I was chatting to a juggler friend the other day about juggling and magic, and the similarities and differences thereof. And that reminded me of a piece I wrote for one of the Prestidigital editorials; issue 5, I think it was. Here’s an edited excerpt…

I used to be a regular attender at the British Juggling Conventions. I always had a great time at the BJC, and enjoy seeing the skill and dedication displayed by these guys. (Except Poi – essentially, placing a ball in a sock and whirling it around your head — which I believe is derived from an ancient Japanese word for too crap at juggling to catch things.)

But there are two types of jugglers. Pro’s and hobbyists, you might say, but it’s not as simple as that. And the difference certainly isn’t based on skill. There’s a term used in juggling circles: sports juggling. Mmmm, part of me wants to say, juggling is, or should be, entertainment. It comes from a long and hallowed tradition of circus and variety/vaudeville. Sport is about running around in circles, kicking balls, or some combination thereof. Mind you, a bit of club passing or some nifty diabolo work wouldn’t half liven up the Olympics.

OK, I’m probably being too harsh. If someone wants to chuck things around as a form of exercise that’s fine. The problem is when they do it on stage and expect it to be mistaken for entertainment. Great, you can juggle seven balls while hardly ever dropping one. That’s clever and I will admire the skill. For several seconds. But you haven’t got an act, even with a sequinned waistcoat and a blue spotlight. There has to be more… let’s hear it for fewer balls and more theatre?

Here’s a video of Chris Bliss juggling three balls to a Beatles song.

So have we got a new genre developing… ‘sports magic’? I hope not as this would be even lower down the entertainment scale than sports juggling, as often there isn’t even the skill to admire.

If you wish to indulge your desire to do tricks, without any thought of structure, narrative and all the other stuff that should go with them, that’s OK (through gritted teeth). But please don’t inflict them on anyone other than members of your immediate family, who hopefully will love you enough to indulge you for a little while, while hinting that you may profitably spend a little time discovering where your true talents lie.

And if that’s outside magic, well, you can always shrug and console yourself with the thought that you may have saved yourself — and others — some proportion of the discomforts and embarassments that beset us on life’s journey. And also, you’ll have a much better chance of attracting the apposite sex.

Within magic, too, we need to find a genre that suits us. For example, I abandoned my children’s magic act some years ago after discovering that many members of my young audience had not reached the level of intellectual maturity to fully appreciate the wonders I lay before them. My cabaret and close-up performances, however, continued for several years at carefully spaced intervals. (“This man has to be seen to be believed!” — Greaseborough Gazette)

Magic is first and foremost a form of theatre, whether your stage is the street, a table top, or the kind that comes with a proscenium arch and red velvet curtains. And the magic is in the theatre (the craft, not the building), and in you, never in the trick. Or maybe ultimately it happens in the hearts and minds of the spectators…

Maybe you disagree? Everyone has a right to be wrong. And perhaps I’ve exaggerated a little in the interests of readability and/or what I’ve been known to pass off as humour. Let me know what you think.

Maries-Georges-Jean Méliès, was born in Paris, where his family manufactured shoes, on December 8 1861. His early interest in  the arts led to a place at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he showed a particular interest in stage design and puppetry.

Méliès’ father wanted him to learn English so Georges continued his studies in London. In 1884 he attended a performance by Maskelyne and Cooke at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. This sparked his life-long interest in stage magic. His fascination with film began the following year after seeing a demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ camera. Apparently he tried to buy the machine, but was turned down. Undeterred, he travelled back to London and investigated the camera/projector of Robert Paul.

What happened next depends upon whose account you read: either he bought a machine from Paul, or he returned to Paris and built his own projector based on Paul’s design. Whichever the truth, we do know that he began screening his own film presentations on 4 April 1896. At first he showed other people’s films, but within a few months he was making and screening his own short films. At first these were one-reel views or event records, lasting about a minute.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After returning to Paris  from London he started work at his father’s shoe factory, taking over as manager when his father retired. The lure of the theatre was still there, however, and when the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin came up for sale in 1888 he bought it. Soon he was moving away from the simple cityscapes and began using his camera to record magic acts and gags.

We’ve all heard the (probably apocryphal) story of Méliès’ accidental discovery of the most basic camera trick in the fantasy film-makers’ armory: Apparently he was filming a street scene (in 1896) when the camera jammed. He sorted the problem out and continued filming. When he came to process the film Méliès must have been delighted to see the result: objects apparently changing, appearing and transforming instantaneously… a magician’s dream?

In 1897, he established a studio on a rooftop property in Montreuil. Actors performed in front of a painted set inspired by the conventions of magic and musical theatre. He directed 531 films between 1896 and 1914, ranging in length from one to forty minutes. In subject matter, these films are often similar to the shows that Méliès had been doing as a stage magician at the Robert-Houdin, containing “tricks” and impossible events, such as objects disappearing or changing size.

We now recognise Méliès’ importance in developing many technical and narrative techniques in early cinema. He was one of the first to use multiple exposure (see Un Homme de têtes, 1898), time-lapse, and dissolves in his films.

This is perhaps Méliès’ most famous film A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) made in 1902, which includes the celebrated scene in which a spaceship hits the eye of the man in the moon. We are told that agents of Thomas Edison bribed a theatre owner in London for a copy of A Trip to the Moon. Edison then made hundreds of copies and showed them in New York City. Méliès received no compensation. [Plus ca change… eh Roger?]

Like many of Méliès’ films, A Trip to the Moon, shot of course in black anbd white, was also sold in hand-coloured versions. Each of the 13,375 frames was labouriously hand tinted. The result is extraordinarily beautiful. The only known coloured version was discovered in a state of almost complete decomposition by the Spanish Filmoteca de Catalunya. A frame by frame restoration was begun in 1999 and completed in 2010, often by taking missing frames from the monochrome version and digitising them to match the original hand tinting. It premiered at Cannes in 2011, 109 years after its original release.

In 1913 Georges Méliès’ film company was forced into bankruptcy by the large French and American studios and his company was bought out of receivership by Pathé Frères. His beloved Theatre Robert Houdin was demolished. After being driven out of business Méliès became a toy salesman at the Gare Montparnasse. (Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret and set in the Gare Montparnasse, is something of a tribute to Méliès.)

Tragically, the importance of Méliès’ films was ignored and most of the cellulose stock was seized by the French Army seized to be melted down into boot heels during World War I. Many of the other films were sold to be recycled into new film. As a result many of these films do not exist today.

In 1932 the Cinema Society gave Méliès a home in Chateau D’Orly. In time, Méliès was rediscovered and honored for his work, eventually taking up stage performance again.

Georges Méliès was awarded the Légion d’honneur. He died in Paris on January 21 1938 and was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Legendary film-maker D.W. Griffith was once asked how important Méliès’ work was to him. He replied, “I owe him everything.”

[This post is based on an article which appeared in Issue 2 of PrestiDigital,  the world’s first multimedia magic magazine, accompanying a video of Méliès’ 1898 film The Four Troublesome Heads (Un homme de têtes).]

John Archer UkeNote for everyone in the Sheffield area (or beyond; it’ll be a night worth travelling for): John Archer, Pete Firman and Paul Tonkinson are appearing at The Jester Society Comedy Club at the Sheffield Library Theatre, Tudor Square, on Thursday, 8 October, 20:00 – 23:00.

Some may remember we featured an interview with the inimitable Mr Archer in Issue 2 of PrestiDigital (the world’s first multimedia magic magazine). Check it out!

I’ll be there. Click here for more details.

“If you love comedy, you’ll love this,” Jimmy Carr.

Well, it’s Friday 31 July, the final day of the 24th FISM World Championships of Magic in Beijing. At least I haven’t all that packing up to do. Missed it though.

We had confirmation yesterday that the next FISM, in 2012, will be in Blackpool. This was a pretty foregone conclusion as there were no other host applications, although I’d heard that the actual Convention location might have been Manchester rather than Blackpool itself. Certainly the Blackpool guys have had plenty of experience in organising a major magic convention so we’re looking forward to a good one. Hear, too, that over 400 tickets have already been sold!

Grand Prix winners this year are Soma (Hungary) for stage and Shawn Farquhar (Canada) for close-up. Magick regulars may recall I met and interviewed Shawn in Stockholm at the last FISM. See PrestiDigital 4 for his convention survival tips.

Soma performing his famous ‘phone manipulation act.

I understand Shawn’s act was based on his well-known Shape of my Heart routine.

I’m also pleased to bring you the news that First Prize in the Parlour Magic section went to Marc Oberon. Loungers will recall that Marc lectured here at the Magick Lounge a few months ago, opening with an extended version of of his ‘midas’ act which he performed in Beijing. (Love the expression parlour magic, incidentally — image of a performer with a pristine dicky performing amid antimacassars and aspidistras. Maybe more of us need to get in touch with our inner Hoffmann…)

Click here for a full winners’ list. The Genii Forums are worth checking out for some interesting FISM reports. Also keep an eye on FISM’s new website. I quote:

FISM™ is pleased to announce the launch of the new FISM™ website. This new portal is gathering all previous FISM™ websites in one single location. It has been designed to provide the users with everything that is relevant to FISM™ through a modern and user-friendly environment.

The new FISM™ website offers a wide range of materials, including background information about the history of FISM™, members and competitions as well as detailed explanation of the FISM™ statutes and management. An extensive set of links leads the users to the FISM™ store, TV and Video section and social networks such as facebook and myspace. It also gives them direct access to the websites of their each national FISM™ clubs. In addition, users can subscribe to the newsletter to be at the cutting edge of all topics related to FISM™. The new website will be the first important step to unify all the information in one place.

Saturdays in the Magick Lounge can be relied upon to cover a wide range of subjects of conversation. This week, perhaps as a result of matters arising from Marc Oberon’s lecture, a few of us fell to talking about the performance of magic. Which reminded me of something I touched upon in a recent PrestiDigital editorial.

I think we sometimes forget that the performance of a magic trick isn’t itself entertaining to most people.

The phrase ‘magic trick’ is perhaps something of an oxymoron. A trick isn’t magical, and more than it is generally entertaining. The entertainment in our craft — I hesitate to call it an art, for reasons I could easily return to with the minimum of encouragement — comes from the magic, not the trick.

Anyone can demonstrate — even perform — a trick; few can perform magic. Anyone who doesn’t understand what I mean should go to YouTube, type in the word ‘magic’ and wait for ennui to encompass. (I could put some links in here, but wouldn’t want to embarrass anyone who may grow out of it. Perhaps we should hope that they find the love of a good woman who will gently point out the error of their ways and lead them henceforth into honourable and useful employment. But maybe they’d have to ditch the card tricks first.)

Who is at fault. The dealers? We wish to sell our wares so we present them in the best light, and in the way we think will appeal to potential purchasers. Surely it should be enough to outline the effect as seen by an audience, and leave the customer/performer to make his decision based on whether that will fit his style and his act? Probably, and most dealers would go quickly broke if they operated on that basis.

We’re buying dreams (‘magic’?) to some extent, of course. In my teens when I first started to read magic catalogues and then attend conventions I read descriptions and watched demonstrations. And their power depended on their ability to trigger my mental ‘magician fantasies’. I wanted to be Channing Pollock, and later Chan Canasta. Of course most of us grow out of that, although perhaps not entirely as there’s an important aspirational element too.

Now, of course, we have even more powerful fantasy-triggering techniques. I’d always prefer to make a decision about buying a prop or trick based on reading a good description than watching a demonstration, but perhaps that’s just me. Now we have websites with MTV style performances — selling the sizzle rather than the sausage? Has the medium truly become the message?

Answers on a postcard… or just press the Comments link.