The season finale of Penn & Teller: Fool Us aired last night, and thus we come to the final installment of Fooling Garwulf… at least for now. So – as usual – without further ado, onto the performers:
Derek Hughes: This was a nice routine that began with a transformation of one card into another, known in magic as a “colour change,” and escalated into a prediction that played with the idea of whether or not we have free will. It was an energetic performance, which, to be fair, felt a bit forced in one or two places, and there may have been a bit of flash in the second half of the trick during a shuffle. But, I still liked it, and I liked the subtext, even if it didn’t fool Penn and Teller.
Reuben Moreland: “Matrix” is a classic trick, with coins moving magically from one corner to another. Moreland’s version, with dice appearing and disappearing under the cards as the cards fell to the table as the dice disappeared, was simply amazing. Further, he managed to capture the essence of a kid playing with a magic toy box in a performance that was whimsical, playful, inventive, and, most of all, magical. Moreland may not have fooled Penn and Teller, but he took the best performance of the night with ease.
Suzanne: My readers may remember Suzanne as one of the magicians interviewed for the women in magic commentary of Fooling Garwulf #3. Her band-aid trick was one I had heard about while researching that installment, and I was delighted to see it performed. It is a heartwarming trick, channelling the experience of being comforted by a loving mother after a cut or scrape. This left Suzanne’s routine of transposing writing from one band-aid to another – moving the love from Mom to the “owie” – both baffling and emotionally charged, in all the right ways… and she even managed to fool Penn and Teller.
Jared Kopf: What stands out the most in this performance was his stage presence. Kopf was confident, mysterious, and magical – perfect for a magician supposedly wrapping random chance around his little finger. And, while his routine – coming to a predicted result through a supposedly random set of selections – is a type I’ve seen a number of times before, I really liked how he worked the question of to what degree random events affect our lives into his performance. Kopf didn’t fool Penn and Teller, but it was a great routine all the same.
Penn and Teller: This was an interesting little trick, with an egg being broken into its component parts and restored. Truthfully, I’m not quite sure what else to say about Penn and Teller’s “One Minute Egg” – it was playful and a bit whimsical, but for the final Penn and Teller trick of the season, it felt underwhelming. Perhaps the tamed ball, the bullet catch, or “Shadows” would have been a better illusion to end on.
Normally I’d segue into the commentary at this point, but this is the season finale, and so there’s one last thing to do… it’s time to talk about the best and most outstanding performances of the entire season.
For best performance of the season, the choice is clear: Shin Lim. With a single exception involving a rapid-fire animal act (Victor & Diamond), Lim was performing two levels above everybody else in the season, including Penn and Teller. He didn’t just show us magic, he gave us the rare opportunity to watch sorcery. I said this in my original review, and I’ll repeat it here: Shin Lim’s performance is what magic can be!
For the outstanding performance of the season, again, I think the choice is obvious: Riley Siegler. Even though he was only 13 years old, he held his own against the other performers, some of whom had decades of experience on the stage, and in his episode turned in the best performance of the night. If this is what Siegler is doing today, I can’t wait to see what he’ll be doing ten years from now. And, even though Shin Lim managed a jaw-dropping performance in his episode, I think the magician everybody will be talking about long after this season has ended is Riley Siegler.
Now, over the course of the past few weeks, I have attempted to highlight the amazing history and depth that exists in the performing art of magic. But perhaps the most astounding thing about magic has yet to be covered:
It is still here.
It is said that to continue to be relevant, magic needs to evolve. I don’t think this statement is accurate – at the least, it should be that magic needs to evolve again. Magic did evolve, decades ago. One could make the argument that many of the modern heirs to the cutting-edge illusions performed in the last Golden Age are not standing on a Vegas stage, but bringing dinosaurs to life on the screen for films like Jurassic Park, or creating magnificent vistas and gut-churning violence for programs like Game of Thrones.
After all, in the end, the physical act of performing magic is creating and framing a visual effect. It’s no coincidence that the early fathers of cinema, such as Georges Méliès (1861-1938), were magicians. Retelling the story of an appearance he had made on the Paul Daniels Magic Hour, Eugene Burger wrote that the real magicians were the BBC effects people who had managed to crack the problem of a self-lighting candle that had stumped him for years – and, like good magicians, refused to divulge their secrets. And, Penn Jillette once pointed out that, taken by itself, even the greatest effect he could conceivably present on stage – teleporting instantly from one location to another – already appears in the basic editing of an evening news broadcast.
And yet, magic is still here, arguably in another golden age, and possibly even healthier than before.
As a performance art, magic has survived more than most. It has endured witch hunts, and remained standing after the fall of vaudeville and the rise of movies and television. That one can still watch a show like Fool Us, or go to a performance of Penn and Teller or David Copperfield in Vegas, is nothing short of miraculous.
So why did it survive?
For one thing, good, strong magic is more than just a visual effect. It is the impossible made real before the eyes of the audience. It is a reminder that the world is a bigger, more mysterious place, and that even within the known laws of physics, little more than a sharp mind and a skilled pair of hands can produce the remarkable upon command.
It is often taken as received wisdom in the world of magic that people like being fooled. But that’s not actually the case – we like being astounded, amazed, and filled with wonder. We like having our jaws drop to the floor as the impossible unfolds before us. The deception that takes place within an illusion is a tool towards that end, not an end in and of itself.
And this is, perhaps, why magic has survived. It is a basic human need to seek out that which is greater than ourselves, to explore, and to confront the unknown and the impossible. While the visual effects artists working in the movies or television can come close – see the first reveal of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park to allay any doubts – they can’t really provide that. We know too well that what we’re seeing isn’t real, not least because there are too many physical barriers between it and us. Therefore, we take what we see on the screen in stride, and just enjoy the story. A movie or television show can’t get away with presenting nothing more than visual effects for its running time… but a magician on stage can.
When the magician performs a trick or illusion, there is no understanding that it’s just a visual effect on a screen. Instead, we are faced with the seemingly impossible, and cannot deny that it happened before us. When it all comes together, we experience wonder and amazement. That basic human need is satisfied, and we are left with the comfort that the world really is still big and amazing and mysterious. Magicians are, in the end, the custodians of wonder.
And that more than anything else, I think, is why magic is still here. It was here in ancient Egypt when the pyramids were new, it was here when its practitioners risked being burned alive for performing, and it will still be here long after we’re gone. On a basic level we need it, and if we didn’t have it, we would have to invent it.
After all, it’s magic. What more needs to be said?
Robert B. Marks is the author of the new and revived Garwulf’s Corner on The Escapist, as well as Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, the original Garwulf’s Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and he is now on Facebook. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.