Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Magic, conjuring, escape?

When I saw magician David Copperfield on Broadway, each of the last three numbers earned a standing ovation. "Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants" was called the hottest ticket in town by a leading New York newspaper--and with reason. The New York Times called magician Peter Samelson "a soft spoken conceptualist of sorcery."

I'm not saying that magic tricks often reach such heights. I am saying that in the hands of a skilled performer, magic _can_ be artistic.

Or powerful: how many entertainers have the half-life of Houdini? A recent TV series, comic book, novel, biography, and the occasional newspaper headline about someone escaping "like a Houdini." Pretty good for someone who's been dead for ninety years. (I'm a fan of the website "wild about houdini dot com by John Cox, who works hard and writes clearly about Houdini in the past and present).

Or useful: consider that Houdini exposed fake spiritualists. Imagine going to a seance hoping to contact a dead loved one. In mourning. Desperate. How heartless of a fake medium to take advantage of such grief! (Some mediums supported Houdini's efforts: better to route out the fake ones).

Or do a youtube search on Peter Popoff and James Randi. Popoff implied that God was allowing him to read people's minds, and used this as evidence that he had the power to heal people's cancer. He told people to throw away their medicine! Randi discovered that Popoff was using a radio transmitter to have someone backstage communicate with him. "I discovered two things about God that I hadn't known before", Randi joked, "One was that she was a woman, the other was that she sounded a lot like Popoff's wife!" Randi used his knowledge of magic tricks to expose a heartless scam.

Or consider the con game of three playing cards, a fast talking guy with fast hands, and a wager that you can track one of the cards. As entertainment, it may be fun. As a con, it parts suckers from their money. In AARP magazine, and in Stars and Stripes newspaper, magicians have exposed it, and other card cheating, as a public service.

Whether you like magic shows might depend on how good the magician is, or the style of magic: like music, there are many ways to be a magician: big tricks or small tricks, straight forward or artsy, funny persona or serious persona. Criss Angel is a goth daredevil magician, Lance Burton's original act was done to classical music and performed in a tuxedo.

But well done magic, regardless of the style, teaches us a very important lesson: we can be fooled. This can be fun-- a sense of pretend--- or not. An unskilled magician can do something we can't explain. A skilled magician can do something that seems unexplainable. The latter's a gift! If we can see the impossible, right before our eyes, even though we were staring at it, that means that we can be deceived even when we are on alert for trickery. And we know that, in the larger society, politicians and advertisers never ever try to deceive us, right?

But enough of this "magic can be important" argument. I'd like to stop typing, relax and watch some fun magic, taken into a world of fantasy where, as Eugene Berger puts it, "that which is broken can be made whole again". It's only pretend, but pretend can be fun.

Entertainment magic, performance magic, can be done badly, in public. But if you don't like the performance you just saw, consider that it might be the performer, or the style.

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