One of the big movie surprises of 2013 was “Now You See Me,” a movie in which a charismatic magician named Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) led a team of illusionists in a heist. The film generated $350 million in global box-office earnings, more than four times its production budget. And while the movie may have had massive plot holes, audiences didn’t seem to mind.
After all, it was about magic. And everybody loves magic. In fact, so many people love magic that a sequel, “Now You See Me 2,” is headed for theaters in June.
Another element that likely attracted audiences to the movie was the Las Vegas setting, which itself is host to the largest collection of magic acts in the country. Magic shows continue to be so popular that Vegas has no fewer than 11 major acts right now, including David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, and a Criss Angel show with Cirque du Soleil called Believe. Angel, according to a recent Bloomberg story, earns approximately $70 million — million — a year from his magic ventures.
And let’s not forget the “Harry Potter” spin-off film set to open in November, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”
Las Vegas remains the trendy mecca for magic. So do the movies. Why? What is so enduring about magic’s appeal?
For centuries, sleight-of-hand, illusions, and other forms of hocus pocus have captivated human beings. Magic’s appeal crosses generational lines, national borders, and the boundaries of time. Some of its enduring appeal seems self-evident — yet at its core, magic seems to touch something archetypal, something primal, within the human soul.
The self-evident portion is simply linked to the execution of a terrific trick. We go to a magic show to see something amazing, to see a lie executed to perfection. Virtually every contemporary magician will say that magic is a very honest art form. We are told that we are going to be fooled, and then we are fooled. It’s in the performance of the illusion itself — the showmanship — that delights.
To that end, magic must be constantly reinvented. Innovation is at its core, and thus another aspect of its longevity. It’s challenging, as there are only so many core tricks that can be reimagined. Ultimately, what matters is to take the audience to a place they have not been before.
“People do not come to a Penn & Teller show to see a magic show. They just don’t. They come to see weird stuff that they can see no place else, that will make them laugh and make the little hairs stand up on the backs of their necks,” said Penn Jillette, half of the team Penn & Teller, explaining the team’s act years ago.
Penn & Teller were likely the first of contemporary magicians to re-invent the art form, with a series of shows that began in the late 1980s. We had all seen the “cups and balls” trick before, yet their spin was to do it with clear plastic cups, and pretend to show us how the trick was done, only to raise further questions about just how they managed to pull off the trick when we thought we could see everything going on.
It’s also in a magician’s nature — really the nature of any professional — to create a trick so beautiful and artfully designed that it fools the best of their peers. Ricky Jay, one of the most astonishing sleight-of-hand artists alive, told The New York Times, “To obfuscate the reconstruction of the effect — when a magician is fooled by another magician doing magic. In my career that’s not been the major passion, but it’s been the passion of a number of my mentors. The crowning achievement for them would be to create magic good enough to fool other magicians.”
What better illusion for an audience that one that fools even the greatest magician?
There is also the notion that great magic often tells a story, usually with a twist ending. Storytelling transcends time, and is fundamental to the human experience on a daily basis. The greatest stories tell us something about ourselves in words, in images, with powerful emotional themes. The constant reinvention of magic is also the reinvention of storytelling, building and morphing on themes that form the foundation of life itself. Magic often involves the themes of life, death, and reality itself.
“People take reality for granted,” says Teller, who is driven more by the intellectual angle of the art, that magic is really about manipulating the perceptions of the audience — perceptions that the magician understands better than his viewers. Partner Jillette has said, “One of the things that Teller and I are obsessed with, one of the reasons that we’re in magic, is the difference between fantasy and reality.”
Magic, however, touches something even deeper in the human psyche. Buried in the collective unconscious is the notion of awe and wonder at the universe, that there are things that exceed human understanding, brought to life in the form of the archetypal Magician.
Psychologist Carl Jung believed that a set of mythic characters exist in everyone’s unconscious. The magician searches for the roots of the laws of science, to learn how to transform things and people, seeking answers not from others but from inner discoveries. They seek knowledge on how to live beyond the ordinary, to transcend it and symbolically transform garbage into gold.
Today’s magicians are speaking to and through time, and the human unconscious. The magic we witness is a call to our own inner magician, to seek out the answers to these same mysteries, to look beyond the illusion to the truth that rests within ourselves, and without, to our universe. We are called to make our own dreams come true, to develop our own vision and live it — to become our own catalyst.
“What you want out of life is for the visceral and the intellectual to collide as fast as they can,” says Jillette.
Therein lies the trick.