Magic Magazine

•December 7, 2008 • 4 Comments

acts-of-creation-article

Link to Article (PDF)

CNN Interview

•December 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Here is the link.

Something of interest…

•October 26, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Please check out a video-interview with me on http://itricks.com/news/?p=4929. Itricks is always a lot of fun to work with.

I also appear on The Magic News Wire’s podcase, where Dodd Vickers does a thorough job interviewing me about my career in magic and my new book. www.linkingpage.com

MAGIC, The Book

•October 21, 2008 • 4 Comments

Those who follow my work know that writing is my other passion. And a little under two years ago, I was given an incredible opportunity and an important responsibility. Workman Publishing (A Thousand Places to See Before You Die, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) approached me about a category-killer magic book.

I didn’t know what “category-killer” meant until I asked the folks at Workman. It’s a phrase coined by this company, and it’s a beautiful approach to business. When they release a title, they don’t only want it to be the best, but they want it to be more comprehensive, wide-ranging, and aesthetically beautiful than anything that has come before it. They want to produce books that will appeal for decades, and they want the consumer’s decision to be easy. When a category-killer is on the shelf next to its competitors, it has to stand out in every aspect. 

That’s a lot of pressure. MAGIC took round-the-clock work for over a year to write, and even more time during the editing phase. We shot over a thousand color photos and a two-hour DVD. And it hits bookstores this month.

The book is the beginner’s guide I wish I could have read. There’s an enormous difference between telling how a trick is done and teaching someone how to do a trick. Each of the 100 effects detailed in MAGIC is given ample space and photographs. The presentation, misdirection, and technique are all explained in great detail, alongside tidbits of magic theory and history: magic in the workplace, magic for teachers, impromptu magic, dinner table mysteries, and magic for children. Best of all, every book includes a DVD of me performing the effects all over New York City. 

I poured my heart into the book and I’m pleased with the results. If you or someone you know has an interest in magic, I feel certain they will enjoy this book. 

For more information on MAGIC, click HERE.

And look out, because a promotional book tour is bringing me to a city near you:

Tour Dates: MAGIC, The Book Tour…Visiting a City Near You!

Tues. Oct. 28: TORONTO, ON: Lecture for Magicians

Weds. Oct. 29: TORONTO, ON: Noon book signing at Costco – Evening book signing at Pages Bookstore 

Nov. 7-9: Daytona Magic Convention

Monday, Nov. 10: NEW YORK CITY: AM media & 7:30pmET book-signing at Barnes and Noble

Tuesday, Nov. 11: WASHINGTON DC: AM media, 7:00pmET book-signing at Olsson’s

Wednesday, Nov. 12: NASHVILLE: AM media, 7:00pm evening book-signing at Davis-Kidd

Thursday, Nov. 13: ATLANTA: Lecture for Magicians

Friday, Nov. 14: ATLANTA: AM media, 6:00pmET book-signing at Borders

Sunday, Nov. 16: CHICAGO

Monday, Nov. 17: CHICAGO: AM media 

Tuesday, Nov. 18: CHICAGO: 4:00pm book-signing at The Book Stall

Wednesday, Nov. 19: MILWAUKEE: AM media, 7:00pm book-signing @ Harry Schwartz 

Thursday, Nov. 20: DETROIT: Lecture for Magicians

Friday, Nov. 21: DETROIT, 7:00pm book signing at Borders

Sunday, Nov. 23: PHILADELPHIA

Monday, Nov. 24: PHILADELPHIA: AM media, 7:00pmET book-signing at Chester County Books

Tuesday, Nov. 25: CINCINATTI: AM media, 7:00pmET book-signing at Books & Co

Friday, Nov. 28: CLEVELAND 7:00pmET book signing at Barnes & Noble

Sunday, Nov. 30: MINNEAPOLIS: Lecture for Magicians

Monday, Dec. 1: MINNEAPOLIS: AM media, evening book-signing

Tuesday, Dec. 2: KANSAS CITY:

Wednesday, Dec. 3: KANSAS CITY: AM media, evening book-signing

Sunday, Dec. 7: DENVER

Monday, Dec. 8: DENVER: AM media, evening book-signing event at Tattered Cover

Tuesday, Dec. 9: DENVER: Lecture for Magicians

Wednesday, Dec. 10: SEATTLE, AM Media, 7:00pm PT book-signing at University Book Store

Thursday, Dec. 11: TACOMA: Lecture for Magicians

Live in the UK

•October 21, 2008 • Leave a Comment

So I spent all of April and May in the UK on an unbelievably intense lecture tour: over thirty lectures in as many cities. I had an absolute blast; thanks to everyone who came out to see me. And I wish to express sincere gratitude to Kerry Skorah, my agent there, for arranging everything so perfectly.

On that tour, Owen Packard (an incredibly talented former rock star turned magician…check out earthtone9) approached me about recording my current lecture and releasing it on DVD to magicians worldwide. This lecture—all about the creative process and, specifically, methods—is something I am quite proud of. And Owen and his crew followed me all over bloody England (imagine me saying that with a perfect British accent) to capture what the lecture is all about. 

The format is really fun, and you get a sense from the editing that Owen still has rock videos on the brain…always a good thing. Throughout the tour I had a diary camera, and he would text bizarre questions to me on my mobile (that’s what we Brits call a phone). Anyway, that’s how the interview segments were shot. Clever idea, Owen!

Big Blind Media is releasing the DVD soon, and I hope you enjoy it. You can purchase the DVD from me directly HERE. I am touched by all the advance praise—these guys are all heroes of mine, and that they say flattering things about my lecture is extremely gratifying:

“You will see Joshua at his very best!  A clever, likeable, and entertaining magician. The tricks are good but the lessons he teaches are even better.” 

-Bill Malone

“In an overflowing sea of magical DVDs, this one stands high above the rest because of its tremendous value, its excellent content and it’s just plain fun to watch!” 

-Daryl 

“I’m very impressed. The tricks and explanations are good, but this DVD shows the off-camera side of Joshua that has not been captured on video before. Better than going to a lecture; it’s like spending a couple of days with him.  Bravo.” 

-John Bannon

“Joshua Jay is the complete package: original, skillful, engaging and modest. The anti-Criss Angel!” 

-Greg Wilson

“Some people perform magic and some people are magic. Very few people have both of these qualities. Josh is one of them! Brilliant stuff!” 

-Wayne Dobson

“Joshua Jay is one of the very best magicians of his generation and this DVD underlines why… along with why he really shouldn’t attempt the English accent!” 

-Jon Allen

BUY METHODS IN MAGIC, LIVE IN THE UK

Two Awards

•October 21, 2008 • 2 Comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello! After a long, busy summer spent performing shows, doing lectures and designing products, I’m back in New York City and will be updating the site with regularity starting…now.

This is overdue, but here goes:

 I want to publicly thank PRIMIO MAGIA, a Latin American committee of magicians. I was nominated for, and then won “Best International Performance in Latin America” for my set in Lima, Peru last November. I was given an award by INKA MAGIC at that performance, and was deeply moved by the honor. Imagine my surprise, then, at being singled out and recognized for that performance at the international awards ceremony in Buenos Aires. I wasn’t able to attend the event, but my friend Gusavo Raly accepted the award on my behalf, and they aired an acceptance speech we filmed earlier (my apologies for the bad Spanish). Thanks to everyone involved; I was truly touched.

U.K. Tour

•March 18, 2008 • 6 Comments

I am both excited and apprehensive about my first U.K. tour (apprehensive only because of the length and scope of the tour…two months long). I’m particularly excited to meet all the magicians from England, Scotland, and Ireland I’ve corresponded with but never met face to face. I’m also excited to bring my latest lecture to new audiences. I hope to see many of you there!

Here is the latest roster, perfectly planned by agent Kerry Scorah. For more information about a specific lecture day and time, contact her at kerryscorah@mac.com.

Sunday 6th April – Workshop Cardiff

Monday 7th April – Lecture Cardiff

Tuesday 8th April – Lecture Bournemouth

Wednesday 9th April – Lecture Winchester

Thursday 10th April – Lecture Surrey

Friday 11th April – Lecture Bristol/Bath 

Monday 14th April – Lecture in Portsmouth

Thursday 17th April  – Budapest Hungary, Joker Magic Convention

Thursday 24th April – Workshop Wellingborough

Friday 25th April – Isle of Mann Lecture

Saturday 26th April – Isle of Mann workshop (in the morning)

Sunday 27th April – Fly back from Isle of Mann

Monday 28th April  – The Magic Circle Lecture

Tuesday 29th April – Lecture Coventry

Wednesday 30th April – Workshop in afternoon and lecture in evening Scarborough

Thursday 1st May – Hull for a lecture and a workshop.

Friday 2nd May – Ireland Convention

Tuesday 6th May – Fly back from Ireland

Wednesday 7th May – Lecture Wolverhampton

Thursday 8th May – Lecture in Manchester

Friday 9th May – Lecture in Edinburgh

Saturday 10th May – Free time in Scotland

Sunday 11th May – Free time in Scotland

Monday 12th May – Lecture Chester

Tuesday 13th May – Lecture Birmingham

Wednesday 14th May – Workshop and lecture in Bolton

Thursday 15th May – Lecture London International

Friday 16th May – Lecture in LSM (held in Davenports London)

Monday 19th May – Workshop and Lecture Leicester

Tuesday 20th May – Lecture in Blackpool

Wednesday 21th May – Lecture Zodiac Club 

Joshua Jay in GAMES Magazine!

•March 18, 2008 • 1 Comment

In the April, 2008 issue of GAMES Magazine, I perform an interactive magic trick for readers. That’s right…it’s an effect wherein you hold the deck and you pick your own card, but I still find it. Here’s an excerpt…

gamescover.jpg 

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Magic Films

•December 12, 2007 • 7 Comments

This essay is for visitors to my website who, like me, are fans of both magic and film, and who are curious about where the two genres intersect. Below you’ll find a brief survey of some magic films I enjoyed (and some that I didn’t)…so follow along and then get your Netflix on. Adapted from an article I wrote for Slate.

 

Watching 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. 

 

Most 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.)

 

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.

 

The List

 

Integrating magic and magicians into actual plots is a natural progression, but one that has been executed so obtusely that only a few are worth watching. My criterion is simple. I’ll point out a host of films that incorporate magic, magicians, or cons, and tell you which ones I enjoyed. Above all, I’m interested in good films, not films that involve good magic sequences. What follows is a brief survey meant to help you separate the magic from the tragic.

 

 

 

House of Games, 1987. Director David Mamet gets it, and he may be the only director who so intimately understands the element of deception in magic. This is due, in part, to his friendship and frequent collaboration with magician Ricky Jay. Jay costars in this film about cons, and while there is no overt magic present, deception is everywhere. We’re treated to cons so devious they’re worth recounting with friends…so watch the film with friends. House of Games captures both the grit and charm of the con man’s world, and every performance is spot-on (particularly Joe Montegna). For the best film you haven’t seen (or haven’t seen in twenty years), start here. 

 

The Sting, 1973. This classic con film is pure fun, and is noteworthy for the Scott Joplin soundtrack as well as the heralded reunion of Butch Cassidy stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman. But The Sting holds up well and speaks to my generation more than the much-heralded Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Like House of Games, no magician is present, but the element of deception is everywhere, and the film builds on many magic concepts. In a train car poker game scene, we’re treated to the hands of master manipulator John Scarne (who doubled for Newman’s hands), and this sequence alone is worth a month’s fee at Netflix. 

 

 

 

Penn and Teller Get Killed, 1989. Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, The Miracle Worker) directs what must be his most obscure film, a bizarre whodunit starring two of the world’s most intelligent magic performers as themselves. The film isn’t high art, nor even particularly engaging. But if you like Penn and Teller, it is amusing, and there are some clever visuals throughout. And for those who have never heard Teller speak, stay with it until the end. I love the poster and its tagline so much that an original (which was shockingly hard to track down) adorns my bedroom wall. 

 

 

 

Catch Me If You Can, 2002. Including this film is a stretch because no magic is present, and it isn’t exactly a con film, either. But it’s so damn charming and overlooked that I have to mention how much fun it is.

 

What makes this film fun has a lot to do with magic principles. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale, the real-life chameleon who masqueraded as a pilot, lawyer, doctor and professor before being apprehended in France with over four million dollars of stolen money. In every case, Abagnale used misdirection and presentations that feel like magic tricks. 

 

On a larger scale, the film has the feel of a good magic show, with layers of deception peeled back one by one to maximize both surprise and suspense. Steven Spielberg thought Abagnale like a magician, and comments on this often when he talks about Catch Me if You Can. This film is tailor-made for folks who like magic.

 

Méliès the Magician, 1997. In 1895, the Lumière Brothers stunned the world and secured their place in cinema history—and they did it in 46 seconds. Those 46 seconds were the first moving pictures, and they depicted workers leaving a factory. How incredible it must have been in the nineteenth century to see people living out their lives in a two-dimensional world.

 

Enter Georges Méliès. A mere three years later, Méliès departed from the workaday lives of ordinary people that the Lumière brothers had so thoroughly depicted. His films left the real world entirely and portrayed—for the first time visually—what people had only read in books. Trips to the moon, people changing into animals, men removing their own heads, explosions, and characters plummeting in freefall for minutes on end. He brought magic to the movies.

 

The more I learn about Méliès the more I like him. He was wildly talented: artist, actor, magician, director—and his innovations in film special effects cannot be overstated. That his output was so prolific and yet of such high quality is incomprehensible: 531 films in 18 years. And then he lost it all.

 

This man is appreciated in film circles, but he remains a footnote to the Lumière Brothers and their cinematographe. But to miss Méliès is to miss out on a great artist. Fortunately, I can recommend a fantastic source.

 

Méliès the Magician is a French documentary that has been capably translated into English. The DVD is a perfect Méliès sampler: there is an extensive documentary that explores his life, work, and methods in equal parts—and it draws on interviews with historians, magicians, family members, and special effects specialists. In the documentary, they break down Méliès’s The Music Lover (1903) shot by shot. His ingenuity with the archaic equipment of the time is genius. He ran the same film through the camera over twenty times so that he could multiply his own head, each one animated in a different way. 

 

The DVD also contains several of his films in their entirety, as well as a Méliès “show,” in which a narrator speaks over a score while the films play. This is particularly enlightening because this presentation is how Méliès intended the films to be screened. 

 

Méliès the Magician is densely packed with excerpts of films and magic tricks, as well as a thorough examination into his psyche (one historian contends that Méliès’s sexuality made him great, while another touts his style of filmmaking as baroque…it’s all very French). So while this DVD may not be fiction, every other film on this list owes Georges Méliès a tip of the top hat.

 

 

 

Terror Train, 1980. That David Copperfield is the greatest stage conjurer of our time is indisputable. This film—his only cinematic role, thank God—may be the worst magic movie of them all. The Eighties element is omnipresent; from the hair to the thrasher gore. The kitsch factor will appeal to those who like awesomely bad movies. For the rest of you, steer clear.

 

 

 

Scoop, 2006. Here Woody Allen plays a bumbling magician caught up in a murder mystery. This forgettable film is typical of Allen’s later output and the portrayal of magic is of limited interest.

 

Allen has flirted with magic all his life, and it’s evident in his body of work. There are cameos of a magician character in Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Shadows and Fog, Stardust Memories, and The Floating Lightbulb. In Everyone Says I Love You, no magician is present, but magic techniques are employed at the end, allowing Allen and Goldie Hawn to dance in midair, outside, in front of the New York skyline. I enjoyed all the above films to varying degrees, but Everyone Says I Love You is the best example of how magic techniques can be used sparingly to great effect.

 

In Scoop, Allen is spot-on as Splendini, a hapless magician with a quick wit and some really awful tricks. Verbosity and clumsiness are recurring traits in Allen’s characters, but they’re also foibles of all bad magicians. He even looks the part of an aging Vegas lounge magician, and his magic is bad in an entertaining way. But there’s an inside joke here that only the most observant magician could appreciate. In one scene, Allen’s character is performing card tricks for a group of Britain’s social elite. As he delivers his lines, watch the pack of cards in his hands carefully and you’ll notice that the card on the bottom of the deck keeps changing…red to black to red, etc. The deck is held loosely and there appears to be no movement of the hands whatsoever. Allen is executing a highly difficult maneuver with a pack of cards (which shall, in the interest of the art, remain nameless). It’s a sleight that takes years to master. The scary part? Allen does it really well.

 

 

 

The Illusionist, 2006. This film, by far the most enjoyable magic film in recent times, is directed by Neil Burger and stars Ed Norton as Eisenheim, a heartbroken Viennese magician who conjures the dead. 

 

Ed Norton’s Eisenheim is serviceable. The film relies mostly on computer graphics, but at one point, Norton produces several coins without any camera cutaways or hand doubles, and this is both impressive and important to establishing his magic skills on screen. Because magic tricks require such manual dexterity, actors who play magicians are in the same bind as actors who play professional pianists—they have to learn only enough to be convincing to the masses. What little magic Norton performed he performed well. And my thesis about lay audiences being able to detect the difference between sleight of hand and special effects is exemplified here. Nearly every reviewer commented on Norton’s abilities as a magician…above and beyond all the other actors and films that have endeavored to include magic in some form. How did they instinctively know that Norton’s sleights were of the flesh and not of the flash card? You can just tell. 

 

Magicians are disappointed to see CGI used in place of technique or apparatus, although at least here director Neil Burger has opted to recreate tricks that actually existed during the period. (For authenticity’s sake, he enlisted the help of two real magicians: Ricky Jay and Michael Weber.) 

 

One historically correct touch: Norton vanishes a borrowed handkerchief and causes it to appear, suspended by two butterflies (mostly computer graphics, of course). Interestingly, this trick was actually performed live in the mid-nineteenth century by Robert-Houdin (Houdini’s namesake). How did he do it without the aid of George Lucas? The secret is this magician’s hidden talent. Before he was a magician, Robert-Houdin was a master clockmaker. Without the aid of modern machinery, he was still able to construct a mechanical orange tree that blossomed on command, complete with floating butterflies to remove and display the handkerchief. While the apparatus is clearly gadgetry to today’s audiences, performing the illusion with a borrowed handkerchief (or finger ring, as in the original) continues to confound even magicians. So why did Burger decide to animate the trick digitally? Pulleys and piano strings are less efficient than Adobe’s latest software, and in The Illusionist, nothing is left to the imagination. The tree doesn’t just blossom—it sprouts leaves and grows before the audience’s eyes.  

 

 

 

The Prestige, 2006. That The Illusionist, Scoop, and The Prestige played in theaters side by side seems a coincidence on the verge of being a magic trick. And while The Prestige wins the prize for highest grossing, it must also be awarded the highest cheese factor of said magic trilogy.

 

The film is based on the Christopher Priest book of the same name, a fantasy novel rife with all the clichés we’ve come to expect. The Prestige manages to sample every obvious convention associated with magic except pulling a rabbit from a hat (but, I must add, there are dozens of top hats needlessly present here). There’s real magic and illusion, dueling magicians, and, of course, lives are imperiled during every performance. In the film, Michael Cain’s character—an unconvincing “master” magician—describes three phases to every magic trick: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. Each of these terms is, like the genre, fantasy. The definitions work fine, but they’re simply not terms magicians actually use. We do dissect tricks into three parts, though they bear little resemblance to the terms associated with The Prestige. (The movie cites The Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige. This most closely resembles the Effect, Presentation, and Method.) 

 

Dorky magic jargon aside, the film’s plot is contrived because it is based entirely on the overplayed and ridiculous notion that competition between two magicians can be resolved onstage. I mean, come on. This isn’t dueling banjos.

 

Simon the Magician, 1999. Suppose I told you about an idea I had for a film. My gritty, realistic murder mystery would be set in Paris. The French Police would bring in a magician from Hungary to solve the crime (the magician would be paid an astronomical sum—in advance, naturally). But while solving the crime, he would fall for a woman half his age and out of his league. Oh, and the film would end with our Hungarian magic crime fighter besting another magician in an underground escape.

 

Fortunately, I can’t take credit for this comic book non-plot; point the blame at director Ildiko Enyedi. I only wish I could have heard someone try and articulate this two-hour catastrophe when it was pitched to the studios. There seems to be no limit of time or money spent on embarrassing the tiny industry of magic. I mean, couldn’t they have called in a ventriloquist Hungarian crime fighter? 

 

 

 

Houdini, 1953. Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis star in this airy epic about magic’s most elusive star. The film is fine as an antique celluloid specimen, but since it is filled with historical inaccuracies and doesn’t hold up well to the times, I can’t find much to recommend. Even worse is Houdini, the forgettable 1998 made-for-television biopic. Houdini provides so much to work with: his obsession with fame, death, and his mother, his failed movie career, his struggle from rags to riches, and his incessant quest to expose spiritualism. He was friends with all the movers and shakers of his time, most notably his friend-turned-rival, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gripping books on Houdini are in good supply, but as yet, the films disappoint. 

 

 

 

Fairy Tale, A True Story, 1997. This curious film is good in spite of itself, and although he’s not the central character, Houdini (Harvey Keitel) plays a tangential yet vital role. The film’s subject matter and marketing are geared toward children, yet it touches on issues far more interesting to a mature crowd. And to fully appreciate the film, one must be familiar with the historical source material it draws from: Spiritualism, Houdini’s friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Cottingley Fairy Photographs (you know the ones, taken by two little girls in a field).

 

And that’s why Fairy Tale, A True Story is a great movie you’ve never heard of; what eight-year-old knows about the Cottingley Fairy Photographs? Or what Spiritualism is? It’s a pity because the film is clever on several levels. Elsie Wright and Francis Griffiths are two little girls from York who pose for pictures with fairies. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gets wind of the pictures and makes the girls and their fairies famous the world over. Houdini, ever the skeptic, tries to debunk the photos without offending anyone involved (which is not typically how he operated, but I’ll grant artistic license here). 

 

In a larger sense, the film is about what role magic plays in our lives in general, and with grieving in particular. Both Houdini and Doyle lost loved ones but coped in different ways. Doyle looked to Spiritualism for something that ultimately wasn’t there, while Houdini became obsessed with debunking everything and everyone in sight, and headed history’s most recent witch-hunt. And in the mix of all this, we’re never sure whether fairies exist in the minds of Elsie and Francis or in the forest they play in. Fairy Tale is a children’s movie, and just when the film borders on insightful it seems to revert back to what it is: a kid’s flick. But for accessible, substantial movie watching for the whole family, this is time well spent.

 

El Mago, 2004. The opening credits of the Mexican-produced El Mago flash by as an enthusiastic crowd gathers around Tadeo, our magician main character. The scene is well executed, and the score immediately captures the somber yet mysterious tone of the film. The street, the characters, the particular dialect of Spanish, the colors—it all has a Mexican flavor to it. But scarcely thirty seconds into the movie Tadeo starts his magic show, and the embarrassing display sucks away our suspension of disbelief. His coin trick is worse than your uncle’s, and then he removes a spectator’s bra with magic (trust me, this sounds way better than it looks on film). Although the performance of magic isn’t central to the plot, the overlooked tricks spoil the film.

 

Imagine how different Roman Polansky’s The Pianist would have been if every time Szpilman went to play the piano—this Jewish man’s only escape from Nazi Germany—he played “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” What if John Wayne held his pistol like a little girl? 

 

A filmmaker’s job is to give the illusion of authenticity, and magic appears to be a blind spot for nearly every director who attempts it. In the case of El Mago, an otherwise engaging downer of a film, Tadeo is less compelling—less believable—because he is such a clumsy magician. His character isn’t supposed to be a bumbling street performer, but that’s our perception because the magic is so bad. The film deals with Tadeo’s terminal illness, and we are positioned to feel for him. He’s a smart, troubled guy, but it’s hard to get past a magician who sucks this much. 

 

 

 

Shade, 2003. The best parts of this direct-to-video film are the opening credits and a deck-switching sequence in one of the first scenes. The magic you’re seeing during these sequences is world-class (performed by consulting magicians Jason England and Paul Wilson). The cinematography of this two-minute sequence is beautiful, particularly the moments shot upward from beneath a glass tabletop. We’re treated to a unique, exposed view of sleights from the best possible vantage points.

 

The film’s star power is trumped by the incomprehensibly bad casting all around with one notable exception. Jamie Foxx, Sylvester Stallone, Gabriel Burns, Stuart Townsend, Thandie Newton, Melanie Griffith—one wonders what each of them has any business doing in this movie (speaking of having no business being in this movie, look for your humble scribe in a cameo at the Magic Castle bar scene…I was doing a piece on the film for MAGIC and got to stand in one afternoon). Even B-Real took time away from his rap career with Cypress Hill to deliver a couple unconvincing lines as someone’s random bodyguard.

 

One of the film’s redeeming qualities is Hal Holbrook’s portrayal of Dai Vernon, one of magic’s most revered practitioners. Holbrook looked the part, and he told me during an interview on the set that he had actually met the real Dai Vernon in the sixties while researching another magic role. Holbrook nails Vernon—even his squeaky inflection is accurate—and it’s a pleasure to see one master play another so faithfully. 

 

The Great Buck Howard, 2008. Slated for 2008 and starring John Malkovich and Tom Hanks, the plot reportedly details the lives of a failing illusionist (Malkovich), his assistant-in-training, and the assistant’s reluctant father. This father-son duo will be played by Tom Hanks and his biological son Colin. Ricky Jay consults again, and I contend (from the limited information available) that this will be an interesting film.

 

Television Magic

 

 

 

Arrested Development, 2003 -2004. One of life’s great mysteries is how this delightful show struggled through three seasons, never obtaining the ratings or accolades it deserves.

 

The show remains some of the smartest writing in modern television, and Will Arnett’s self-centered magician character, Gob, is a fine example. Gob is the magician we all hope doesn’t come to next year’s Christmas party, and his painful brand of magic is enjoyable for all the wrong reasons. 

 

For magicians, Arrested Development is a sobering account of how we’re perceived by the public. And for the rest of the world, it’s just really, really funny.

 

X-Files: The Amazing Maleeni, Season 7, Episode 8, 2000. Ricky Jay and Jonathan Levitt play dueling magicians in this popular episode of X-Files. Consulted with Ricky Jay, the episode has some terrific anecdotal material (the title character Maleeni is a tribute to real-life magician turn-of-the-century Malini), and both magicians prove to be fine actors. But the show ultimately suffers the same pitfalls of most magic movies: feuding magicians, “real” hocus pocus, and tricks that involve killing people. They even manage to conjure an Exorcist moment when Maleeni’s head spins 360 degrees. 

 

In Conclusion

 

That’s the list. Not one of them gives us a realistic depiction of any magician in any time period—which is a pity. But so far, even the most imaginative screenplays about magic pale in comparison with this art’s seductive, secret history. There are real tales of love and death, of murder and mystery, and all without resorting to the kind of magic best left to J.K. Rowling. 

 

The magic fraternity’s highly secretive nature, while intriguing, is one of the biggest roadblocks screenwriters must overcome. Magicians aren’t always svengalis, championing women and besting rivals with sinister methods. At their best, magicians are artists, and each trick evokes a calculated emotion in the minds of the viewers. What motivates a particular style or trick is the “real” secret of magic. And these real secrets will remain mysterious until someone has the courage to dig deeper than “How did he do that?” and ask the question magic scholars have pondered since Merlin: “Why did he do that?”

Latest Update

•December 10, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Thanks for the steady flow of traffic, friends, and thanks to web guru Vito Sabsay for his tireless efforts to make this site run, including all the new updates. Let me fill you in.

 

New Videos: Nobody was more surprised than I was at the video clip of my one-man show on youtube. But hey, it’s cool. And now it’s online, HERE. You’ll also find a few other performance clips.

 

New Photos: As some of you know, one of my other passions is photography. And since magic has brought me to 55 countries, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to photograph many of the world’s most interesting offerings. I’ve updated this section to share what I’m up to (besides magic).

 

Reviews are In: Thanks to magicians all over the world who patronized this site for the release of Session and Talk About Tricks. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive feedback and traffic here, and the positive reviews in all the major journals. And at the moment, Session is leading the official Magic Café poll for Book of the Year. 

 

Talk About Tricks

 

“The amount of good to great close-up tricks contained in Talk About Tricks…is staggering.”

MAGIC Magazine, October 2007

 

“There’s so much interesting magic on this set that you are certain to find a couple of items you’ll like to do and more than a few you like to watch. Add to that the bits of finesse that you really must learn, and the exceptional performances, and you have on of the best video offerings in the last few years. Buy this.” 

M-U-M, The Society of American Magicians Magazine, October 2007

 

“This three-disc in one box set has so much bang for the buck that I’m not even going to try to list everything I believe makes this an excellent value. There are ‘commercial’ selections ready to drop into your repertoire, ‘magician’ items that you can fry your club buddies with, and sleights and moves to enhance your abilities and existing work.”

Genii, November 2007

Session

 

“The effects explained show a deep respect for the craft of magic, and a willingness to do what needs to be done to create an effect…There is something to be said for knowing where an artist is coming from before you begin to explore his work for yourself. This book not only rewards that effort, it encourages it. If you think you’d like this book, you will like this book.”

M-U-M, The Society of American Magicians Magazine, November 2007

 

“Joshua Jay has proven himself, in these books and his monthly MAGIC magazine tricks column, to be an excellent writer and student of magic, as well as a good magician.  I look forward to more from him.”

The Magic Circular, November 2007

 

For specials and ordering information, click HERE.

 

Tour Dates: There are new dates posted, here and in the tour section. And, I’m happy to announce to magicians that 2008 will present two large tours. The first is a Western US swing in February, and the other is a whopping two months of touring in the U.K (April and May). More on these tours later, but here’s a list of recent and upcoming dates.

 

February 2008

 

5: Searcy, Arkansas

6: Tulsa, Oklahoma

9: Albuquerque, New Mexico

11: Tucson, Arizona 

12: Phoenix, Arizona 

13: Las Vegas, Nevada

16: Long Beach, California

25: San Diego, California

26: Irvine, California

27: Studio City, California

March 2008

3: Fresno, California

4: Sacramento, California

5: San Francisco, California