A Short History of Magic
I saw Ross Skiffington once at a dive up in King’s Cross. He was playing to about twenty people and I was called up to assist with a card trick. At a given moment I heard a slight engine whirr and the designated card popped up. Not much of a trick, I thought, from my vantage point. But he is a brilliant prestidigitator who can confound with all sorts of dazzling exercises. His name keeps popping up as a technical advisor in theatre pieces calling on one of the cast to display a magician’s skills. This year alone he has advised Pamela Rabe in the STC’s production of The Cherry Orchard and Paula Arundell and Socratis Otto in the Ensemble’s production of Are You There?
More alarming was a call up on a boat doing a desultory trip down to the mouth of the Yangtze from Shanghai. The return journey featured a cabaret show and the inevitable magician. Chinese magicians are quite brilliant and an incident/hommage in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige shows one at his best. The magician on the boat was working very close to the crowd and he produced a small guillotine and promptly sliced a carrot in half. Then I was instructed to stick my finger in the gap and the crowd eagerly awaited the moment when it might be hacked off. I didn’t. Just as the magician was about to slip the mechanism I heard a click but still pulled my finger out before the blade did or didn’t come down. This caused hoots of laughter. We tried again. By this time I’m contorting my face in fear. Again I heard the click and pulled my finger out. The crowd is reduced to hysterics. Finally click, finger, blade falls, finger intact. Triumph. Buckets of applause. Back at the hotel a stranger accosts me in the foyer and calls my ‘act’, deliciously extending the suspense of the moment, the funniest thing he has ever seen on a stage.
In Las Vegas I went to see Siegfried and Roy. Buying my ticket only a few hours before the show ($99, price includes two drinks) I get put on the side. “Where are you from? says the attractive usherette. “Australia’. ‘Gee that’s a long way to come. Maybe we could find you a better seat’. At that moment, I learned later I was supposed to say ‘Gee, could you?’ and slip her ten bucks. I didn’t, so she didn’t. But the show was astonishing right down to one elaborate sequence where they claim they are going to show you a trick from behind so that you can see how it’s done. They don’t of course, just dazzle you even more. I learned later that one woman who got called up for a trick and, for a seeming eternity, then doesn’t notice a white tiger about a foot away from her is all part of the show. Most people never pay the $99 (includes two drinks) so they don’t realize the whole show is a clockwork apparatus and things like calling up random strangers from the audience is a definite no-no. That’s an aspect of magic acts that is discussed in The Prestige as well. Magicians practicing the catching the bullet in their teeth act will never forgive the film-makers.
The movie spends quite some time explaining much of the magician’s armory of distracting devices, especially bits and pieces about concealed bottoms, trap doors and fake locks. The fanciful element of the story is in the involvement of the genius Nicola Tesla, Edison’s rival in developing uses for electricity, and his invention of a means of de-materialising matter and transporting it elsewhere. That was the gravamen of the quite thrilling narrative written by Christopher Priest, a novelist who trades in the mysterious and the unsettling.
The central plot trick itself stares at you and it seemed to me that I picked it up too early. Earlier than the film-maker intended anyway. That doesn’t distract that much from the story. What does distract is that you don’t get the full sense of Danton’s obsession. It becomes a by the numbers retelling and the bland face and even blander accent of Hugh Jackman doesn’t serve it well. Strange too that Jackman doesn’t even attempt any sort of English accent and you cant quite work out the origins of his character. Christian Bale is called on to do Cockney and mostly succeeds but you have to wonder why these two actors had to be chosen over other Brit stars. Robert Carlyle might have been astounding in the Danton part and someone uglier and more menacing would have done better than Bale. That would have given the film a darker edge, a meaner tone, something that reacts better with Michael Caine’s role as a master manipulator. And I have to wish that people would stop casting Scarlett Johansson in unsuitable roles as well. After this one and The Black Dahlia she’s in danger of getting herself lost in so-called prestige (oops) productions which cause her to lose credibility. Lana Turner would never have taken this role. Still the story itself remains great. Nolan’s rendering of it is mediocre. He seems like the boy who got called up from the audience and flubbed the trick, much to the real magician’s consternation.