Sunday, November 11, 2007

Last night I watched The Prestige (excellent movie, by the way), and it got me thinking about the nature of stage magic and misdirection.

To my mind, there are three vantage points to a magic trick. There is the Yokel, who is being shilled or tricked--he has little knowledge of stage magic, and while he will try to figure out how it's done, he's usually baffled. There is the Observer, who knows quite a bit about stage magic, and may begin to guess at the workings of a trick. And then there is the Magician, who performs the trick.

In a ball and cup game, there are three cups. Under one of these, a ball is placed. The cups are then moved around very quickly and the Yokel is to guess, at the end, which cup the ball is under. The Yokel is always going to be wrong. This is not because he has failed to watch the cups properly--it is because he thinks the game is in watching the cups. He has accepted the rules presented him by the Magician: that the ball is in fact under one of the cups, and that its position depends on how the cups are moved. The fact is, the ball wasn't there in the first place: the Magician palmed it before the cups even started moving, then dropped it under whichever cup he wanted to at the end.

In The Prestige (mild spoilers), Borden performs a trick called The Transported Man. In this trick, a man walks into a box and shuts the door; almost instantaneously, the door of another box on the other side of the stage opens and out walks another man. Of course, the Yokel and the Observer have two very different ways of examining this trick. The Yokel will try to figure out how on Earth someone could move that distance so quickly without getting out of breath or rumpled. The Observer knows that the man who comes out of the box is not necessarily the same one who went in; he looks for signs that a double is being used. Again, the Yokel assumed that it was the same man, and this cripples the thought process.

In this way, Angier's version of The Transported Man is not a feat of prestdigitation in any sense. He is actually travelling that distance very quickly by scientific means; the man who was on the stage is the same as the one who emerged two seconds later on the balcony. There is no misdirection involved at all.

Let us address another trick. I know, I know, this is getting a bit dull. If you'd like, skip this paragraph and go to next, where I talk about what any of this actually means. But for now, I'd like to discuss the bullet catch. In this, the Magician loads a gun, then has a member of the audience fire it at him--and the Magician catches the bullet. In The Prestige, Borden's version involves a ramrod that, rather than tamping the bullet down, actually removes it. Once more, the Yokel's assumption is that there is a bullet in the gun when it is fired, and he thinks the trick is in how it is caught. The bullet, of course, wasn't even there. There is another version of this that uses a revolver in which the bullet is switched out for a bullet carved from soap and fired out a revolver. The soap bullet is destroyed in the blast, and the performer shows off a bullet palmed earlier.

So. How does any of this actually apply?

We have a major issue as human beings; we are, for the most part, Yokels. We assume society's rules, as presented to us, are true, and therefore try to work within them. And don't get me wrong--people have been known to do well working within those rules. But those who achieve greatness do not.

Let us examine the case of Bill Gates. We like to assume that to sell something, you need to have it first. We're Yokels. Bill Gates is a Magician. When he went to sell his first operating system to IBM, they didn't make much of it, and when he asked for rather high royalties on every computer sold with his OS, they agreed, saying that the money was in hardware, not software. As Yokels, we think that was the genius: spotting the market for software before anyone else. Not at all.

When Bill Gates sold the OS, it didn't actually exist. After selling it, Gates and his associates found a man in Seattle (?--maybe Portland) who had invented a system very similar to what he had sold IBM. They found their man in Seattle and bought the OS cheap. You see? The rules were that he was selling what he had. He was not: he invented a product while speaking, then after selling it obtained it. The ball wasn't under the cup at all.

I think the movie V for Vendetta is hilarious. In this film, they go on a massive manhunt for an anarchist terrorist known only as V. He wears a Guy Fawkes mask and a long black cloak. They also search for a girl named Evie Hamilton: she has been seen in V's presence, and so they assume she has something to do with him--an associate or accomplice, perhaps. When V turns up in a final showdown with the head of the Secret Police, he is shot multiple times. And--this is hilarious--they think this means they've killed the terrorist.

He is defined and identified by the fact he wears a mask, something few people do. Do you see the joke? His identity lies in the fact he cannot be identified. Yet they don't think in that light. Evie Hamilton could be the terrorist just as well as anyone else, 'cause guess what: two people could wear the same mask. V might actually be hundreds or thousands of people, each wearing the outfit only once, to commit some crime, and then never donning the mask again. This would be a further stroke of brilliance: the police in the film are putting together V's identity by where he has appeared and whom he has killed, trying to pick out a single person under the mask. If there are many, each crime would have a different MO and a different motive, all totally unconnected--it's like playing connect-the-dots with your freckles. There is no underlying pattern to be discerned.

Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed when the filmmakers didn't play with this notion at all, but I'll save that rant for another day.

Martin Luther King, Jr and Mahatma Gandhi knew it too. There were established avenues for political change, and established ways of doing things. They ignored these. They created their own avenues, most brilliantly passive resistance--which we've been copying ever since.

Ok, here's something very relevant:
Most of those who read this blog, I know, are college students. There is a plan we have been told for our lives. We go to high school and get a good education, and then we go to college and get a diploma. With this diploma, we go out and get a job. By hard work, effort, and talent, we make our way up the corporate ladder to success.

Or maybe we drop out of college, put all our eggs in one basket, and do something so wildly outside the rules we fool all the Yokels and make something truly great.

What are the standard rules and patterns that you see in life? Now try seeing past them. This is very difficult--at least for me--because these rules are defined by the very fact we don't notice them.

It's just a thought.

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