The Trick With The Gun

The Trick With The Gun is a documentary which chronicles magician, escape artist and juggler Scott Hammell’s attempt at performing “The Bullet Catch”. This most dangerous of magic tricks, where a magician catches a bullet shot in his general direction. The trick has claimed upwards of two dozen lives since it was invented.

It’s hard to imagine how a film filled which so many likable and interesting characters could provide such an unpleasant viewing experience, but The Trick With The Gun somehow manages to pull it off in spades. As a self-described documentary, the film crosses ethical boundaries all over the place.

Magicians are drawn to tricks that appear dangerous, regardless of whether or not the danger is real. In the heat of the moment, if the performer can avoid death, or at least a massively inconvenient trip to the hospital, he (it’s always men, isn’t it?) is guaranteed a strong reaction. The same way as for Justin Bieber, there is no such thing as bad publicity; for a magician, there is no such thing as bad applause.

The problem is tricks whose dramatic impact hinges on the risk of physical harm — like the bullet catch or its modern relatives like variants of “Russian Roulette” — make no sense. The performer fails even if the trick works perfectly. That is because the most important step on the path to drama is convincing the audience you are stupid enough or ethically bankrupt enough to point an (allegedly) loaded weapon at a human being for the sake of entertainment. Establishing this conviction is the focus of most of the film.

Let me clarify. Occasionally, my friends will try to get me to try new things and expand my horizons by forcing me to watch reality television. I was watching a program which tracked Amish youth who were exploring away from their parents and naive about most of the world. On a trip to the beach, one of them went out swimming and quickly started drowning. The entire thing was captured by two cameras. Whatever relationship “reality” television has with actual reality, if someone were drowning, you would think that cameraperson would have the courtesy to step out from behind the camera and help. Now either the drowning is fake or the cameraman is a monster. The lesser of two evils is still evil.

Tonight, I spent the first half of the film awkwardly waiting for a grownup to walk by and smack some sense into someone. The film begins with a writer daring a magician at breakfast to do something extraordinary and his first instinct is to say “bullet catch”. His second instinct is to suggest that the writer be the one to fire the gun. If I suggest that anyone who says that the “Holy Grail” of magic is the Bullet Catch should be shot, is that irony or poetic justice?

They discuss the matter at a summer camp, so the kids have the opportunity to weigh in on how cool they think it would be and to place bets on the magician’s survival. Then they introduce the consulting team which consists of a theatrical mind reader, a comic variety performer and an expert on card tricks. No one ever comes out and says it, but it’s implied that he has a method of catching the bullet safely in hand… Provided that his co-star with no firearms training doesn’t accidentally shoot him in the head in rehearsal.

Now like any good magic trick, everything is not what it seems. Like with the Amish drowning “victim” there is enough there that the thoughtful viewer can infer there is more going on under the surface. Sadly, the hints come late enough that no amount of winks and nots will salvage anyone’s credibility.

While Scott claims to have been inspired by the Penn & Teller Bullet Catch, he seems to have missed the point. The story of their version of the trick (which Penn tells reasonably often and is not particularly secret) is one of really smart and safety conscious people exploring the aesthetic of simulated danger as a celebration of life. Penn likens it to a roller coaster. Conversely, one of the major drivers of the plot is Scott and his team deciding whether an author with no firearms training is the most reasonable choice to fire an assault rifle in a crowded theatre.

What’s deeply disturbing about the film is that it seems the secondary intent is to be used as part of motivational speaking presentations for students. I’m not sure the narrative of agreeing to do a dangerous stunt on a dare is the best allegory for youth setting goals and achieving their dreams.

It’s a shame, because the film itself is well put together and would be enjoyable if the people involved were portrayed as being so morally oblivious.

The Trick With The Gun is produced by Markham Street Films.

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For Keira at the Hamilton Fringe

Was at the Hamilton Fringe Festival yesterday and saw For Keira, which is a short one-person piece, part of the festival’s “Gallery Series”.

His company, Broken Soil Theatre, has produced shows in the Hamilton Fringe for the past three years. They seem to be moving in the direction of real life. The first, Jamie’s Gone, was a large cast semi-surreal production about an allegedly abducted child in a small town. The second, Places, was a much more straightforward love story (with some interesting nonheteronormative twists).

For Keira is a look at the frightening combination of technology and our legal system, where young people attempting to explore and understand their sexuality wind up unintentionally creating what is legally defined as child pornography. The story is told strictly from the point of view of one of the young people involved. It’s a solo confessional delivered into a video camera. It’s a point of view on an important issue rarely expressed. The piece isn’t offering answers, simply shining light on the issue itself.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Gallery series is awkward. At 20 minutes, the turnaround between shows is longer than the length of the shows themselves (and this gallery has nothing to look at except some white clay figurines of naked pig-men…)

For Keira has five performances left at the Hamilton Artists Inc. Gallery (155 James Street North, Hamilton) Tickets are available at the door ($8 with a $5 Fringe Backer button). The full schedule is available online.

Why Card Tricks are Important at the Hamilton Fringe

I went to go see magician Chris Bruce at the Hamilton Fringe Festival last night. His show, Why Card Tricks Are Important, is part of the Fringe’s “Gallery Series”. It’s an unusual collection of short shows — this one runs about twenty minutes — performed for much smaller audiences.

The show contains — spoiler alert — card tricks. In fact it contains nothing which could not be called a card trick. They are spiffy and well-executed card tricks and fiercely interactive.

The burning question is whether or not the show could succeed in convincing someone that card tricks are, in fact, important. A more interesting question might be could anything convince you that card tricks were important. The answer is, unless you are slightly deranged, no… Unless you accept a perverse artistic meta-definition of important which allows that frivolous pursuits are important as a celebration of their own right to exist. After all, if we have a species have evolved to the point where we have so thoroughly beaten back the threats of disease, malnutrition, predators and war that we have the free time to wonder what exactly Justin Bieber is up to, isn’t that a triumph worth celebrating?

For a magic show, or even a theatre presentation, it’s an awkward time frame. At twenty minutes it’s difficult to say hello and get through two substantive pieces before you’re taking your bows. You’re also spending more time getting your ticket and sitting in the theatre waiting for the show to start then you are watching the show. it would be better if someone could sit down and curate an hour or 90 minutes of complementary material so it feels like you got a little bang for your buck.

But if you’re heading to the Hamilton Fringe festival, engage in something frivolously important and pick a card.

Why Card Tricks are Important has five performances left at Hamilton Artists Inc at the Hamilton Fringe Festival. Tickets ($8 with a $5 Hamilton Fringe backer button) are available at the door or online.

Death and Dating at the Hamilton Fringe

First I’ll begin by saying I appreciate any production which allows me to walk up to the box office and say “One for Death please”. 

I first saw Death And Dating last fall under its original title, The Mom’s House Factor, as a recital piece when I did the Soulo Theatre class in Toronto. What began as a 10-minute piece has grown into a forty-five minute extravaganza which mourns breakups and celebrates karaoke and funny hats.
I suppose it falls under the category of tragicomedy, which I’m surprised my iPad recognizes as a legitimate word. It’s the story, told as a set of reminiscences and flashbacks of a woman subjected to a cruel and in humane break up… At his mom’s house. This takes quite a while to get over, as each flash forward in time shows that the pain hasn’t really gone away.

Death and Dating is a project to help make light of and put in perspective those unfortunate events which occupy an unhealthy space in our consciousness.  

The venue, which has been confusingly named a hardware store… Is not one. Although somewhat confusingly it contains a bar and the beer is clearly visible in the fridge. Given that large portions of the show take place in a karaoke bar inside the protagonist’s imagination, one would have hoped that for added realism, the bar could be open.

Death And Dating has 5 shows left at Mills Hardware (95 King Street East, Hamilton) Tickets $10 plus a Fringe backer button.

Written by Magdelana BB, Directed by Mark Kalzer

All the fun fact-shaped things at www.HamiltonFringe.ca. 

Ditching the Soul

I just finished a wonderful exploration of the nonexistence of the soul – The Soul Fallacy by Julien Musolino (whose name my iPad is constantly trying to auto-correcto to Mussolini, so I’ll just call him Julien to avoid accidentally offending him.)

Julien Musolino - The Soul Fallacy

Julien Musolino – The Soul Fallacy

The question as to whether or not human beings possess some sort of immortal soul has been settled for a long time. The defeating argument goes back at least as far as DesCartes and his correspondence with Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (how’s that for an obscure historical reference). Essentially the soul concept isn’t internally consistent. Any attempt to definite it leads almost immediately to contradictions; it won’t square with our understanding of cause and effect. So far the only way to rescue the concept of the soul from the philosophical grave has been to not think about it too much and hope nobody complains too vehemently.

Well this book is someone complaining vehemently. Julien goes through step by step and gently but firmly pushes aside every single argument you could think of for the existence of the human soul.

Full disclosure. Earlier this year, I sold my soul to a young Jewish man in exchange for a slice of pizza and an Orangina effectively turning me into a soulless monster. There were three reasons for this transaction. First, we wanted to conduct an empirical investigation into soul economics to see if the typical predictions made by religious economists about lightning strikes and assorted forms of smiting would come true. (Gladly, I remain verifiably unsmoten. Take that God!) I also wanted the pizza, which was quite good. And lastly, since someone else is not in control of my immortal soul, I have a basis for an insanity plea if I ever go on a murderous crime spree (stay tuned to FOX News for updates.) My thanks to the talented young lawyer who drafted the agreement on a napkin. 

I particularly enjoyed the book because it’s not a rant. It doesn’t consider those on the other side to be stupid or somehow inferior, merely misinformed. This book is an education. It takes you step by step laying out the arguments and evidence.

Possibly of even greater value, the book actually begins with a primer on how to consider and evaluate evidence. All too often, when a defender of faith of some stripe offers up “evidence” for their position, really what they’re doing is attempting to argue why the regular rules of evidence shouldn’t apply to them and their evidence should be allowed to slip through in spite of all the regular objections.

And the best part – Julien goes one step further and outlines why we don’t need the concept of a soul for morality or happiness or to hold a superior society. In fact, we’re better off without it.

So with my happy recommendation, go check it out and take the plunge and give up on the soul!

At the Fringe Part 1: Redefining Wonder

Last night I went to the Toronto Fringe and Chris Funk’s Redefining Wonder. I felt some sympathy because I’ve had my own Thursday 10PM opening night at a theatre festival, but the show came recommended to me so I went to go see.

Magic shows tend to be slightly out of place in theatre festivals. Maybe it’s just a phase, but independent theatre seems to lean such that if you’re not coping with abuse, death, coming out of the closet or thoughts of suicide, they don’t really want to hear from you. That’s not to say that some people don’t take those serious issues and address them in upbeat and genuinely uplifting ways, but a huge swath of the theatre community is unable to distinguish between sombre and serious. I remember reading the Summerworks program when I was accepted and my own show (which had to do with lying to people non-stop) was the single most cheerful thing in there.

Magic shows also have a tendency to be more like rock concerts – a collection of individual songs. If you add one in, take one out or mess with the order no one would really notice the difference. As such, they tend to be theatrical without necessarily being theatre.

All that being said, Redefining Wonder, is a wonderful and fun magic show. The protagonist, is a charming and disarming caricature of a stage magician; chuckling at his own bad puns, striking a few too many Copperfield-like poses, and dripping with a bit too much ego for someone with the complexion of a sixteen year old.  He calls himself the “wonderist” — a word he had to invent himself — so he appears at first blush to be a bit too pompous to be taken seriously. Then the magic will start to hit you. This is cutting edge stuff with a nice balance of sneaky gizmos, modern technology and good old fashioned cleverness.

What I appreciate most is that it’s magic for magic’s sake. I’m going to make your $50 appear inside this sealed back of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish because why not, not because of [insert awkward overextended metaphor here].

Although the show does nothing to “redefine” wonder (although one person sitting near me remarked audibly that she left feeling a mixture of astonishment and terror seeing what he could do) it’s certainly worth the climb up the stairs to the third floor Robert Gill Theatre (inside the UofT Bookstore building).

There are six shows left between now and July 11. Buy tickets to Redefining Wonder at the Toronto Fringe.

Magic Tonight Gets Snap’d

Our show was refigured recently in SNAPd Magazine (or just SNAP, depending on exactly which edition you’re reading). They’re a free print and online publication which covers the GTA by region. Magic Tonight was featured this month in both the Mississauga North and the College editions.

Live magic and fine dining were combined for an unforgettable night out, hosted by sleight-of-hand performer James Alan.

The magicians , James Alan, and special guests Michael Close and Matt DiSero performed an astonishing show from magnificent mind readers, to hilarious comedy magicians to breathtaking illusionists (sic). Guests enjoyed this magical night with delicious gourmet dining.

You can see pictures from the shows on the SNAPd websites (links above) and if you live in the areas, find the print edition which should be appearing in their stands shortly.

See a shrinking Michael Close, a rubber chicken wrangling Matt DiSero, an overexposed Ron Guttman lots of smiling people.

So Anyway… (The Book)

I’ve just finished reading the new memoir from the great John Cleese, So Anyway…

I have long had a special place in my heart for British comedy. When I’m setting up for my shows and need to do a sound check, rather than blandly recite “testing one two three”, I’m usually reciting passages from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

When I was much younger, my employer at the time asked me what I thought of “Monty Python” and I told him I didn’t really know what that was. It was autumn at the time and some time later I was handed a package for Christmas (I was too young to put two and two together at that point and they were exceptionally generous to me at that point and it could have been anything.) But Christmas morning I opened it to discover the complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus (in VHS – which does give you some sense of my age). I promptly watched the lot and fell in love.

John Cleese was a particular favourite from the troupe. His material was physically distinctive – you could spot Cleese from across the room, whereas if you were to put them in drag (which for those unfamiliar with Python, happens frequently) I couldn’t tell Terry Jones from Michael Palin. The Ministry of Silly Walks and the Self Defence Against an Attacker Armed With Fresh Fruit were particular favourites and I also enjoyed the iconic Parrot Sketch.

This clearly played a role in the decision to have Magic Tonight at The Bear in Pickering:

Silly Walking at The Bear

Silly Walking at The Bear

What I also discovered some many years later was that Cleese was fascinated by creativity and actually gives talks on the subject. (One such talk available here with lovely subtitles). It simultaneously strikes me as odd and makes complete sense how extremely funny people take the process of being funny so seriously. When they’re on stage (or camera or wherever) you are watching them be funny and you don’t get a sense of the thought process behind it. There really is an art and a science behind comedy, which you seldom realize because expert comic performers so rarely give the impression of being artful or scientific. Like magic, it’s one of those areas where the purpose of the skill is to disguise the fact that you have the skill in the first place.

The book is also a really valuable source of advice for performers – especially new performers. Every few pages, he offers up one of those “If only I had known that back when…” tidbits. Tips on writing, performing, rehearsing, getting over nerves, timing the delivery of a joke. While the memoir portion the memoir is interesting, it’s second to me as its usefulness a stage manual for life.

Most importantly the book is most definitely funny. If you want people to look at you funny (funnily?) put it on your iPad and read it on the treadmill at the gym and see what happens as you burst out laughing periodically.

And NOW for something completely different

SOULO Theatre – where I plot and scheme away, largely behind the scenes as the general manager – has just won Best Small Theatre Company from NOW Magazine’s Best of Toronto Reader’s Choice! Massive credit goes to the team that helped organize the 2014 SOULO Theatre Festival and massive thanks to everyone who voted over the past few months. It’s a tremendous honour.

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I also spent the afternoon earlier this week locked in a room with some wifi, unhealthy amounts of coffee and the Artistic Director, Tracey Erin Smith, planning updates to the soulo.ca website and there will be more interesting news coming out of that work shortly.

Tracey Erin Smith Thumbnail

Tracey Erin Smith (coffee not pictured)

Mooney on the Uncertainty Project

The Uncertainty Project was reviewed by Mooney on Theatre.

I highly recommend this show to anyone with even the slightest interest in magic. It provides a fun alternative to traditional theatre or a night out at the movies. James Alan: The Uncertainty Project is funny, interesting, and will leave you thinking afterwards. Seriously though, HOW DID HE DO THAT???

The full text of the review can be found here.

James Alan Uncertainty Project Poster