Sunday, July 8, 2012

When All is Said and Done

I have been away from this blog for too long.  It's not that I ran out of things to say, it was that I never have seemed to have the time to say them.

For my birthday, I got a copy of "Maestro" the 4-disc celebration of the work of Argentine poet Rene Levand.

You won't find his work in the poetry section of Barnes &Noble, but rather one the shelves and websites of your favorite magic suppliers.
Levand is a magician in the same way that a Lamborghini is a car:  while the props may be familiar, in his hand the cards, the crumbs, even the tea cup become something more. They become transparent. They are the means to convey an idea and each idea in turn becomes part of a larger philosophy.

I wrote elsewhere about the poetry of Steinmeyer's Origami illusion as performed by David Copperfield.  The right effect presented in the right way and under the right conditions becomes more than the sum of its parts and it transcends the "catch me if you can" performer-audience dynamic.  It is so secondary to the experience of watching the piece that thoughts of "how" are drowned out and washed away.  It is almost as though the surprise of discovering that, as an audience member, you are still capable of being amazed drowns out everything else.

Levand is able to do the same thing without the Peter Gabriel, without the atmospherics, without the beautiful assistants and without his right hand.

I make this association not to compare and contrast performers--each are masters of their media--but to suggest something of the impact that is possible when talent and creativity are brought to the service of a singular vision.

I don't remember how I first came across Levand and his work, but I recall seeing a performance of "It Can't Be Done Any Slower"--a six-card Oil and Water routine--and being completely captvated by this man who looked like a beloved family friend and, even though limited by working through a translator, was able to convey a casual charm that made the audience hang on his every word.

On the DVD, Levand talks about his inspirations.  He makes reference to great composers and other magicians, a poet and Mae West.

In translation, he says he remembered a quote of hers that informs his work:  "The thing is not what you say, but in how you say it.  The thing is not what you do, but in how you do it.  And, especially how it looks when it is said and done."

And while her selection as one of his influences may seem strange when placed next to Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, her philosophy is most especially relevant for magicians.
The props and techniques used by the close-up magician are relatively few in number and many performers tend to visit the same "classic" plots in their performances so what then is there to differentiate one performer from the other? What makes one an artist and the other a craftsman?

I once had a colleague who taught film theory and criticism.  He kept a sign in his office that said something to the effect of "And what is the audience doing during all of this?"

That is the question that all artists need to answer.  Whatever your medium, it is far too easy to become seduced by techniques.  Learning the latest knuckle-busting move is a challenge and, once mastered, can become the go-to tool for every situation irrespective of whether or not it's the right tool.

I heard one account of the famous encounter between Harry Houdini and the legendary Dai Vernon in which Vernon is said to have fooled Houdini with a card trick even after repeating it 7 times in a row.  In this account, the speaker says that Vernon, an expert in sleight of hand, performed an Ambitious Card effect using a gaff.  No sleights, but rather the genius of the printer's art in order to fool the one-time "King of Cards." 

I don't know if it's true and it really doesn't matter.  It illustrates the idea that effects are designed for an audience and technique, while important, is secondary to "how it looks when it is said and done."

In his mid-eighties, Levand continues to adapt his technique as he experiences greater and greater physical limitations.  That he has osteoarthritis in his hand has meant that he has changed how he performs and has become "more artistic."

The DVD set is aptly named "Maestro" because it not only documents a life's work, it also is full of many important lessons that can only be learned from a perceptive and gifted teacher.

More than a simple recipe book full of tricks, "Maestro" will guide the viewer toward being a better artist by providing them with a way to approach their magic in a more thoughtful manner.

I am grateful to Luis de Matos for producing this testament to the art of magic.

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