Joshua Jay enjoys magic. Joshua Jay also enjoys movies. What happens when the two interests intersect? Find out in this article, given exclusively to iTricks by the man himself. You can read even more on the subject at JoshuaJay.com, where coincidentally you can also purchase his ’07 releases Session and the Talk About Tricks DVD set. Let’s get cinematic!

Joshua Jay At The MoviesWatching a magician and watching a film aren’t such different experiences. Both require a willing suspension of disbelief. Whether a Star Destroyer emerges from light speed or a quarter from your ear, we celebrate the escape, the deception. But film and magic are more than theoretically tied. Both have ancestral and modern day connections. From turn-of-the-century magician and filmmaker Georges Méliès and his creation of special effects to modern maestro Tom Hanks in next year’s The Great Buck Howard, it’s hard to separate magic from movies. But despite the frequent cross-pollination of the forms, films on magic are tricky to pull off, particularly when decision makers are non-magicians.

Acting Magical

The famous French conjurer Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin said, “A magician is really an actor playing the part of a magician.” It stands to reason, then, that a film actor would be an actor playing the part of a magician playing the part of an actor playing the part of a magician. Deception abounds, and few are up to the task.

Pull QuoteMost actors overplay their magician-roles in a narrow effort to emulate the mannerisms and articulation of magicians onstage. Actors and directors too often forget that we magicians are ordinary humans perfectly capable of conversing without spastic eyebrow activity or hand flourishes. Most onscreen magicians deliver dialogue on and offstage with the same melodramatic inflection. And why can’t a magician survive a scene on or offstage without doing a simple trick?

Magicians are played as archetypes rather than real people. They’re mostly foils for other characters, inserted for sheer variety or a splash of mystery. Rarely has a film explored the magician as human, and so magic characters continue to be defined by their work rather than their personalities. (Contrast the hollow magicians in The Prestige with the perfect, perfect House of Games, where we’re treated to a host of real folks, and how they act on and off the job.)

Want to know the common pitfalls of magic flicks? How about what Josh thinks of special effects in the hands of a movie prestidigitator? Find out AFTER THE JUMP…


The Pitfalls of Magic

All too often, professional magicians watch their Hollywood counterparts and think, Oh, please—not another top hat. When non-magicians write about magic, the scripts usually degenerate into the same tired clichés: characters (and audiences) wondering what is real and what is illusion, magic tricks performed while lives are at stake, and the venerable rabbit in the hat. And, perhaps because magicians are a secretive group, famously loath to reveal their modus operandi, screenwriters rarely portray magicians as the craftsmen they are. When the smoke clears and the mirrors are removed, we are inevitably left with a magician character who actually possesses real powers.

The reason so many magic films duplicate these same plot conventions is simple: the writers aren’t magicians. Wikipedia and the local library provide interesting anecdotal material, but screenwriters have largely failed to get under the skin of a magician or penetrate our secretive fraternity. The viewpoint is always from the outside looking in, trying to understand magic in terms of the audience.

But there are successes. John Fisher’s The War Magician was a best-selling book in 1983 and it has been optioned as a film. Here Fisher recounts the (generally) true story of how magician Jasper Maskelyne helped avert a major battle in Africa with magic principles. But we’re treated to Maskelyne’s ingenuity in applying magic to his role as a World War II general, and the story will translate perfectly to the screen (rumored to star Geoffrey Rush and Tom Cruise). Look forward to The War Magician.

Special Effects

Rarely is the craft of magic featured on the silver screen. Instead, directors feature magic’s ugly cousin—the special effect. The result is always a feat that looks like a special effect. Though you may not know how magic effects are done, you can probably detect when a magic trick is done and when you’ve been duped by CGI. The magic tricks in most films feel like outtakes from the Spiderman franchise.

But magicians can’t complain about CGI. After all, they brought special effects to the screen. French stage magician Georges Méliès directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914, including A Trip to the Moon (you know the one…where the human-faced moon gets a bullet-shaped space capsule in his eye). Most of his films exhibit magic tricks—animated furniture and disappearing ladies, and his mastery of misdirection and surprise informed his filmmaking style. He pioneered multiple exposures, time lapses, invisible splicing, dissolves, and manual coloration, all of which were new ways to achieve classical magic plots. Today, we understand Méliès’ tricks as a simple snip of celluloid, but at a time when the Lumière brothers were screening one-minute films of factory workers, Méliès was making inspired shorts with inexplicable events beyond the audience’s scope of imagination.

Méliès’s life story has a somber ending. He died penniless and unappreciated because he never believed magic could be woven into story. Méliès’s shorts depicted magic tricks as what they were to him: drawing room amusements meant only to deceive and entertain. He never believed magic could hold an audience’s attention intellectually, so his shorts were candy for the eyes, nonsensical but impressive magic of only a visual nature. As such, his films were steamrolled by more ambitious, substantial epics.

Head to Joshua Jay.com for much more on this including a list of of best and worst of magic entertainment both on the big screen, as well as television. Thanks to Joshua Jay for his contribution to iTricks.