Louis Leterrier’s Now You See Me is currently open in the US, and opens in the UK on July 3rd. It stars Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher and Woody Harrelson as a team of magicians that perform in Las Vegas, wowing audiences whilst simultaneously robbing banks, sharing the proceeds with their audience. Whilst there have been numerous movies about witches, wizards and other fantasy magicians, there have been surprisingly few set around theatrical magicians.
Now You See Me isn’t the year’s first, though. Oz: The Great and Powerful featured Oz as a shady stage magician who had to use these skills to defeat an evil witch. There was more stage magic in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, a comedy telling the story of a duo of performing magicians who have a falling out. Whilst originally the tricks involved were going to be outrageous, impossible stunts, in the end David Copperfield was brought in as a consultant, and the tricks used in the final film were mostly practical. In theory this gave the film some credibility, but the laughs were lacking.
A similar British film explored very similar themes back in 2007. Magicians starred David Mitchell and Robert Webb as a duo who had split after the death of their assistant. The film was populated by people who could do simple sleight of hand tricks, and also revealed a couple of secrets that are pretty well know by now anyway. This too was a comedy, and again, was severely devoid of genuine humour. Both of these films have since been largely forgotten.
The most memorable magician of all time has been, predictably, the one most featured on screen. Everyone knows the name of Harry Houdini. He was predominantly an escapologist, but knew his fair share of magic tricks, and was in fact president of the Society of American Magicians for a number of years. What some may not know is that he starred in several films, two of which he produced, having set-up his own film production company the Houdini Picture Corporation. He also founded a film laboratory business, concentrating on a new film development process. These endeavours were not, however, particularly successful, and were subsequently closed down.
Houdini has been played on-screen several times since his death, by some quite well-known names. The likes of Tony Curtis, Harvey Keitel and Guy Pearce have all portrayed him in films. Some, such as 1953’s Houdini, were biopics of the popular magician. Others, like Ragtime, instead featured him as a supporting character. Theatrical magic was not really the focus of many of these movies, as they either focused mainly on the man, or were used as excuses to tell more off-beat stories, such as FairyTale: A True Story’s fairies in the garden storyline. Several of them did feature his famous Chinese water torture cell, but none, as far as I know, engineered the trick for real.
Houdini might have been the most famous stage magician, but the one considered the father of modern theatrical magic, and the man who influenced Houdini’s name, was Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Houdin is known as the magician who popularised grandiose theatrical stage magic. He made famous many tricks that are still well-known today.
2006’s The Illusionist, directed by Neil Burger, was based loosely on the short fictional story Eisenheim the Illusionist, which was clearly patterned after Houdin. It featured Edward Norton as Eisenheim, and there were several tricks of Houdin’s used in the movie. Star Norton did apparently learn some sleight of hand techniques for the movie, to lend it an air of authenticity. Unfortunately, for the big tricks, the opportunity to captivate the cinematic audience was thrown away. The biggest trick in the film is arguably the Orange Tree, based on one of Houdin’s most famous tricks. In this trick, Houdin could seemingly make an orange tree grow from a single orange pip. This was a genuine trick which used state of the art, for the time, mechanical technology. In the film, though, CGI was used. The moment the computer generated tree starts to grow, the film loses you as an admiring audience. If done for real, with no camera trickery, it would have made a real impact, and lent the film that all important air of mystique and credibility. Aside from this, though, it is an interesting film, with some clever twists.
The Illusionist, though, was somewhat overshadowed by the ‘other’ magic film of 2006, The Prestige. Christopher Nolan’s film was based loosely on Christopher Priest’s novel of the same name. It starred Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as warring magicians, which seems to be the device of choice for theatrical magic movies. Both actors display some magical prowess on screen, but the big tricks are the product of camera trickery, and in the end, a science-fiction plotline, which again robs the film of the desired authenticity.
The problem with all these magic films is that whilst stage magic is seemingly at their core, it isn’t used in an impressive way. It is, obviously, very difficult to make magic tricks look impressive on a movie screen. They either need to be done for real, centre camera, with no cuts or visual effects. Or, the audience needs to be shown how the trick was done, in a convincing way. Without any of this, it is hard for an audience to be impressed. We know that impossible tasks can appear to be made possible onscreen relatively simply, thanks to computer graphics and camera tricks.
Doing tricks practically on set requires the actors to learn the method, and to be competent enough at the method to do it in one take, whilst simultaneously looking good. Real stage magicians obviously spend years of dedication to get to this level, so this is clearly very difficult. Showing or explaining how the tricks were done on-screen obviously breaks the biggest code in the magic business. Film producers would not be very popular with real world performers if all their secrets were displayed to millions of cinema-goers.
The Prestige is, arguably, the best ‘magic’ film of all that I have mentioned so far. It is, though, a film about obsession more than it is about actual magic. Theatrical magic is used as a plot device to tell a story of spite, hatred, and single-minded purpose. For this reason, it can’t really be considered ‘the’ definitive film about magic. So does such a film exist?
There IS a film that has magic written all over it. Theatrical magic, movie magic, and the magic of wonder and discovery. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo revolves around the story of a man name George Méliès. Méliès was a stage magician who transitioned into making movies. He began with elaborate theatrical magic productions, until he saw one of the Lumière brothers’ films. He became interested in the medium, purchasing cameras and producing films to use as part of his theatrical productions. He used his expertise in magic, and the technological discoveries he made in his pursuit of knowledge, to create some of the very first visual effects on film. He pioneered such effects as multiple exposures, time lapse photography and hand-painted colour, and made some of the earliest films, some of which are still talked about today.
Hugo may not portray much in the way of theatrical magic, but it serves a far more important purpose. It shows us that movies ARE magic. Film making was born out of theatrical magic. It is the evolution of the art form in many ways, the legacy of the great stage magicians of the past. Méliès’ special effects were adaptations of magic tricks and concepts. Throughout the relatively short history of the movie medium, magic has been made on a daily basis. From something as simple as the matte-painted backdrops that created the illusion of a magic land in The Wizard of Oz, to the computer graphics and 3D layering that made Avatar possible, every movie uses trickery. It is the art of making the impossible possible, of creating a whole world that does not actually exist. Magicians wowed audiences by showing them things they had never seen before. Movies do exactly the same thing.
Whilst movies are certainly responsible for the diminishing popularity of magic, possibly the biggest nail in the coffin is the information age in which we live. In its golden days, magic completely mystified the people. Nowadays, the secret is out. We are no longer able to be fooled, to believe that magic actually exists. Children can buy magic sets in the toy stores, and there are plenty of magic books available in the book shop. Even some of the world’s most famous stage magicians, such as Penn and Teller, feature revealing secrets as part of their act. The mystique, so important in the golden days of performance magic, has simply disappeared.
Sadly, some of the cinematic wonder has also disappeared. The movie audience is no longer wowed by visual effects. Special effects are discussed in interviews, and on the internet, and the secrets of practical effects are revealed on the special features of DVDs and Blu-rays. By holding the knowledge of how the trick is done, we are robbed of the mystery. The rise of CGI has changed the cinematic experience from one of wonder to one of apathy. If the impossible seems to have been made possible on screen, we know it was most likely the work of a computer. This summer, instead of believing a man can fly, you’ll believe that someone can use a computer to make it appear so.
So why is there such a lack of great magic movies? I don’t know. The history of magic can be interesting, and some films have been close to offering something truly compelling. I think really, though, it’s for the same reason there are so few films about Bigfoot. We don’t believe in it. We know stage magicians cannot really perform miracles, and whilst it can still be a sight to behold in person, on film it does not, and probably cannot, have the same effect.
There is still movie magic, though. Next time you watch a film, whether it be Now You See Me, Man of Steel, or whatever else, you will be witnessing that magic, and the legacy of those pioneering stage magicians. With the increasing over-reliance on computer graphics, though, that legacy may also soon be diminished. Enjoy the magic, whilst it lasts.