From the New Yorker.
Monthly Archives: September 2015
The Magic Four Ace Trick to End All Four Ace Tricks–I Hope!
Gerald Deutsch’s Perverse Magic: The First Sixteen Years
Who doesn’t love a no-camera trick Four Ace effect? Sort of. With many thanks to magician Gerald Deutsch and his overflowing bag of Perverse Magic.
(Note to magicians: you can find the explanation of this and scores of other perverse magic effects in the beautiful new 450+ page hardcover Gerald Deutsch’s Perverse Magic: The First Sixteen Years.)
Our Monday Thing
Last night, I was at a screening of the classic 1971 film Our Latin Thing, showcasing the music of the incredible Fania All-Stars, which time-warped us all to 1970s NYC.
Monday morning is all congas, flute, bass, brass, and joy.
To Infinity…and Beyond! The Buzz Aldrin Interview
The Strait Dope: The Straitjacket Escape
About a decade ago, I did a straitjacket escape that was a lot of fun for a school talent show. I recently dug up the video of it; there are a few unfortunate cuts, but I think you’ll enjoy watching this if you’ve never seen this performed. By the way, I was using a regulation Humane straitjacket, not gaffed or gimmicked. I eventually sold the jacket when it became apparent that my back would no longer be able to survive another bout with it. Click on the video to play.
Mongo’s Manteca! Monday Morning
Click on the video to play Dizzy Gillespie’s and Chano Pozo’s Afro-Cuban Latin jazz classic performed by Mongo Santamaria.
Thanks to YouTuber andrescabreraf
Cheating at Magic, Mindreading, and Writing
While most people understand that the performance of magic requires deception, they generally have no idea of the range of deceptions possible. Mirrors, sleight-of-hand, threads, trapdoors, yes, these are known, of course. But, really, these are only a small number of the methods—not that they can’t still fool even those who know of them.
But the performance of magic actually entails a very large collection of often interlocking discrete methods, and even magicians can be fooled by another magician. Each time I learned about a branch of magic different from those with which I was already familiar, I would be surprised at the new tools brought to bear—“Oh, they’re really doing that!—I had no idea!” Sometimes ideas and methods from one branch of magic are carried over to another branch, but cleverly adapted to the limitations and possibilities of the other field; on the other hand, some methods really are unique to one particular branch of magic. For a magician it’s kind of a thrill to learn that the method was not method a, b, or c, or even method x, y, or z , but the unconceived Ψ, Ω, and Σ. (Most spectators on the other hand, as previously discussed, do not feel delighted at all when told of a method. They generally just feel stupid and suckered. Contrary to magic ads of the 50s and 60s, it’s not “Fun to be fooled!”)
I have in mind, for example, the mentalist practice of miscalling. Now I’m not at liberty to explain what that is here, but it absolutely shocked me when I first came across it. It filled me with surprise, disbelief, scorn, and then ultimately admiration. Probably not many in the general public know of the use of the technique. But what I can tell you is that that class of methods was totally off my radar.
Now writers deceive all the time, too, but not much attention is paid by the general public to the methods of deception used. Unlike in a magic performance, with writing the deceptions are not the main course, but the means to a different end. You can take lots of literature courses in college, intensively studying a work, but the facts of deception are almost always glossed over in favor of focusing on matters like theme, plot, character, and so on: the deceptions fade into the background and become invisibly transparent.
I know this, though: I feel more of a cheat as a writer than as a magician. At least most people understand that a magician is using deception even if they don’t understand the means. On the other hand, I don’t think that many readers understand the range of deceptions that the writer brings to the table. Perhaps the deceptive technique that slides by readers the most is that of revision. It’s a huge cheat. Readers see the final artifact of a novel as if it were created at once in a coherent linear manner. But that’s almost never the case. It’s not even true of this essay; I’m writing this now on Tuesday, September 15, 2015. But I have no intention of publishing it now. I know that by the time that I do publish this essay, I will have revised it, and it will be very different. In fact, I have no idea what this essay will look like ultimately when I do finally publish it. I am trusting right now that despite my first incoherent draft, somehow, sometime later, I’ll be able to pull something out of it. It really is an act of faith, but the reader will never know what this piece once was. I have all the time in the world to make this be just what I want it to be. So, I’ll be seeing you sometime later—who knows how much later?—just don’t tell anybody when I really wrote this (wink).
Kind of Blue
How to Sound Smart
Pretty much pitch-perfectly funny. Comedian Will Stephen illustrates the tyranny of form over content in the typical Ted Talk. Click on the video to play.
British vs. American Movies: Eddie Izzard
The perceptive and humorous Eddie Izzard.
Thanks to YouTuber melinda923
Demian, Herman Hesse, The Banal, and The True
When I was a teen-ager, most of my friends were reading something by Hermann Hesse—the most popular titles then were Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. The books appealed to the dreamy, druggy adolescent sense of self-involvement that naturally arose at that age. Later, in my twenties, looking back, I thought of them as silly and somewhat banal. From time to time I would eye the thick pages of Magister Ludi, but I would always demur, not ready to deal with that much woo-woo at once.
The other day, I saw Demian sitting on my bookshelf, one of Hesse’s shorter novels, which I hadn’t read since I was a teen, but which I remembered as being my favorite of Hesse’s novels. I was in the mood for reading something short, and I thought I would look at it again for a few reasons: 1) to see whether the book held up as a novel; 2) to see if I held up as a reader, and 3) to look at it from a writer’s point of view to see how it was constructed. Would I still think it was worthwhile, but for different reasons from when I was a teen, or would I, as I did in my twenties, see it as New Age-y nonsense? Okay, so I’m being impolite.
I was surprised by my reactions to reading it this time. The first surprise was that I found the book absolutely compelling. From the first pages, I was drawn in to the story of a youth who was trying to understand the darker forces of his own and others’ natures. And though at times I had to put the book down for awhile, I was eager to pick it up again. I wasn’t putting it down because it was boring, but on the contrary because it was too interesting, and I felt I needed time to digest it as I went along. At the same time, the book’s shortcomings were very clear to me—the lack of any political analysis, the Jungian simplifications of life that teeter on the edge of, and sometimes fall into, the well of banality, the repressed homoeroticism that is never really addressed, the stubborn refusal to ground sexual feeling into sexual action, the German Romanticism of the period which today seems hopelessly sappy, all these are glaring, and my getting older didn’t make them go away.
But here’s the thing. I was still compelled to read. And I was compelled by the kernel of truth that the novel contains, so deep and so important that it stays and lingers as a feeling not able to be articulated, but a feeling that something of life that was known yet previously unsaid or pushed out of consciousness was brought back into view again. Exactly like a drug trip or an a-ha moment of meditative or otherwise enlightenment.
And now with my being older, and being interested in the writing process itself, I wanted to know how Hesse was doing this. The thing is so simple—about forty thousand words, and yet its impact is considerable. I wanted to pull it apart like a child pulls apart a favorite toy, and yet when I did that with this novel I felt like I was pulling apart a dandelion, for there doesn’t seem to be anything to see.
The book is, for all its apparent mysticism and near banality, transparent. There is no hiding behind words and sentences. As a writer, over the years I have become so much more conscious of word selection and the crafting of sentences and paragraphs, and yet here, it seems like nothing. There is no memorable vocabulary or phrase; no structuring of sentences or elements that seems to be writerly. It is seemingly just a story, that is all. A story that a boy might tell. There doesn’t seem to be any art in it. And yet it is as compelling as someone sitting across the table from you telling you this extraordinary thing that has happened to them. There is no apparent sense of craft.
And yet at the same time, there is no clumsiness of craft that distracts from the story, either, and that causes the reader to stumble. It is writing that is decidedly (at least in the English translation that I read) pure; it never calls attention to itself, it never shines, but like an ordinary staircase it leads you along. When Hesse first published the book, he published it under the name of the storytelling youth of the book. It’s a craft of apparently no craft.
The particular lesson I take as a writer from this book is this: for all the attention we pay to words, sentences, paragraphs, the kernel of real truth about life is what ultimately determines the true power of a story. There is not only one way to do it, there are many; but in reading Demian I was forced to confront how powerful words can be when there is strong truth and revelation underneath them, and they are put out in plain view.
Who knew then that this was a Richard Rodgers song? Not me. In those days, my musical taste and judgments were simple: there were only two kinds of songs—fast ones, and slow ones. I liked the fast ones.
Monday morning gets you looking out your window high above.
Thanks to YouTuber fabrizio lencioni
A Saturday Evening
A Little Sparrow Told Me…
Sparrow is the name of the poet that music critic Robert Christgau called “the funniest man in America.” Yesterday, this interview I did with Sparrow was broadcast on radio station WBAI’s Arts Express program. I think you’ll find him both profound and irreverent. Click on the grey triangle above to enjoy both his poetry and conversation.
And oh yes—Sparrow gives Arts Express a hot political scoop!
A Year to Go By: Phil Ochs
This is a song that wasn’t on the original Elektra or A&M albums, and as far as I can tell, it was never released on any later compilation. I think it’s one of his best non-political songs.
Thanks to YouTuber Krutponken
A Matter of Taste
A word we don’t see much when it comes to constructing art, whether it’s an acting performance or a magic performance: taste. We talk a lot in magic about method, effect, and even presentation, but taste is something different. Our friend Andy over at The Jerx, is one of the few who talk about it, if not explicitly. In fact, almost every post of his is about taste. So what is taste, and why is it important?
It’s tempting to say about artistic taste, as Louis Armstrong said about jazz, that if you have to ask, you’ll never know. But I’m here to try: Taste is about proportion, and the humanity underneath the artwork.
An acting story: when I was in my twenties I stage managed a number of Off- Off-Broadway productions. I loved watching the older veteran actors, how effortlessly they seemed to ply their craft. And I remember one older actor, Gene—maybe one day I’ll remember his last name, but no matter, I still remember his first name, Gene—had a scene in a play that I was stage managing that was very moving, a family drama where he was playing the father. With every rehearsal I was spellbound by his depth of feeling. And opening night, I looked on from the wings as I always did and watched Gene do that stunning scene. Only this time, he was not only emotional, but he was crying profusely throughout the scene. Real tears. I was so impressed. But when the scene was over, he stomped offstage angrily into the wings muttering, “Dammit! I let myself go too far!”
He knew he was a good actor; he didn’t need to prove it. He had gone beyond the bounds of taste right then. Just as in real life, we don’t always spill our guts, sometimes the way to be true to a playwright is to hold back a little. The issue is this: how much do you call attention to your own power as an artist?
Which is what is missing (necessarily, given the format) of every performer on an American Idol-type show. The performers are forced, like trained seals, in the three minutes they have, to reveal everything they have, all their power, all at once, stripped naked.
Even a burlesque stripper is more tasteful.
In magic, magicians are particularly susceptible to lapses in taste—and I don’t just mean their wardrobes. There are two major ways that they violate good taste: first, if they attribute all the magical will to themselves, they look egotistical—this is something I’ve written about before; but second, for the most part, you look like an idiot if you’re dressed in a Merlin costume and maintain that your magic is real. This is really the problem that Andy addresses in almost all his posts. Nobody with half a brain or a beating heart can ever believe that the magician’s Linking Rings are the ocular proof that real magic exists. If the magician acts as if it does, if the magician insists that somehow it’s more than just a form of entertainment, it’s creepy. The majority of actors playing magicians seem to believe that they must really deny that they are just actors.
So how as a magician can one avoid seeming to be a jerk?
Understand that a play is play. And a magician’s performance is play. Play is a context that tells others how to frame the present interaction. There should always be what that fine magician Pop Haydn calls the wink behind the mask. That is, the wink that says: I know you know that this is all BS, but we’re still having fun anyway, and I’m still going to fool you and amaze you. Without that wink—and one doesn’t want to be too obvious about the wink, or else that would be insulting to the spectator’s intelligence, as if s/he weren’t capable of knowing that the magician was winking—it’s no longer in the context of a game, but the context of a demonstration, and that is a hell of a lot more boring and uninteresting.
Let me try to connect these two strands: the wink and the holding back. They are both ways to say that there is a real person behind all of this, and that the mission here tonight is something larger than bringing attention to the performer. For the actor, the mission is to tell the story; for the magician, it’s to play with the audience. If there’s no proportion, the mission can get overwhelmed and lost. How big to make the emotion, how big to make the wink, these are all matters of experimentation and matters of taste. But interestingly, the metric is not out in the audience; after all, people still go for Barbra Streisand. No, there is some internal aesthetic that tells one what the proper proportion must be.
A jaunty little tune to help you Arise this Monday morning.
Appreciation to the workers of the world.