Attention, Attention, Attention

attentionA while back, I posted a photo of an intriguing street mural called “Wordscape” that I had come across while strolling in Brooklyn; at the time, I had no clue as to who the artist was, other than the name on the mural. Fortunately since then, I’ve been in phone contact with the artist, Don Porcella, who now lives in California. I had a great conversation with him, and in the near future I hope to post the audio of the interview here.

Until then, I just wanted to comment on one thing that Don said to me: when a person goes to a museum or gallery, the average time that the viewer interacts with a piece of art is just three to seven seconds—that’s it. The artist may have taken months or years bringing a project to fruition, but that three seconds could be the entire length of time that a viewer engages with the piece of art. So the artist’s  job, as Porcella sees it, is to somehow persuade or seduce a person to stay and engage and interact a little longer. He wants people to see through the surface, and then take the time to go a little deeper.

That resonated with me, because it seems as if in all the arts, there’s that obligation of baiting the hook for attention. It seems almost whorish. But the novelist is taught that the first few sentences have to grab, or no one’s going to read the rest; a musician has to have a musical hook that gets the audience humming or singing along; the old vaudeville maxim declared that “you gotta have a gimmick.” The great British actor Ralph Richardson once stated that the art of acting consisted of keeping the audience from coughing for two hours.

In magic, too, the first obligation is to get the audience’s attention. Indeed, it’s doubly important in magic: not only do magicians need your attention so that they can perform for you, they need first to receive your attention, so that later they can deceive your attention. There’s the story about a teacher of coin magic—I wish I could remember who it was!—who would stop his students’ rehearsals of coin sleights barely before they had begun. He would admonish them that they were attempting magic when they hadn’t even made eye contact with their spectators yet. Without engaging the audience’s attention, there is no hope of manipulating it.

There are crude ways of getting attention and more subtle, artistic ways. Attention is deeper and longer lasting when the viewer makes that decision without coercion. But without attention there can be no art either on the part of the artist or the part of the viewer.

There is a classic Zen Buddhist story that goes like this:

A student goes to a Zen Master: “Master, will you please write for me the essence of Zen?” The Master immediately takes out a brush and writes the word “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Can you explain more?”
The master then writes: “Attention, Attention.”

The bewildered student says, “I don’t understand.”
The master writes: “Attention, Attention, Attention.”

I Come From a Land Down Under: Men at Work

Turn your world upside down on Monday morning with Men at Work.

I like this live version: it’s much faster than the studio version. Stick around for Colin Hay’s kangaroo hop at 2:55.

Thanks to YouTuber showsdoseculo.

And a Child Shall Lead Them. . .

The magic world, like other small worlds, can at times seem pretty inbred and petty. But right here, in this heartwarming video, is everything I love about magic.

A young boy, Moritz Mueller, does amazing things here with just a single coin. His technique is beautiful, and his personality shines through as well.

But what I love most about this clip, possibly even more than Mueller’s performance itself, is the reaction of the crowd of magicians watching him. They don’t care about his age, or his experience, or his language, or his reputation. All they care about is the luminous quality of the magic. They acknowledge with delight that he is their peer, that he is one of them.

Click on the video above to view this lovely clip.

Thanks to Bill Mullins on the Genii forum for bringing this video to my attention.

A Questionnaire

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I was nominated by Catie Robbins at Catie Robbins’ Writing to complete this Reading Questionnaire. Thanks, Catie! My Rupert Pupkin-like fantasies have finally come to fruition!

Do you have a certain place at home for reading? 

Nope. Everywhere and anywhere. I try to have an inside book (for reading at home), an outside book (for the subway and waiting in line), and a bathroom book. (Uhhh…self explanatory!)

Bookmark or random piece of paper?

Anything. Lots of those advertising cards and jokers from the various decks of playing cards strewn around the house. Also electric bills. Note to Con Ed—how come you didn’t send me a bill this month? Oops—never mind: page 183 of The Goldfinch.

Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/a certain number of pages?

Given my lousy bookmarking system (see above), I try to stop at a chapter or at least at the top of a page. But usually the bookmark falls out and I end up re-reading the same fifty pages over and over. As I’m in training for my coming dementia, I feel like it’s a good use of my time.

Do you eat or drink while reading? Multitasking: Music or TV while reading?  

Magazines, yes; books, no. Also, I’ve tried to have particular mood music play while writing, but so far that experiment’s been a disaster. It just distracts me.

One book at a time or several at once? 

See above. Usually lots going on at once. Then I buckle down and concentrate on one at a time.

Reading at home or everywhere?

When I can just leave my damn smartphone at home, I surprise myself by how much reading I can get done on the subway, or waiting for a license renewal at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Reading out loud or silently in your head? 

Mostly in my head, but when I’m reading my own stuff for revision, reading out loud is a must. It used to be, in the old days, that if you were seen talking to yourself in public, you were considered a crazy paranoid schizophrenic. Now people just think you’re talking on your Bluetooth.

Ha! The laugh’s on them. I’m a paranoid schizophrenic.

Do you read ahead or even skip pages? 

No, never. I’ll abandon a book first, if I feel as if I want to skip parts. Maybe I’m not ready for it, or it isn’t the time for it. I’ll give it another try some other time in my life. (Yeah, right. I’m looking at you, In Search of Lost Time.)

Breaking the spine or keeping it like new? 

“Books are your friends,” said my mother. We don’t break the spines of those we love. Except if you’re a professional wrestler and your name is The Crusher. Then it’s okay.

Do you write in your books? 

I underline and mark off passages in the margin so that a few decades later I can go back and ask, “What kind of idiot marked up this book?”

And now my nominations for this exciting chain letter-like project that will annoy and flatter the nominees into answering:

Asylum

O at the Edges

Scribblings

On Demolishing Theories

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I was just looking at an old Penn & Teller video on YouTube where Penn apparently runs a 30,000 pound truck over Teller. They spend a good 15 minutes illustrating alternative theories of what the method might conceivably be (trick truck, trap door, reinforced armor), and then they demolish each theory one by one, leaving the viewer open-mouthed. By demolishing all theories first, they have greatly heightened the impact of the effect.

The question on some Internet forums is, is it all right that P&T exposed other methods in order to strengthen their own?

I feel the disproving of alternative solutions is absolutely necessary in magic. If a substantial number of audience members has a theory—even if it’s the wrong one!—you have no magic occurring. Now, how you decide to disprove alternate theories is the big question.

First off—do you disprove before or after the effect?

I’m a big believer in the idea that disproving has to happen before or during the effect. If you disprove after the effect (“See, it was just an ordinary quarter”), as you hand it out afterwards, you may be creating a nice puzzle for the spectator, but you haven’t created the experience of magic. As long as they have an emotional and intellectual out during the performance, that’s where they will go. They will only experience the skepticism of their own theory. You cannot change the emotion of what was experienced during the performance by disproving afterwards.

Let me try to make this idea a little more clear. Say, for example, that your spouse thinks that you drank the last beer in your refrigerator. S/he gets boiling mad. You then prove that you didn’t drink it; in fact, the beer is still there, hiding behind the Organic Non-Fat Cabbage Juice. Okay, so s/he apologizes. But you can’t change the fact that s/he experienced anger, and that your spouse’s body went through those physiological changes associated with anger. In the same way, you can’t go back in time and make an audience member experience the physiological changes of feeling magic by disproving a theory afterwards. You can induce puzzlement, but not magic.

Next important point is: do you disprove explicitly or implicitly? My feeling is that in close-up, with a very small audience to influence, it’s almost always better to suggest implicitly than present “an absolutely ordinary deck of cards.” It’s more powerful if they come to the conclusion on their own, say, that the deck is ordinary because you casually thumbed through the deck face up.

I think there’s more leeway to be explicit in a big illusion. And the bigger the illusion, the more explicit the disproving of alternate theories can and should be. I have no problem with running a hoop around a levitating human being, or handing out Linking Rings to be examined. I’m not sure why I think explicit is better with large illusions, except that with the big illusions, there’s usually one big theory that must be addressed right off, and you must be sure everyone clearly gets that that solution has been disproved, or the trick will seem transparent—even if it’s not.

Okay, next question is, when you disprove an alternate theory, how much are you exposing/ruining it for other performers? Which was the question in the first place, and so by indirections find directions out.

For the most part, I think magicians can talk of methods to an audience in a general way, if it’s obvious that a lay audience would be thinking about those methods anyway. An audience doesn’t come in with a blank slate. They have theories even as they walk in the door of the theater. So I don’t think it’s bad to explicitly mention mirrors, trap doors, duplicates, sleight of hand, and switches to an audience as possible theories, because any audience with a pulse has those theories anyway. But I wouldn’t say, “Now this card trick could theoretically be done by using the R and S principle, but I’ll show you it’s not!” because no lay audience has the slightest conception of the R and S principle.

One final comment. If you’re working mentalism (not mental magic), then of course you have to make everything implicit. Any explicit disproving (except for “This is Test Conditions”) smacks of trickery, the one thing you don’t want to be accused of during a mentalism performance.

The wonderful magician Pop Haydn has said that a magic trick is actually an intellectual construct that surreptitiously seeks to subvert the chain of logic. Part of the magician’s weaponry is the blowing up of other possibilities, leaving only magic as the last remaining possible answer. It’s the magician’s job to use every weapon possible.

Favorite Books (2): Insurgent Mexico by John Reed

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Before John Reed chased down the Russian Revolution and wrote his eyewitness account in Ten Days That Shook the World, he rode with the legendary Pancho Villa in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. His dispatches from the front were gathered together in an exciting account called Insurgent Mexico.

And what an account it is! The reporting is startling vivid, and Reed instantly puts the reader in the middle of the action, the words and images poetically visceral. His portrait of Villa, an uneducated but wily outlaw turned revolutionary, is both an ode to the common man and the power of personality. Reed rode with, drank with, sang with, danced with, but above all, fought with the peon revolutionaries who sought to wrest a little piece of land for themselves from the giant Hacienda landowners in that feudal-like society.  Villa was the Revolutionary leader of the Northern army, while the more politically sophisticated Emilio Zapata controlled the South of Mexico. The history of the Mexican Revolution is littered with betrayals and leaders jumping from one side to the other, but Villa was always true to the peons he served, and to their revolutionary fervor. While Villa was untutored, his instinctive cunning saw that it would be good for the Revolution to have such a reporter as Reed send back dispatches to the United States, and so he welcomed Reed’s company with open arms.

Reed slept, ate, and fought with Villa’s troops. While Reed’s account is non-fiction, the strength and immediacy of the prose is something that any fiction writer could envy and learn from. Here’s a passage that describes the revolutionaries encountering the Federal troops:

We could see them now, hundreds of little black figures riding through the chaparral; the desert swarmed with them. Savage Indian yells reached us. A spent bullet droned overhead, and then another; then one unspent and a whole flock singing fiercely. Thud! went the adobe walls as bits of clay flew. Peons and their women rushed from house to house, distracted with fear. A trooper, his face black with powder, and hateful with killing and terror, galloped past, shouting that all was lost…

Apolinario hurried out the mules with their harness on their backs, and begin to hitch them to the coach. His hands trembled. He dropped a trace, picked it up, and dropped it again. He shook all over. All at once he threw the harness to the ground and took to his heels. Juan and I rushed forward. Just then a stray bullet took the old mule in the rump. Nervous already, the animals plunged wildly. The wagon tongue snapped with the report of a rifle. The mules raced madly north into the desert.

Reed said himself that when he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, he was striving to make his prose as objective as possible. But fortunately for us, in this earlier work about Mexico, Reed was not afraid to let the full force of his literary talent be displayed. This is a fast read, and a pleasurable one, and it makes me sad to think that the talent that produced this work at the age of twenty-six was lost at his premature death, only seven years later. But this book is a testament to a great journalist and a great writer.

Fool Us: Penn and Teller

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Magicians Penn and Teller, who have been fooling us for forty years, last night premiered the first episode of the new season of their CW network television show, Fool Us. It’s packed full of magic (and commercials), but it’s certainly entertaining for both magicians and non-magicians alike.  The format of the show remains the same as in the past; that is, several  performers, often well-known magicians in the magic community, perform tricks for Penn and Teller and the live audience. The performers’ goal is to fool P&T about the methods used to accomplish the magic. Teller, in particular, has a vast knowledge of the history and methods of magic, so that’s not an easy proposition.

Now the fun part for the magic-savvy audience tuning in, is that P&T have seemingly painted themselves into a corner: for if they know how the trick is done, how do they prove to the performer that they know the method? They can’t just outright say the method, because that would violate one of the venerable tenets of magic: magicians may not expose how tricks are done without very good reason to do so. So the fun for the at-home magician is watching P&T speak in a coded language that makes it very apparent to the challenging performers that P&T have caught them out. The performers understand right away that they’ve been busted when they hear P&T say, as they did last night, that  “the trick took my breath away” or “we think we’re one ahead of you” and so on.  When the performers hear such comments, they metaphorically hang down their heads, signaling that they’ve been busted; they have to admit to the audience that indeed P&T know exactly how their tricks were done.

So, yes, it’s fun for magicians and hobbyists, it makes us feel like we’re smart and on the inside. In fact, most likely, we are consciously being pandered to. Because at least two of the effects on last night’s show would not have fooled anyone with even the most basic knowledge of magic. There is no way in hell that the performers could have actually thought that P&T wouldn’t know their methods. Really, without exaggerating, the methods of two of the magicians in last night’s show could be found in many children’s magic books. I guess it’s nice for the performers to get national exposure, I’m not knocking them for that, but really what were the producers of the show thinking when they selected them? I can only think that it was to increase the number of viewers who could feel like they, too, were in on the joke.

That said, there were some fine performances. The highlight of the show was Steve Brundage, a very  clever and engaging young man who does a signature routine with a Rubik’s Cube. He tosses a mixed cube behind his back, and when he catches it, the cube is restored to its solved state. A very pretty effect. But the kicker was when he appeared to have failed, only to reveal that the cube was now in precisely the same mixed state as another mixed cube sitting between Teller’s previously closed palms. P&T had no clue as to method, and over here, I’m certainly still scratching my head.

But truth be told, I don’t want to know. It would only disappoint me. Much better to live with that feeling of amazement.

To round out each of their episodes, P&T do a trick of their own, and last night it was the ancient mystery of the “Cellphone to Tilapia’s Entrails.” It’s a classic in the P&T repertoire, but it’s always fun to see them work.

There’s much discussion about the show in the magic community, and the more negative comments seem to center around two things: first, though P&T generally do not expose any magician’s tricks on the air (except their own), they have been known in past episodes to be particularly rough on those who claim to be mentalists. Unless you clearly mark yourself as a comedy mindreader, as the performer in last night’s episode did, you can expect to get skewered—and exposed—by P&T.

The second criticism of the show—which I think is a very fair one—is that by naming the show Fool Us, P&T are inviting potential magic audiences to look upon magic as only a puzzle to be solved. Now there’s much intellectual satisfaction in trying to solve a clever puzzle, there’s no doubt about that. But magic is so much more than “the method.” In fact, a clever method is no guarantee at all that the effect is any good. In magic we don’t care if the method is clever or not—it only has to fool the audience, not Penn and Teller. Strangely enough, there is no correlation between a method’s ingeniousness and how good a trick is. The puzzle is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the performance of strong magic. What a magician cares about is the overall impact that the magic will have on a spectator. If clever puzzles were all that were necessary and sufficient, then magicians could hand out copies of the Sunday Times Cryptic Crossword Puzzle and go home.

But no, Our Magic (that is, stage conjuring) is a branch of the theatrical arts, albeit a very specialized one, and it’s subject to the theatre’s constraints and glories. In a magic performance, there are many other considerations that contribute to the overall effect and impact: acting, pacing, character, staging, music, lights, premise, participation, engagement, scripting, likability are all as important as “method” to the audience’s ultimate experiencing of a feeling of magic. And Fool Us, with it’s emphasis on puzzle-solving, neatly elides all those factors. “The method” is not the method. That’s the big secret. And watching Fool Us, you would never know that. You think you’re on the inside track, only you’re not. But you can be sure that P&T understand that as much as anybody. They show you their empty hands, while their other hands remain hidden. Clever boys, those rascals, Penn and Teller.