Mysterium: Why Am I Here?

Posted by Jonathan Bayme on 30 January 2013

Editor's Note: This article is the third in a new, weekly series by Jason England: MYSTERIUM. Each article in this series will be posted on Wednesday at 11:00am EST - every post on a different subject. This week, it's all about one question: why?

Mysterium: Why Am I Here? - By Jason England

I’ve often thought about my job as a magician in relation to the job that a filmmaker has. I see a lot of parallels between magic and film. In fact, I think there are a lot of parallels between magic and theater in general. Naturally, there are some significant differences as well. Let me explain what I think my “job” as a performing magician is.

movie-clap-boardMovies enable the audience to experience a variety of emotions whilst simultaneously traversing a narrative. We traverse the narrative by seeing the onscreen images, and listening to the dialogue and score. Although it’s possible to have a great visual experience without a story line (the movie Koyaanisqatsi comes to mind) most films combine the two elements of story and visual to produce those emotions. Likewise, although some magic is performed silently, the majority of magic also combines a narrative element with a visual element.

Like a filmmaker, I feel my job is to provide the audience with a feeling.

In a horror movie, the primary goal is to frighten the audience. In a comedy, naturally the goal is to make the audience laugh. In a drama the goal is dramatic tension and in an action movie the goal is to provide a sort of theatrical adrenaline rush. It should be pointed out that these goals aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have a horror movie that’s very funny, a drama that has action sequences, etc. But there is one feeling that modern movies have a difficult time providing. That is the feeling that one has just witnessed the impossible. That’s where I come in.

avatarThe “problem” – such as it is – with movies these days is that anything is possible. The combination of classical film special effects, elaborate practical stunts/effects, and CGI have taken movies to heights that only a few decades ago were impossible to achieve.

Whether or not modern CGI has had an overall positive or negative influence on movies and moviemaking in general is a point for others to argue, but it’s difficult to deny that today’s audiences think nothing of seeing aliens, other worlds, super-heroes, ancient civilizations or anything else that a screenwriter can dream up. If it can be written it can be “shown” on film.

The reason that modern audiences aren’t blown away by the visuals is that we all know and understand what CGI is and what it can do: it can do anything! It’s become our “catch-all” explanation – even in some cases when CGI wasn’t used at all!

Magic is different. With a good magic effect, there is no “escape valve” for the audience’s “how did he do that?” line of questioning. Take Vernon’s Triumph for example. If that sequence of face-up and face-down shuffles and the subsequent “righting” of the deck apart from a selection was shown in a film the audience would conclude that either editing, or CGI, or a gimmicked deck was in use. With a live magic performance, they know that clever editing and CGI couldn’t have been used – this is live! They may suspect a gimmicked deck, but a good performer knows how to either prevent that beforehand or at least convince the audience that the cards are normal afterwards.

The closest thing a magic audience has to a “catch-all” explanation like CGI is sleight-of-hand. Virtually all magicians have had an audience member state dismissively that what they’ve just seen was “some sort of sleight-of-hand.” There’s not much you or I can do for such people. I typically ignore them and vow not to perform for them any more than I have to. But, even the audience members that bring up sleight-of-hand in a respectful and positive way are often using it as their catch-all explanation. Again, a good performer has ways of routining and choreographing his effects in such a way that hopefully the sleights are not seen directly, but are only inferred and grasped at like straws by their blown-away audiences. If that’s the best I can get, I’ll take it!

The point is, once all the potential methods are eliminated, the audience watching a live magic performance is left with only one “emotional” conclusion: they just witnessed the impossible. Call it a “moment of astonishment” or a “magical moment” if you want. Most of those terms are pretty much interchangeable to me. Regardless of what term you use, the audience feels that what they’ve just seen has no explanation. That’s my goal.

jurassic-parkIt’s important to point out that neither I, nor most filmmakers are after any sort of intellectual belief from their audiences. Steven Spielberg isn’t trying to actually convince you that an alien has been stranded in a Southern California backyard or that there’s an island in the Pacific that’s populated by genetically cloned dinosaurs. What he is after is emotional belief that those things exist, for the duration of the film. Spielberg doesn’t care if you settle down and “realize” that dinosaurs are long extinct after the movie, as long as they frightened, thrilled and amazed you during the movie.

I feel the same way about my magic performances. I’m not after long-term, intellectual belief from my audiences that I can “correct” a face-up/face-down deck with a snap of my fingers, or that I can invisibly cause a signed playing card to appear on top of the deck after burying it in the middle.

Nor do I want them to believe that I can cause a card to dematerialize from the deck and reappear in a sealed envelope inside the zippered compartment of my wallet any time I want. At the end of the day, I’m happy if they attribute these things to “sleight-of-hand,” although magicians know that’s an over-simplification.

What I am after is that in-the-moment feeling of astonishment. I want to know that as the card is being shown around after being removed from the wallet and envelope, that they’re left with no logical explanation.

It is in that split second, after their brains have considered gaffed cards and discarded that hypothesis (the cards were borrowed), have considered duplicate cards and discarded that explanation (again, borrowed cards and the selection was signed!), and considered sleight-of-hand (“…but how could he have known where the card was if John shuffled the deck?!”), that they run out of possibilities and are left only with impossibilities.

That’s what I’m after. That’s why I’m here.