Friday, January 25, 2008

Magic and the TV world

"There’s a good deal in common between the mind’s eye and the TV screen, and though the TV set has all too often been the boob tube, it could be, it can be, the box of dreams." - Ursula K. Le Guin

There is a belief. One that has become a fiercely held magic doctrine. One that I have held onto fiercely myself. The best way to see magic is to see it live. That is it. In person trumps Television. Doesn’t compare. Nope. Not the least.

Given the choice. Live performance.

Have you been waiting for the “but”? Yeah, me too. Recently, I’ve been deep into two seemingly unrelated books that have made me reexamine my long held beliefs. The first is Performing Dark Arts, A Cultural History of Conjuring by Michael Mangan; the other is Words that Work by Dr. Frank Lutz. (Both are good reads, the first for an interesting take on the history of magic, the second with valuable advice on the use and misuse of words in politics, business, and life.)

In chapter seven of Dark Arts, Mangan covers life, death and the meaning of liveness. While he has many, more points than I will cover here. The first that I do want to look at is that for the past 30 or so years, if you asked the public the name of a magician, the magician they would name made their career on television. It can be said the even Houdini’s popularity today can be because of his exposure on television.

The second is a point of Philip Auslander. “Auslander’s point is that while live performance and the mass media are rivals...contemporary live performance seeks to replicate television, video, and film and also incorporates media technology to such an extent that the live event itself becomes a product of media technologies.”

While reading this I read this in Words: “It is an interesting phenomenon to watch television audiences at live studio tapings in Hollywood or New York. Those older than fifty will inevitably watch the actual performance, even if the actors are far away and partially obscured by cameras or lighting. But those younger than forty will watch the performance through the television monitors, even when the monitors and high above them and the actors nearby. Why? Because for younger audiences, it’s what comes through the television itself, not the performance, that defines the meaning of live. You can see this at sporting events as well. Younger fans watch the action on the “jumbotron” monitor rather than focusing on the game itself.”

TV has become the new reality.

Yet, I do have some reassurance. Every day some comes into the store and talks my language. They tell me that they want a magician do magic close-up, right in front of them rather than being separated from it, either by stage or by screen.
Of course, right after that someone comes in and asks if that Mind Freak guy is for real, “I mean how else could he do it?” The context of doing the tricks on the street, in “real life situations” adds to the live or real nature. Television doesn’t lie. As the old joke goes, “What are you going to believe me or your own eyes?”

People still go to plays, although they really can't be seen on TV. People do wait for the movie instead of reading the much higher quality book. People still go to concerts, but when they go to see U2 are they watching the band or the giant TV screens?

"Television thrives on unreason, and unreason thrives on television. It strikes at the emotions rather than the intellect." - Sir Robin Day

The thing I want to believe is that the masses are generally uneducated. If they experienced good live magic, they would understand its real power. Lacking a better choice, people will still choose a simulated reality.

It is our responsibility to change that.

"So why do people keep on watching? The answer, by now, should be perfectly obvious: we love television because television brings us a world in which television does not exist. In fact, deep in their hearts, this is what the spuds crave most: a rich, new, participatory life." -Barbara Ehrenreich


Anonymous said...

Not as a devil's advocate, but more because I like the way you think, I'll ask this: have you seen televised magic that really grabbed you?

I think there was a once-upon-a-time when magic on tv worked better than it does now. I started in magic in the heyday of the Doug Henning era, and I thought some of Mr. Henning's specials worked quite well. It's possible, though, that people have become so inured to special effects (and perhaps dishonesty in general) that television magic will never have the impact that it did back then.

Or maybe I'm romanticizing things.

Jim S.

chgomagic said...

Yes, one TV magician does really grab me. That is Derren Brown. His seance special my be the best I've seen. He seems to deliver the "goods" more often than not. Mostly I think he works for me because his style of magic looks less special effect-y. He is also a more engaging character than other TV magic types.

As far as Henning goes..good magic works always. Live or by proxy. He can also be classified as a media creation. He became most famous from his TV specials. Although, Tv supported his touring habit. Whereas today's TV magicians, Mr. Brown excluded, mainly work the screen and rarely, if at all, the stage.

The problem with your question is that as magicians we know what is "real" and what is special effect. The lay audience does not. It is their reality I have interest in. There is a vast audience out in the world that, not only is grabbed by Criss Angel's and David Blaine's magic, but cannot tell whether it is real or not. They saw it with their own eyes didn't they.

I meet these sad, deluded individuals daily.

Anonymous said...

Good point.

And I'm with ya on Derren Brown.