Sunday, June 27, 2010

Danzig speaks the truth!

You may or may not know this, but I am a heavy metal nerd.  I love metal, whether it be power, thrash, speed, Gothic, symphonic, black, death, groove, folk, or Viking.  And one of my favorite artists is Glenn Danzig.  Love him or hate him, Danzig is a unique and interesting individual, and I really do mean individual.  Though not technically a member of the Church of Satan, he is a proponent of Anton LaVay's indivualist philosophy.

I was driving him this afternoon listening to one of my favorite radio stations, Liquid Metal (XM 42), when they started an interview with Danzig to talk about his new album.  One of the things they brought up was his unique style, aesthetic, and outspoken nature.  He said in response, "I've always believed that.  Be yourself.  Be the person you want to be."  It was the last sentence that really connected with me.

I hear, "Be yourself," a lot, but I'm a much bigger supporter of the idea that it's better to be an ideal self.  Danzig described the battle to be an individual against the expectations of others as a war.  It ain't easy, but it's worth it.  If you want to get out there and perform, you also are going to have to be the one you want to be.  You have to be an individual.  Such people attract others to them and are percieved as leaders because they're not afraid of adversity.

Danzig speaks the tuth.  Now get out there and do it!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mental Magic vs Mentalism

Today's topic comes as a request from Shawn Mullins who asked to hear my thoughts on the difference between mental magic and mentalism.  That's a complex question, and is still argued to this day but here are my thoughts.

At its simplest, the differences are in primary in presentation and semantics.  I don't mean semantics in arguing over whether something is stealing or borrowing or whatever.  I mean the semantic definitions of a genre.  As an example, horror as a genre has a syntactic and semantic definition.  The syntactic would be it's thesis.  For horror, the definition I tend to agree with is, "Normalcy is challenged by the monster."  That is the point of all good horror movies and stories where the monster is anything that confounds our reality while also representing something that we have repressed.  The semantic definition however is made of the sensual trappings.  Full moons, fog, ancient castles, haunted houses, bones, wolves howling in the distance, a sense of dread, isolation, etc.

Mental magic still contains many of the sensual trappings of conventional magic and is typically used to introduce some variation into an act.  Mentalism on the other hand tends to have a lot less glitz and glam and a good act focuses on doing one thing (i.e. mind reading).  Mentalism works best when it stands on its own, rather than being used to supplement magic.

A typical magic act with a splash of mental magic might have a mind reading effect with cards at the end.  A key card location perhaps.  It's used as a bit of spice to create a bridge or finale.  Nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it can be very effective.

But mentalism is seldom so diverse.  You don't try to sweeten a Q&A act with metal bending.  You do one thing, and you do it well.  On top of that, it's typically very implicit.  There are exceptions of course, but for the most part mentalism tends to be a very implicit experience.  This is part of the appeal however.  It gets under your skin in a very unique way.

To sum up, mental magic has more of the material trappings of a conventional magic act and is typically used as a way to enhance and vary up an act while mentalism is implicit and subtle and tends to focus on the presentation of a single concept standing on its own.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Magic as Art

I'm currently working on another write-up requested by fellow magician Shawn Mullins, which will be up this weekend.  In the meantime, I didn't want to go too long without an update, so I here offer this short muse.

In addition to magic and mentalism, I'm heavily involved in a number of other mediums and have been trying to achieve a deeper understanding of the language of each in order to form a cohesive methodology for delivering artistic statements in each.  To put it simply, I'm putting on my beret and stroking my beard as I try to figure out how to be artsier.  Magic has a hard time being taken seriously as an art in large part because it's used purely as entertainment.  And I have no problem with entertainment as long as it doesn't claim to be anything else.  What bothers me is that magic is called an art, but few do anything particularly artistic.

Magic and mentalism sit in an interesting place in that they share a language with two different media.  Specifically, theater and gaming.  Obviously, I disagree with those who don't believe games are art, but you didn't come here to listen to me bang on about that.  Whatever your preconceived notions, please suspend them long enough to hear me out.  Magic is rooted very heavily in theatrical tradition, but it also has an aspect that only one other medium shares: interactivity.  There is no 4th wall unless one returns to the playlets of the Maskelynes in Egypt Hall.  It's especially true of close-up magic.  It puzzles me that so few magicians seek to use this more effectively.

Interactivity presents a set of unique challenges, but it also gives us a very interesting way to tell a story.  The video game Portal used it to great effect in deconstructing the medium of gaming itself.  But I can't think of any magicians who have made particularly good use of this.  Theatrically, I uphold David Blaine as a great example of using magic as art due to his career thesis that moments of wonderment, amazement, and the childlike certainty that the impossible is only a matter of patience belongs to all people regardless of race, class, culture, or social standing.  Yet few use magic and mentalism interactively to achieve artistic effect.  I could make a case for some of the works of Rick Maue and Docc Hilford, but that seems like a relatively short list when you consider the size of the industry.

I realize that art means different things to different people, but I do believe that it would be fruitful for magicians to step back, consider the language of our medium, and ask whether we're effectively using it or not.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Review: Self-Working Mental Magic by Karl Fulves

Today we're going to do the first official review for the blog.  I thought a good place to start would be to bridge the gap between magic and mentalism with a good starter guide to mental magic.  And what better place to start than Karl Fulves' "Self-Working Mental Magic?"  The advantage to this material is the ease of learning, the elegance of the methods, and the flexibility.

One of the reasons I find this such a good place to start is because it demonstrates and explains common, practical principles vitally important to mentalism such as pencil dots and one-way cards.  It's an effective way to cement these principles in the mind.  It provides a nice bridge from sleight heavy mechanics to more minimalist methods that require heavy presentation to work.

I'm going to be honest, I don't often use the number effects since they don't mesh with my style particularly well.  However, the book tests are a lot of fun, and you can also find three complete psychometry routines, including Anneman's original Pseudo Psychometry, which remains one of the best to this day.  No matter your style, you'll find good material. 

It's worth noting that there is a section of effects using confederates, what some would call (perhaps erroneously) stooges.  There's a major stigma to using stooges in modern magic, but let's be realistic.  The audience doesn't care about the method, and most of them have no desire to know.  Reading these effects should open your mind to the possibilities.  Like any method, it's not something you want to be overly reliant on, but it is an effective tool.  Remember, you're a liar.  If you have a problem with lying to achieve an effect, you might be in the wrong hobby/line of work.

Though the book describes its content as "67 Foolproof Mind-Reading Tricks" it goes beyond mind reading and also covers predictions, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and haunted magic.  Some of the card effects such as Remote Viewing are highly effective uses of basic sleights that can be presented a number of different ways depending on your personal preference.  Since I prefer mind reading and clairvoyance, I tend to go that route myself, but if you wanted to use a prediction or mind control presentation, that's entirely doable as well.

The Instant ESP chapter will provide plenty of impromptu effects for the budding mentalist, though you only need two or three to build a decent pocket show.  Highlights throughout the book include Remote Viewing, Mind Power, Pseudo Psychometry, and Think of a Word.  Include some of these in your act and you have a solid start.

Pay particular attention to the principles used as I said before.  This book is effectively providing you a primer course leading up to Anneman's Practical Mental Effects or Corinda's 13 Steps to Mentalism.  For those just getting started in mentalism it makes for an effective stepping stone as it's lower price makes it a more comfortable investment and the amount of content is enough to keep you busy without overwhelming the beginner.

This is my number one recommendation for the magician looking to expand his knowledge into mentalism.  On that note, I thought I'd point out that below here there's an Amazon dot com link.  I'm an affiliate now.  Hooray for me.  Now you can do yourself a favor by getting this thoroughly righteous book and do me a favor by putting gas in my car.  Everybody wins!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Strategic Withdrawal

At some point or another, every magician is going to deal with a tough spectator. You might even have a full-blown heckler, but be aware that contrary to what most newbies will tell you, they're actually few and far between. There's a lot of talk on how to deal with people like that. Let me start by telling you what not to do.

One of the most popular tactics among the young crowd was formalized into a DVD routine by the godfather of egomaniacal move monkeys himself, Brian Tudor. His Heckler DVD outlines a set of routines of incredibly difficult to follow sleight of hand and card manipulation meant to target a tough spectator or heckler. The intent is to embarrass them and make them look stupid. A lot of guys look at that and fantasize about doing it themselves, dreaming of that gratifying, "Take that!" moment. It's schadenfreude-tastic!

But let me ask you something... If you have a guy who clearly doesn't like you, when has it ever been a good idea to antagonize him further?

There is a common misconception that withdrawal or retreat is considered a sign of weakness. That it's giving up the fight and scurrying off with your tail between your legs. That belief however has cost more than a few armies battles and wars. The Mongols and the American revolutionaries both used strategic withdrawals to maneuver opponents into traps or trick them into making a bad move. And that's what you want to do.

If you have an antagonist who doesn't want to be reasonable, muster up as much class as you can and politely excuse yourself. The rest of the group will see you as a man who simply doesn't want to be hassled by their very rude companion. Your opponent will effectively tie his own rope.

Swallow your pride and learn that sticking around to butt heads is a battle of attrition. It's a fool's game. A strategic withdrawal is magic Aikido: redirecting the energy of an opponent back against him.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Time to forgive Criss Angel...

For being successful. You heard me right. Criss Angel is to magicians what abortion is to political ideologues. No name in the magic community has the power to stir up quite the same level of argument. I bring this up because a friend of mine recently decided to drop the hand grenade at Ellusionist and Theory 11's forums. Links:

E forums
T11 forums

Among the assertions I made as my contributions to the discussion is that most magicians tear Angel down because they lack an eye for realism. They refuse to accept why Criss is successful and their idols aren't. Some have responded by listing their own accomplishments, even though a great man shouldn't need to tell you he's great. Others have insisted that Angel doesn't count as a magician. They uniformly fail to understand that there is a lesson to be learned here.

In "The 50th Law" by Robert Greene, the eye for realism is discussed in detail as a powerful tool for success. You need to see everything as it truly is, not the way you want it to be. I would argue that bizarrists need this more than anyone as our sub-genre of magic is a particularly hard sell. Most of it is masturbatory, over-long, over-complicated, or just flat out boring. Most bizarrists don't see things as they truly are.

Think about your magic for a moment. What does the audience get out of it? You need a better answer than just, "Entertainment." You need a sense of what they want, what they need. How can you give it to them? What can you offer that nobody else does?

This is in part where charm comes from. Most people have no idea what that actually means, but a charmer is someone who voluntarily gives up their spotlight temporarily to make someone feel better about themself. Charmers maintain eye contact, are excellent listeners, and express a sincere interest in your opinions. They want to like you, so they give you the opportunity to tell them about yourself. That kind of thing is magnetic. Not surprisingly, many of the most charming people I've ever met were also realists. They were keen observers of people and the world around them. That knowledge made them successful at any effort they undertook.

I want all of my readers to do me a favor. Think about what you want. What audience are you looking for? Do you want to perform as a hobby or professionally? What does the market in your area look like? Are the people you're looking at as clients open to trying new things? Keep asking questions like this. Look at it as a realist. Assess your strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, and opportunities. Post in the comments section what plan of action you're going to take to get your magic in front of more people.

This is what all successful magicians did that the majority of their peers never have. It's time to forgive Criss Angel for being more successful than us and learn what he did right that we never even attempted.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Magic Forums...

In the inaugural post of this blog, I brought up that the Magic Cafe and why it's a bad place to learn to be a magician. I will now take the opportunity to expound on why there are so few good places on the internet to learn magic and mentalism.

Simply put, anonymity is the greatest gift to wannabes ever. They can make all sorts of outrageous, exaggerated and patently false claims and the majority of people will never try to call them on it. It's especially bad in larger magic online communities because everyone suddenly becomes afraid for their reputation. You don't want to rock the boat. In a more tightly-knit group, there's always going to be some social pressure, but as time goes on a competent group will come to understand each other better and criticism will become harsher and more focused. The intimacy actually allows greater honesty. But amidst a sea of other anonymous entities, all vying for attention, it becomes harder and harder to rock the boat. Very few maintain the sense of audacity needed to speak up when they feel it's right.

The Magic Cafe's slogan is "Magicians helping magicians." What a load of horse crap. The general mood from one sub-forum to the next changes subtly as you go, but they all have an overwhelming sense of everyone smiling through their teeth and trying to play nice because they're afraid of offending someone and jeopardizing their reputation. Unless of course you drop a grenade into the mix. Bring up Criss Angel, Ellusionist, the Masked Magician, or any other polarizing figure and the place turns into a veritable feeding frenzy before either Brooks or one of his lap dog moderators step in to take care of things long after it's too late to salvage anyone's dignity.

Similarly you get places like Theory 11, where brand loyalty is valued over actual competence. In such places, the number of consistently helpful and competent regulars seldom exceeds single digits, despite having a population of thousands. But once again, moderation is ineffectual at best and most people are kept in line by throwing out minor concessions and fostering a Culture of Nice atmosphere. The result is a bunch of people talking a lot about absolutely nothing.

Part of the problem with this Culture of Nice nonsense that such forums insist on peddling is that it's virtually impossible to dispense real, honest criticism without being branded as the bad guy. This is one of the drawbacks of the 21st century: we're all too sensitive and sheltered. Contrary to what the whining legions of the internet may tell you, criticism is not a dirty word. It is when someone looks you right in the eye and says, "No. What you just did was wrong and here's why."

Think back for a second. When was the last time you ever got feedback like that from an online discussion board? How often have you received it? When was the last time you saw someone else get it? How did they react to getting it?

To answer that last question, they probably reacted pretty badly. They got all whiny and upset, told the critic to be more constructive. And by "constructive" of course they mean "not critical at all." I've given a few people criticism who responded by telling me what I should have said. At best this meant them changing my critique into something so appallingly wussy that I would have had to kick my own ass if I said it out loud. At worst, it became clear they thought I had misinterpreted my own opinion. Yeah.

But this is what these places do to you. They turn you into a thin-skinned child unable to handle the slightest hint of reality. With everyone being so nice to each other all the time, the incentive to actually improve atrophies and eventually dies out. They just keep piling more softball "critiques" and saccharine compliments on one another because of the unspoken expectation that you will receive a butt load of empty praise yourself when the time comes. It's a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity and hugs.

By failing to conform to this attitude and openly criticizing people and ideas, you are sending the other members of the board a message that they need your experience/wisdom/outside perspective more than you need their approval. And that is a trespass that they cannot forgive.

"But wait," I hear you say. "Don't places like the Magic Cafe and Theory 11 have a bunch of working pros available for contact?" Yes and no. They can be seen there, but getting ahold of them is a pain and often not worth it. The reason these guys are pros is because they're working full time. The best of them do try to make the time for their fans, but there's only so much that they can do. It's much better to try and flag them down for a quick conversation at a convention or lecture if you can. That's not a guarantee, but at least you can speak to them face-to-face.

But amidst a busy schedule, how many of them do you think really have time to answer all the messages from the hoi-polloi? Most of them will give you an overly simplistic answer, not because they don't like you, but because they can't spare the time to do anything else. Especially at places like the Cafe where they get bombarded by wannabes. Theory 11 may brag about the involvement of their artists with their community, but most of them only log on once in a blue moon. I don't begrudge them that. They have work to think about. But it does present a dilemma in that you aren't really getting the access to them that you thought you had.

That's only the most common scenario though. I've come across a few Old Guard pros at the Cafe in my brief time there who were cranky old codgers largely out of touch with the community and the way the market had changed. Getting a straight answer out of them was like pulling teeth. It became clear they were only going online to push products.

That's not to say that all magic boards are bad. But there is a severe caveat emptor at work here. You have to be aware that the nature of communicating through a text-based enivornment is riddled with problems. The lack of non-verbal communication makes it easy for thoughts to get lost in translation, you don't get enough criticism, virtual friends are typically not as good as real friends... the list goes on!

Do take advantage of this resource where you can find the good stuff, but realize that once you go online you're exploring new territory off the map. Here there be monsters.