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Mar 19, 2013

Pick a card, any card: reflections on magic in cinema and life as an amateur magician

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the latest example of how CGI can mess up depictions of magic on film. To discover why venture back with me to my former life as an amateur magician...

Luke Buckmaster — Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

Luke Buckmaster

Writer, Critic and The Daily Review Journalist

I stood transfixed, staring at a well dressed man — black smoking jacket, bow tie, slick hair — repeat the same trick over and over. His left hand held a 20 cent coin. His right was empty. When he turned them over, the coin magically traded places. I grabbed his palms and inspected them. This was eighteen years ago, at my father’s 50th birthday. My fragile little mind was blown.

In the tradition of gobsmacked children who suddenly know the answer to that question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and in the tradition of real-life moments that play like scenes from cheesy movies, I asked him, with what I assume was a look of puppy dog adoration, “Can I be a magician one day?”

“Yes you can,” he said. “But you’ll need to practise a lot.”

A few months later I found the first trick I could do ad infinitum and never stuff up. It had a good finish and, best of all, didn’t require much practice. A magician sold me the secret at a town fair.

The trick goes like this. An envelope lies face down on a table. You remove three cardboard strips from the envelope and ask a participant to choose blue, orange or green. You ask them to confirm their choice. Let them change it if they want to. You tell them you already knew what colour they were going to choose, and you can prove it.

Let’s say the participant selected blue. You turn the blue cardboard strip over. On the back, bold typeface reads I KNEW YOU WOULD PICK BLUE. He or she naturally asks to see the reverse of the other two strips. You joke around, say something like “why does it matter?” or “surely not?”. After some banter you turn over the orange strip. It’s blank. You turn over the green one. Blank too.

It’s a decent trick involving a simple but effective deception. I soon discovered not many magic tricks are this easy to pull off, and the ones that were generally weren’t very good. This magic thing actually took effort. So I did what just about any kid contemplating a future of ongoing hard work would do.

I gave up.

A decade later, I’m a university student in my early 20s and my interest in magic has been rekindled after meeting the legendary Penn and Teller in Las Vegas. I practise card and coin sleights and other techniques daily. One morning I’m channel surfing between TV programs and on Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s show (don’t judge me) I see a man who looks a lot like a magician. I tune in.

The man asks KAK to pick a card, any card. She chooses the Seven of Hearts. He takes a deck out of his pocket and fans it. There is only one card face down. She takes it and sure enough: it’s the Seven of Hearts.

My reaction? “Pfftt.”

Either he was carrying 52 different decks (unlikely) or — yeah! — they simply communicated before broadcast. The magician had stooged the trick, arranged the deck to match the card he already knew would be picked — the laziest form of “magic” out there. The next weekend I visited my magic mentor, a brilliant but slightly over the hill Australian illusionist whose magic shop was situated in a room at the back of his house, and groused about it.

“No no, that’s a real trick,” he said. “It’s called the Invisible Card Deck.”

“Do you have that in stock?” I asked/yelped.

“I do. In fact, you’re holding it right now.”

So I learnt the secret of the Invisible Card Deck. You can do it anywhere and it doesn’t require a “force” (sleight of hand that presents the illusion of choice). Late one night at a club in the city I performed it to an old friend from school and his jaw fell to the floor, cartoon style. He grabbed me by the arm and rushed me over to a group of his friends who were drinking and chatting the night away. I performed the trick again. Their eyes lit up, bulged as if they were about to leap out of their sockets like frogs from a dynamite pond. I was revered for the rest of the night as a Christ-like miracle worker, and that was fine by me.

The point of all this, if you’ll excuse the patter, is that I was vastly more impressed by the coin trick at my dad’s 50th birthday and the colours trick I found at the fair than I was by the Invisible Card Deck (which is actually a vastly more impressive trick) simply because I saw the latter on television. If you watch an illusion performed live, preferably close-up, the rules of game are clearer and there is less room — literal or otherwise — for the performer to move. There is no ability for the them to edit or cut away; little chance they have arranged it with the participant (especially if that’s you) beforehand.

One of the frustrating things about depictions of magic in contemporary movies is their use of special effects. Magic itself is a special effect, a seemingly impossible feat brought to life before your eyes. Add two kinds of magic — a trick actualised through the trickery of another medium — and the effect generally becomes a lot less impressive. Add CGI and there are three levels of abracadabra: the magic trick, the magic of a camera and the magic of an editing suite.

A great example of how these forces combine to form less rather than more of an impact can be found in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (now playing in cinemas), a dopey comedy starring Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi as veteran magic performers/partners who fall out and pursue solo careers.

Carell’s titular character, out of luck and out of gigs, finds himself demoted from performing on a Vegas stage to hopping between tables at a retirement home. There he bumps into the person who inspired him to take up magic as a child, a now jaded “seen it all” magician played by Alan Arkin. Arkin’s character shows him a stunning trick in which he slams a salt shaker down on the table. From it emerges a white dove, which flaps its wings and flies away.

Carell is astonished. Arkin notes that his reaction is what got him engaged with magic in the first place; the equivalent of me watching the coin flipping magician as a child. Emotionally the beats of this sequence are all in place — it’s not exactly a complicated moment — but it falls down because the moment the dove emerges from the salt shaker is obviously rendered in CGI. It looks completely fake and, even by the perception-bending standards of illusion, absolutely impossible.

Special effects that look so conspicuous are the equivalent of a botched magic trick: the moment the audience notices the hidden card, the plastic thumb, the trick deck, the invisible wire.

Digital effects ruin most of the tricks depicted in Neil Burger’s The Illusionist (2006) because they too were obviously plucked from a computer rather than from a sleeve. At least one of them, involving an unhealthy plant that magically grows oranges, was based on a real trick, which adds another twist of despair.

Sylvain Chomet’s 2010 feature about a past-his-prime magician, also titled The Illusionist, executed depictions of magic performance more modestly and more impressively, despite the style of the film (animation) allowing a lot more elbow room.

Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) took an imaginative route in exploring the most impressive illusion in the repertoire of two dueling magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. It involves the magician entering one door on the left of a stage then almost instantly appearing from another on the right.

The reveal of how this is performed inside the reality of the film is impressive for a few reasons. Firstly because it is an invention of writing rather than a simple, crude way to spoil a real trick. The reveal is also a sleight itself, which leads to two more reveals that arrive in the form of final act plot twists. We learn (spoiler alert) Bale’s magician is secretly two characters (identical twins) and Jackman has used a dangerous machine to create replicas of himself, which he kills as soon as they are “born.”

Director George Marshall’s Houdini (1953), starring Tony Curtis as the legendary magician/escape artist, gets the balance between screen and stage trickery right in all the ways The Incredible Burt Wonderstone doesn’t. An early scene depicts Curtis pouring milk into a cone of paper (“I have an ordinary piece of paper”) then, once the paper is unravelled, it is revealed to be dry. The audience is showered in white confetti. There are no edits or special effects but it is nevertheless a high impact illusion, and in the context of cinematic history, perhaps a sort of proto-CGI. Similarly, David Copperfield’s character in Terror Train (1980), a junky slasher pic starring Jamie Lee Curtis, appeared to use tools for “real” magic.

It would be potentially fascinating if a director making a movie about magicians regarded live action magic as a special effect and CGI as an unnecessary addition. A modern magic movie that uses “real” tricks could be marketed along the same lines as Thai director Prachya Pinkaew’s 2003 martial arts hit Ong Bak, associated with taglines such as “no computer graphics, no stunt doubles, no wires.”

How about: stunning magic. Mind-bending tricks. No CGI.

Disclosure: I used to be an amateur magician. I still have a bag of tricks. I haven’t performed them for years. 

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One thought on “Pick a card, any card: reflections on magic in cinema and life as an amateur magician

  1. Laura Curtis

    I was sorta kinda keen to see this film. Disappointing to hear they’ve stuffed up their realism quotient.

    But anyway, how does the trick with the coloured cards work?!