Please visit the Unexpected Wonders blog at its new home: http://www.unexpectedwonders.com See you there!
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
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.
Posted by Jim Coles at 10:54 AM
Sunday, November 11, 2007
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.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:08 AM
Saturday, November 10, 2007
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.
Posted by Jim Coles at 10:19 AM
Friday, November 9, 2007
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:15 AM
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
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.
Posted by Jim Coles at 6:57 PM
Monday, October 15, 2007
We are told that talent creates its own opportunities. But it sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents.
In a previous post about character, I talked a little about how easy it is for the magician to miss the mark when establishing a performance persona and how it’s advisable that he play close to type lest he end up with an unbelievable creation. This time I’d like to comment on how liberating having a character can actually be.
Alexander Hermann, endowed with the natural attributes of a charming and entertaining showman, believed that great magicians were born, not made. Over the years I’ve known any number of performers who have concurred with this sentiment, and not surprisingly they have been people who were also naturally charismatic. I think what this view fails to take into account is the power of acting. If a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician, as Houdin observed, then wouldn’t one’s ability to inhabit a character be just as important as any natural characteristics he possesses that make him a good entertainer?
The fact of the matter is that many people attracted to performing are not naturally lively and outgoing. Johnny Carson, who started out with magic, was beloved by millions and became a comedy legend in his own lifetime; how many were aware that he was not as naturally engaging as he appeared onstage, that in reality he was quite reserved in social situations and ill at ease around strangers? What Carson had was not an innate ability to connect with viewers, but the ability to play the role of someone who could.
What I’m driving at here is that even if you’re not naturally gregarious, even if you’re not normally the life of the party, you can play the part of someone who is those things and succeed very well. This is done through the use of character. You’re in the business of selling you, but it’s an idealized version of yourself, a version more suitable for performing magic, if you’re naturally shy and retiring. And the ability to become a you who is lively where you’re withdrawn, fearless where you’re afraid, is very liberating indeed. Define your character well and there’s no reason to be nervous when you step onstage – it’s just a part you’re playing, a persona you’re projecting. It’s an opportunity to be the very best you you can possibly be.
If you’re not a born magician this is very good news. It means you don’t have to be held back by your limitations, that you can share your magic just as well as the natural performer. It’s really just a matter of how much you want it. Are you willing to go to the trouble of creating a character that works to your best advantage? If you truly love magic and want to share it, the answer is obvious. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 7:50 PM
I’d like to invite you to check out Spookey a brand new PDF from Unexpected Wonders. You can get the full details from the order page, but I do want to say this is an effect I’ve worked on for a number of years and I think the handling related in the PDF is pretty damn good – I’ve had much success with it anyway. I’m not comfortable hyping my own stuff, so I’ll leave it at that. If you’re interested in a psychokinetic effect that’s visual and not so hard to do, please check it out.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:56 AM
Saturday, October 13, 2007
A young man moved to the big city in hopes of making it as an actor. He went to a lot of auditions, but couldn’t seem to land a role. One day he found himself with his rent overdue and his electricity about to be disconnected, contemplating a return home. That’s when his phone rang.
An agent he’d met had a part for him, albeit a small part, in a play – the actor who normally played the role had been in an accident. All he had to do was rush on stage at the end of the third act and deliver a single line: “Hark, is that cannon fire I hear?’ The catch was the play was about to begin and was all the way across town so he’d have to hurry.
Elated to get work, even if it was speaking but a single line of dialogue, he threw on his clothes and ran from his apartment. All the while he kept thinking to himself, “Hark, is that cannon fire I hear?” He ran to the subway and found the train he needed. As the train moved across town he whispered to himself, “Hark is that cannon fire I hear?”
He arrived at the theater with scant moments to spare. Backstage he was helped into a costume and shown where he was to make his entrance. All the while he kept reciting his line over and over, “Hark is that cannon fire I hear?”
He got his cue and stepped confidently on stage. There came a tremendous crash. He looked around and exclaimed, “What the fuck was that?”
I first came across this anecdote in a William Goldman novel many years ago and have told it off and on ever since.
Got an email from L and L yesterday announcing the release of some new Bill Malone DVDs. Be sure to check out the video there on their home page. If this set is half as good as the last they'll be worth having. Even if you don't perform a single trick of Malone's -- and you'd have to be pretty damn picky not to find anything you like in the first set -- it's a pleasure just watching him perform.
Posted by Jim Coles at 10:09 AM
Friday, October 12, 2007
No, this isn't a post offering free magic secrets. Instead it's a look at how the secrets of magic are so readily available and what impact that's having, especially on beginning magicians. This was inspired by Steve Pellegrino's comment about having to earn information in yesterday's post.
It would seem that if being a good magician is all about one’s ability to access secrets, today’s magicians should be the best ever. Never before has so much information about magic been so readily available to so many. Not only are magic’s secrets easy to access, they’re being divulged more and more often at zero cost. There are sites openly and unashamedly devoted to the exposure and trading of magic secrets; YouTube hosts scores of magic tutorials on everything from basic sleights to tricks that are currently being sold. One need do little more than press a few keys to have more magic secrets than could be mastered in a lifetime delivered straight to his desktop at no cost.
Is this free access to magic secrets producing great magicians? It doesn’t seem to be. Too many of today’s young magicians demonstrate fundamental gaps in their understanding and execution of magic. It’s not unusual to see someone who can do a series of flashy cuts and color changes that flubs a double lift. Few seem interested in acquiring the basics; instead they’re forever hunting out the secret of the latest cool thing.
In a sense being a beginning magician on the Internet is like being a kid set loose in a candy store – free to sample whatever you want. It’s almost impossible to settle down and devote yourself to a single trick and master it because something new and enticing is always there to tempt you. You don’t yet possess the discipline or understanding to refrain from trying a little bit of everything. You don’t realize that by taking a little bit of everything you’re ironically going to end up with a lot of nothing.
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? I think it really comes down to value. Have you ever had the experience of winning or finding money? No matter the amount, you find that money won or found just doesn’t seem the same as money you’ve earned. It’s easily squandered and quickly gone.
The same is true of magic secrets. What value do you put on something you’re able to acquire for free? It’s likely you take a superficial look at it, overlooking completely its real worth, and reject it for something new. Getting the secrets for free tends to rob us of our ability to appreciate them for what they are.
We value something according to what we’ve invested in it, both monetarily and in terms of effort, and its overall scarcity. Many of us started practicing magic when secrets were at a premium and we coveted the few secrets we had. More we worked to acquire the knowledge; we weren’t complaining that Erdnase was too hard to understand – we’d dutifully follow the instructions and work to decipher the true intent. And when we found success we also gained something of value, something we would forever keep.
I don’t want to come off like some old guy bitching about how things were better in the old days, but in this instance maybe they were. Many of us mastered the basics of magic not because we were intrinsically better students than the kids today but because that’s all we had! You practiced what you had access to and in so doing gained an appreciation for why it was important. If there’d been this unimaginable thing called the Internet we’d probably have wasted our time hunting around for more and more secrets the way so many do today.
The genie is out of the bottle and there’s no going back. I guess the best we can do is point those just starting in magic in the right direction and hope they’ll listen. Many probably won’t. It isn’t an easy thing to ignore all those interesting secrets and concentrate on mastering a double lift or control. Who knows, maybe in a weird form of Darwinism those who survive the onslaught of secrets will be those most capable of carrying magic on into this new century. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 12:04 PM
Thursday, October 11, 2007
I don’t understand the mentality, which is especially prevalent online, that all magic secrets should be made available to anyone who’s interested in magic. Are today’s magicians not allowed to have anything that’s uniquely their own, that distinguishes them from their fellow performers?
I’ve made it pretty clear that to my way of thinking the real secrets of magic aren’t secrets at all. That is to say factors like charisma and the ability to connect with the audience are more important than how to control a card or vanish a coin. Then again, the methods we use, however mundane and simple when viewed apart from their presentations, are what separate us from other performers and allow us to create our illusions. We’re instructed early on not to reveal our secrets. I don’t recall any annotations that said it’s okay to give up secrets if the other guy is a magician who really really wants the scoop.
I’ve seen this a number of times. Someone posts a video of something they’ve come up with that looks really impossible. People speculate, sometimes openly, about how it’s done, but keep missing the mark. Finally they profess astonishment and want to know the secret. The creator doesn’t wish to divulge the secret. The people who want it advise they’ll pay to learn how. The creator says he has no desire to sell his creation and prefers to keep it for his own use.
What happens next? People get mad. They want to know why the hell he made a video if he wasn’t going to put it out. They accuse him of employing camera tricks. They condemn him for coming up with something good simply because he wants to keep it for himself.
Richard Osterlind has a bent coin effect, and I remember a time when folks were going crazy because he wouldn’t tip it. I don’t know if he ever did, but why should he have to? Isn’t it okay to hold back a pet routine just for your own use? Is it selfish to want something in your repertoire that an audience won’t be able to see anywhere else?
There are some magicians who aren’t going to let a creator keeping a trick to himself stop them. If there’s a video, they’ll watch it a thousand times until they can reason out the method, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. It’s so bad that Armando Lucero was (I don’t know if he still is) allowing people to view his videos only by invitation. Why? Because he doesn’t want his work stolen and poor reproductions of it posted all over the Internet, I would imagine. Or marketed by one of the less scrupulous magic dealers.
Mickey Silver has a beautiful retention of vision vanish. He was kind enough to send me, and many others, a DVD of it just for the asking. He doesn’t tip the work, but he thoroughly outlines the theory of manipulating the retention of vision, and it’s utterly fascinating. I remember reading a thread where one fellow who’d gotten the DVD was openly saying that he’d worked out the method and was practicing it. Even though Mickey didn’t want to tip the work, even though he was kind enough to send out a DVD for free, this guy apparently thought nothing of working out the technique and appropriating it for his own use. Unreal.
I also remember Mickey being on a coin magic DVD and not tipping the retention vanish and people complaining that he didn’t. Of course.
We need to respect a creator’s right to keep whatever secrets he wants to himself. There are actually professionals out there who won’t perform certain pieces if they think magicians might be in attendance. The magic community is better than that. We need to all stop turning a blind eye to this kind of thing and speak up when someone attempts to lift another’s hard won material that he wishes to keep exclusive.
I hope we’re better than that. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 4:40 PM
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Long experience has taught me that the crux of my fortunes is whether I can radiate good will toward my audience. There is only one way to do it and that is to feel it. You can fool the eyes and minds of an audience, but you cannot fool their hearts.
I’ve talked a little about how some professional magicians dump on amateurs and otherwise seem to think their title earns them king shit status online. What I’d like to do this time around is examine why someone might behave in such a fashion and what it really signifies.
First I want to make it clear that the majority of professional magicians I’ve known have been the friendliest people in the world. It’s pretty clear that they feel blessed to be in a position to do what they love and actually get paid for it – even when times are tough, which they can sometimes be. They aren’t worried about going to a magic forum or doing a blog and impressing everyone with their professional status; they don’t care about impressing other magicians. They care about impressing their audiences with their magic.
I think some people become performers for all the wrong reasons. While it’s probably true that most magicians crave recognition and acceptance, some few are absolutely consumed by such desires. They’re attempting to compensate for shortcomings in themselves, real or imagined, and are using magic to show the world that they’re worthy of love and adoration. Again, I think most of us want to be recognized and accepted. But those desires are but a component of the larger whole of sharing the art we love. Some few don’t really care anything about magic; they perform because it affords them a means to prove their worth.
The real problem is performing isn’t a substitute for therapy. It might even aggravate the problem. If you’re unable to connect with others in a meaningful way and get the love you’re missing, standing before them and doing tricks isn’t going to change that. They might laugh and applaud, but if you can’t connect the experience will ultimately feel hollow and superficial. Consequently resentment forms. You want to be a part of something and you’ve tried so hard but nothing has changed. Resentment ferments into anger. And hate.
What I’ve noticed about the people who come online and flaunt their professional title is that they’re almost invariably low level performers who’ve had limited success. This makes perfect sense to me, as you’re never going to succeed as a magician unless you can connect with people, unless you genuinely like people and they like you. You’ve tried and failed to show the world at large that you’re worthy of love and you’ve failed. The solution then is to show your fellow magicians what an expert you are.
I’ll admit that this is a lot of conjecture on my part founded on nothing more than personal observation. However, I sincerely believe I’m on the right track. It might very well be that those loud mouth know it alls who drive some of us crazy are crying out for help in the only way they know how. All I can say is that you’ll never get the kind of help you need online, and even when you succeed in proclaiming your status loudly enough that some of your ilk actually listen to your drivel it’s ultimately going to lead to another let down. I wish there were some easy answers, but there aren’t. A very good start can be made when you stop trying to belittle and demean and offer kindness instead. Just a thought. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 5:16 PM
Monday, October 8, 2007
In my posts about disliking props that don’t exist in the real world, I neglected to mention a prop I use that makes no sense but that I don’t try to justify. Such props form a category of their own and might be called magic objects.
The purse frame, invisible purse, or bagless purse has become a standard in close up magic for good reason – audiences invariably find it entertaining almost in and of itself. I really don’t know why this is so. I remember the first time I noticed this reaction. I was a teenager and had a purse frame but didn’t have any tricks to do with it. Some friends were over and we were in my room and I was showing them some of my props – in those days I had a LOT of props, which might help explain why my approach became more minimalist as time went on. I picked up the purse frame, just to move it out of the way, and they all started laughing. “What’s that?” they wanted to know. I knew from that moment that it was something special.
All these years later and the reaction is usually the same. People see a purse frame and start laughing. I guess the idea of a purse with no bag is so ridiculous that it strikes folks funny. Or it really engages their imagination and sense of fantasy. I’ve never tried to analyze it too closely, so I don’t know. I do know that if you couple the thing with some very simple magic – like pulling a silver dollar from it – it blows people away.
I’ve never tried to justify the purse frame because there’s really no justification for it. In the real world such an object would be utterly useless. As a magic object it makes a weird kind of sense. I never really say anything about it. When I use it I take it out and remove a coin or ball or whatever from it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
A couple of things: I’ve found it retains its appeal more if it’s used sparingly. Remove a coin or two from it, do your stuff, and put them back in, to seemingly vanish, when you’re done. In a sense it’s just a sight gag, so less is more.
If you want to see how magical it can really be, check out Shoot Ogawa’s routine which is on the Cultural Exchange DVD. It looks very nice. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:59 PM
Sunday, October 7, 2007
As I’ve said before, I started blogging with Word Press but was too stupid to get the plugins to function correctly. Even though I’ve built a few websites, I’m not really a tech kind of guy – mainly I just keep trying until I get something to work. When I set out this summer to build the Unexpected Wonders site, my first attempt was less than successful...
Anyway, when I switched over to this blogging platform, I didn’t know how to get those first posts from there to here. I thought I’d reproduce my first post from the old blog here as I don’t think many people ever saw it, and I don’t really have much else to say at the moment. I don't believe I've come close to producing a sort of online magic magazine, but that's still the direction in which I'd like to go.
Well, here we are meeting for the first time. I hate introductions, and especially in the sterile environment of cyber space, where human interaction is mostly rendered a parody represented by a lot of arbitrary symbols, but there’s no avoiding this initial posting, no matter how awkward it might be. I guess it’s like my dad used to say during one of our frequent late night talks: “Shut the hell up and grab me another beer.” Which was followed by a lot of indecipherable slurring and cursing… Man, kind of makes me miss the old guy.
Maybe what my dad was trying to say, in his own highly medicated, abstract way, was: “Sometimes a man’s just got to do what a man’s got to do.” Which…kind of sucks. Thanks for the cliché, Dad. What, you think I’m being sarcastic? Now why would you think that? I think you’re the most wonderful father in the world. You touch mom again and I’ll break your arm, dude!
Sorry, flashback. Ah, those warm family memories. Sort of bring a mist to your eyes and a primal scream of rage from the depths of your soul. Sorry again, I’m being silly. And I digress. Let’s get back to this initial post business and square things away, shall we?
Now, I know you’re sitting there thinking that the world needs another magic blog about as much as you need some more of that really cheap flash paper that turned out to be old newsprint soaked in a solution of gasoline and gun powder — on the bright side it was an old suit and, when you get right down to it, who needs eyebrows anyway? Listen, I feel your pain. As a long time reader of magic blogs I know that, with a few notable exceptions, what started as a form of communication with the potential for greatness has too often slumped into a quagmire of mediocrity and imitation. Which kind of sums up the state of magic, all too often.
When you get down to it, magic blogs usually fall into one of two distinct categories. First, you have the lone nut bloggers who are pissed off about something, or just as likely everything. They rant and rave and call people names and usually burn out in a matter of months. A typical post from this kind of blogger might look something like this:
That’s NOT street magic %$@#ing Blaine ruined my art! Criss Angel??? @!$%# &^%$* *&^%$#! Steve Brooks #$%#@ *&^%* Vernon, Vernon, Vernon!
And along in that vein. Good for a bit of distraction, I suppose, but after awhile it’s sort of…uncomfortable. Like when you had that friend when you were a kid who was crazy – we all had that friend, didn’t we — who would do anything. The kid nobody would dare to do something outlandish because he always would. And even when you were hanging with that kid, laughing and having a reasonably normal time, you always found yourself secretly wondering, Is he going to kill me now? Which gets old after awhile. I wonder if they ever let ol’ Greg out of solitary?
Then you have the advertising blogs. These are the blogs run by magic dealers and the like and every single post is about how you can’t live without their latest release. Reading these blogs is like being tied in the basement and forced to watch reruns of Gilligan’s Island with the volume turned down and Carpenters records playing — don’t try that, by the way. It’s a miserable way to spend five minutes. A typical advertising blog post might look like this:
Buy buy buy buy BUY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Or something like that.
So where does your humble writer come in? Well, as you might have noticed this blog is part of site that’s selling magic. So let me give you a sample of what you can expect:
Buy buy buy buy BUY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Wait a second, come back. I was kidding. I wouldn’t be cruel enough to subject you to something I can’t stand myself. Besides, when it comes to salesmanship I’m more of the soft sell type. I will tell you about the things I’m selling, yes, but I won’t do so constantly. And I wouldn’t sell anything I didn’t believe in.
Does that mean you’re going to get angry man? Well, maybe from time to time. I do occasionally get passionate about a subject, but I promise not to do too much of that kind of thing. There are things that I dislike, but running through the list relentlessly really isn’t going to do either of us a damn bit of good.
So what can you expect?
I’d like to find the middle ground and bring you something that’s fun and interesting to read and hopefully sometimes informative and helpful. When I first got online I had the bright idea of doing an online magazine – which lasted for all of one glorious doomed issue — and I guess that desire has never entirely died. I suppose that’s the kind of blog I’ll be striving for. And if I fail miserably what the hell. At least I tried. Right, Dad? What, you can’t even acknowledge me? Why can’t you ever just be proud of me!
Anyway, that’s the direction I’ll be trying to take this thing in – more like an online magazine than the typical blog. I hope you’ll give me a chance and bear with me as I’ve never done a blog before. Not that I’m completely without experience addressing an audience via the written word. I used to be employed by one of the bigger magic sites out there and for a good while did a weekly newsletter that was popular. And for a few years I had a site called The Magic Anarchist, and my erratic newsletters there were always well received. Actually they were the part of the site best received. I couldn’t get anybody to post in the forums, but they always wanted to make sure they were on the mailing list — which means you aren’t going to see forums here.
Okay, I’ll do my best to post things of interest. Stay tuned, take care, and thanks for staying with me through this awkward introductory phase. See you again soon.
Posted by Jim Coles at 12:24 PM
I’m guessing Glenn Bishop took exception to my last post – the fact that he dropped my link from his blog roll is certainly indicative of that. I’d like for him to know that it wasn’t my intention to offend him, and I actually restrained myself in what I was writing.
The things I write here are colored significantly by my beliefs and opinions. I make no apology for that. I’m not trying to crank out newspaper articles and give a dry reporting of the facts. It’s more like I’m just talking about what interests me and hoping it interests someone else as well.
I can be pretty passionate about certain beliefs. You see I think magic is a wonderful thing that’s too often crippled by thoughtless allegiance to what’s come before. Magicians have a habit of justifying what they want to do by saying that so and so did it so it must be good. Well, what worked then isn’t necessarily going to work now. Things are constantly changing, and I think magic has to evolve to maintain, or regain, its stature in the entertainment world.
When I perceive something to be detrimental to magic – like the use of goofy props that make no sense outside a magician’s performance – I can get pretty wound up. But that doesn’t mean I’m right. It’s my perception, my opinion. I try to outline a reasonable argument for why I’m taking a position, but ultimately it’s just the way I see things. I’m old enough to know that thinking you’re right and being right can be vastly different things.
I try to live by the golden rule online and off. It doesn’t matter if you’re David Copperfield or a fourteen year old beginner; I’m going to do my level best to treat you the way I would want to be treated. When people are dismissive of “amateurs” or “hobbyists” it really sticks in my craw. They forget that some of the most legendary names in magic fall into that category. Being a professional doesn’t mean you’re any good. And it’s not a license to tell everybody else to shut up because your opinions are the last word. I’ve done magic for over thirty years as an amateur, professional, and semi-professional, and such labels don’t mean much to me. The only label that does matter is magician.
I guess I took a couple of little digs at Glenn in the last post because I felt he was being condescending about amateurs, and that’s an attitude I hate. Couple that with my dislike of strange magic props and I no doubt was somewhat snarky. I’m sorry he apparently took it to heart as there was no genuine malice intended. I think Glenn’s basically a good guy who has trouble expressing himself in a beneficial way. I wish him the best of luck.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:34 AM
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Some magicians think too much. That’s how Glenn Bishop ends a post he made which was in response to my post about justifying the Okito box. While I would agree that some magicians think too much about the mechanics of a trick and work themselves into a corner so doing, I find the notion of thinking too much about the underlying motivation of a trick ludicrous. In my opinion some magicians think far too little.
Glenn seems to feel that you can use any kind of prop in your performances, without justification, as long as the audience is entertained. I suppose that’s true enough. Clowns tend to use colorful and outrageous props in their performances and they can be quite entertaining. I guess it really comes down to what kind of magician you want to be.
Personally, I want to create a realistic experience of the impossible, I don’t want to be the magician equivalent of a clown. Because I want to create a realistic experience of the impossible, I try to use props that make sense in the real world, props that the people I’m performing for can understand. On the rare occasions when I deviate from this protocol and employ an unusual prop, I want to have sound motivation for doing so, a reason that makes sense, if only in the context of the effect.
When we use a prop that makes no objective sense it detracts from the effect created. If it really didn’t matter, you could use one of these babies to produce something instead of doing a bare handed production. Which would an audience find more magical?
Glenn argues that in the case of the Okito if you go to the trouble of justifying it you have to also justify the use of half dollars and English pennies. I would point out that coins, even rare coins, exist in the real world – they make sense in and of themselves. A little round metal box you carry the coins in doesn’t. There’s no sound reason to carry the coins in the box, as I pointed out in the original post, especially if they’re rare coins which you don’t want damaged. I don’t know this just seems like common sense to me. Christ, if this constitutes over thinking I’m in serious trouble.
As I thought I made clear in the original post, coming up with a motivation for using an unusual object isn’t all that hard – it wasn’t like I was racking my brain to come up with the pick pocket scenario, I just exercised my imagination a little and tried to come up with a viable justification for using the thing. It worked and worked well. I was using it in my stand up act and it was always well received. So why would some magicians be resistant to searching out motivation when it’s not all that hard?
First, I think some magicians are simply lazy. No doubt it’s easier to say, “Well it’s all magic anyway,” and just use whatever props you want without coming up with any reasons. Then again, I guess some are simply incapable of exercising the limited bit of intellect needed to fashion a reasonable motivation. They tell themselves that as long as it’s entertaining it doesn’t matter. But again, clowns are entertaining, a monkey riding a little bicycle is entertaining, prop comics can be entertaining. Magic without motivation might be entertaining, but it’s a superficial species of entertainment at best, a series of empty tricks that do little more than pass the time. There’s no broader meaning imparted, no deeper engagement of minds. It is in a word empty.
I think the other reason some magicians take the easy way and ignore motivation is the mistaken assumption that laymen are idiots. Laymen are doctors and lawyers and teachers and scientists and on and on. Most laymen, when watching a trick that involves a strange prop, are going to immediately cop to the fact that the prop is somehow responsible. That’s fine if your intent is to trick people. Not worth a shit if you want to leave them with no explanation.
My two cents. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 12:27 PM
Friday, October 5, 2007
One of the worst things about getting older is feeling as if your tastes have become irrelevant. Take music. I listen to most current music and wonder, "What the hell is that?" In the car I always have the tuner set to the classic rock station...hard to believe that the music of the eighties is now classic. I imagine someday my contemporaries and I will be sitting around in a rest home reminiscing about Van Halen – shaking our fists impotently and proclaiming, “We can dance if we want to!”
I turned forty-four in May, which isn’t all that old in a society where Brad Pitt is about the same age. Then again, I didn’t look as good as Brad Pitt when I was twenty-three. For us mere mortals getting older just sucks. On the one hand you feel more sure of yourself than you’ve ever felt – after four decades you pretty much know who you are. On the other hand you’re experiencing the subtle diminishment of your faculties and knowing that the process will only become more pronounced as the days march relentlessly on, inexorably propelling you toward the abyss.
Hey, what a cheerful thought, huh? Aren’t you glad you dropped by? Maybe next post I can talk about mortuaries or picking out a tombstone or something equally uplifting. Coming soon: Autopsies, A to Z.
Sorry, my mind is straying – what do you want, I’m an old man! Back to the topic, such as it is. Um…what was it again? Ah, yes, getting old sucks. Where once you’re tastes were current, they’re now passé. That’s why it pleases me when I discover something new that I like, especially in music. It happens so infrequently that it always makes an impact.
When I first saw the video below on Saturday Night Live it certainly made an impact. I’d never heard of Arcade Fire and had no expectation that they’d do anything but bore me. Man, was I ever wrong. A great performance by one hell of a talented band – definitely something new I like. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go shuffle off and take me heart pill. Maybe eat a peach. Shake my fist at the kids walking across my yard. I’ll be back soon with something magic related…if the old ticker keeps ticking till then.
Thursday, October 4, 2007
I don’t use the Okito box much these days. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a great little prop which can be used to create some extremely convincing magic, only that it doesn’t mesh well with the kind of stuff I’m doing now. One of the things that always bothered me about magicians who use the Okito is their failure to justify its existence.
What am I talking about? Well, the Okito box has no reason for being in the real world – sort of like those little plastic paddles which magicians wave around. The times I’ve seen someone use an Okito, they either say nothing about it, as if everyone carries a little round brass box in his pocket, or try to pass it off as a coin box.
I don’t think you have to be a numismatist to realize the idea of a coin box is pretty lame. Most people know that coin collectors keep their coins in little plastic sleeves and the like so they don’t get scratched – not in a metal box where they’ll be clacking against each other. There’s no logical reason for carrying coins around in a box other than that it’ll aid you in doing a trick. So saying it’s a coin box is going to ring false.
What does it matter? It can be argued that as you’re showing them a trick they know up front they’re being deceived so they’ll just accept the thing as part of the deception. The problem is they’ll look at this thing with no reason for being and determine – quite rightly – that it’s responsible for the deception. They’ll reason that if they had one of those nifty little brass boxes they could do the deception quite as well as you – and it doesn’t matter that they can examine the thing. The impact of the magic is lost by introducing an object without providing any justification for doing so.
When I was using the Okito fairly regularly I was doing a handling of David Roth’s Out With Four. The justification I used was that the Okito was something pickpockets used to sharpen their skills – the idea being to get the coins from the box one by one without making any noise. I was showing how you could reach a degree of proficiency where you didn’t even appear to come near the box, playing it as a display of preternatural skill.
Now you may be saying that calling an Okito box a pickpocket’s practice device is no better than saying it’s a coin box. The spectators will still discount the thing as being an aid to do the trick. The difference is the majority of people are going to have no idea if pickpockets really use such things for practice. Plus, it made sense in the context of what I was doing – in fact it was an integral component in the proceedings. It wasn’t just a thing I was using to do a trick, it was an arcane little device I was demonstrating the use of. It was accepted because I was providing a justification for it, even if that justification made little sense outside the performance.
I think it’s vital that we always find ways of justifying the props we use and reasons for why we’re using them. Even if the reasoning is implied rather than stated that justification needs to always be there. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 10:05 AM
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts that working for tough audiences will teach you the most. I wanted to elaborate on that idea this time around to try and show why.
I’ve lifted weights off and on for more than twenty years now, and one thing you find out from working with weights is that to gain muscle mass you have to overload. Say you’re doing x number of sets every time you go to the gym. If you keep doing the same number of sets without variation nothing changes. All you’ll really be doing is maintaining your current physique. To see some results you have to either do your sets faster or add more weight. Put simply, to get results you have to make it harder on yourself, and the harder you make it the better the results you’ll see.
The same is true of doing magic. Let’s say you do magic only for family and friends. If you continue doing magic only for family and friends you aren’t going to see any significant changes. Your sleights might improve, but you won’t grow as a performer. To make that happen you have to make things harder on yourself. You have to leave your comfort zone and take on new challenges.
I experienced this first hand starting out. Like many new magicians I took the advice given in books and gave free shows at rest homes, hospitals, VFW meetings, etc. Eventually I got pretty good at doing my twenty minute act in these kinds of venues. But after a while I realized I wasn’t really improving any; there was no real pressure to be any better.
The solution was fairly simple. I took out an ad in the paper and started doing birthday parties for a nominal fee. Suddenly I got better simply because I had to get better. The dynamic had been changed when I started charging for my services. To keep getting the work consistently I had to be better than the other guy.
As you can see, if you want to achieve a higher level you have to make things tougher on yourself. It’s not always as easy as charging for your services or charging more than the other guy. It’s much easier to approach a family when working in a restaurant than a group of loud, obviously drunk teens. Which group will test you as a performer? Which group will demand the best of your abilities to entertain?
Seek out challenges that will force you to improve. Take the tough gigs, the ones no one else will touch. Be fearless in this. The rewards aren’t just financial.
Would Malini have been the performer he was if he hadn’t plied his trade as a busker and saloon performer? Would Houdini be the legend he is if he hadn’t spent years working in dime museums and side shows? Leave your comfort zone and put yourself in positions where you have no choice but to be better. Do so and you might just surprise yourself. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 6:37 PM
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Well it looks like Linked may turn out to be a complete scam, as Intensely Magic originally suspected it might be. If you’ve been following the Magic Café thread, which has expanded to ten pages, you’ll see a letter from Magic Box posted by a Café member. It reads:
Thanks for your mail. Unfortunatly and very angrily, we are still waiting for linked gimmicks from the manufacturer. He has promised to post on all magic forums that HE HAS NOT YET, SENT THEM TO US as previously stated. He has told us (again) they will be sent out this week. We have set a deadline, and if we do not recieve them they will be removed from our site.
So apparently Richard James just said he had sent out another shipment. Maybe he was planning on saying wolves intercepted the deliveryman or something. I really expected people would get something, just not what was promised. This is looking more and more like blatant theft. If Richard James has any sense – which is certainly debatable at this juncture – he’ll immediately come clean.
You'd also think Magic Box would pull the pre-order until they have some assurance that this even exists.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:42 AM
Monday, October 1, 2007
It's not always easy to live your dream. Hell, most people never even come close. I firmly believe that the reason most never come close is that they give up. That simple. The road gets too treacherous and they decide to park it at the nearest roadhouse and sip a cold one or something.
If you have a dream and want to make it a reality perseverance is the key. This YouTube video by Tony Robbins, talking about Sylvester Stallone's efforts to make Rocky, makes that pretty clear. It's not always easy to keep going when nothing seems to be going your way, but if you stick it out your dream just might come true.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Actor Christian Bale lost an astonishing sixty-three pounds to play the lead role in The Machinist. Standing six feet tall and normally weighing one eighty-five, he dropped to a weight of one hundred and twenty-three pounds. If you haven’t seen the film, he turned himself into a living skeleton.
Even more amazingly, for his next role, playing Batman in Batman Begins, he gained one hundred pounds and got into peak physical condition. When he first landed the role he was unable to do a single push up. For the next three months he lifted weights three hours a day.
How was Christian Bale able to achieve such remarkable physical transformations? In a word, dedication. He began each project with a specific conceptualization of what the character should look like then took drastic measures to realize his vision. He was dedicated enough to the outcome of his vision to do whatever was necessary to make it a reality.
Go to any magic forum and you’ll find magicians complaining that they can’t get the muscle pass down.
When you take a look at what some actors, dancers, athletes, and others do in pursuit of their goals, magicians can look like a lot of whiners. I think much of the reason for this can be attributed to the misconception that magic is easy.
If you’re over the age of ten, you probably already know that anything worthwhile isn’t going to be easy. That’s the nature of magic and the nature of life. Yeah, you can get some boxes that make coins disappear and that kind of thing – props that all but scream fake – and go out and conceivably fool people with them. You can do that pretty easily, I would imagine. But to transform the experience of being fooled into one of being entertained is going to take some work. It’s going to take some thought and practice. You can’t just walk into a shop and buy a self working trick and be a magician. You have to become a magician.
How do you become a magician? Dedication. You begin with your conception of what a magician should be and work to make it a reality. There’s no secret formula or arcane bullshit. You want the thing you have to do whatever it takes to make it real.
Many don’t want to do the work. They seem to think that kind of good is good enough. They reason that if they fool someone they were successful. Doesn’t matter if they hemmed and hawed around or cracked corny jokes or had the shakes or whatever else.
Listen: This isn’t about being a professional or amateur. Being a professional doesn’t mean you’re any damn good. It’s about doing your magic professionally even if you never make a cent from it. And you really have to be dedicated to achieve that aim. It’s not always fun doing something over and over until you have it perfect, but nobody ever said it would be. And if they did they were a liar.
Every single time magic is done badly, every single time a magician gives a mediocre performance, another spade full of dirt is added to the grave of magic. Each of us has a responsibility in this – we’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. The things we have to master are really pretty simple when compared to the rigors practitioners in other disciplines go through. We need only exercise our dedication to make our magic the best it can be. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 6:00 PM
Even though Richard James said that Magic Box would receive a shipment of his trick Linked on the twenty-eighth, the site continues to list it as a pre-order item. I don’t know what delivery services are like in the United Kingdom, but it’s getting harder and harder to believe that he can’t figure out some way of making sure a shipment arrives. I don’t think saying the shipment was lost or delayed in transit is going to carry much weight anymore -- if that turns out to be the case once again.
As someone on the Magic Café thread commented, the correct thing would have been for Mr. James to personally send out the trick to those who had pre-ordered so they wouldn’t have to wait for their order to go through a middle man. Maybe he has a rationale for deciding that people who’ve already waited so long can just wait a little longer, but I can’t begin to guess what it is.
The clock is definitely ticking, and the natives are more than a little restless. And when the natives get too restless they have a nasty habit of dining indiscriminately. I hope for Mr. James’ sake that his latest shipment did in fact arrive on Friday and the orders will be going out soon. Otherwise his dwindling reputation and credibility are going to be served up as the main dish.
Posted by Jim Coles at 12:27 PM
Saturday, September 29, 2007
When I was fourteen and had been interested in magic for a year, my mom bought me the Mark Wilson Course in Magic. At that time the oversize volume came with a close up mat, a couple of decks of Aviator bridge size cards, some gaffed cards that matched the Aviators, special Genii cards to do the tricks described in the book, and four blue sponge cubes. I could be forgetting something, but I remember those things pretty well. The course went for forty bucks – which was not chump change in seventy-seven. I thought I now had at my disposal all the secrets of magic.
Only I couldn’t help but think something was missing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an exceptional book for the beginner and some of the material – like the sponge ball routine – is superlative. But I felt it might’ve been a little too basic in some regards. I already had a year in magic, and the section on cards, for instance, didn’t present any challenges at all. I knew there had to be something more – a higher level I was missing out on. And I was hungry to learn everything I could about magic.
It couldn’t have been more than a couple of weeks later that my older sister had taken me to see a movie – It’s Alive or Burnt Offerings or some such similar seventies horror fare – and afterwards we stopped by the mall. I remember doing the typical kid things – like walking up the down escalators. Funny how when you’re a kid you don’t need much at all to have fun. It’s only later that you spend lots of money – and often as not kill quite a few brain cells – trying to recapture what once was free.
I was in the basement of a department store where they had their selection of books in long rows of wire framed shelves. I was checking out the books to see what they might have that dealt with magic. I’d bought quite a few magic books aimed at the general public, and usually came away sorely disappointed, but I guess I was young enough at that time to be optimistic.
That’s when I saw it. The funky art deco cover seemed to grow invisible fingers which grabbed me and pulled me forward. Find money in the air, it read, with a drawing of a hand grasping a gold coin beside it. Make a red handkerchief turn green. Pour a drink from an empty jar. There was also a picture of a face with rainbow colors extending down from the right eye – an implicit promise of mysterious things, secret knowledge. And above everything the title: The Amateur Magician’s Handbook.
It has to be crap, I thought, remembering other magic books bought at newsstands and in drug stores. I was still optimistic at that age, but I wasn’t a fool. I plucked it from the shelf and leafed through it. There were numerous black and white photographs illustrating things I could only barely comprehend. What the hell is this, I wondered.
It was just about then my sister showed up. I had to go so I had to make a decision. Acting more on impulse than anything else I shelled out the dollar ninety-five. Hard to believe books were ever that cheap – the other night I bought a similar size paperback at Walden Books and it took the best part of a ten.
I took it home, this discovery I was intrigued by but still distrustful of. I remember taking it to my room, opening it up and reading the first line: The purpose of this volume is to help you become a good magician: one who can entertain others as well as himself with the wonders he works. After that I was hooked.
I can’t think of any other magic book that made such an impression – and that posed so many challenges. Henry Hay’s method of teaching was to introduce you to the sleight of hand magic first. His reasoning was simple and sound: If you learn an easy trick you’ll just run out and show people without investing any thought into how to make it entertaining. If you learn a sleight of hand trick, however, you have to put time into mastering whatever mechanics are required and will thus think about how best to present it.
First up was cards, and what a departure from the Mark Wilson course it was. On page twenty-nine I was first introduced to the pass, which fairly drove me crazy for months on end, wondering how this thing could be done invisibly. Then there was the side steal, the fan force, palming, false shuffles, and on and on. But this wasn’t just a collection of isolated sleights; each sleight was explained then used in a corresponding effect. Besides being my initial exposure to advanced sleight of hand, it was also my first meeting with Leipzig, Cardini, Zingone, Muholland, Downs, Vernon and on and on.
The coin section was every bit as fascinating, and sometimes frustrating, as the cards. The thumb palm, the Downs palm, the click pass, the DeManche change. It seemed like every day I could open this little book, which was a mere three hundred and something pages, and find something new and exciting. And although I bought many other books in the following years, none touched me in the same fundamental way. The Amateur Magician’s Handbook was my bible through my teenage years.
I’ve been prattling on and on, but I think I’ve failed to convey both how good the book is and how much it meant to me. I guess non magicians wouldn’t understand how a book of tricks and theory could have such importance, but for me it was a genuine magic book. It was like any question about magic I had, I would first turn to this simple paperback book because nine times out of ten I would find my answer within.
What more can I say? It’s a great book, from the opening essays through the tricks, to the advice on staging a show at the end. There’s a plethora of practical wisdom and effective tricks.
I never felt Henry Hay, born Barrows Mussey, got the recognition he deserved for writing one of the best magic books ever. Maybe that’s just the way it goes. I do know I’ll always be grateful that he produced such a wonderful book that helped and taught me so much. See you next time.
Friday, September 28, 2007
Some newer readers of this blog may not know that this is actually the second version. I started with Word Press but couldn’t get any of the plugins to function properly – that vodka diet might’ve been a contributing factor…but what a way to lose weight!
Anyway, there are a couple of things that I wanted to repost here because I really enjoyed them, and this is one.
My wife is an art teacher, which means that body painting is not just an abstract idea around here…
Forget that. Because she’s an art teacher, and very into the subject, our areas of interest often overlap — I mean it might be even better if she was an art teacher/rodeo clown, but a man can’t have it all, now can he? She showed me a visual observation test the other day that I enjoyed so I’m passing it along. Here’s how it works.
Go to the first link below and watch the video. It takes a minute to load. The idea is to count both how many times the basketballs are bounced and how many times they’re passed. Got it? After you’re done click on the second link to see how you did. No cheating.
Posted by Jim Coles at 9:08 PM
I can’t help but think that the debacle Richard James has created with his trick Linked could’ve been avoided if there’d been no pre-order. He now has a lot of angry people who shelled out their money contingent on receiving the trick at a certain time; after all the delays, it seems that unless the trick lives up to his claims (made by the video and what he’s said) he’s going to have effectively destroyed his credibility. Why not wait until you actually have the trick to sell before selling it?
From a marketing perspective, what’s great about the pre-order is that you can generate a lot of hype without having any actual reviews from consumers. Everybody’s talking about the thing and blowing it out of proportion, and soon you find yourself sucked into the hoopla and order something that nobody really knows anything about.
The problem with it is that people are usually disappointed when the thing actually arrives; it’s almost impossible for the product, even if it’s good, to match the expectations which have been raised. You see this over and over. A trick comes out you can pre-order, people are raving over the possibilities, then after it comes out all the talk dies and only a couple of people bother to say anything more about it.
The other problem, from a consumer standpoint, is it’s the perfect way for the unscrupulous to separate you from your money. A great concept is described; everybody gets on board imagining how incredible it must be, then the actual trick is without a practical method.
I don’t think I’ve ever pre-ordered a magic trick or book. The only reasons I can see for doing a pre-order are if a limited number of copies are going to be sold or by pre-ordering you’re going to save money. Even then I wouldn’t recommend it unless you know who you’re dealing with. Could be I’m old school, but I don’t like the idea of buying something that doesn’t actually exist yet. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 8:33 AM
Thursday, September 27, 2007
You know my father was fond of saying, “If it sounds too good to be true…invest every penny you have, boy! Get in on the ground floor. This could be it!”
I should probably mention that dad wasn’t a very bright man. And had a fondness for recreational pharmaceuticals. That probably had something to do with his investing the family’s dwindling fortunes in the untried sport of hamster racing. That venture didn’t quite pan out, and we ended up living in a big cardboard box with a lot of really quick hamsters. Well played, dad. Well played.
Sorry, I digress. Actually most of us learn early on that if something sounds too good to be true there’s a catch somewhere – like a hamster’s inability to run more than a hundred yards without wheezing uncontrollably. Intensely Magic has a post where he mentions a trick I hadn’t heard of called Linked. He wonders if there might be a problem. I wonder the same thing.
What raises red flags early on is the video performance. There’s an unnecessary pause at what would be a crucial point. The creator says he’s going to post a continuous shot video, but as of yet that hasn’t materialized.
The video itself is fair enough, I suppose. But on the first page of the Magic Cafe thread, in response to someone saying the spectators will want to examine the card removed from the glass, he says:
Once the card is pulled off the glass, you simply place the glass down or give it to them. Ask for the center that was signed, give them the card with the hole in the center. The ripped out signed piece fits and they can examine Both the card, the center and the glass.
Things don’t quite add up. I have a lot of trouble believing that the effect would play as seen on the video. I could be wrong, and if I am I apologize in advance, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this will be one of those cases where the video is supposed to represent how the spectators would see the effect. If that’s how it is, the creator’s comments are disingenuous at best.
What’s worse is the continuous litany of excuses as to why the people who pre ordered have gotten the trick yet. Assurances are made and aren’t met. At the very least it’s an awful way to do business and is sure to negatively impact the creator’s future releases.
It’ll be interesting to see how this thing goes, and I can’t wait to see the first reviews. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 8:57 AM
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
I’ve had a long time interest in the paranormal and try to keep an open mind about its existence. It’s not always easy. After studying magic for awhile you begin to realize how ridiculously vulnerable human perceptions are. Yesterday I said that when you remove the magician from the exhibition of a trick the magic is magnified. What I neglected to mention is that charlatans realized this long ago. Substitute “magician” with “psychic” and a nothing trick becomes a miracle. The context has been altered by a simple change of roles. People watch a magician and know it’s a trick. They watch a psychic and think it might be real.
While I’m interested in introducing a sense of ambiguity about what I’m doing, I don’t believe in saying outright that it’s real. There’s a definite line separating magician from charlatan; I want to dance on that invisible line but not cross it. I want to entertain and possibly open minds to the possibility of magic, not lie and advocate a specific belief system.
I found the video below after watching one of the famous Russian psychic Nina Kulagina posted at Intensely Magic. I’d gone to YouTube to see what other footage they might have of her, and this is one of the videos that came up. Titled, “Replication of Nina Kulagina Telekinesis Feats,” I figured it was going to be a video of some magician exposing the rather crude methods she’d employed. But I was wrong.
Apparently the person who filmed this would have us believe it’s an actual demonstration of psychokinetic powers. What really amazed me is that the people commenting believe him! Now, I imagine that anyone reading this blog will see that this person’s powers are total bullshit. For anyone with doubts, I’ve been immersed in the study and practice of visual mentalism for a few years now and can state with absolute certainty that it’s one hundred percent fake. It’s not even a very good fake – if this guy were a magician he’d starve because his deceptions fall apart under anything more than casual scrutiny. Because the context has been changed, however, because he’s playing a psychic and not a magician, people overlook the obvious explanations.
I think there’s a lesson there for us all.
Posted by Jim Coles at 8:43 AM
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
When a magician performs, no matter how good he is, no matter how artfully he creates the illusion of the impossible, those watching ultimately will conclude that what they witnessed was just a trick. If you change the context by removing the magician from the picture, by having some inexplicable thing happening to the ordinary man on the street, the magic is magnified, and those who’ve witnessed the inexplicable act are unable to easily dismiss what they’ve seen. They experience wonder in its purest most primal form and entertain the idea that real magic might exist after all.
The above summarizes what the Magic Anarchist site was all about. It was a combination of magic and guerilla street theater, with the magician playing the part of someone to whom the impossible was happening. It was a performance style I started exploring way before T.H.E.M came along, and was inspired by both a desire to inject a feeling of unreality into the magic I was doing and a fascination with poetic terrorism.
I was reminded of this because I mentioned the Magic Anarchist site in the previous post. I miss the site, mostly the free exchange of ideas we had in the forum – I was lucky enough to have some very creative people as members. We were concerned with not only engaging in Magic Anarchy but ways to make our straight magic performances more powerful. Besides a lot of attention to visual mentalism, we focused quite a bit on creating a sense of unreality by subtle means.
A very simple idea that I mentioned there, and still sometimes do, involves nothing more complicated than putting some folded up napkins in the heels of your shoes. Imagine going to a party, either to do walk around or as a guest, and showing up with the napkins in your shoes so you’re an inch or so taller. You mingle; have a drink, do a trick or two. Then you excuse yourself, go to the restroom, remove the napkins and throw them in the trash. You return to the party and what’s great is they’ll notice the difference but won’t be able to quite place what’s changed. They get this low level sense that something’s strange but can’t quite pinpoint what.
Others suggested wearing colored contacts and secretly changing them and having a tattoo that moves from one arm to the other. There were many more that I can’t remember. The main thing is that the change be subtle enough that they can recognize it but can’t detect it.
I like the idea of a magician being a mysterious figure, and small strategies like this help create an aura of mystery.
Anyway, just something I thought I’d throw out there. God, it really makes me miss that site. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 8:09 AM
I’ve seen some talk recently (you know you’re on the Internet when you’re seeing talk…either that or having some heavy hallucinations) about the soaring prices of magic PDFs. While PDFs once were a cheap alternative to books, they’re rapidly becoming just as costly. As a matter of fact, I was just looking at a PDF priced at fifty dollars – the same price as a quality magic book.
Now, I can see both sides of this. On the one hand books and PDFs are just a means of communicating information; the relative worth of the information isn’t significantly changed by the format in which it’s presented. If it’s something good, something you’ll use, does it really matter how the information is provided?
On the other hand, many people, myself included, hate reading magic instructions off a computer screen and print their PDFs. That means anytime I buy a magic E-book I’m going to be spending extra money on ink and paper to print the thing. Shouldn’t that requirement be reflected in the price? The PDF itself costs nothing in production materials. No paper, no ink, no printers to pay – shouldn’t it therefore be cheaper than a book I can hold in my hands and put on a shelf?
Appropriately pricing magic E-books is a tricky proposition at best. When I put out PK Revolution I felt it was pretty good. I sent it to Banachek and Morgan and they thought it was pretty good. At the time I had The Magic Anarchist site and I thought a smart way to draw traffic would be to under price my E-books. My theory was if you give people a super bargain they’re sure to reciprocate by spreading the word – which would mean more visitors would come to the site and be exposed to the concepts I was trying to impart.
I priced the PDF at 6.50 and it did very well. I sold a lot of copies at Magic Anarchist, a lot at a UK site, and it’s been on the Lybrary bestseller list almost since it arrived there. Still, I think I shot myself in the foot by pricing it so low. Some people were reluctant to buy it because it seemed too cheap; I think it wasn’t taken seriously by some because of its low price. Maybe it’s the old maxim, “You get what you pay for”. Some folks look at something really cheap and just assume its crap. Even though it had almost universally positive reviews, some assumed it was bad because of the price.
Then you have the work factor. Someone writing a PDF invests just as much time and energy as someone writing a paper and ink manuscript. Forget the time put into developing and perfecting the effects themselves – describing how to do the effects in a lucid manner takes a lot of effort. Doesn’t the E-book author deserve to be compensated for his time as much as the book author?
I don’t know, it’s a slippery slope. I guess it all comes down to the quality of information. If it’s good and you can and do use it you’ll probably think it’s worth the cost. But what if it’s bad?
The thing about self-publishing is that it’s reached the point where anyone can do it. Once again, forget about the effects themselves, I’m talking about the quality of the writing. I’ve seen E-books that could’ve been better written by sixth graders – gross grammatical errors and little to no punctuation. And the thing is, unless you’ve bought previous works from the same author, you have little idea going in just what you’re going to get.
I have to conclude that overall PDFs should be cheaper than actual books, at least at this point in time, if for no other reason than it’s a crap shoot going in if the thing’s even going to be readable. There are exceptions, sure, but for me getting an attractive volume in the mail that I can pick up and read at my leisure is always going to trump studying some pages I’ve assembled in a binder.
That’s not to say that there aren’t superlative electronic offerings, as there certainly are – witness Michael Close. I think the concept of downloading a PDF to your desktop and being able to access the information you want quickly and easily is a definite winner and is still in its infant stage. But for now, I believe, magic authors need to keep prices lower rather than higher on electronic materials.
The comments are now on so feel free to add your two cents.
Posted by Jim Coles at 7:12 AM
Friday, September 21, 2007
If you want to see something truly scary, watch a new magician who’s decided he needs to create a character. Suddenly you have a fourteen year old with a world weary expression talking about his recent excursion to the sacred temple of Kali, or a middle age guy who’s losing his hair and sporting a beer gut wearing lots of gold chains and throwing gang signs. Those might sound like gross exaggerations, but trust me, they’re not. In the hands of a magician a little character can be a frightening thing.
Why does this kind of thing happen, and happen with enough consistency that it’s become something of a cliché in the magic world? Why does the magician who’s discovered he needs to create a performing persona go to such ridiculous extremes?
Misinformation is probably the primary culprit. As has been observed in previous posts, the magic world is so focused on the mechanics of deception that learning valuable performance strategies is a catch as catch can sort of proposition. More, the very word character conjures up thoughts of foreign accents and eccentric affectations (ascot and monocle anyone?) and assuming a whole radical new identity. As we all fantasize about being something we’re not, the idea of a new identity can be very attractive indeed.
As with most things in magic, less is more. When setting out to define a performing persona, we must first take an honest look at just who we are. If you’re sort of pudgy and funny looking should you really be trying to play the debonair and charming gadabout? If you normally say things like “cool” and “freakin’ ballin’” can you hope to successfully portray a stuffy intellectual?
When actors play roles for which they’re not suited, it’s called playing against type. You don’t see Joe Pesci playing the handsome leading man roles Brad Pitt plays because it wouldn’t work. It’s not that Joe Pesci isn’t a good actor, only that he doesn’t have the attributes necessary to give such roles credence. If he were to try and play such a role anyway the result would be ludicrous. The entire fantasy of the movie would collapse.
When a magician plays against type, the result is the same. The fantasy of magic being done, of the impossible happening, cannot be sustained because the magician himself simply isn’t realistic.
To create a successful performing persona, build from what you have. Ricky Jay is intelligent and articulate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of bizarre performers, and the character he portrays is very much a reflection of those attributes. Criss Angel, on the other hand, is in great shape, good looking, and possesses a sort of street mentality that flavors his presentations. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if Ricky Jay tried to do magic like Criss Angel or Criss Angel tried to do magic like Ricky Jay. There are magicians out there right now who are portraying themselves in just such ridiculous ways.
Your performing persona needs to be an ideal version of you. A you who’s charming, funny, pleasant to be around. There will be things about you that are uniquely your own, and those are the things you need to concentrate upon highlighting in a favorable way. Don’t be a clone of someone else. Be the very best you that you can be. See you next time.
Posted by Jim Coles at 2:59 PM
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
If you’ve been checking this blog the last few days you’ve probably noticed there’ve been no new posts. If you haven’t noticed the absence of new posts, you might want to consider the possibility that you’re drinking wayyyy too much.
I’ve had a bug that’s kept me off the computer pretty much – low grade fever, nausea, that kind of deal. I’m feeling somewhat better today, so I imagine regular posting will resume tomorrow or shortly thereafter.
I actually was considering giving up this project. I haven’t been able to draw much traffic thus far, and that’s kind of frustrating. But I decided the things I’m saying are of some value to the right person, so I’ll plod along for now.
Suzanne is on board to provide some additional material, so stay tuned for that. Thanks to those few of you who’ve been reading this blog. Back again soon.
Posted by Jim Coles at 11:05 AM
Saturday, September 15, 2007
I have a close-up magic friend who’s fond of saying that in magic hell there’s only stage magic. While I wouldn’t go that far, I can certainly understand the sentiment. I appreciate that stage effects require skills that sleight of hand workers usually don’t possess, or even understand, but somehow the smaller wonders resonate with me in a way stage magic rarely does. Could be I’m just a strange guy.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like stage magic, just that given the choice I’d usually rather watch a close-up performance. However this video is a definite exception. A truly remarkable and artistic performance, and judging by the number of views I’m not alone in that opinion.
Posted by Jim Coles at 8:19 PM
Online you run across any number of self-described “serious” students of magic. That puts me in mind of the incident I related the other day about my college creative writing class coming down on me for saying I liked Stephen King. What I neglected to mention then was that those coming down the hardest considered themselves “serious” writers. I certainly see parallels.
You see what those “serious” writers of my college years were most serious about wasn’t writing. Effective writing is about clear communication; those communicating with the greatest clarity are those who are most successful. But as I related before those “serious” writers held the collective opinion that the most successful writer in history is a hack. Far from being dedicated to producing clean prose, those serious writers were most serious about themselves.
These were the kind of people who would walk around campus ostentatiously carrying obscure – and essentially unreadable – literary works. Many wore berets and haughty expressions and waxed philosophical about the state of modern writing. They did these things so anyone they encountered would know they were “serious” artists, real writers.
Which brings us back to those “serious” students of magic. Are they most serious about magic? Or themselves? When they dismiss and ridicule anything that’s popular, you really have to wonder. When they dedicate themselves to producing little videos of themselves executing sleights, instead of using what they know to entertain an audience, you can be pretty sure.
I’ve heard some very successful magicians describe themselves as students of magic. But I can’t think of one who describes himself as a “serious” student. When you throw in that bit of pretension the implication is you’re much more informed than the average student. Much better. No matter that you never really perform. No matter that you ignore the most useful tools a magician can possess – like a pleasant personality. You’re serious. You’re better. Magic is all about how well you can do the moves, right?
If you want to be serious about magic, stop taking yourself so seriously. Show them you’re a serious student, don’t tell them. Perform and succeed, that’s the name of the game. Then all the serious students can sit around and trash you. Until next time, take care.
Posted by Jim Coles at 11:07 AM