The Medium Is The Message

If you visit this page with any regularity you've probably noticed I don't write very much here.  This is in part because of my work on Medium.  I've been named a top writer there in satire and several other subjects from time to time, and I frequently contribute to Medium publications.  Go over and have a look.  Some of it is about magic, I promise.

Magic & Film talk

Before I mentioned that I'd be giving a talk on the relationship that exists between the craft of magic and the craft of film.  I gave the talk last night.  I come at this from the perspective of someone who has worked in film for years, and who studied film at one of the two top film schools in the world, and who has spent a lifetime in magic.  After the talk, I went over my notes and thought they'd be interesting to share here.  Below is a slightly edited version of my notes, so they make sense to all of you.

Magic and film talk notes 03 02 2016

The earliest filmmakers were magicians who quite rightly saw film as an amazing illusion.  They were sideshow performers doing difficult, complicated tricks with tea kettles and huge props that took ages to strike and were difficult to transport.  Here was an illusion that required a sheet and a projector.  Since this illusion didn't require any particular skill to execute, it quickly spread beyond the world of magicians.  The next evolution of film was into a true storytelling medium.

Magic methods are little more than tools.  They are like guitar chords, not like songs.  On their own, they do little, and mean little.  It’s only when they are constructed into a larger effect that they become a good trick.

In magic, it took centuries for the methods now available to evolve.  The stories of magicians hunting down gambling cheats and toiling alone for years to develop new methods litter the magic literature, and many of these methods, even well known ones, are practiced only by the few capable of mastering them.

Similarly, in film, the methods of psychological manipulation through storytelling have evolved.  This evolution has involved the appropriation of ideas in art, still photography, theater, and even writing.  Examples: Art=Japanese Printmaking and European art it inspired lead to framing as a tool (see the bathroom scene in Rosemary's Baby where everyone in the audience tries to lean over to see around the doorframe) / still photography= the Cottingly Fairies (this lead to early SFX and the effective use of flats and black art) / Theater= surround sound / writing= left and right movement psychology (in most of the world, because people read left to right, movement on screen from left to right feels correct, whereas movement from right to left feels off putting.  This is frequently used in cinematography.

The best treatise I’ve read on the manipulation of audience psychology through the film medium is Eisenstein’s Film Form essays, in which he enumerates many uses of Soviet Montage Technique.  This is where the closest similarities between magic and film can be found.

In a magic effect, you see a bunch of stuff (cards moving around, coins being held and then appearing elsewhere) but none of it means anything until your mind puts it together.  This is what Eisenstein talks about when he described The Theater of The Mind.  In film, you see two shots in sequence, but a cut is not a natural thing.  It occurs only in film.  A cut is a cue for your mind to construe two images as being related to the same diegesis.

Human logic, the way we are trained to recognize how the world works, is the reason magic and film both work on the mind.

Eisenstein talked about two styles of filmmaking.  Formalism, which he felt was the more honest form, is the style in which things are clearly not meant to reflect a diegetic reality, but rather an artistic statement.

In the beginning of the film October, the dictator’s leather boots and gloves symbolize fetishism, and when he turns and walks to a door, then a mechanical peacock turns to a darkened space, showing us it’s backside.  This is to say the sexually perverted dictator is an inhuman machine.

When the peacock disappears into the darkness, it is effectively going up it’s own backside.  You can make your own decision about what that means.  In the end though, you are aware that the film you are seeing is making a statement, and it is clear who that statement is coming from.

The other style of film, Realism, Eisenstein felt was less honest for it purported to be a reflection of the real world and will be taken as such, but is as much an artistic statement as the formalist style.  This is why a lot of people say that when a director can’t make a decision about something and just puts it in because, the director IS making a decision because every detail of the film is a decision.

Realism, Eisenstein felt, was a tool of the decadent west, a tool used to perpetuate lies.  The Nazis bore this out well.  This, I feel, is not that different from the tools used by mentalists, which could just as easily be used by con artists, or the tools of the card magician which could be used to cheat at a game of cards.  As artists, we must use these responsibly, always aware of the power they have, and how every choice we make in how to use them says something powerful to the audience.

Naturalism is the key in magic.  It's terrible when a magician walks on stage saying, "Behold!  My weird prop you've never seen before!  I shall now do something with it you've never seen!" because of course you could do something weird with that object, because it's a weird object.  Magic done with strange things is inherently less magical because the audience knows somewhere in their minds that something is up.  No one thinks it's that strange when someone comes out with a weird box with Chinese letters on it and a lion pops out, because nothing about this is normal.  The normal makes the contrast with the paranormal stand out.

In film, this naturalism is essential to the effective execution of psychological manipulation.  If you hammer your audience with heavy handed techniques, they'll turn on you.  It's like someone doing a bad card trick and being caught out, then telling their audience to ignore the card that fell out of his sleeve.  Doing all of this properly is of paramount importance, or else a smart audience will feel you are talking down to them.  Do it cleverly, without having to add unnecessary exposition or montages, etc. to your film and you'll get the audience right where you want them.  The perfect example of this cinematic sleight of hand is Psycho, in which Hitchcock gets us to root for the murderer by making us care about him long before we realize who he really is.

Examples of deception used in film as a magician might:

American Psycho - police interrogation scene - Willem Defoe was directed three ways in the scene: in one he suspects Bateman is the murderer, in another he isn't sure, and in another he's sure Bateman is innocent.  By editing between the three, the director leaves the audience wondering what the police really think went on. 

The Craft - lowering ISO as the film progresses mirrors how the story itself gets darker and darker.  It brings us into the story without strong arming us.

The Birds - When the hero enters the attic full of birds at the end of the movie, she looks bewildered.  Tippy Hedren asked Hitchcock what her motivation was for going into a room where she is almost sure to be killed.  Hitchcock said "Because I tell you to," which left her with nothing to go on, thus looking bewildered, which is what Hitchcock wanted.

Film & Magic

Next month, I'll be giving a talk to a film collective in Brooklyn about the intersection of film and magic, two subjects I can truthfully say I know something about.  While the bulk of that talk will be in a language only film people will understand, I can put a few things down here that may interest the general public.

First of all, the earliest film makers were in fact, magicians.  Film itself is a kind of magic, as the medium uses light projected on a flat surface to make people feel emotions, and go places they've never been.  This should be obvious, but when we think of film, we don't tend to think of it this way.  We say "Well, it was all done with cameras, and editing computers" etc.  This isn't so different from when a magic audience says to themselves "He must have used sleight of hand, or a trick deck, or magnets."  It may be wrong, but it's an explanation that alters our experience of the medium.  The openness of the film making process may have taken something from that part of the experience, but it's still a powerful medium for these very reasons.

Second, some great directors have used a bit of careful sleight of hand with their actors to produce an effect visible only to the audience.  The best example I could find (that anyone would know about) was in the final scene of The Birds, Hitchcock responded to Tippi Hedren's question "What's my motivation to go into that room full of birds when I know they've been killing everyone?" with "Because I told you to."  This resulted in her confused look as she entered the attic for the final bird attack, and made the scene what he wanted.  Another example is in the scene in American Psycho when the police question Patrick Bateman.  The scene was directed several ways, in which the cop thinks Bateman is the killer, thinks he isn't, and doesn't know.  The final product was an edit of all these scenes together, making it hard to get a bead on what the cop thinks of Bateman.

Tragically, the intersection of film making and magic is so great that talking about it could be a three credit college course, and I have to get back to practicing with my magnets.