree with.

Maybe we're doing this all wrong, trying to listen to politicians and academics. Maybe the way to a better tomorrow is by listening to magicians and jugglers.

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.