Thursday, December 22, 2005

Penn & Teller's Magic & Mystery Tour

It was either my sixth or my seventh Christmas, when my aunt introduced our family to her new husband. He was a friendly guy with a warm smile, but his immediate task was to endear himself to my brother and me. This he did by reaching into my brother's mouth and fetching a quarter (which he gave back, telling the little duffer not to keep his money there).

Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a magician!

Over the next few years I received several magic kits to aid me in my professional quest. I took a stab at deciphering the enclosed written instructions, and tried out a few tricks on my mother (who made a show of being impressed) and my siblings (who made a show of being unimpressed). The difficult truth I finally had to face was when it came to sleight-of-hand, I was all thumbs.

This certainly put a damper on my initial sense of calling. Adding to that was the CBC's annual habit of televising a Doug Henning show. I was originally very impressed with the man's mastery of illusion. That cat did the strangest stuff. He made a show of sawing not just one, but two women in half. Then he shuffled their pieces and put them back together again, so that when he finally released the gals from their cabinets, their lower halves were clothed in the other's slacks and shoes (the cabinets were also slim-line, and propped on gurneys, so the audience could see Henning's legs and feet the entire time).

After prolonged exposure, however, I lost interest. Henning may have been a master, but he was also creepy -- and not in an entertaining way, either. This elfin character seemed unnaturally energetic, as if his efforts to persuade by visual trickery were slowing him down and testing his own patience.

I believe that's the universal curse of professional magicians (or "illusionists"): their unpleasant personalities. This deficit of character makes sense, in a way: these guys (and this is a field still dominated by men) make their living by fooling slack-jawed audiences. In fact, any stage-show is invariably just a minor tweaking of some very basic tricks that have been around for a very long time. The conjuror knows this -- if the audience can't figure it out, he walks home with a pocket full of money he's made off their willful ignorance.

This is why I love Penn & Teller. These guys are meta-illusionists. They show you how the trick is done, then they do it in a way that defies the explanation you've just swallowed. They're consummate professionals. They established the parameters of their shtick early in the game (the diminutive and sly Teller doesn't speak, while Penn is verbose and overbearing), and they have never strayed from it. Why should they? It works, and shows no signs of creaky overuse!

Alas, they seem to have permanently de-camped to Vegas -- the only act that could possibly draw me there. So no more road shows for them. And until they release a DVD of their Vegas show (c'mon, you guys: Cirque du Soleil seems to come up with a television special every time they change their leotards -- surely you can throw us one lousy, chewed-over bone!), I'll just have to content myself with the delightful Penn & Teller's Magic & Mystery Tour.

P&TM&MT is a jolly documentary following these two entertainers as they seek out the sources of the world's oldest illusions, and the still-devout keeprs of that flame. It's a terrifically entertaining education that gives the audience the inside scoop, while retaining some of the mystery that the true masters of the art still engender (there is one act -- a Chinese dance of masks -- that flummoxes the two, even after they replay the videotape in slow-motion). Between destinations, we're treated to quiet moments when the duo try to retain their western perspective (at one point, Teller suffers a genuinely hysterical meltdown as he faces his umpteenth supper of canned tuna and bottled water).

I made this wish too late to see it stuffed in any stocking, but no matter: I'll likely pick it up on my own recognizance. It's my recommendation to you, though, for your holiday viewing pleasure.

Post-Script: their TV series Bullshit! is worthy viewing, too, but not one I'll be watching in the next few weeks. As ever, during this season the Canadian airwaves are filled with the verbal parry-and-thrust of people earnestly inflating and deflating each other's mythology. It's noisy, unpleasant, and it distracts me from the things that matter, so I'm taking a temporary break from the whole "dialogue".

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