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.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
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.