Saturday, July 15, 2006

Devil or Angel

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the A&E channel has lowered its standards considerably over the years. But I don't know how many years it took or how long its standards have been so low, because I never watched A&E much in the first place.

I've been watching it lately, because of one particular show. It's apparently been on for a few years, but I only discovered it recently, almost by accident. A few weeks ago, someone emailed me a video clip of a woman lying on a park bench and being separated into two pieces. A couple of days later, I found out that it was a clip from the show Criss Angel Mindfreak, which airs on A&E. So I started watching the show.

In case you've never heard of him, Criss Angel is a magician, and as far as I can tell, he's a pretty good one. As for the show itself, it can get a little irritating sometimes, because it can't decide if it wants to be a magic show or a reality show. The magic tricks are sometimes mind-boggling, but the behind-the-scenes interviews can get to be a little annoying.

Sometimes they interview his brother, so he can remind us how dangerous the stunt Criss is about to perform really is, and how he hopes Criss doesn't kill himself, and how Houdini used to do a lot of tricks that only looked dangerous, but Criss does tricks that really are dangerous. It's basically just a lot of hype.

When they interview Criss, it's a little better, but I still don't believe a lot of what he says. That's because he tells us only what he wants us to know, and it seems like he uses the same sort of misdirection and manipulation in his interviews that he uses when he's performing some trick. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the one thing I like most about his interviews is that he never refers to himself as a magician, but always as an illusionist.

In case all words mean pretty much the same to you, let me explain why these two are so different. A magician performs feats of magic -- not magic tricks, but actual verifiable magic. An illusionist performs magic tricks. That is to say, he has no magical powers -- he's just a garden-variety human being like you or me, except that he's good at fooling people.

If you want to know why this is important, just check out the Criss Angel online forums. A lot of people complain that he's not a real magician, he's just a fake. Of course he's a fake -- he says so himself. He doesn't perform real magic; he creates illusions. Then at the other end of the spectrum are the people who claim his magic is not only real, but that Criss Angel is actually The Devil Incarnate.

Fortunately, there don't seem to be too many people who believe that -- and those who do are usually ridiculed by those who don't -- but I remember people saying the same thing about David Blaine. (David Blaine, as you probably already know, is a magician who does all sorts of mind-boggling tricks when he isn't engaged in some impressive but idiotic publicity stunt.)

It's easy to see why some people think these guys are The Devil Incarnate -- they perform some tricks that don't seem humanly possible and other tricks that seem to defy the laws of physics. And when certain people witness something they can't begin to explain, their only response is to insist that The Devil must somehow be involved. People have been doing this for thousands of years -- maybe even longer -- so perhaps our brains are hard-wired to believe that whenever we see something inexplicable, an evil supernatural force must be involved.

But let's be rational for a moment. If The Devil walked among us, he wouldn't be spending his time passing effortlessly through plate glass windows or levitating someone or escaping from locked coffins. There's too much evil to be done to waste time on such inconsequential parlor tricks. And secondly, even if these tricks are real and not merely illusions, what makes people think they were performed by The Devil? Couldn't the magic have just as easily been performed by God? After all, there's nothing inherently evil about finding someone's card in a deck of cards or guessing what somebody was thinking about, so there's no reason to think the Devil was involved and God wasn't. (One could maintain, I suppose, that there is something inherently evil about sawing a person in half, but since no blood is shed and the person ultimately ends up back in one piece, that position is arguable.)

Anyway, I don't think I've ever seen a magician in a live show, but I've seen a few of them on TV. And one of the things I've noticed is that they all perform what amount to basically the same tricks -- they just each put their own unique signature on them to make them seem different. For example, there's the vanishing into thin air trick -- I've seen a lot of variations on this. Criss Angel has done several versions of this trick, one of which involved disappearing during a motorcycle jump.

The trick went like this: When he was in mid-air, between the two ramps, a huge fiery explosion was set off. He drove the motorcycle into the flame, but only the motorcycle came through the flame and landed on the other ramp. Criss Angel was nowhere to be found. But then, a few seconds later, he was in the middle of a crowd of spectators who were cheering him and applauding.

Pretty good trick, right?

Well, maybe, but in one of the online forums, according to someone who claimed to have seen the event live, here's what actually happened: Criss Angel was in the middle of a crowd of spectators who were cheering him and applauding. He then worked his way through the crowd, got on his motorcycle, and performed the jump. Afterward, just for spectacle, they created the explosion, and then they inexplicably dropped his motorcycle on the ramp from a crane.

So if this forum guy is to be believed, it was just a matter of editing, and if what he says is true, you shouldn't believe everything you see on TV, especially when it involves somebody disappearing into thin air. Of course, you probably shouldn't believe everything you read in online forums either. To be safe, you should do what I do: Try to look at the world as objectively as you can, without interpreting everything you see though some sort of ideological filter.

Anyway, the mid-air vanishing trick is a good example of the kind of elaborate spectacle he likes to present. But he sometimes does simple little tricks as well. For example, one time he levitated his cat during one of the behind-the-scenes segments. The cat was suspended in air looking sort of bored, but as far as I'm concerned, it was one of the more memorable tricks.

I'm sure some sort of wire was involved, but that's not the point. You could have given me the same wire and the same cat and I wouldn't have been able to make it look like I was levitating a cat. And that's one of the things that differentiates a good magician from a bad one.

Of course, he also does a lot of tricks that can't be so easily explained. And that's another differentiating characteristic.

So I like Criss Angel and I enjoy watching his show. Even when you know something is just a trick, if it's done well, it's still impressive.

So I would never complain in an online forum that the guy is a fake. One of the reasons is that I'm not an idiot, but the other reason is that I enjoy the show, even if I know he's not performing actual magic. I can be jaded and cynical about a lot of things, but I guess I'm also pretty easily impressed, especially by people who do things that I'm incapable of. So I'm not just impressed by magicians -- I'm also impressed by gymnasts, ice skaters, and violinists. Some of the things they do don't seem humanly possible. But that doesn't mean I think they're The Devil Incarnate or anything.