Monthly Archives: October 2013

Criss Angel, Jackass.

I have never exactly been a fan of Criss Angel.  I have been willing to give him his props.  I mean, lets face it, the guy is on TV and he has a permanent theater at The Luxor in Las Vegas.  Clearly he’s doing something right.

But not for me.

He’s been doing magic all his life, but when he first really rose above the sight line that I am aware of, he was doing very heavy, very dark presentations.  He had a really strong “Heavy Metal/Goth” vibe going and he was doing things that had a lot of scary themes and graphic visuals in it.  And, again, to give him credit, he was pretty darn good at it.

He just didn’t appeal to me, though I know in those early days of his broader public appeal my apprentice really did seem to enjoy what he was doing.

When he got to his “MindFreak” days on TV, he was doing each episode as a collection of magic effects ending with some really big escape stunt after the last commercial break.  Which, of course, was being hyped through the entire show.  A reasonable formula, but since I generally am not interested in escapes as magic (I like escapes I just don’t think they are ‘magic’), I was rarely interested in the last part of the show.  As the escapes got bigger they didn’t really get better, they just got bigger. And in some cases, stupider.   (Surviving inside a crate with some C4.  Really?)

This latest television series he is doing is called “BeLIEve”.  Yes with the funky caps.  Notice that the word “believe” contains the word “lie”.  Yes, there is a deeper philosophical and non-performance magic related discussion there, but I’m going to stay away from it for now.  You’re welcome.

The point of “BeLIEve” is that he is attempting things which are supposed to be done purely through physical training and skill.  I’m not sure what the means exactly since that is just as valid a definition for what we magician’s do as well.  The big point is that he’s supposedly doing all this stuff “for real” instead of using any trickery.  For example the first episode, called “Blind”, saw Criss walking a suspended beam 30 feet in the air which had a two food wide gap in the middle he would have to traverse while blindfolded.

He kept making a big deal about the idea that “no one had ever done this before” but blindfolded tightrope walkers have been around for a long time.  His “gap” in the middle is an interesting twist, but not exactly something I would call spectacularly different.  But again, credit where credit is due, this is an interesting spin on classic circus skills and would require some pretty serious training.

In fact we know it took serious training because Criss had help from a friend who does a tightrope act for Cirque Du Soleil.  Well, “friend”, sure.  Or maybe a guy they hired, I don’t know.  And boy did we get to see all the training.  His big deal sticking point was that he was absolutely determined to do this stunt without a safety harness.  So through the whole episode we heard “no harness! no harness! no harness! wah, they’re going to make me wear a harness” which seemed utterly ingenuous to me because I just can’t imagine any place that would let him do the stunt without safety gear in place, or that The Luxor, which has invested millions of dollars in Criss as a property would let him do something that would truly be that stupid.  So the harness thing seemed very trumped up to me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were also all the ‘tricks’ that Criss did while the episode was working it’s way up to it’s big stunt finally (sound like the formula is familiar?  Yeah, I noticed it right away too.)

The thing about “street magic” on TV is that it isn’t really street magic.  It’s safer to say that it’s impromptu magic.  Everyone you see on the TV already knows that they are about to see some magic.  They’ve already been approached by a manager, in some cases they’ve taken the time to get some paperwork signed, and generally speaking they have been prepared to see some magic performed.  Let’s face it, if suddenly a camera crew appears around you than you probably know something is up.

At best you can say that they may have no advanced knowledge beyond “hey kids!  Let’s watch the magician and we’re going to be on TV!”

Watching the stuff I watched however, I find it almost impossible to believe that any of those tricks being done were anything other than staged effects with shills everywhere.  The production value of the presentations made me absolutely convinced that these people were on the payroll.  And that’s to bad, because much of what we saw during the “MindFreak” episodes was actually much closer to “street magic” then what we are seeing in “BeLIEve.”

So, we get to the end of “Blind”, Criss has walked the I-Beam of Death(TM) and now it’s on to the next episode.

The next episode, “Cement Grave”, is clearly some variation on a buried alive effect.  The crappy tricks are still staged crappy tricks.  The artificial two week deadline to get the effect ready is over hyped.  And Criss engages in “training” himself to be able to do the things he needs to do, one of which is be able to hold his breath for an extended period of time.

And here it is, folks.  Here is why I now think Criss Angel is a total Jackass.  Every nice thing I said before, every inch of wiggle room I gave with regards to “well, he’s good but just not my taste for entertainment” goes flying out the window.

You see, in order to train himself to be able to hold his breath for extended periods of time Criss gets in contact with an ex-Navy Seal buddy of his and he has himself water boarded.

That’s right, Criss Angel is getting himself water boarded ON F*CKING TV!!!!!

This abhorrent, disturbing, despicable form of TORTURE is being used as a “training” method to get ready for A F*CKING ESCAPE STUNT!!!!  How many people across the country were suddenly having to turn away from this horrible site they were suddenly confronted with?   Because there was no warning.  One minute we’re listening to Criss talk about getting some help to learn how to hold his breath and the next minute we suddenly looking at TORTURE!!!

WTF?????

Okay, maybe, just maybe, there was a reason the could be given to justify this as a method for training oneself to hold their breath.  I don’t believe that such a reason is likely to be valid since I know there are plenty of far less violent ways to train yourself to do the same thing.  But let’s just say that this was the method that had to be used.  Let’s suppose that all other avenues were exhausted and there was a damn good reason to use water boarding.

It doesn’t change the simple fact that water boarding is a terrible thing.

It doesn’t change the fact that you would have to be a blind ass moron to not be aware of the impact it’s had on us in terms of legal questions and psyche questions.

It doesn’t change the fact that the choice to put this on television was a deliberate one.

There is only one reason that someone would stoop so low as to put that on TV as “entertainment.”  Shock value.  Well, I’m shocked alright.

And for that particular bit of transgression Criss Angel has dropped to the very bottom of the heap for me.

I am done.

Halloween Decorations

Last year I was a lot more active about presenting things to think about that were wonderful items for Halloween.  This year I have been lax.  But not to long ago I did find myself in a “Spirit” store and they had on display a great many animated items.  Far more than I have seen in previous years which made me wonder if this year was just a boom in animated decorations or if I had been missing them all these years.

Regardless there were some pretty amazing ones, but this one is my favorite.  Given how much I love the old fashion fortune telling machines this is based on, there really was no contest.

Meet Madam Morbida!

Stage Fright

At GWW I taught my class on Theatrical Sklls for Bards.

One of the things we talked about is “stage fright” and how to deal with it.  I offered up an exercise on how to deal with it, but this video is a great introduction to understanding what it actually is.  I think I’ll be modifying my notes a bit to refer to this understanding so that in the future I can offer up some additional help on how to deal with it.

Sexuality in Magic and The Picture I’ll Never Look At Again

cups and ballsEver have one of those moments where your perception of something changes so drastically that you will never be able to see it the same way again? Yes, you have, whether you realize it or not. A simple example would be if you were to try and go back in your mind to a time before you knew that 1+1=2. There was such a time, but once you learned about numbers and math your fundamental perception changed so completely that you simply can’t imagine going back anymore. You can’t unlearn what you have learned.

Take a look at this picture at the beginning here because I’m going to come back to that perception later on.

Art, really of any kind, will touch on some pretty powerful themes in order to be “art.” Every real artist I know or have read about seems to share that perspective.

Sex and sexuality are very definitely powerful themes to touch on.

My apprentice and I have discussed this on any number of occasions. We’ve considered the idea that magic is sexist or that certain effects in magic may be more masculine and some may be more feminine. We covered the idea that even certain props might be more “masculine” or more “feminine.”

The most obvious, of course, is the magic wand, a very definitely phallic symbol. And in fact, from a historical perspective that is precisely what it is; phallic. Especially when one realizes that it descends from ancient ritual practices in the hands of “wise women” and “priestesses” and was often used in acts of “sexual magic” such as a way to test virginity. (1)

A perhaps less obvious example would be the cups used in The Cups and Balls. However the cup or chalice is recognized in ancient cultures to be representative of the womb.

In modern magic there are many presentations which essentially “victimize” women. Pretty much any “Sawing” illusion for example. Or really any illusion where a woman is seen as a manipulated focus of the magician’s power. But the same focus might be considered sensual more than exploitative.

I give you, as an example, one of my all time favorite David Copperfield illusions.

You decide, is it sensual, is it manipulative, is it something else? (Feel free to respond in the comments below.) I will say that my reasons for calling this one of my favorites is not because of the “sexuality/sensuality” aspects of it, but rather the technological aspect, ie the use of water to provide a kind of “framework” for how the levitation is accomplished. For me it is a visually stunning example and perhaps in that respect does qualify it as “sensual.”

But there are examples out there which take things way to far. The below clip is not for young viewers. It does contain nudity and a certain amount of crudity.

(I apologize but this video doesn’t embed here as it’s not from YouTube.  This will open another window instead.  Stripper Girl Magic Trick.)

I find this example to be overtly terrible. But necessary to the point I’m working my way up to. (Again, feel free to leave comments below.)

While it seems easy to find examples of sex and sexuality badly portrayed or addressed, examples of a more positive nature seem to be fewer and further between. I am not opposed to the use of sex and sexuality in my art. Let me make that perfectly clear.

As long as that use is done with the kind of respect I think the topic deserves. And I will go even further and say that while I do not like the above video of the female magician, it is entirely possible that she sees this performance as some kind of ironic statement on sex and sexuality. If she does I’m not clear on what it might be, but it is possible.

Regardless she clearly feels perfectly comfortable with her performance.

Now, admittedly “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” (thank you Dr. Freud) and a wand is just a stick and a cup is just a cup. In fact that’s true most of the time for most magicians in my experience. Certainly it was true some twenty years ago when I took the above picture.

That picture was taken by the same photographer who took the pictures at my wedding. It was studio time that we got as part of the package. The arrangement of the cups and balls on the table in front of me is the final arrangement in the routine that I do. I have always looked at it as a nice display, well balanced, well arranged. And for twenty years it has remained just that and nothing more to me.

Today I can no longer see it that way.

A person who had also been seeing this picture for roughly twenty years, and who had been seeing it that same way all along, had a sudden change in perspective triggered by some errant thought.

So now take a look at that picture again with the filter (or lack of filter?) that the concepts of sex and sexuality bring to mind. Do you see it? If you don’t I envy you.

But for me, I’ll never see that picture the same way again. At first I was deeply annoyed by that, but now I’m just philosophical about it. Clearly it sparked this post considering just the surface of what is ultimately a very interesting topic. There is a lot to be dug up in the midst of this mental minefield of art and sex.

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1 – The Magician’s Wand: A History of Mystical Rods of Power, Joe Lantiere

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