Magician and mentalist Jose Ahonen has an interesting hobby: performing magic for dogs. In one series of videos he is seen offering dog biscuits to a variety of dogs, only to have the treats magically disappear from his hands. In the video above, the magic is even more blatant. A wiener, evidently quite appealing to the dogs, is made to levitate.
It’s an amusing video, but it brings up some fascinating issues about magic, intelligence, animals, perception, and finally, the implications for performance.
The dogs are aware that something out of the usual is happening. The dogs react with what I would describe as distress at that moment of realization. Though there are several different responses, the responses are different from those they would give if they were simply chasing a bird or insect. The dogs know something is awry–wieners are not supposed to be flying! The dogs jump, bark, look around, stand still. They have an expectation of how the world is supposed to work, and this doesn’t fit into it.
Magicians can learn from this video. It helps to explain the reactions that some spectators have to magic. When expectation about the basic rules of the workings of the world are violated, it can be very disturbing. The magician has shown some strong magic. Would the dogs react that way to a card trick like Sam the Bellhop? This is an experiment I don’t think we need to do. We have a neat little way of determining the strongest magic: just ask ourselves, how would a dog react?
But let’s get back to that distress. If the dogs are distressed, then on some level, the human spectators to magic must also feel distressed. They will try to assuage that distress with rationality, joking, hostility, laughter, submission. If the magician does not somehow attend to these feelings, then the whole enterprise can have a feel of sadistic fun for the magician and the rest of the audience, at the expense of the spectator. While watching the video, I felt very uncomfortable with the laughter of the human audience at the bewilderment of the dog. It’s socially acceptable to laugh at animals; but there must be some of the same happening, unexpressed, among human audiences as well.
How do we get around this feeling? Some suggestions. First, the magician must always be very, very kind to the spectator. Second, the context must read, “game” and “play.” It’s socially permissible to play a game where we get the advantage of another person. It’s not socially permissible in real life to take advantage of a stranger. Third, the rest of the audience must feel as bewildered as the spectator. This way they cannot feel one up on the spectator. Some will disagree with me, but that is why I don’t like effects such as Paper Balls Over the Head, where everyone in the audience except the chosen spectator can see how the effect is done. They put the spectator in a much inferior position to the rest of the audience. Fifth, the agency for the magic can, from time to time, be put into the spectator’s hands. That is, the magic happened because the spectator performed the magic actions by saying the magic word, or waving the magic wand. Last, and most important, the magician’s reaction to the magic helps to cue the audience and spectator how to feel. If the magician shows delighted surprise or charmed astonishment at the outcome of the effect, s/he is training the audience to feel and model those positive emotions, rather than distress, when confronted with the unexpected.
Well, that’s funny. I didn’t know that I would end up here in this discussion, but I’m glad I did. How unexpected: Magic as a way of helping us cope with the fear of the unexpected. Maybe that’s magic’s unique contribution as an art.
I hate what I’m writing. But I’m writing. My job is not to like it or not like it. My job is to write it.
This is novel number two. While number one is out for feedback, I’ve been working on number two. That was my New Years resolution. Eight hundred words, four times a week. In six months that’s about 80,000 words. That’s an average-sized novel.
But I hate it so far. It doesn’t breathe at all. I’m not excited. Why? Because early on, while working on the first novel, I was outlining this new one. I had a very specific idea in mind. This, unlike the first one, is going to be a mystery/ thriller, and I did some extensive outlining. I basically had written a synopsis of every scene in the book, and because the setting bounces back between the present and the past, I did a lot of historical research. I thought I was prepared to write.
But I write and everything seems terribly cliched and lifeless. I’m not enjoying doing this. It feels like plodding, plodding. It’s a mountain of gruel on my plate, staring me in the face.
When I started writing the first novel, I had no idea what it was going to be. i just wrote. Each day, I barely looked back at what I had written. I never knew what was going to come out. My first draft was basically a series of character sketches. I didn’t even know how the characters related to each other. Eventually, a few drafts later, I found out who they were to each other, but it was surprise after surprise for me.
But now. No surprises. The language is wooden, the characters are wooden, even as they fulfill the demands of the plot. Ughh.
I interviewed the excellent actor Roger Guenveur Smith a few months ago. I asked him to say what the most important thing was that he knew about acting. He barely hesitated, and said: The Breath. Breathing. That’s the source. And more and more, when I watch actors, that’s now my number one criterion. Whatever else it is, for god’s sake, be alive. I don’ t care how technically good it is, so much as that the thing breathes. In a world where everything is roboticized, it seems like our imperative is to breathe.
When I first learned to edit audio for radio production, I was enamored of the way that the editing software could cut out the imperfections, the umms and errs, the wanderings of thought. An interview could be edited together from raw audio and appear seamless. But the more I do this, the more I understand that the danger is that the edits can be too perfect. You can edit so tightly, that no breath is taken before the next thought. It will sound seductively perfect, but there’s no play in the voice, and eventually it registers as mechanical and lifeless. The listener might not even be aware on a conscious level what the problem is, but the voice will sound canned, like an answering machine message. I learned that even if you are cutting from one paragraph to another in a person’s speech, you have to leave in the breath to connect them.
So my problem now is, how do I allow breath back into my writing process? On the one hand, I don’t want to be judging myself as I write. Not in this phase of the writing. I’m just trying to get out the words, any words. But I need to let in some air or it’s going to drive me crazy. I’m making some progress. I wrote about digressions once before. So now, while writing in this phase, I’m allowing myself to digress for the slightest reason and not let it bother me. I know that, eventually, I will get back to my outline template.
It’s like doing improv acting. There’s a classic improv exercise where the audience gives the actors the first and last lines of the scenes, and the actors must improv everything else in between. It sound difficult–how do you know that you will end up where you need to be for the last line? But the secret to doing it well is to not worry about where you are going to end up. Your unconscious will get you there if you keep going. You just need to trust that you will arrive there in its own good time.
As a writer, I have even more of an out than the improv actor. The actor feels the pressure to be interesting for the audience’s sake. But the writer doesn’t have to worry about the audience yet. I can let the breath go, and I can go where it takes me. If, in the end, it doesn’t go to an interesting place, and it doesn’t fulfill its other obligations, then I can revise –when the time for revision comes.
But for now, my obligation is only to write eight hundred words. In the breathing room, I can play as I wish.
King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks face Mondays head-on.
King Pleasure was one of the forefathers of vocalese in the early 1950s, and this song was originally an instrumental by Stan Getz. For a while, in my twenties, I played this over and over every morning. Especially Mondays.
Yesterday, WBAI radio broadcast my interview with Charles Manson prosecutor and Helter Skelter author, Vincent Bugliosi. We talked about his most recent film, The Prosecution of An American President. The interview turned contentious, and he all but called me an idiot. Good times! You can listen by clicking on the orange button above.
Your intrepid investigative reporter Jack Shalom covered the 2015 No Pants Subway Ride. Here is the report and interview I filed that was broadcast yesterday on the Arts Express radio program WBAI 99.5 FM NY. Click the big orange button above to listen.
One rainy night in the 1970s, I ducked into a local bar. There was the usual crowd of cops, firemen, and unemployed ex-graduate students. Their eyes were glued to the television over the bar. But they were not watching football or baseball, but the strangest–and maybe funniest– comedy show ever to hit the American shores. I was an instant fan. We were not in Kansas anymore.