Posted by David Kalat on January 19, 2013
2006 was sure a bumper year for movies about nineteenth-century magicians. Of course, if you were the maker of one of those movies, you might feel a bit peeved at having to compete head-to-head against a substantially similar competitor just as an accident of your choice of release date.
In one corner, we have Goliath: The Prestige, by Christopher Nolan, starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Scarlett Johansson. In the other, at less than half its budget, we have David: The Illusionist, by Neil Burger, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, and Paul Giamatti.
Both movies are presented as flashbacks, as law enforcement attempts to unravel the secrets of a spectacular illusion that challenges all conventional understanding of the mysteries of life and death—a spectacular illusion, mind you, enacted by a magician as the capper in a complex revenge plot to avenge the death of a woman. In both movies, the magician’s secrets are intentionally revealed via a leaked notebook. There are other similarities and parallels between the two movies, but the one that interests us today is buried in the credits: technical advisor on both movies is Ricky Jay.
If you don’t recognize the name Ricky Jay, I bet you’ll recognize his face:
Jay has been a prolific figure in contemporary Hollywood, partially in his behind-the-scenes capacity as a technical consultant, and often also as an actor. Sometimes, as in House of Games, these roles intersect and he plays a magician (or con-man) while also advising the producers on how to depict such people authentically.
I’m not at all surprised that Jay advised both of these films—you’d be mad to make a movie about magicians and not invite Jay to help keep you from looking foolish. But I knew Jay had a hand in The Illusionist long before the credits rolled. Repeatedly through Burger’s film, Edward Norton performs illusions that were actually performed—and celebrated—in the nineteenth century. These illusions weren’t cooked up for this movie, they genuinely thrilled onlookers back in the day. And the reason I know this is that I’ve read histories of nineteenth-century magic written by Jay.
For example, here is a key sequence from The Illusionist, in which Norton flummoxes Jude Law:
This has been adapted for the screen, but is close enough to the reality of the situation to withstand some scrutiny: the French government was facing growing agitation and nascent rebellion in Algeria, and noted that their Arab subjects believed in local shamans. In an effort to tamp down the situation, the government came up with the plan of sending a French magician in to Algeria to demonstrate the superiority of French magic over the local shamans—and prey on the superstitions of the populace. They turned to Robert-Houdin, the Father of Stage Magic, and asked him to be the ambassador of French mysticism.
Based on Jay’s account of this fantastic anecdote, I sought out an antique copy of Robert-Houdin’s memoirs, which remains one of my prized possessions. According to Robert-Houdin himself, he used a box, not a sword, but the concept was the same—he challenged the rebels to lift the box, and none could. Only he himself could lift it (and for good measure, he also delivered an electric shock to the Arabian strongman just to drive home the point don’t mess with France). For those of you who hate mysteries and need to know answers, that bit about the electric shock should be a giveaway how this was done: it involved electromagnets. And for nineteenth-century audiences unfamiliar with such newfangled scientific discoveries, electromagnets could seem like magic—that’s exactly why Arthur C. Clarke made his famous pronouncement that advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic. He wasn’t just forecasting the future—he was describing the past.
Robert-Houdin is also the mastermind of the other illusion I want to highlight here: the orange tree. Let’s watch the movie’s version first:
I’m not going to bother recounting the Robert-Houdin version—for all intents and purposes it’s the same. But that’s what’s worth stopping and thinking about. What we know about Robert-Houdin’s orange tree is at a significant remove. There are no movies recording his performances and everyone who ever saw his show is now long dead. We have various contemporary accounts and Robert-Houdin’s memoirs to consult when constructing histories of his act, but their value must be taken with a grain of salt.
Why? Because the whole point of a magic show is to fool people. These things are called illusions because they are phony veneers, simulacrums, artificial constructs. And so when audience members recount what they have witnessed, their accounts are distorted by the very misdirections and sleights of hand that the magicians rely upon to create those illusions.
For example, take my favorite contemporary illusion: Penn & Teller’s Bullet Catch.
Penn and Teller take up positions at opposite sides of the stage, Penn wielding a gun and Teller wearing a bullet-proof vest (except when they swap places and Teller prepares to shoot at Penn). A pane of glass separates them. The duo invite an audience volunteer onto the stage to personalize a bullet. The marked round is then loaded Penn’s gun. He fires, the glass shatters, and Teller smiles, revealing the bullet in his teeth. The volunteer examines the bullet and confirms the markings match. And at no point in this process has there been any opportunity to convey the marked bullet from Penn’s side of the stage to Teller’s, save for when the gun was fired.
I’ve seen it many times, and put a lot of thought into figuring out how it’s done. I came up with own theory, and felt pretty good about it until I read an online explanation that was completely different. Who knows—maybe they do it different ways at different times and we’re both right. Maybe we’re both wrong and there’s some other technique. (I take for granted that it’s not done for real—I didn’t need the Mythbusters to tell me that you can’t catch a bullet in your teeth). But the point isn’t whether I have an accurate idea of how it’s done, but that my assumptions about how it’s done color my perception of what I see, and how I describe that experience. All of my remarks above presuppose that what I’ve seen really happened. I have no way of knowing that the volunteer is not one of their confederates, I can’t prove that the bullet in Teller’s mouth is the one that was marked, I’m not even at all sure the gun was ever fired. But that’s how these things are presented, and that’s how I described them—thereby distorting the public record in exactly the ways Penn & Teller want.
And so when we encounter histories of Robert-Houdin’s act, we encounter the reminiscences of the people he fooled. And mind you, the people he fooled lived in an era when electromagnets were so poorly understood they could genuinely fool audiences (Robert-Houdin had been doing that light box/heavy box trick in front of French audiences for years before he trotted it out for Algerian shamans and strong men—don’t think its efficacy had anything to do with Algerian superstition), and they only saw Robert-Houdin’s illusions at a distance in theaters lit by gaslight.
The real orange tree illusion was an automata—it was an intricate clockwork mechanism meticulously engineered to do the things it did. Did it make tell-tale click-clack noises as it worked? Did it look like it was made out of metal, when viewed close up? We don’t know—we only know it fooled nineteenth-century audiences seated far away. And so when Edward Norton performs his version for The Illusionist, it’s a perfect illusion—a special effect, crafted by celluloid and CGI.
All of the illusions in The Illusionist are special effects—even though we are talking here about illusions that were performed live 150 years ago. In other words, you don’t need CGI trickery to do these things.
Or do you?
Robert-Houdin retired and passed away before the advent of motion pictures, but his legacy lived on in the form of the theater that bore his name, and the illusions he created that he passed on… to Georges Melies. That’s right, Melies took over the Robert-Houdin brand name (Houdini payed tribute to Robert-Houdin with his chosen stage name, but Melies was the real deal). And Melies did make movies of his illusions. And when he did… well…
I’ve written about this one before, but that’s not going to stop me revisiting it here. It’s too perfect. The illusion in question isn’t one of Robert-Houdin’s, it’s Buatier de Kolta’s Vanishing Lady. In its original form, it went like this: de Kolta stretched a sheet of newspaper across the stage floor to prove that no trap door could be involved, placed an ordinary chair on top of the paper, and then had his lovely assistant sit in the chair. De Kolta draped a cloth over her, and her shape remained obvious under the cloth, proof that she remained in the chair—until de Kolta whipped the cloth away, revealing an empty chair. Ta daaa!
I’m playing games with you—my description above used words that could have come from one of the onlookers fooled by the trick. A more accurate description would be: a piece of cut-up newspaper was placed across the trap door to distract people from realizing a trap door was involved, a specially-designed chair was placed on top of the paper and the assistant sat in the chair. A cloth embedded with a wireframe duplicate of her shape was positioned over the chair to cover for her when she ducked through the trap door…
But here’s where it gets all wonky. Melies filmed this in 1896. He was perfectly capable of doing it “for real” and was in the business of doing so on a nightly basis. But for the camera, he used special effects, not a trap door. He could have done it for real, but decided the special effect was superior. For the same reason that the makers of The Illusionist opted for CGI over tricks that required nothing fancier than a grasp of science and technology circa 1850.
It’s not hard to understand why Neil Burger used special effects to replicate Robert-Houdin’s illusions—as fine an actor as Edward Norton is, there’s never been any suggestion he’s a master prestidigitator. And as discussed, what Robert-Houdin could count on to fool nineteenth century audiences in a dimly lit theater aren’t going to induce the same oohs and ahhs on a 60 foot movie screen.
But Melies is a slightly different matter. His movies, just be being motion pictures at all, did induce oohs and ahhs. And he was already a master magician. He could have filmed his stage act intact—he could have preserved a filmic record of what the Vanishing Lady really looked like. But his choice not to carried with it a consequence: because he used the ability to turn the camera off and on to hide the moment when the Lady Vanished, he didn’t technically need any of the rest of the appurtenances of the performance. He didn’t need the newspaper, because there’s no trap door. The chair really can be ordinary this time, and doesn’t have to break away on cue. The cloth doesn’t have to have a wireframe replica of the lady’s silhouette laced inside. If he wanted, he could snap his fingers and voila, the lady vanishes.
And that’s what he then proceeded to do—movie after movie from then on race farther into the fantastical and into the outer realms of special effects. And he spoiled us—we are his children, the audience he taught to be impatient with stage magic.
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