Saturday, June 01, 2013

The Art of Misdirection

"The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper."

W.B. Yeats

Earlier this month, as my wife and I were preparing to leave the house for dinner, I performed a little magic trick for her. Her back was turned momentarily as she was putting on her shoes, and when she faced me again, I had in my hands a large bouquet of lilies. I was only out of her sight for a few seconds so understandably, the sudden appearance of a bunch of plant reproductive organs came as a complete surprise to her. She was completely baffled. I had only gotten home from work a few minutes earlier and had never left her sight since. And having spent the entire day cleaning the house, she was confident that there were no flowers stashed in a hidey hole somewhere before I left for work that day. Several weeks have passed since and she still couldn't figure out how I did it.

I'll explain how I did it, but first I'll talk about what Louis Leterrier did in his latest film, a caper thriller with an ensemble cast called Now You See Me. Ha, bet you didn't know that this post is actually a film review! Also, I will spoil everything in it, so skip to the final three paragraphs if you just want to know how I conjured up a bunch of flowers out of thin air.

Now You See Me Poster
Jesse Eisenberg as J. Daniel Atlas, Mark Ruffalo as Dylan Rhodes, Woody Harrelson as Merritt Osbourne, Mélanie Laurent as Alma Vargas, Isla Fisher as Henley Reeves, Dave Franco as Jack Wilder, Michael Caine as Arthur Tressler, and Morgan Freeman as Thaddeus Bradley.

The philosophy of this movie is encapsulated inside the few words of its tagline: "The closer you look, the less you'll see." I feel that it is an apt summation of what show magic is all about. One character in the film told a story about a trick that was performed by a stage magician by the name of Lionel Shrike in which he had a volunteer sign his name on a playing card. He then supposedly transported that card into a tree. When they cut the tree down, they found the autographed playing card, encased in glass, nestled within the heart of the trunk. How could such a seemingly impossible feat be achieved?

It was then explained that Shrike had gotten the same guy to sign his name on a card decades ago for another much less impressive magic trick. Then, he entombed the card in glass in the middle of a young tree, allowing it to be swallowed by the wood as it grew. It seemed inconceivable that someone would go through such lengths to set up such a performance, but it is precisely that inconceivability that protects it from being seen through. All who witnessed Shrike's feat of prestidigitation could not figure out how he could hide a card in the trunk of a living tree in an instant without breaking it apart and then meticulously put the tree back together before their eyes. That is their failure. The thing is, the answer to how it can be done is clear from the beginning if they can only step back and look at it from afar. I have heard more than once that if you want to be a successful magician, you must know how people think and how inept they are at it.

That being said, the joys of this movie are far and few between.

Heist films and stage magic have a lot in common. They first wow us with the sight of something seemingly impossible and then it impress us with the revelation at the end. The first big trick of the Four Horsemen (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco) was robbing a French bank while being on stage in Vegas. It is also arguably the only satisfying revelation of how a trick is performed, its execution mirrored the card-in-tree-trick. The entire performance suggests that the bank was robbed in real time when in fact, it had been done long before the quartet announced their intention to do so. As Morgan Freeman's magic debunker character helpfully pointed out, when a magician asks you to look at something, he or she is distracting you from what you really should be looking at.

Of course, a lot of this film hinges on your acceptance that stage hypnotism really does work and work to the absurd degree that the film portrays (instantly putting people to sleep, entombing post-hypnotic suggestions in people's subconsciousness that dramatically affect their actions, et cetera). While it was employed to great comedic effect, the success of a film about heists or magic acts relies on how grounded in reality it is. Having actual magic (Harrelson's power of hypnosis in Now You See Me) or invoking Clarke's third law by introducing futuristic technology  that are indistinguishable from magic (Bowie Tesla's teleportation device in The Prestige) just make a film in these genres look like they copped out. I am sure that the writers could have replaced all the bits involving hypnotism to something more grounded, something more mundanely magnificent - but they didn't and as a result the film suffered for it.

Now You See Me Horsemen
The Four Horsemen.

The presence of actual effectual stage hypnotism in Now You See Me's universe is the least of its sins. The motivation of the Four Horsemen in publicly performing heists and causing them to be wanted criminals, leaving them on the run from the law for the rest of their lives, is... they wanted to join an ancient Egyptian order of Robin Hood magicians called The Eye. Yeap. It was that cartoonish and needlessly fantastic. Any halfway decent screenwriter would be able to come up with motivations more believable than that.

While the second heist was rather clever and hinged on a simple trick (Eisenberg's pantomimed failure at mentalism managing to draw out crucial private information from Michael Caine), it also made me wonder at how the foursome managed to gather hundreds of very specific people into their audience, learn of their bank account numbers and the amounts of money in them, and of their grievances against a certain insurance company. The scope of their backstage prep beggars belief even if you know exactly how they did it.

Movies such as Now You See Me often relies on a third act twist that is expected to be more impressive than everything that came before it but in this case, the third heist turned out to be the worst of the three. One wonders, if the Horsemen were able to install a huge mechanical contraption to lower a giant mirror into a room on command, wouldn't it be easier if they just outright steal the safe kept in that room in all the time they were tinkering in it? Here, the magic hypnotism appears again as a crucial element in their trick in getting someone to make a phone call. I wondered: why didn't the writers simply invoke Franco's character's skill at impersonating voices instead (one which was masterfully portrayed during the cool prestidigitation-fueled fight scene between him and Ruffalo's character)?

The ultimate reveal and twist of the film was Mark Ruffalo's FBI agent character turning out to be the mastermind behind The Eye and that he had recruited the Four Horsemen to perform these heists as a very coldly-served revenge against the people who antagonised his father, Lionel Shrike, which indirectly caused his demise at the bottom of a river due to a botched escape trick.

While Lionel Shrike's story was featured prominently throughout the film, the reveal of Ruffalo's real identity and the raison behind the targets of the heists felt like they were pulled right out of the writers' asses. They were cheap and substance-less. There were no indications throughout the film suggesting that Ruffalo is anyone other than who he appears to be. There were no clues linking the Four Horsemen's heist victims to Shrike either. It is also troubling that Mark Ruffalo's character thought that framing an old bloke and putting him in jail for making a career out of revealing how magicians perform their tricks (and very indirectly catalysed the events leading to his old man's death) is commensurate retribution.

If you can forgive all of these problems (and more I didn't talk about like the unbelievable romantic subplot between Rhodes and the French Interpol agent played by Laurent, and her ultimate decision to keep Rhode's secret and thus, damning an innocent man to imprisonment), this movie makes for quite an easy viewing. There is an undeniably cocky stylishness that this film exudes. Woody Harrelson's quips and Jesse Eisenberg's boast about being the smartest man in the room (evocative of his role as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network) were some of the highlights. A confrontation between Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in New Orleans was also pretty memorable.

Special Agent Dylan Rhodes facing off Thaddeus Bradley, debunker of magicians.

Now, as I promised, I will now reveal how I produced the lilies, seemingly out of nowhere.

I actually brought it into the house when I came home from work. There was a short moment before Cheryl greeted me so I quickly left the bouquet on the counter-top in the kitchen for her to stumble on - which I was certain she would when I showered. She didn't. As we were leaving the house, I quietly stepped into the kitchen when her back was turned to retrieve the flowers (that only took a couple of seconds max). I then spent the entire evening telling her that she cannot explain how or when I brought the flowers into the house without her noticing and how it materialised in the short instance her back was turned, subtly suggesting that it was all meticulously planned when it is in fact a fortuitous exploitation of an unexpected opportunity.

I invited her to look closely and made sure she saw less. That, my friends, is how magic is done.

P.S. This post's title has more than one meaning.

Knows magic,
k0k s3n w4i


cheryl said...

Liar liar pants on fire!

Anonymous said...

Beneath your cocky intellectual persona is a mushy hearted romantic who adores worships surrenders to his wife beyond the power of the word. No magic in concealment can withstand the warmth of true love, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Movie was just so-so, imo.

Your wife is lucky to have you as her husband

k0k s3n w4i said...

cheryl: I told no lies T^T

Anonymous #1: Oh, I am many things...

Anonymous #2: Well, the most interesting thing about the film is the insight into how stage magicians fool people. I agree that it was not a very good film.