rachelmanija: (Books: old)
rachelmanija ([personal profile] rachelmanija) wrote2017-01-19 01:57 pm

Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer

A friend of mine once had a very lavish birthday party for which she hired a professional magician. I was a little skeptical, as I have never much enjoyed stage magic. It usually strikes me as a bit cheesy or dull, not to mention repetitive. Once you've seen one card guessed and one thing vanished, you've seen the whole show; the rest is just variations.

This guy, whose name I forget but will ETA in if I figure it out, was different. His tricks were still variations on tricks I'd seen before. But his performance was wonderful and his persona was like nothing I'd seen before. It was all based on understatement and faith in the audience to appreciate the artistry of competence and skill.

He didn't make dumb jokes or big promises. He wore a slightly old-school-looking dapper suit. He had beautiful hands and moved in the precise, no-motion-wasted, polished manner of a martial artist or open kitchen chef or Olympic gymnast. Every time he moved, you could see the thousands of hours he had to have spent doing and re-doing that exact movement until it looked effortless and was perfect. He embodied "in the moment."

I don't recall his exact tricks, though I do remember that they were clever and done with charm, sometimes funny (in an understated way), sometimes "how the hell did he do that?" We all gasped and laughed and were enchanted. But the main enchantment was watching an incredible craftsman at work. He didn't brag; he didn't have to. His skill was evident. He could have been a carpenter, and we'd have been just as blown away watching him join wood... perfectly. And that was his persona: the craftsman.

I don't think it was an accident that he was performing for a bunch of Hollywood professionals in Los Angeles, and that he also worked at the Magic Castle, which is where magicians go to see each other perform. Whatever else you can say about Hollywood, it appreciates the effort and difficulty of making things look effortless. It was the perfect match of performer and audience, and I don't know if he, or that persona anyway, would have worked elsewhere.

I realized then that stage magic isn't about the tricks at all. It's about the performer and the performance. And the audience. All else aside, that guy's "Watch me flick one finger perfectly" deal would have been literally impossible to do in a large arena. We were in a small room with the farthest person no more than 30 feet away from the front row. Any bigger, and you wouldn't have been able to see what made him great.

I told him afterward that he'd done the first magic show I'd enjoyed at all, and that I'd not only enjoyed it, I'd loved it. I tried to explain why; hopefully it made sense. He did seem sincerely pleased. In an understated way.

Hiding the Elephant makes a similar point about performance and audience vs. tricks. But the book is at least 50% about the tricks. It's nonfiction on American stage magicians and their tricks in the 1800s (Houdini’s time), written by a modern designer of magic illusions who is not a performer himself. Interesting perspective, mixed execution.

He says from the start that while he’ll explain how some tricks are done, he’s not going to spill secrets on anything that hasn’t been previously detailed in print, though some of his sources are not well-known. He does, however, detail some original research he did into how Houdini made an elephant vanish onstage— a trick which impressed other magicians more than the audience, as Houdini’s showmanship as an illusionist was lousy compared with his dramatic skills as an escape artist.

Each chapter begins with him discussing some concept of magic, often couched in autobiography, which leads in to his chapter on a specific historic magician. These intros are beautifully written and fascinating. The historical material is noticeably more dryly written and often quite technical. It turns out that most magic tricks of that era were indeed done with mirrors aided by elaborate stage tech. If you care about the details, he explains many of them with diagrams and careful explications of the physics, engineering, and math which create the illusions. I read a lot of the book thinking, “Mia Lee would love this.”

If the whole book was like the chapter intros, I would have loved it too. If there had been more focus on the magicians’ personalities and the cultural factors playing into stage magic, and less on technicalities, I would have liked it more. There was a reasonable amount on the former (Houdini comes across as a real jerk), enough so that some chapters were moderately juicy reading, but ultimately the book felt much more bloodless than I expected when I began.

I suspect there are histories of that era of stage magic I would like better, but I don’t know which they are. It isn’t a subject I have that much inherent interest in. On the other hand, it did inspire me to re-watch The Prestige, and that was every bit as good as I remembered.

Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear
recessional: bare-footed person in jeans walks on log (Default)

[personal profile] recessional 2017-01-19 10:38 pm (UTC)(link)
Houdini really was a jerk. So were many of the people he was investigating, because they were scamming a LOT of money off emotionally vulnerable people in many cases, but he was also a jerk.
cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)

[personal profile] cloudsinvenice 2017-01-19 11:10 pm (UTC)(link)
If there had been more focus on the magicians’ personalities and the cultural factors playing into stage magic, and less on technicalities, I would have liked it more.

You might really enjoy Derren Brown's Confessions of a Conjurer - it also does the couched-in-autobiography thing, but the stuff about magic is much more about the psychology of the relationship between the performer, what the performer is doing, and the audience. He came to more widespread prominence as a psychological illusionist on TV, but he started out, IIRC, doing close-up magic in restaurants, so the book has a lot about the intimacy of that kind of performance and what it takes to keep people interested and following the story you're trying to tell with the trick.
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[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2017-01-20 12:31 am (UTC)(link)
Sounds amazing!
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-20 02:04 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, I have this book! I actually really enjoyed it, because I really love historical stuff, and in particular learning details about historical eras that I knew very little about, and 19th century stage magic was definitely one of those. This is the book that has a chapter on special f/x on the 19th century stage, like magic lanterns and that sort of thing, isn't it? It's been probably a decade since I read it, so I don't remember a lot of the details anymore. It's too bad the book overall was disappointing for you, though, and from what I remember about it, if you aren't going to flip your nut at descriptions of 19th-century stage magic techniques, I can totally see how it would be.

(I was one of those kids who used to teach myself magic tricks out of books and loved watching magic shows to figure out how they were done, not that I can remember any of this stuff now, though I do remember being SO PROUD of myself for figuring out the numerical trick behind one of those "give me a number, I'll do a bunch of manipulations to it and tell you your original number back again" performances on a David Copperfield special when I was about 14. Heh. So this book happened to hit a lot of my areas of interest.)
sholio: sun on winter trees (Default)

[personal profile] sholio 2017-01-20 02:31 am (UTC)(link)
I have not read those, or heard of them, so thank you for the recs - I'll check them out! (Or, I guess, I'll add them to my endlessly growing wish list of books to read.) ETA: Looks like our library has a bunch of his books, including those! I guess I need to make a library run soon.

I just really love knowing how things work, especially things that seem opaque at first but become clear once you have the trick to it - to me, that's the real magic, the moment that something goes from "that's impossible" to "oh, THAT'S how it's done!" Like pulling a single thread on an intricate structure and having the whole thing collapse into a different structure.

I have a similar problem with difficulty parsing technical explanations, though. It's not something that comes easily to me, especially trying to parse math and spatial relationships.
Edited 2017-01-20 02:34 (UTC)
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

[personal profile] kate_nepveu 2017-01-20 04:29 am (UTC)(link)
SteelyKid was seriously into Penn & Teller for a while, and their general-audience specials are interesting because they make a point of showing a lot of what they do and emphasizing the performance nevertheless, e.g.,: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmwT7L0hToQ

One of their big tricks is remarkably simple, and I ought to be impressed by it, but instead I was kind of deflated, which is psychology for you right there.
ironed_orchid: pin up girl reading kant (Default)

[personal profile] ironed_orchid 2017-01-21 07:00 am (UTC)(link)
I'm currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and I really like the stress Chabon puts on how much hard work and practice go into to performing magic tricks.
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[personal profile] nenya_kanadka 2017-01-23 09:37 am (UTC)(link)
....so what happened with the elephant? (You probably don't want to spoil it, eh.)

[identity profile] marycatelli.livejournal.com 2017-01-20 01:17 am (UTC)(link)
sounds neat!

[identity profile] marycatelli.livejournal.com 2017-01-20 04:28 am (UTC)(link)
Come to think of it, you might like Magic and Showmanship by Hake Talbot. It's less about the techniques than how to present them, and it was recommended to me as a how-to-write book, for good reason.

[identity profile] desperance.livejournal.com 2017-01-20 07:08 am (UTC)(link)
Have you read the novel of The Prestige? It is ... differently good.

[identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com 2017-01-20 07:16 am (UTC)(link)
I have! I really wanted to make it into a movie way back when, but I never figured out how to fix the numerous plot difficulties. I was very impressed with how the movie fixed everything I'd identified as a problem but failed to find solutions for.

I actually liked a lot of the book, but it was definitely a curate's egg: parts of it were excellent.