Magic in the movies: Desperate Acts of Magic

2013 was a good year for movies about magicians, with the fairly high-profile releases of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Now You See Me. On the indie front, there’s Joe Tyler Gold and Tammy Caplan’s Desperate Acts of Magic.

I first came across this movie in 2010, when the team was raising funds for production. I was excited about it then, and now that it’s been released Joe was kind enough to send me a DVD for review.

What sets Desperate Acts of Magic apart from other magic movies is that it was made by and with magicians. Joe, who also stars in the film, is a magician himself and draws on his own performing experiences for some of the scenes. For me, part of the fun of watching was seeing familiar magicians and effects brought to the screen. Cuts are intentionally kept to a minimum, so the presentations are very close to what one would see in real life. I’ve attended a lot of magic conventions over the years and the movie gives a pretty accurate feel of what it’s like to be at one. (No surprise there — a few scenes were shot at an actual magic convention.)

Along with an obvious affection for magic and the (mostly) men who practice it, the film hits on the downsides of the art: the cliched costumes and presentations, the indignities of working gigs, and the casual sexism that so often relegates women to mere lovely assistants. The trailer’s declaration that magicians are “the third most-mocked profession” isn’t too far off the mark; the lead character’s decision to persist in magic anyway reflects the desire to rise above all that.

There’s obviously a lot here for magicians, but how about for people who don’t have entire drawers full of playing cards, half-dollars, and rubber appendages? I watched it with a non-magician friend who also enjoyed it, saying the movie exceeded her expectations. It’s a fun, light-hearted comedy, the tone of which accurately comes through in the trailer.

If you’re looking for a last-minute gift for the magician in your life, Desperate Acts of Magic definitely fits the bill. The DVD is available here and the movie also streams on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

Miscellaneous year end list 2012

Best new bar: Bellocq at the Hotel Modern in New Orleans. Pick any spirit you like from their modest but well-curated selection and they’ll craft a cobbler with it. The cobbler is an underrated drink and it’s very cool to see Bellocq revive it. (Opened December 2011.)

Best new spirit: Gamle Ode dill aquavit. I tasted many aquavits with many people in the second half of this year, and Gamle Ode was a consistent standout. Its dill aroma is spot on and it sips very nicely from the freezer or mixed into a simple Collins. Distribution is currently very limited but will hopefully expand.

Best bartending experience: Brewing Up Cocktails Spirited Dinner in New Orleans. 240+ cocktails in four courses, half of them using eggs, cranked out with the help of my collaborator Ezra, Andrew and Amanda from Seattle, and one very big immersion blender.

Best drinking experience: Sipping Scotch on the dock at my family’s place in the Michigan Upper Peninsula for the final time. I’ve visited every summer since birth, but we sold the place this year.

Most memorable dining experience: Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville.

Most memorable dish: A tom kha mousse kind of thing frozen with liquid nitrogen from Uchi/Uchiko at Feast Portland’s Night Market. It cast off pieces of itself like some kind of explosive geologic event while deliciously capturing the flavor of a classic Thai soup.

Best overall dinner: Restaurant St. Jack in Portland.

Favorite travel destination: Los Angeles.

Best magic performing experience: Successfully pulling off the Cups and Balls on the street. It’s a classic of magic with difficult angles in an uncontrolled environment. The situation was not often right to attempt it, and on a couple occasions it failed. Getting it right, however, is immensely satisfying.

Best reading experience: Arguably, the final anthology of essays from Christopher Hitchens. I know of no other writer who’s as consistently challenging or capable of making such a broad array of topics interesting. (Published in 2011, but I just recently picked it up.)

Best economics and policy book: A Capitalism for the People, Luigi Zingales. Briefly reviewed here.

Cocktail and spirit prediction for 2013: It’s hard to top last year’s Bone Luge prediction, but I’ll give it a shot: Aquavit. I’m obviously doing my own part to promote it, but there are other reasons to expect the spirit to become increasingly popular. Small distilleries need to generate revenue by making products that they can release with little or no ageing. Gin and vodka are the usual choices, but both of these markets are very competitive. The aquavit market is uncrowded and offers great opportunities for creativity with new botanical profiles. This is complemented by growing interest in the “New Nordic” cuisine.

A couple years ago, the only two domestic aquavits in constant production that I am aware of were Krogstad and North Shore. Now there is also the aged Krogstad, Sound Spirits, Gamle Ode, and a limited release from Bull Run. In 2013 I predict more new aquavits and more bartenders discovering the spirits’ versatility in cocktails.

Magician Cop

Not yet a movie… but I would watch it.

[Via iTricks.]

Come to RAW Artists in Portland

If you’re in Portland, you’ve had all summer to watch magic for free at First Thursdays and Last Thursdays. Now my frequent performing Grey Lerner and I are taking the show indoors. Good news: Indoors there’s a full bar! Bad news: Now you’ve gotta buy tickets. Fortunately tickets are only 10 bucks for a full night of entertainment that includes music, art, photography, fashion, and entertainment from an eclectic group of local creative talent. Plus you’ll be helping out your friends, as this is a great professional opportunity for us. We’d love to have your support at the October showcase and we each need to sell a few tickets. The show is October 18 from 8 pm to midnight at the Bossanova Ballroom in Portland, Oregon.

Tickets can be purchased from Grey here and from me here.

In the note below, Grey explains what this is all about, as does the video above. We hope to see you at Bossanova in a couple weeks!

To all my Friends,

I’ve got a great opportunity for some publicity, and I would sure appreciate your help. Publicity for what!? For my ongoing career as a magician!

A national organization called Raw ‘Natural Born Artists’ hosts a night of Art, Music, Fashion, and Performance Art once a month here is Portland at the BossaNova Club.

The venue is a great chance for some publicity and experience. I’m obliged to sell tickets to the show (no free lunch…damn), and they are $10 bucks each. I would greatly appreciate it if you’d support me and my artistic endeavors!

Please click away on the link to my page. Once there you can choose (if you’d be so cool) to purchase a ticket to the show. The essentials are taken care of: There’s a bar, there’ll be art, music, and interesting people. I would love to do some magic for you.

My buddy Jacob Grier and I will be wowing the crowd with close up and stand up magic to mystify and astonish. We were performing street magic at a local street fair here in town when the Raw talent scout ‘found us’. Perhaps this’ll be our next big break. Please try and make it to the party, and we’ll try to blow your mind.

If buying a ticket isn’t in the cards (oy!) then maybe you’d take a quick sec to click on the link anyway and continue clicking on the “Vote Now” button above the picture of me (everything is a competition). If I win, I’ll share the million dollar prize with you!


LightBlack Magic

Desperate Acts of Magic: Official Trailer

A couple years ago I posted about Desperate Acts of Magic, an independent film taking what appears to be a comedic yet loving look at the world of magic and magic conventions. Now that movie has been completed. Here’s the trailer:

It goes without saying that I would love to see this movie and hope we can get it to Portland. They’re raising funds for distribution here.

All I want for Christmas

[Via Tim Ellis, of course!]

Desperate Acts of Magic

“This is Jason. At age 15, he won first place at Magic Camp. Now his life sucks.”

I don’t know anything about this beyond what’s on the site, but I’ve always thought a Christopher Guest-style take on magic conventions would have great potential given all the quirky characters who attend them and the build-up to the final show.

[Via Magic Unlimited.]

Secret origins of White Knuckles?

By now you’ve probably seen the “White Knuckles” video from OK Go, and if not:

Is it just me, or is the opening sequence inspired by the amazing world of sport stacking?

The economics of playing cards

I’ve written a couple times about how changes in the design of currency impose costs on magicians by making it harder to use gaffs and putting existing gaffs out of date. There’s a similar dynamic at work with playing cards. Without getting into specifics, it’s no secret that trick cards exist. If a magician wants to incorporate gaffed cards into his act he’s going to want to buy them with a consistent design. For example, I decided many years ago to purchase red-backed gaffs whenever possible. If I want to be able to use them during a performance it’s best to have them all be one color; switching from a red deck to a blue deck and back again would arouse suspicion.

Similarly, all magicians benefit from defaulting to a common back design. If there were multiple, equally popular designs, different gaffs would be sold with different backs, making them incompatible with each other. We’re better off sticking with one design as the default. It’s a classic network externality: the more magicians who use a single design, the higher the value of that design to all of them. It’s even better if the design is also popular with laymen. That way the cards appear innocent and ungaffed decks can be purchased easily and cheaply.

Up until recently that was exactly how the magic card market worked. Due to some changes in the industry things are shifting a little. It will be interesting to watch how it plays out.

Trips and Squeezers

A dragon for Martin Gardner

Martin Gardner has died. From his New York Times obituary:

Mr. Gardner also wrote fiction, poetry, literary and film criticism, as well as puzzle books. He was a leading voice in refuting pseudoscientific theories, from ESP to flying saucers. He was so prolific and wide-ranging in his interests that critics speculated that there just had to be more than one of him.

His mathematical writings intrigued a generation of mathematicians, but he never took a college math course. If it seemed the only thing this polymath could not do was play music on a saw, rest assured that he could, and quite well.

“Martin Gardner is one of the great intellects produced in this country in the 20th century,” said Douglas Hofstadter, the cognitive scientist.

Gardner was a magician too. He wrote the Encyclopedia of Impromptu Magic; I knew him from his contributions to Magic magazine. Reading the above makes me curious about more of his work.

A few years ago I wrote about an optical illusion created in his honor by fellow magician and skeptic Jerry Andrus. It’s a papercraft dragon that produces an eerie effect by cleverly fooling our perception of shape. Experience it by downloading the file here. There’s also a video, but it’s worth taking a few minutes to make one for yourself.

Portland food and drink events

Apologies for the light posting last week, I’ve been hard at work with my new job and preparing for a few fun events coming up in Portland. First up is tonight’s Taste of the Nation event benefiting Share Our Strength. I’ll be there not as a mixologist but as a magician. This will be my first public performance since moving to Portland. Tickets are still available and there are lot of great restaurants involved, so there are plenty of reasons to come aside from watching me drop cards all over the floor trying to do tricks I haven’t done in years.

Then on Wednesday we’re celebrating Bols Genever’s Oregon launch with a punch party at Clyde Common with Jeffrey Morgenthaler. We’ll have two giant bowls of Bols punches out from 4-6 pm. Come join us for what’s sure to be a fun evening!

Magic money

New Hundred Dollar Bill

The Treasury has unveiled the new $100 bill. The redesign includes lots of new anti-counterfeiting measures, though as Megan McArdle notes this may not be a worthwhile effort:

In theory, currency counterfeiting causes mild inflation. In practice, the amount of currency that gets used in the United States is too small for counterfeiting to have any realistic impact on prices; these days, money is created not with the printing press, but in the electronic accounts of banks and the Federal Reserve. […]

What it actually does is transfer a small amount of seignorage revenues from the federal government to the counterfeiters. An anarchocapitalist might argue that this is as it should be–that the federal government’s monopoly on currency is illegal. I won’t go that far; the counterfeiters are, after all, free-riding on the full faith and trust of the US government. What I will suggest is that the trivial damage done by counterfeiters might not be worth making our national currency a laughingstock.

Regardless, counterfeiters aren’t the only victims here. Anything that makes life hard on counterfeiters tends also to make trouble for magicians. Gaffed props or effects that depend on a $100 bill blending in with smaller currency units will be rendered obsolete. They may be adaptable to new circumstances, but there’s a short-term cost. The situation is already pretty complicated for coins, as I wrote in 2008:

Perhaps that’s because we’re a secretive lot, but the truth is that these new designs can be a real pain for us magic guys. We’re sometimes inclined to use — you didn’t hear this from me, mind you — coins that have been altered and gaffed to fit our nefarious ends. To do this it helps to know what the coins in our audience’s pockets are going to look like. This used to be easy; they all looked the same. Now we’ve got 52 different possible quarters, 3 nickels, and 5 pennies that could show up. Paper currency could be old style or new. The Kennedy half-dollar has remained mercifully unchanged and is the size most suitable for sleight of hand manipulation, but no one carries it anymore. The dime alone remains reliable. Thanks, government, for giving us only the tiniest of American coins to work with.

If I ever run for president one of my campaign planks will be installing a magician to the Treasury. It would seal up the magic vote and with his advice we could secretly build all sorts of cool tricks right into the nation’s currency.

On “careers”

Jason Zengerle’s New Republic profile of Tucker Carlson is worth reading in full, but it’s this paragraph that stood out for me:

More than three years later, Carlson is still defending his “Dancing With the Stars” turn, if not his dancing ability. “Oh, I loved it,” he insists, professing that his recent trajectory has not bothered him in the slightest. “I never take the long view on my own career. I don’t even know that I have a career or have ever had one–and I’m not sure I would ever want one.”

This reminds me of an anecdote from Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin, whose interests had meandered from learning magic to playing the banjo to performing stand-up comedy, was finally earning his first appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as host:

I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. On one of my appearances, after he had done a solid impression of Goofy the cartoon dog, he leaned over to me during a commercial and whispered prophetically, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” He was right; twenty years later I did my teenage rope tricks in the movie ¡Three Amigos!.

Perhaps this is just rationalization — my income this week: a few bucks in Google ads — but I think there’s something to be said for doing whatever one finds most interesting at the time and accumulating a diverse set of skills. At least twice I’ve thought about settling into more stable careers and looking back I think I’d be missing out terribly if I had. As for whether I can make this erratic approach work long-term, well, that remains to be seen.

[Carlson link via TMN.]

The three best purchases I made this year

Ortlieb office bag — Early this year my trusty backpack finally wore out and I replaced it with a pannier bag. Taking my laptop off of my back and onto my bike has made cycling much more enjoyable. The bag is waterproof, which is a must in Portland. The weight isn’t much of an issue while riding, though it does make the bike a little unwieldy while walking it. The bag itself isn’t cheap and I needed to buy a rack and laptop sleeve too (with corduroy lining!), but the added time I’ve spent biking has been well worth it.

Rice cooker — I’m not one to stock up on excessive kitchen appliances, but when even Fuschia Dunlop wrote, “If I could have only one modern gadget in my kitchen, it would have to be an electric rice cooker” I thought it might be a tool worth having. And it has been, mainly for the benefits of consistency and not having to coordinate rice preparation too closely with the rest of a meal. Most of my cooking interests lean Asian anyway, so the ease of this tool has me in the kitchen more than I otherwise would be.

An unnamed magic pamphlet — I’ve spent thousands of dollars on magic books and videos over the past decade, but very few of those sources have been as useful as one $10 dollar pamphlet detailing a single card sleight that I came across this year. No, I’m not going to link to it. That would defeat the purpose.

That’s the thing about magicians

Magicians have to be prepared for everything. Everything.

[Via @CircusMagic.]

Finally, real life application for magic skills

billiard_ballsMany years ago when I was a wee lad just getting into magic one of the first sleight-of-hand tricks I taught myself was the Multiplying Billiard Balls. Given the size of my hands and the cheap, smooth-finished balls I was using, it was a difficult task, but I kept practicing and eventually I could control them all in the standard grip seen at left. Little did I know that this forgotten skill would find practical application in the drinking of whiskey:


The only difference is that in the Multiplying Billiard Balls the objects appear one after the other, while in the Disappearing Shots of Whiskey they vanish in rapid succession. This is usually followed by my most famous trick, the legendary Drunk Magician Fails Spectacularly to Find Your Selected Card.

[Thanks to Tim for the photo!]

Trips and Squeezers

After more than 10 years in magic I’ve accumulated a lot of playing cards. And I mean a lot. They’re under my bed, stacked on my dining table, scattered on book shelves, in my wallet, and of course there’s always one working deck in a steel case in my pocket. Whenever I need something offbeat I can usually find it. Last week though I had a need for cards that I couldn’t find in my collection. I needed four cards with visually different backs, similar face designs, good finish, poker sized, and with white borders. I was surprised that I couldn’t put it together, at least not without breaking up some sets of cards.

Bulldog SqueezersThis got me looking online for cards that would fit the bill. One deck that came to mind is the one in the image at left. I owned a couple of these cards but had no idea what they were called or where to buy more of them. The design is enigmatic: A menacing Moon in the sky, two dogs named Squeezer and Trip struggling against their chains to attack each other, and at bottom the phrase “There is a tie that binds us to our Homes”. What did it all mean?

I found the answer in an informative column from magician Mike Rogers. It turns out that the design commemorates what might now be an illegal anti-competitive agreement between merged card manufacturers:

The pack is a replica of a deck made in 1877 when two major card companies worked out a neat, but currently illegal, sales agreement. The deck was designed to commemorate the merger of the New York Consolidated Card Company and the A. Dougherty Company, to be known as Consolidated Dougherty. Card magicians will know this name from the Tally-Ho decks popularized by the New York magicians of the 40s, specifically Dai Vernon. With the merger came the nice agreement to split up sales territory with each staying on his own home ground. The design pictures two ferocious bulldogs straining toward each other at the chains that bind them to their dog houses. One dog’s collar says “Squeezer” and the other says “Trips” for the companies’ respective brands.

New York Consolidated made a brand called Squeezers with numbers in the corners like we use today. If you have ever cupped cards in your hand and sort of squeezed them into a fan to see the corner values you’ll quickly understand the name Squeezers. Poker players will almost always squeeze the hand into a fan so only the smallest part of the corners come into view. A. Dougherty had his own system. He reproduced the original card in the corners and called the brand Triplicate or Trips. Triplicates could be read three ways. Twice in the two corners and once by counting the center pips. Thus the name Triplicates, or what has become known as Trips. Hence, the names on the dogs’ collars. The dogs are chained to their houses to point up the agreement to remain on home turf for sales territories. Thus, “There is a tie that binds us to our homes.”

So now you know. The decks, known as “Bulldog Squeezers,” are reportedly still popular in Cajun parts of Louisiana, so if you live there you might be able to find them at retail. Otherwise you can do as I did and buy them online — assuming you have a use for strange cards with a story behind them, that is.