Thursday, June 10, 2004

Metamorphosis: Okay, are you ready?

My friend Froggie asked me to comment on this post Neil Gaiman made about this article from the Guardian. And before I could, I knew I had to go listen to NPR's take, because Gaiman references Teller's answer, which I knew would turn out to be exactly the same as mine.

And I was right, about 1/3 of my answer. This is the third--exposing Houdini's version of the Metamorphosis will only make the modern version of the Metamorphosis (aka the Substitution Trunk) seem so much cooler. The awkwardness of the Houdini method doesn't explain the lightning-fast version of the trick done these days by magicians like the Pendragons--in fact, Houdini himself may just be scratching his head.

This is true of a lot of the Houdini-era magic. Speaking of Teller, he performs a version of Houdini's Needle Swallowing trick that transcends the old version completely. I've performed Needle Swallowing Houdini's way, and I have to plead ignorance as to Teller's method. Knowing what I know about Houdini's version just makes Teller's that much more impressive.

But what about the guys like me? What about those of us who can't do Metamorphosis at the speed of light, and who still do needle swallowing the old-fashioned way. Is it fair to us to have the secrets to magic hung before the world for all to see?

The argument offered by the lady in the NPR interview is ridiculous--she says the signs and warnings posted about their having exposed the trick (Do Not Enter If You Don't Want To Know!) are meant to "appease magicians." That's so funny it's ridiculous. She admits candidly at the start of the bit that non-magicians find the museum boring--signs promising "secrets revealed" and "tricks exposed" are undoubtedly meant to instill some hype.

What's not so obvious is that the reverse is true as well--arguing over secrets generates a lot of free publicity for magicians. One trick being exposed in one museum in one backwater town really isn't that big a deal--to be perfectly honest, the answer is probably sitting in the library down the street. It's definitely available with a quick google search, if people really want to know.

But by generating controversy, David Copperfield, The Society of American Magicians, and Penn and Teller all got some free air time here. And internet time, as more people talk about it, as evidenced by all the articles and blogs linked to above. The attention guys like the Masked Magician and people like him generate for magic helps the business a lot, resurrecting interest far more than it disillusions people.

And no competent magician is hurt.

Shortly following Houdini's death, a newspaper began running a series where, each night, they would expose different tricks the master had been famous for.

Magician lore says one magician pulled out the newspaper that night, showed the article to the audience, read them the secret, swore they would witness that his version didn't resort to such simple deception, and then proceeded to do it exactly as explained in the newspaper. None of the audience was the wiser.

The fact is, the small-time magician is benefited by the controversy that results from ranting about the exposing of secrets far more than he is hurt by the revealed secrets.

Sadly, many small time magicians do not understand this, and become genuinely angry when exposing like this happens. Part of this is because they think the ranting of guys like David Copperfield obligates them to feel the same--not understanding that guys like Copperfield are really jumping on the bus to get all the media attention they can out of the controversy. The small-town magicians would do well to learn from this.

Yes, I am actually suggesting that local magicians should raise a stink over magic books in the local library, so as to get a few lines of attention in the local paper, maybe a picture of the local S.A.M. chapter. And maybe even drive a few kids into the library to read some of those books and begin a lifetime love affair with the art.

Yeah, it's a little underhanded, but so what? That's magic.

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