Monday, August 8, 2016

"Beyond Magic"

I like magic.  And I do not need to know how it’s done.  As long as you’re not making me look foolish or taking my money, I am enthralled with being left in the dark.  My face lights up in the company of wonder.  I delight in being genuinely amazed.

Who likes magic even more than I do is Dr. M.  We had a magician in our backyard to perform at her last major birthday party.  No fanfare, no “May I have your attention, please?”  Just an unassuming guy named Mark  (not The “Great Markini”), passing among the gathering, charming out guests with his deftly executed “up-close” sleights of hand. 

Here’s how much Dr. M likes magic.

A few years ago, when we were in Paris, I drew her attention a tiny, neighborhood theater whose marquee announced a magic show, knowing she would want to attend.  And we did. 

There, in a (claustrophobically) cavern-like theater, an elderly magician flanked by two attractive female assistants pulled from the audience, performed feats of legerdemain with coins and playing cards, his accompanying patter entirely in French, a language I studied in High School, but “Raymond et Suzette” – the “Dick-and-Jane” counterparts in our French reader – never did card tricks, so I was unfamiliar with the patois.  (Interesting Side Note:  When we mentioned this experience to magician Mark, he immediately recognized the man as one of the most respected practitioners in Europe.) 

There are two kinds of magic.  The first kind, you can buy, for example a special kind of box that makes it appear that the person lying inside it is being sawed into two pieces.  That’s something about the box – you got the box, you can saw people in half.

Which is similar in concept to a guy like David Copperfield, who my daughter Anna and I on a trip to Las Vegas saw make an elephant disappear.  That trick is unlikely to have involved a special kind of elephant – the disappearing variety – or some “misdirection” where the magician deflects your attention while sneaking the elephant up his sleeve.  There is surprise, but little ultimate enchantment, understanding that the trick you just witnessed was executed by money.

(Tricks like that make me wonder how they are actually developed.  Most landlords won’t let you keep an elephant in your apartment.  So where exactly do you practice?   Who knows?  Maybe you begin with a household pet and gradually work your way up to elephant, which you would have to, since Vegas will unlikely pay bloated salaries for making a cat disappear.)

The other kind of magic is of the “Backyard Mark at the birthday party” variety.  You appreciate the trick, but that appreciation is augmented, at least subconsciously, by your awareness of the time, persistence an near-obsessive dedication it took to make what you saw happen in front of you a reality.

There is an ineffable pleasure in knowing that a human being did that.  (I feel the same way about jugglers, plate spinners and every performer in Cirque Du Soleil.  Sword swallowers?  I think, “That guy really wants to be in show business.”  Unless it’s a retractable sword and then who cares?  But otherwise, I mean, nobody makes you become a sword swallower.  Why would you ever select that?  Can you imagine what sword swallowing would feel like before you eventually got good at it?)

Okay, so here’s where we’re going with this.  And maybe this is just me.  I often announce that, hoping I am wrong.  But I may actually be alone on this one.

The question is this:

“Can a magician be too skillful?”

A question perhaps no one has ever asked themselves, but me.

Derek DelGaudio is so good, (as I heard chatting in the row behind me) magicians (from Los Angeles’s the “Magic Castle”) come specifically to see the man work.  And no question, Derek DelGaudio performs spectacularly.

Some of the tricks – I imagine, but what do I know? – are “bought” tricks – eventuated by technology or ear-piece communication rather than endless repetition and physical dexterity.  Before the show, audience members were asked to choose an identifying card from a board in the lobby, and during the show’s finale, DelGaudio identifies, without a single mistake, the card every audience member had selected.  That seems like something they set up; it cannot be pulled off without outside assistance, meaning, to me, it’s not magic.

On the other hand, DelGaudio’s act included tricks that close-to-literally blew you away.  He dropped a brick on the concrete floor, identifying it as an actual brick.  He then placed the brick on a table, built a “house of cards” covering it, got up from the table, stopped, blew the “house of cards” down… and the brick on the table was no longer there.


That was good.

But it was not “Magician-Mark-in-our-backyard-birthday-party” good.  At the moment the brick disappeared, as well as after many other befuddling illusions, Derek DelGaudio did not seem like a magician.

He seemed, to me, like a wizard.

Triggering a reaction not of delight, but of inexplicable edginess.

The tricks were too good.  Was I watching a great magician?  Or a guy from another planet?

My reaction surprised me.  A good singer makes you applaud; an unsurpassable singer makes you stand up and cheer.  With a magician, however, it appears to be different.  If you are too accomplished, you go unrecognizably “off the charts” in your ability, and I begin to feel creeped out.

Imagine a figure skater who never fell, or a gymnast who invariably scored “Ten.”  You start thinking, “I don’t know who this person is.  But they are definitely not like me.”

Maybe I’m wrong.  Dr. M. loved it.  But for me, when a performer is superhuman in their ability – when being “human” is what bonds them identifiably with the audience – if the audience is me – the entertainment value of the performance mysteriously diminishes, and I am left watching… the word in my mind has disqualifying connotations but I shall let it out anyway…

… a freak.

Writers never come close to attaining that sublime level of accomplishment.  But maybe that is not entirely a bad thing.   A recognizably fallible execution says, “I’m from the same species as you guys.”  If I wrote flawlessly, you might wonder…    

What kind of person is that?

Not that I mess up on purpose.

I am just naturally no Derek DelGaudio.


JED said...

Just the building of a house of cards, large enough to enclose a brick, with people watching, on a stage, every night would qualify as a miraculous magical trick to me.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The audience card thing sounds like one of those superhuman memory feats (although equally, one can imagine tricks to make it work).

As part of my efforts to promote skepticism, I spent a while reading magic books to understand how tricks worked. On the rare occasions when I've been at magic shows, I practice deliberately looking in the wrong direction and identifying the stuff I've read. I'm not much fun to be with.

But the key with magic - even bought tricks - is never the trick itself but the showmanship in presenting it. I agree with you: a close-up magician who can fool you one on one is far more impressive and entertaining than the big illusions on a distant stage. When David Copperfield was doing his huge stunts on TV, I just couldn't get involved - we're used to TV being all about trickery. Of all the arts, I think magic is least suited for television for that reason.


FFS said...

Forget about magic. You made me travel back in time with the Raymond et Suzette reference. They must have disappeared from the Ontario curriculum in the mid-60's because my wife, who is 4 years younger, had not heard of them.

john brown said...

On Memorial Day, we saw a performance by 86 year old Dick Stoner. He's been at it for 68 years. His magic act hasn't changed much. What I loved about it, besides being asked to participate in the rope trick, was how he kept the young people in the crowd interested. They all have the equivalent of computers in their pockets, yet he did a slight-of-hand trick that fooled them all and got a huge laugh.

Canada's Magic said...

One of my readers liked your post so much, they wrote a guest post for my site about it! Thanks for the great post about magic. I've linked to it to send my readers your way.