Friday, July 23, 2010

Storytelling and Why You Suck at It

Bizarrists love to tell stories. The trouble is, most of them suck. I've talked with magicians like Brad Henderson and Rick Maue who know bizarrists, are friends with them, but don't like their acts because it's just masturbation. The sad thing is that they're right. Most of the stories bizarrists tell are too long, have no point or purpose, and when the actual magic happens the transition from narrative to magic occurs with the sickening *griiiiiiind-thunk!* of a car's transmission falling out.

It's completely avoidable is what kills me. Learning to tell good stories isn't that difficult, it's just a shame that not enough people actually try. But that's only half the equation. Incorporating the narrative with magical effects is a bear. As live magic (usually) endeavors to be an interactive experience, I liken it to video games in part. Games are also an interactive medium, and trying to tell a story through them while also providing a fun game is difficult at best. On the one hand Portal did it well, but on the other hand Indigo Prophecy went absolutely bonkers in the second half of the plot with some of the most absurd and ridiculous plot points in the history of unintentional comedy.

So where do you find a solution? Well, first of all start with the magic. What's the effect or routine? Does it stand on its own? Could you perform it with stock or generic scripts? If the magic doesn't stand on its own effectively, then no amount of stories about vampires and time travel is going to make it better.

This isn't a silver bullet, but it certainly helps. The routine needs to be able to stand up without the story you're planning if you want it to be effective.

Friday, July 16, 2010

That's Cool

Perhaps the one modern mantra I hate more than any other is, "Be yourself."  There's a positive sentiment hidden in there, the encouragement to never compromise yourself for fleeting rewards.  But more often than not it is advice given with two subtextual meanings:

1.  I have no idea how to help you, but using this store-bought platitude will make me sound wise while hopefully giving you something to think about.  Maybe.
2.  I genuinely believe this store-bought platitude is the answer to all your problems even though I don't actually know what it entails.  Sure does sound nice, though.

Think about it for a second.  When's the last time someone parroting that ridiculous cliche actually gave you really useful practical advice?  That's what I thought.  If it's such great advice, then one must wonder why it hasn't worked that often.

The truth of the matter is that the whole, "Be yourself," chant is just feel-good rhetoric and that, as I said before in a previous post, the better route is to be your best self.  That's going to be a battle, but the payoff comes in higher quality rewards for your determination.  Just don't expect instant gratification.

This comes down to the essence of what makes someone cool.  It's not only in action, but intent.  Cool people act differently and individualistically not as an end unto itself but because they know what they want and they go for it.  If some arbitrary rule is standing in their way and breaking it doesn't hurt people, they will disregard that rule without a second thought.

Ironically, the people I've seen reciting, "Be yourself," like it's the answer to life, the universe, and everything are actually homogenous, generic, utterly forgettable rubes.  They all describe themselves the same way, talk and act the same, listen to the exact same music, wear the same outfits, have the same hobbies... it's uncanny!  There is little to nothing distinguishing them as individuals.

To be cool, you have to know what you want and be unafraid to get out there and get it.  People admire that.  It creates a personal magnetism because people want to be around a person who can get something done, who gets results.  Imagine for a moment how much better your magic would be if you possessed that kind of magnetism.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Last Airbender

So with M. Night Shyamalan continuing to squander the fame and potential he earned himself with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable on the resoundingly despised The Last Airbender, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to watch the show on NetFlix.  Glad I did actually.  I haven't watched anything Nickelodeon had to offer since they released the first Rugrats movie and proceeded to take a steaming dump on the things that made their network popular in the first place.  Yet the Avatar series turned out to be fresh, tightly written, and intelligent.

I bring this up because there's a glaring difference between the show and the movie that nicely illustrates a problem I have with a lot of magic.  In the first season of the show, a group of earthbenders are being held prisoner on a shipping yard in the middle of the ocean.  They're kept under Alactraz-like conditions miles away from the very element they use as a weapon.  Smart move.  And no amount of heroic speeches on the part of one of the main characters was enough to motivate the prisoners to launch a jailbreak.  These men and women were broken.  It struck me as very realistic and a surprisingly grim and unflinching portrayal of spirit-crushing imprisonment I never expected from a family-friendly show.

The movie on the other hand does away with all that logic nonsense and keeps the earthbenders in a regular prison on dry land.  Standing on top of a couple million tons of magical munitions.  And it only took a heroic speech on the part of one of the main characters to motivate the prisoners to remember they have superpowers and launch a jailbreak.  Huh?

If you're going to perform magic, it has to make sense.  Don't violate your own canonical rules, mythos, and restrictions simply because it's convenient.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

You're Not Funny

The trailer for the latest cinematic abomination by the same cretins who gave you Disaster Movie has been released.  Vampires Suck is a parody of the obnoxiously ubiquitous Twilight series (no, it is not a saga because it lacks Vikings or epic plots) and is of course nothing more than a shoddy collection of obvious if not outright stolen jokes that everyone has already heard, irrelevant pop culture references, prop gags with gratuitous violence, and a bunch of celebrity lookalikes who explain to you in the dialog what every one of the jokes and cultural references is, means, and why they think you should laugh at it you consumer pig.

You're probably asking right now, "Alex, why are you telling us about a movie you obviously want to bury in the center of the earth?"  Because most people suck at being funny.  And while I don't want to give the people responsible for these awful movies any money, I advise you to watch at least one of their films for free if you can because their screenplays are an itemized list of the myriad ways to NOT be funny.  All the same, here's a few cardinal rules to follow.

1.  Cultural references are not inherently funny.  Do you and your friends sometimes recite a beloved movie quote at one another?  That's something of an inside joke.  Telling a complete stranger that you drink their milkshake however is not funny.  It's a desperate cry for attention.  Do not do this.

2.  The structure of a joke is Setup-Setup-Punchline.  If you're going to tell a joke, there needs to be some kind of introduction and buildup leading to the pay-off.  Violence, profanity, and "randomness" are not a substitute for this structure, nor are they inherently witty on their own.  Speaking of...

3.  Random is not funny.  Ever.  If you ever get into your head that you can shortcut your path to comedy by talking about penguins and cheese or whatever, then you will die alone.  You'll look like a child begging for attention and possibly suffering from a head wound.

4.  If you ever say, "That's what she said," I will hurt you very, very badly. This one speaks for itself.  Say those words and you will roast in hell.

If you want to know more about comedy, post a question in the comments section and I'll do my best to help you out.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Urban Legends

In my book "Exalt of the Weird" I devoted a chapter to talking about how urban legends are pure plot, a lesson in distilled storytelling and allegory, and great fodder for magic and mentalism.  Today specifically, I want to briefly touch on using urban legends on a local scale.  If you can grab one of the Weird America series of your home state, there's plenty of material to work with.  For example, I'm still trying to think of a way to work the Ogua river monster into a routine.

When you stop to think of it, urban legends laid the groundwork for viral marketing.  It worked for The Blair Witch Project after all.  A lot of people actually believed that whole story about finding the camera of a missing film crew.  You may mock, but that doesn't change the fact that it worked.  And before that it was Cannibal Holocaust.  So many people were convinced that it was a real snuff film that the Italian police actually arrested director Rugero Diodato and wouldn't release him until he called in his cast to verify that they were still alive.  Spooky, no?

Just some food for thought.  Look into your local legends and myths and see if there's something you might be able to exploit.