Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I've Moved

Please visit the Unexpected Wonders blog at its new home: See you there!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Well, I wasn’t abducted by inbred hillbilly psychos. Turns out they were really a bunch of cub scouts trying to help me up after I’d fallen – stupid alcohol diet. Actually I didn’t even make it to the woods…just some guy’s really overgrown yard. Oh well, maybe next year.

Anyway, of a morning I like to get up and check out what’s being said on some of the other blogs. Usually I have to fight off our Shi tzu pup, Emma, first who seems to think I’m her personal chew toy. I ran across this post at I, Magician and it got me thinking – or sort of thinking, anyway. Hard to form really coherent thoughts when you have a Shi tzu hanging from your hand.

First, I haven’t yet seen the show Phenomenon. I don’t watch much TV, and what I do watch I usually come across by accident. Also, I have an aversion to watching Criss Angel. It’s not that I don’t like him – well, that’s exactly what it is, I don’t like him. I’ve said before that I believe he’s talented, that he’s obviously doing something right to be where he is. But with Criss magic seems to be a byproduct. The main focus seems to be proving what an extraordinary guy he is. I understand selling yourself, but he’s taken that to an extreme.

So I haven’t seen the show, and after reading Andster’s thoughts about it I probably won’t go out of my way to catch an episode. However, I have a problem with the premise. As I understand it, the show’s supposed to be about finding the next big star of mentalism. Sounds good so far. It’s just that the people competing are already professional mentalists/magicians. They’re already polished performers. I find it hard to see the point.

I don’t watch American Idol really, but I understand the show. They’re taking a bunch of unknowns and giving them a shot at fame – it’s a great premise. Would the show be anywhere near as good if the people competing already had recording contracts, were already known singers? No, I don’t think it would be worth a damn. It’s interesting to see an unknown talent develop and ascend. Not so interesting to watch people who’ve already made a mark in the business compete against each other.

Andster thinks Gerry will probably win or would like to see him win. Gerry is a hell of a mentalist, no question. But he’s also already had his own hour long network special. If he wins, it’s hard to see how that’s much of a discovery.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the show would be much more interesting if the contestants were non professional performers, real unknowns. There are some very very good amateurs out there, and I’d much rather see some of them get a shot at the big time. Just my humble opinion on it. See you next time.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A New Venue For Magicians?

After having endured a period of illness which lasted about a year and sidelined me from doing much magic, at least in a formal sense, I’m eager to get back to where I was. It’s not easy. My confidence standing in front of people and doing magic has been slightly eroded by the time away. Therefore I’m anxious to find ways in which I might polish my material and regain the sense of ease I once enjoyed. Put another way, I’m scouting for groups I can do magic for, sans fee, just to get my performing feet back again.

Toward that end, I was struck last night with what I think might be a perfect solution. Watching the news, I learned that rifle season for deer had just opened in my neck of the woods. Now, I’m not a hunter. I went a couple of times when I was younger, when I thought engaging in a blood sport would give me more insight into Hemmingway. I guess stalking a defenseless animal with a large caliber rifle for the questionable joy of killing it struck me as a little strange. That and I’m satisfied with my penis size.

Anyhoo, I realized immediately that all through the woods there’ll be great numbers of unshaven, mostly inebriated men, toting rifles and looking to kill something. I put two and two together and thought: What a wonderful group to try my magic on!

I know what you’re thinking: Why didn’t I think of that? I mean, can you imagine the reactions I’ll get when I leap from behind a tree into the path of a bunch of grizzled men moving stealthily through the woods with weapons and say, “Think of a card, any card.” They’ll be like,”Holy hell, Ralph! It’s a magician, here to entertain us with his well honed wonders.” Or they might just grunt… Either way they’re sure to be utterly captivated and will probably throw money at my feet…or maybe animal parts…I guess I could always make some kind of stew.

It’s sure to be a win win situation. I just need to be sure to wear my new brown jacket and white cap – they’re very striking.

Sure, there’s always the chance of being captured and sexually assaulted by inbred hillbilly psychos a la Deliverance, but isn’t that a small price to pay for the joy of spreading magic? I mean, I could be introducing a whole new venue for magicians here. I see a book, Magic for Guys Who Want to Kill Shit, or, Hunter Magic: Making The Approach With Armed Parties. I see a whole new class of effects: The Vanishing Shotgun Shell and The Sprouting Antlers Trick. Good stuff.

So, wish me luck with this venture. I’m sure nothing will go wrong!

Note: This is Jim’s wife. I just wanted to let you know that shortly after entering the forest he was shot at several times then apparently abducted by inbred hillbilly psychos. I arrive at this conclusion because his last cell phone message was: “Help, I’m being abducted by inbred hillbilly psychos!” I think his Margarita diet led to this – I seriously doubted his assertion that, Alcohol burns fat. I’ll be sure to let you know should there be any new developments.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Considering Presentation

In an earlier post I observed that a new magician who’s decided to create a character can be a frightening thing. Another kind of magician who can be equally frightening, or mind numbingly boring, is the one who’s decided he needs to focus on presentation in his magic.

Now, on the surface you’d think concentrating on presentation would be a very good thing. After all, magicians make a lot of ado about presentation. You’re always told, “Work on your presentation, “or “Develop an original presentation,” or “Presentation is the most important aspect of performance.” Those things are all pretty much true. So what’s the problem? Well, it seems that some, even some dispensing the advice, don’t seem really clear on just what presentation is.

I think it’s in Strong Magic that Darwin Ortiz talks about the guy who’s decided to focus on presentation and turns a two minute trick into a thirty minute excursion to hell. And that’s what too often happens. Some have the idea that having a presentation means coming up with some elaborate and involved storyline. It doesn’t. A trick doesn’t need a corresponding story to have a good presentation; actually a good presentation doesn’t necessarily have to be stated – it can simply be implied. Besides, story tricks are best served in small doses – performing magic and telling stories well are disparate skills and not easily married.

Let’s back track a moment and first define what a presentation is in the context of doing magic. At its simplest and most obvious, presentation is how you present a trick. More, I think it’s about why you’re presenting a trick. That’s right, at its core good presentation is all about the often ignored element of motivation.

I’ve probably said it before but it bears repeating: Magic without motivation is nothing more than meaningless and inconsequential tricks. It’s but a pale shade of what magic can and should be. Imagine if someone came up to you and took out a deck of cards and said, “Look what I can do.” Imagine he started to then cut to the four aces in a flashy manner. What would you think, what would you feel? While you might be momentarily impressed by such a display of digital dexterity, that would probably quickly be eclipsed by annoyance. The fact is people don’t like a show off. You might feel confusion – why is this person showing me this? What you wouldn’t feel is that you’d witnessed anything particularly entertaining or worthwhile simply because there was no logical motivation for the display.

Now imagine the same scenario except the person first tells you, “You know my uncle made a killing in Atlantic City…he’s a professional gambler. He showed me how it’s possible to always find the four aces. Would you like to see?” That’s a presentation. Admittedly it’s not the most artful presentation in the world – I just made it up – but it’s serviceable, it gets the job done. Most importantly it’s infinitely better than the first example because it establishes a reason for what the performer is doing. What in the first example was but a pointless display of skill is invested with meaning with just a few words. The dynamic is altered so the performer is not just showing off without justification but sharing something interesting and unique.

As you can see, presentation isn’t just about cooking up a long drawn out story – a presentation can be just a sentence or two and be very effective. A good presentation not only gives a logical reason for your actions but engenders interest in what you’re doing. Someone made a killing in Atlantic City by knowing how to control cards? That’s interesting to most people, it draws them in and they want to know more. Drawing them in, exciting their expectations makes them very susceptible to the magic to come.

Here’s another example. Imagine if someone said to you: “Reality is not static. It’s determined by our perceptions, but our perceptions are anything but infallible. Actually there’s a very simple technique for warping perceptions with a dollar bill. It’s a way to actually bend reality.”

Again, just a few words that provide a motivation for what you’re about to do and spark interest in it. This guy’s going to warp my perceptions with a dollar bill? He’s going to bend reality? This I got to see. Couple this simple presentation with a strong effect featuring a dollar bill – like the Mis-Made bill – and brother you have a potential miracle on your hands.

Now, I said earlier that a good presentation doesn’t even have to be stated – it can be implied. What I really mean when I say that is there are effects in magic where the motivation is self evident. You see a guy shuffling through some slips of paper. He looks at them on both sides. He folds them together, unfolds them and they’ve been transformed into a bunch of twenties. You could do that and say nothing and the effect would still register with most anyone because it’s such a logical action – at least it would be logical if magic was possible. Who wouldn’t want the ability to change blank paper into money? It speaks to our secret desires, our hidden wishes. Actually with effects such as these saying too much can damage the effect by clouding it with a lot of extraneous nonsense. There’s no need to explain why you’re doing what anyone would wish to do.

Another way in which a presentation can be implied is by introducing a problem and using magic to rectify it. You see someone taking his last cigarette from the pack and in the process breaking it. He brings the pieces together and fuses them back into a whole. The magic makes sense in and of itself. Something that is broken becomes useless – we all understand that. If one were capable of exercising special powers it would be logical to use said powers to fix something and give it worth again. Similarly imagine someone looking longingly at something he can’t have – be it an item of food or a beautiful woman. He communicates his desire through action and expression alone, and it’s clear that he lacks whatever’s needed to possess that which is desired. We all understand wanting something but lacking whatever’s necessary to have it. If the individual uses magic to get what he wants, to fulfill his desires, it’s very powerful indeed. He plucks coins from the air to buy a meal, or transforms a penny into a gold ring which he uses to win the heart of the beautiful woman. Words aren’t needed – the motivation is understood.

Now I’ve gone on a bit about having a logical motivation, but I want to make it clear that a good presentation doesn’t necessarily have to adhere to the logic of objective reality – it needs to be logical in the context of the effect. For instance, Paul Cummins has a very nice effect called Invisible Hand. His presentation is very simple: He asks the spectator, “Have you ever seen an invisible hand? It’s called an invisible hand not because it’s invisible but because it makes objects placed in it invisible.” He goes on to very convincingly demonstrate this by placing a coin into the hand and making it seemingly invisible. Of course the presentation makes no sense in the nuts and bolts world we live in. However in the context of the effect, in the action of seemingly placing a coin into his hand and making it invisible, it works perfectly. It does what a good presentation should – provides a sound motivation for what’s about to happen and creates interest in the coming magic.

Developing an original presentation is really no more than coming up with a good reason for what you’re going to do. That process begins with asking why. Why would I place a coin in a bottle? Maybe to demonstrate that the physical universe isn’t quite as solid as it appears. Sub atomic particles are really composed of nothing more than alternating waves of energy – the universe itself is nothing more than energy. What if there was a way to circumvent natural laws and for a moment render two solids as nothing but the energy they really are? Putting a coin in a bottle would prove that those natural laws had really been bypassed.

Of course presentations aren’t always one size fits all – that’s why it’s preferable to develop your own or at least add your own accents to a preexisting one. When I ask the why question my thoughts usually turn to the nature of reality and the very real absurdity of labeling something impossible when we find ourselves existing in an infinite universe. I want to stress this through my magic – the mystery of life and the plastic quality of consensus reality. But that’s me, those are the kinds of things that excite my imagination. You might have a completely different mind set, but that doesn’t matter. The process is the same – asking why and discovering a reason that makes sense of what you’re going to do.

I hope I’ve managed to demystify the subject of presentation in magic and demonstrate that far from being some abstract and hard to understand concept it’s really something quite simple and readily obtained. Like many aspects of magic, common sense is the key. To reiterate, a good presentation addresses the question of why – providing a sound motivation for your actions – and engenders the interest of those watching, making them receptive to what you’re doing. It really is that simple, and there’s no good reason to annoy people with pointless tricks when a trick coupled with a good presentation can create the illusion of real magic. See you next time.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Back Again

Well, I've been busy busy busy (seriously, not just busy busy but x3) but now that things have settled down a bit (and they're letting me out nights and weekends) maybe I can devote some time to this project. Look for some new posts coming up shortly.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Greatest Magician

He came from nothing and through hard work and perseverance transformed himself into the world’s first super star. Those who knew him and saw him perform were nearly universal in the opinion that he was a mediocre magician; Jim Steinmeyer, in his highly recommended Hiding The Elephant, points out that the public of the time didn’t even think of Houdini as a magician. Yet his name is synonymous with magic and we still think of him as the greatest magician ever. Truly he was the master mystifier of this or any other age, a man capable of manipulating reality itself, of creating a legend that has achieved mythic proportions. He was the great Houdini.

Like many magicians my initial interest in magic was spawned by a fascination with Houdini. Very early on I read E.L. Doctrow’s Ragtime, which features Houdini as a minor character, and was totally hooked. There’s a scene in Ragtime where Houdini, overcome with grief at his mother’s passing, is expressing that grief, exorcising the demons that are devouring him, by performing magic at a maniacal pace. Coins are falling from his fingers; canaries are flying from his open mouth – it’s a veritable assault of wonders, a magician come from some dark corner of hell to terrify and astound. The audience’s wonder turns to disquiet…then to fear. Suddenly there comes an explosion from outside and the audience flees the theater in terror, thinking it’s some other infernal illusion he’s devised.

That scene made quite an impression on this young magician – it really helped form my view that a magician should be a mysterious character, and maybe not always benevolent. Of course it was entirely fictional, but then so much about Houdini was and is. I remember seeing the illustration in the mostly apocryphal The Great Houdini in which Houdini is tying his shoes with his toes – this was some years before I knew anything about Houdini or magic. That picture to me symbolizes Houdini – the weird talents, strange disciplines, the ever addictive sense of mystery. It’s so hard to determine where the apocryphal begins and ends. He was truly an enigma.

Here it is, Halloween eighty-one years after his death and we still remember. While there have been other legendary magicians, I don’t think anyone’s managed to achieve what he did – certainly no other performer has come close to equaling his success with escapes. He created the impression that he could escape from anything. He challenged the world to restrain him, and he could not be restrained. Is it any wonder that he reached mythic status in his own lifetime?

People wonder if he were alive today if he could achieve the same level of success. I don’t know. It was a very different world he lived in, and I think much of his success was dependant upon that particular time – I’m not sure if the concepts he symbolized would work today. Then again, I wouldn’t want to bet against him. If he were able to forge his showmanship in a comparable way – by working the lowest rungs of show business – I’d certainly give him a shot. And it’s without a doubt he was one of the most driven men ever. As Houdini himself so completely proved, anything’s possible.

So we remember, and tip our hats to the greatest magician of all time. For if a magician is defined as one who creates mystery, there’s no doubt he was the greatest. The fascination continues. See you next time.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Strange Days Indeed

I’ve been out of town the last couple of weeks – just returned yesterday. While I was away I purposely stayed away from the Internet as I’ve found that without the occasional break from it you risk serious brain melt. Actually I stayed away from television too, so you might imagine my surprise when I was flipping through channels last night and learned that David Copperfield stands accused of rape.

Perusing some of the forums, I saw just the kind of responses I imagined I’d find. The story just doesn’t make sense, one particularly enlightened fellow was saying, ergo the accuser must be lying. Yeah…everybody knows that the perpetration of a violent crime adheres unerringly to a strict logical sequence. And if you were twenty-one and had just undergone a brutal and traumatic event you’d be able to recount the details without any sort of deviation or inconsistencies – otherwise you’re just a liar. Really sharp thinking. Wow, get the guy a job at the white house.

Besides the morons who desperately hope that the allegations aren’t true as it would wreak havoc on David’s name in magic and otherwise diminish his accomplishments – apparently hoping it isn’t true for the sake of the victim doesn’t enter into the equation – there were a number of folks advocating a common sense approach and saying let’s just wait and see. And that’s where I stand – I hope it isn’t true, and I’ll delay forming any real opinions until all the facts are revealed.

I also decided to take a look at the Magic Café thread and see what ever happened with the Richard James trick Linked. Apparently the original thread no longer exists. Now, I’m not one of those guys who knocks the Café, but I have to wonder why the thread was pulled? Because people were pissed and telling the truth? Very Kafkaesque kind of site.

In the new thread, it’s revealed that the trick that people finally got isn’t the same as what’s depicted on the video. You think? However you get the sense that people are already forgiving the guy and are ready to move on. So I guess the moral is if you want to make a fast buck just shoot a dishonest video and actually sell a different trick. Ultimately nobody cares anyway.

I’ll be back soon, hopefully with something not quite so depressing.