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The Illusionists: The Auteur as Magician

By Fernando F. Croce on April 19, 2013

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Deceptive Pratice

Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay

About midway through Molly Bernstein’s Deceptive Practices: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, the eponymous magician-historian describes the art of sleight of hand as “the artifice of the gambler.” Later on, his friend David Mamet comments on the similarities between illusionism and dramaturgy in their capacity to manipulate audiences. It’s only fitting that a documentary about Jay, who now more than ever resembles cinema’s great trickster Orson Welles, would function as a reminder of the link between movies and magic. Truth and trickery have from the beginning been bedrock elements of film, less opposite facets than complementary ones: “Méliès was interested in the ordinary of the extraordinary, and the Lumière Brothers in the extraordinary of the ordinary,” Jean-Luc Godard was fond of saying, bridging the distance between the medium’s contrasting pioneers.

Hugo Martin Scorsese

Hugo

Indeed, Méliès himself was at the center of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo as a sort of faded cinematic conjurer, a forgotten wizard reduced to toy vendor when the realism of the Great War dimmed the wonder of his bag of tricks. Described by Charles Chaplin as an “alchemist of light,” Méliès was a professional magician who saw the embryonic silver screen of the new century primarily as a continuation and enhancement of stage enchantment. Many of his early shorts unfold as perennial carnival attractions like disappearing acts or escape-proof cabinets, but with an added delight taken in even the simplest filmic inventions. The theatrical proscenium remains, yet the stunts presented before it—a man vanishing into a box or pulling out his own head, a musician multiplying himself into an entire orchestra—give the sense of a mischievous artist using the camera to stretch the stage this way and that before his audiences’ eyes.

Dr. Mabuse the Gambler

Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler

The notion of the magician’s manipulation of the audience (“Now you see it, now you don’t”) took on diabolical intimations as cinema began to increasingly reflect the world’s darkening moods. In Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (22), the titular villain is a protean underworld kingpin whose malicious arsenal borrows many an item from the magician’s cabinet. At one point, Mabuse disguises himself as a mentalist and, using mass hypnosis, has a roomful of spectators hallucinating visions that literally step off the stage. Another filmmaker fascinated by the sideshow milieu, Tod Browning is no less self-referential in The Show (27), perhaps the most explicit of his allegories of film as a carny’s art. John Gilbert stars as a Hungarian lothario whose “Palace of Illusions” frames the melodrama as a series of ominously changing camera views, culminating in a mock-severed head being served as the curtain comes down. More and more, the question is posed: What if the illusionist is a fiend?

The Magician Max Von Sydow

The Magician

Fast-forward three decades, and Ingmar Bergman offers another query: What if the illusionist is a disturbed director? In The Magician (58), Bergman stand-in Max Von Sydow stars as a mute traveling conjurer whose tricks (levitation, mesmerism, vision-projecting lanterns) are simultaneously his tools of creation and a smokescreen for his deep anxiety. Divided by the Swedish director’s conflicting impulses—a desire to construct a densely deceptive mise en scène that’s matched only by the desire to tear it down—the film is a dark comedy where the line between artist and fraud is a thin one indeed. It’s scarcely surprising that this figure—so in control of his technique, so hapless with his emotions—has repeatedly turned up to comic effect in the oeuvre of Bergman worshipper Woody Allen, ranging from the boy performer in Stardust Memories to the pompous charlatan in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion to the wizened showman in Scoop.

Curse of the Jade Scorpion Woody Allen

Curse of the Jade Scorpion

Incidentally, Scoop is one of three 2006 films dealing with magicians. The others, Neil Burger’s The Illusionist and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, both posit their protagonists’ sleight of hand as misleading spectacles and as metaphors for slippery cinematic storytelling. For the screen’s great magic show, however, we must turn back to Orson Welles, still one of the medium’s most complex and beguiling sorcerers. Magic acts were just one side of this gargantuan virtuoso's talents, yet they occupied his mind from Citizen Kane onwards, their legacy detectable in everything from the depth-of-field compositions that revealed a distorted world in his own image, which wavered from Shakespearean luminary to smarmy talk show guest. In that sense, his signature work may be F for Fake (75), in which shards of sarcastic documentary and philosophical rumination are flashed like so many rabbits pulled out of a hat. In this labyrinth, Welles presents the audience with the real “magic of the movies,” not a hoary cliché of facile marvel but a multifaceted blur of obfuscation and revelation.

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