Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"The Best Thing About Magic Is That The Magic Is Not Magic"

Is that title elliptical, enigmatic or simply indecipherable?  Let’s call it perfect and avoid any further assessment.  You people have better things to do than to evaluate blog titles.  Or read extraneous paragraphs like this one.  Sorry.  Just testing to see if my brain is awake.

Recently, we saw an intriguing documentary called Seymour – An Introduction.  The eponymous “Seymour” is the soon-to-be eighty-eight year-old Seymour Bernstein, a once celebrated classical pianist who abruptly stopped playing concerts when he was fifty, preferring the more private existence of a master piano teacher, and  composer. 

The Documentary’s Origin:

One evening, seated beside Bernstein at some gathering, actor Ethan Hawke became enthralled by this elderly stranger who had abandoned the limelight in favor of following his art.  Hawke, struggling with synthesizing the creative and commercial aspects of his own career, was so taken by this charming and articulate gentleman who had opted for “pure art” over personal fame and fortune that he decided to make – and direct – a documentary chronicling Bernstein’s trajectory.

Seymour – An Introduction is a fascinating study of a talented but eccentric (or at least unusual) human being – Bernstein, single, has been living in the same one-room Manhattan studio apartment for fifty-seven years.  (One immediately wonders how much rent the guy’s paying.)  (The film also led me to consider how many people we pass on the street are the bearers of equally fascinating stories but suffered the unfortunate happenstance of not having been seated next to Ethan Hawke at a gathering.)

I could take this post in many different directions.  We could examine – as I have in the past – the issue of “It takes more than talent to make a show business success”, wherein unquestionable talent is stymied by crippling performance anxiety, and ponder when is it self-preservationally appropriate to throw in the towel?  (Or instead hold onto the towel and get professional assistance targeted at keeping you in the game.)   

There is also the provocative question of “Can you be totally committed to your art and still lead a reasonably normal life?”

The preceding are interesting areas of inquiry, which I may return to on some future occasion.  But today, I am singling out another one.

There was a scene in the documentary in which one of Bernstein’s professional concert pianist students complained of a compliment he frequently received to the effect that, “You make it look so easy.” 

The pianist frustratingly referenced to the thousands of hours of practice he endured allowing him to make it look so easy.  It was like, “Hey, I didn’t wake up being this good.  Gimme some credit for the monumental effort that went into it”, the words “You big idiot!” unmentioned but understood.  (Though possibly communicated in the inflection.)

Which brings me to my post’s title.

For me, the most impressive thing about magic is that it’s not magic.  Sure, there’s that delicious moment of audience wonder and incredulity, but if it were really magic – meaning if magic were an experiential reality – it would be like,

“Oh, yeah, it’s magic.”

As in,

“Oh, yeah, you turn the faucet and the water comes out.”

The “magical” thing about magic – not something you should be thinking about at the time but it deserves your post facto appreciation – is that the practitioner who has pulled off this prestidigitational illusion had spent countless hours alone somewhere perfecting the moves that make the “magic trick” so delightfully amazing.  

Some thing with jugglers.  Same thing with dancers.  Same thing with acrobats.

Same thing with concert pianists. 

(Same thing, though to a lesser degree perhaps though I am not certain about that, the guy who throws the pizza dough in the air and then catches it.)   

Actors – and herein may lie Ethan Hawke’s dilemma – are different.  Some actors work diligently at their craft, and legitimately need to.  Others show up with their appealing body types and a face beloved by the camera and they’re off to the races. 

With some actors effort is entirely unnecessary, and may even be counter-productive, interfering with their spontaneous abilities.  (Recalling the centipede who was walking fine until somebody asked him which leg went first.)

There is no magic to magic – or to brilliantly playing the piano – just the shimmering residue of unstinting preparation.  You just never let it show.

How do you handle, “You make it look so easy”?

You just smile and say “Thank you.”

And you go back to work. 

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