I’m not a big fan of award shows, but this has to be my favorite moment at an Academy Award’s ceremony.
No envelope needed. Who else should win such an award?
A 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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.