Monday, September 12, 2011

That Voo Doo That You Do So Well

I don't know about you, but I think stage magic is cool. It takes so much talent and skill, and even though now we know it's a trick and we think we know how it's done, it's still impressive. To me, it's cool to see someone escape, or make your card appear out of nowhere, or see a rabbit pop out of a hat. I've been to the Magic Castle and sat less than two feet from a performer doing card tricks, and I still can't tell you how he did it. And that is amazing.

I really got hooked, as I'm sure many did, when I saw Houdini, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. It's a very romantic telling of the life of Houdini, from how he met his wife, Bess, to how he died. But it's so entertaining, especially when you're whatever young age I saw it at, that you just don't care. Tony Curtis is incredibly charming as Houdini, and his relationship with his on and off screen wife is pretty adorable. There's a whole scene where they do a trick where he levitates her on the edge of a broom, and the whole time they're bantering back and forth. It's very sweet and charming, making his dramatic death on stage all the more sad.

Check out this cool straight jacket scene from the movie:

And of course, the real deal:

After seeing the movie, I became pretty interested in magic and the whole era that Houdini lived through. I read an amazing biography on Houdini, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero, one of the more comprehensive and interesting books on the guy. While it puts forth a hard to believe idea that Houdini was an early CIA agent or spy, the rest of the details and information are fascinating. I had a job where I was able to read while I was working, and I just plowed through that book like there was no tomorrow.

After reading the book, I rewatched the Houdini movie and I realized just how heavily romanticized it was. I kept muttering, "That didn't happen," "That didn't happen," and, "That DEFINITELY didn't happen." But it's still a fun movie and I think an underrated one Tony Curtis' catalog. It's also one he's said to have really enjoyed doing, and he strongly identified with Houdini, both being the children of Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn.

I got a chance to see the Houdini exhibit here in Los Angeles, and it was amazing! It had tons of items that I had read about, including theater posters from the era that are fantastically over the top.
Will he hold out? Can he hold out?

It also featured quite a bit of modern art mixed in, most of which I liked. But there was one piece that just irked me good. It was a lengthy clip of a woman not escaping a straight jacket, but putting it on herself. When you initially watch it, all you think is "Huh, this lady can't pull off the trick. Guess it was really, really hard to do." As it turns out, she fails to get the straight jacket on, throws it on the ground and walks away. Which is, apparently, a feminist way of rejecting masculinity and the masculinity presented by Houdini.

First of all, it really just looks like she can't do the trick. And I'm not judging her for that. Houdini was almost impossibly fit and skilled at what he did, and there are few, man or woman, who can match that. Second of all, the whole video seems to imply that Houdini was some sort of HUGE misogynist, which he just wasn't. He was devoted to his mother, loved Bess (apart from some affairs, but rumor has it she cheated on him as well), and generally just didn't hate on women at all.

*"For my next trick, I'm going to prove that women are incapable of escape and math!"

*Absolutely not an actual quote.

But other than that, the exhibit was fantastic and well worth the visit. It's a traveling exhibit from the Jewish Museum of New York, so if it comes to your city, by all means go!

Also at the exhibit, they played clips from several Houdini movies besides the Tony Curtis one, including one from Fairy Tale: A True Story. The movie is loosely based on the two girls who claimed to have taken photographs of fairies in their garden. Houdini is played by Harvey Keitel in a few brief scenes where he meets the girls and talks with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole) about the photos (Doyle was a believer in the photos and had them published). I thought it was decent movie overall, Keitel and O'Toole are great in their parts, and it does briefly address the feud between Houdini and Doyle over Spiritualism.
I created one of the most logical characters in history, but I'm pretty sure that guy was a wizard.
Also, my mustache is fantastic.

Houdini was a steadfast skeptic, while Doyle was a firm believer in Spiritualism, a loose collection of beliefs that focused primarily on contacting ghosts and performing seances. Many people turned to it in the wake of World War I, including Doyle, who lost his son and several other members of his family. He even believed that Houdini himself was truly "magical" and capable of materializing and demateriliazing to perform his escapes. Houdini felt that it was all essentially a scam, preying on grieving people and using the simple trickery he often performed to produce communications from the spirit world. He traveled around debunking these seances and exposing the tricks of the trade.

The Secret Life of Houdini has a fantastic quote from Houdini after he performed a "psychic" trick for Doyle, which I thought was both interesting and a little heartbreaking that he had to put it so bluntly to his friend:

“Sir Arthur, I have devoted a lot of time and thought to this illusion; I have been working at it, on and off, all winter. I won't tell you how it was done, but I can assure you it was pure trickery. I did it by perfectly normal means. I devised it to show you what can be done along these lines. Now, I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily 'supernatural,' or the work of 'spirits,' just because you cannot explain them. This is as marvelous a demonstration as you have ever witnessed, given you under test conditions, and I can assure you that it was accomplished by trickery and by nothing else. Do, therefore, be careful in future, in endorsing phenomena just because you cannot explain them. I have given you this test to impress upon you the necessity of caution, and I sincerely hope that you will profit by it."

Doyle had his wife perform a seance for Houdini where his beloved mother supposedly wrote a letter to him in English. Too bad that Houdini's mom couldn't write in English and barely spoke it to begin with. This, among many other arguments about Spirtualism, led to the failure of their friendship and they became bitter enemies.

The history lesson is over, but if you paid attention, a lot of that information will come in to play very shortly.

One of the other clips they played at the exhibit was from a movie I had never heard of called Death Defying Acts, starring Guy Pearce. They showed a clip of Pearce doing the Chinese Water Torture escape. First I thought "How on earth did I miss this? I thought I was a Houdini super fan! Oh, how I've failed!"

Then I thought, "Guy Pearce is a good head taller than Houdini." I told my friend as much, and she replied "Well, Tony Curtis can't play Houdini forever!"

After that, I further thought, "Wait a minute, why haven't I seen or heard of this? That can't possibly be a good sign..."

Here is the plot description from IMDb:
"During Harry Houdini's tour of Britain in 1926, the master escapologist enters into a passionate affair with a Scottish psychic. The psychic and her daughter attempt to con Houdini during a highly publicized séance to contact his mother whose death has haunted him for many years. However all does not go to plan..."

Oh boy. Oh dear. If I thought the Tony Curtis movie was inaccurate, I can't even imagine what this one would be like. It sounds pretty cheesy, in a romantic melodrama sort of way. Especially considering how much of a skeptic Houdini was. If this movie tries to imply that he experienced some supernatural event not too long before his death (he died on Halloween in 1926) I'd like to refer the filmmakers to the quote above. And also, where the hell is Bess in all that? She was always, always with him (except that time he nailed Jack London's wife).

So this brings me to my first ever Oh My God, Rewind That! two parter! I will rent Death Defying Acts from Netflix and report back. Was it good? Was it bad? Was it so bad that it swung back around to good? Was it so utterly frustrating in its inaccuracy and conjecture that it resulted in my yelling at a TV for two hours?

Find out after I mail back Highlander, which will undoubtedly be a post unto itself!

Will it be a death defying act to watch this movie?
Also, ta-da! Full circle from all that information presented earlier!

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