The writer Sonny Arifien asked me to contribute to his blog Privilege of Legends. It explores the art of cinema and film as an art form. His latest post ‘Sleight of Hand: The Magic of Deception’ looks at how cinema grew out of the world of magic. It explores some ways how cinema has kept engaging in the subject of magicians in film ever since. Here’s my chat with Sonny…
ON WHY MAGIC ENDURES THROUGH THE AGES
Sonny: Why do you think magic continues to capture our hearts and imaginations?
Christopher: I think magic answers to basic desires in the human condition. Imagine how it would be for example to change something in the world with a click of your fingers, to instantly transform something about yourself, to appear somewhere else, to know what people are thinking, to be invincible or to escape difficult situations. We’ve all yearned for and imagined these things. Magic’s wonder continues to capture us because it makes all these things appear to be possible. What would you do if you had magical powers for a day? For sure you have some good answers.
ON THE CHANGING FACE OF MAGIC
Sonny: Do you believe that the public’s perception of magic has changed over the years, and if so in what way?
Christopher: How the public perceives magic is always a product of the time. We can look at three different periods to see how the public has regarded magic differently. Let’s start in the sixteenth century when the first magic book, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft was published in 1584. It was an expose to reveal the tricks behind and debunk the belief in what many people then considered to be witchcraft. Curiously the formal study of magic grew out of this book, published to show it’s not real.
Now let’s skip forward to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to the Golden Age of magic. At that time magic was one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Magicians packed vaudeville theatres and music halls on both sides of the Atlantic. They toured with shows the world over. The public’s imagination lit up in this tumultuous time of social, industrial and scientific change. There was a visceral excitement about what’s possible and magic played right into this. Magic’s Golden Age came to an end with the advent of cinema. The variety theatres emptied out in favour of a new kind of magic that was found on the silver screen. Magicians in film seemed the way of the future.
Magic has, nonetheless, continued to endure and adapt. Today in the early twenty-first century magic is of course performed not only on stage but it also appears in films and other media as well. It’s also a prolific form of close-up entertainment. In our contemporary sceptical age where people know neither politicians, nor media nor advertising can be taken at face value, magic too is embraced as an entertaining diversion. I think live magic is also popular these days in spite of the abundance of digital entertainment exactly because it is not digital.
ON MAGIC ETHICS
Sonny: Do you think there is an ethical line that should not be crossed when concerning the magic trick or illusion?
Christopher: It can be very easy to convince some people that magic is real. I’m not sure of the connection to magicians in film. Nevertheless I’m still impressed when I receive occasional emails from some person (usually in a faraway country) who found me online to request that I ‘do magic on someone.’ I explain point blank to these people that what I do is a deception of their senses intended for entertainment yet they choose not to believe me. Their desire for real magic short-circuits sound logic. One of the most likely areas of magic for the question of ethics to arise is mentalism. It can be quite easy to persuade someone that you’ve gotten into their head. So there are certainly ethical lines that should not be crossed in regard to this.
ON THE MESSAGE BEHIND IT ALL
Sonny: Generally speaking, what, if anything, would you most like your audience to go away with at the end of your act?
Christopher: Sleepless nights maybe? (Just kidding) That’s an important question for a magician. The answer directly informs the material you choose to perform and the way you perform it. My answer varies depending on the show I’m doing. My Parlour magic show is a contemporary take on a classic format of magic performance. With this show, I’d like to give the audience a sense of wonder and possibility. My act Norvil & Josephine is a sort of reinvented vaudeville style show. When I perform it I’d love my audience to leave with a sense of happiness and escape into their imagination.
Totally different still, the intention built into my theatrical Séance magic show is to give the audience an awareness of how easily we deceive ourselves. Some magicians just set out to ‘fool’ the audience in some suicidal battle of wits but for me it’s much more interesting if other intentions are at play instead.
Read the rest of the article about magic and magicians in film at Privilege of Legends.