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Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1994)


Strong Magic

Darwin Ortiz will no doubt already be known to most readers of Genii. This noted gambling expert, close-up card magician, and author has performed and lectured extensively to both the lay public and magicians throughout much of the world. His popular book Gambling Scams is a delightful read and invaluable source of material on its subject. His books for the conjuring community, Darwin Ortiz at the Card Table and The Annotated Erdnase are important contributions to the literature of card magic. I consider the latter title a "must-have" for any student newly approaching Erdnase's seminal text, and three routines from the former have become regular parts of my own professional repertoire. His remarkable technical proficiency has left many a card man gasping, and has had substantial influence upon a number of contemporary performers.

Thus it was with a great deal of anticipation and curiosity that I approached his latest volume, a work ostensibly devoted to the subject of its subtitle, "Creative Showmanship for the Close-up Magician." In short, this is a provocative volume. Reading it was, at times, downright unpleasant. Nevertheless, I highly recommend that, if you do any kind of close-up magic, and perhaps even if you only do other types of magic, you make it your business to read this book. I can say this because I believe that the palate of magic enthusiasts should be sufficiently broad so as to include work not always entirely agreeable. It can be worthwhile to read material which you find challenging, and it is certainly instructive to consider issues about which you have yet to fully form your own opinions. This is the context in which Strong Magic should be read—because this work is often disagreeable, and sometimes just plain wrong.

I also recommend the reading of Strong Magic because it presents a wealth of some of the most interesting and important questions all magicians should spend a great deal of time and effort considering. I dare say there is not a magician alive who could not benefit from reexamining his or her thinking concerning issues drawn from its Table of Contents, including Clarity, Conviction, Dramatic Structure, Character, Style, Structure, Unity, Variety, Audience Testing, Timing, Attention Control, and more.

The good news is that some of Mr. Ortiz's answers are useful models from which to extract and formulate our own. The bad news is that some of his proposed answers are not.

The terrible news is that the author seems to reverently believe that his answers are not only unerringly correct, but that there are no good alternatives.

Would that the bad news ended there, but unfortunately there is one more bonus. Other than the handful of mostly excellent performers that the author constantly cites as examples of successful showmen— including the likes of Al Goshman, Rene Lavand, Al Koran, Irv Weiner, Johnny Thompson and repeatedly himself (and albeit that somehow Kreskin managed to get on this list, which may say more about the author's grasp of mentalism than Mr. Kreskin's)—he goes to great lengths to establish that few other magi appear to have succeeded in comprehending the important issues he raises. I don't mind a man being sure of himself. For him to constantly remind us that he is equally sure that he has few equals is tiresome to the point of unpalatability.

The book is divided into four major parts, labeled The Effect, The Character, The Act, and The Audience, totaling 22 chapters, plus a substantive Prologue, and two Appendices. (An index would have been a very useful addition.) Tone aside—a point to which I will return—the content of The Effect section is largely outstanding and would be of great use to most any close-up magician, especially the author's discussion of the issues of Clarity and Conviction. Edward Tufte, the author of two landmark works on information design, has written that "Clarity is not everything, but there is little without it." Mr. Ortiz goes far in applying this valid dictum to the subject of conjuring.

Mr. Ortiz is often correct in his assessment, not only of questions, but of possible answers. As just one of many instances, in his discussion of character, and subsequently of scripting, he presents a strong argument in support of the statement that "your patter should be written out." If you doubt the correctness of this advice, I urge you to pay close attention to his analysis here, which includes a strong refutation of some of the usual objections.

But one of the chief flaws of this work is Mr. Ortiz's rather single-minded commitment to commercial success as an absolute goal. That is to say, he seems to think that the more commercially successful a given artist is, the better the artistic quality upon which that success is based. Mr. Ortiz speaks volumes about his own tastes—and therefore the tastes which shape the canons which he issues to his readers—when he compares "the pacing of an Ingmar Bergman film to the pacing of a Steven Spielberg film or the pacing of a Dostoyevsky novel to the pacing of a Robert Ludlum novel. Whatever you may think of them, you have to admit that Spielberg and Ludlum have much bigger audiences."

I find this is a rather astounding example of foot in mouth syndrome. "Whatever you may think of them" seems to strongly suggest that not only does Mr. Ortiz think little of them indeed, but that whatever anyone thinks of them matters not a whit in the fact of "bigger audiences." It is hard to imagine Messrs. Bergman and Dostoyevsky cringing deeply in the face of these blows; one suspects instead that perhaps they were aiming at other goals. Mr. Ortiz is certainly entitled to choose his own goals, as are Messrs. Spielberg and Ludlum, but Mr. Ortiz's failure to even acknowledge the existence, much less the value, of differing artistic goals and achievements does much to call into question the value of those he chooses to project upon the reader.

What Mr. Ortiz fails to note—over and over and over again throughout this work, until the oversight fairly screams from the page——is that tastes and goals, among both performers and audiences alike, often differ. That some magicians are not to Mr. Ortiz's personal tastes is decidedly beside the point; that some of those very magicians do wonderful work is a point which he seems unable to even conceive. Would that he had seriously and earnestly heeded his own advice: "when it comes to showmanship, don't listen to magicians; listen to your audiences. Don't even listen to this book—at least, not uncritically."

But that single, rather half-hearted caveat does little to counter-balance the overpowering didacticism that colors almost every dense page of this over-written, overwrought, over-lengthy text. Mr. Ortiz was likely a good debater in law school—he is a master at selecting evidence that solely supports his position, and ignoring anything contrary. But this book is not written economically, a skill practicing attorneys must effectively master. Had he applied his insistence on directness and brevity in conjuring presentation to his writings on the subject, we might have been spared much gnashing of teeth, not to say outright boredom. This is a book that could have benefited greatly from a year of patient re-writing, and the assistance of a determined and expert editor. For all of Mr. Ortiz's awareness of his performance audience, he seemed blithely unconscious of the fact that books have audiences too. The relentless conceit of his underlying tone will no doubt be wearying to even the most thick-skinned of his readership. Certainly I share some of Mr. Ortiz's disparaging views on the sub-culture of amateur and club magicians. But even I would not, in a work obviously intended to stand on the shelves of conjurors for generations to come, be so foolish as to constantly deride the very audience the book is intended for.

In discussing story-telling presentations, the author instructs us to always make the magician in the story—the performer—the hero of the tale. He cannot imagine why a performer such as Dai Vernon in his presentation for "Cutting the Aces" would cast himself as the person who learns a lesson from his better, or for that matter from a teacher. Yet the realms of literature and film and drama, from which Mr. Ortiz clearly loves to cite examples, in fact unmistakably demonstrate that the audience often identifies best with a character who is flawed. Mr. Ortiz cannot even conceive of himself suffering a loss in a portrayal of a contest with his own father! He cites the work of great movie stars in support of this refusal, including that of Clint Eastwood. But one of Clint Eastwood's most artistically accomplished films—yes, Mr. Ortiz, I realize not his greatest commercial success!—was Tightrope, in which he played a deeply flawed and morally ambiguous character. I can think of at these three other similar examples in Mr. Eastwood's films, and even in In the Line of Fire we see him huffing and puffing as a reflection of his age. We like him all the more for this. It makes him sympathetic, accessible—in a word, human. In the end he triumphs, of course, but he doesn't need to in every scene. If we do a magic show, we can also afford to show weakness in an individual scene—or trick—for we will triumph at the end of the show. And Mr. Ortiz does not acknowledge that even if we portray ourselves as losing a given conflict, we are still the ones who successfully perform the "winner's" trick! Does he really think the audience misses this obvious fact? Has he missed it?

Yet once again Mr. Ortiz's response can be imagined, indeed drawn directly, from his tastes. "Moral ambiguity is fine if you are Ingmar Bergman. However, the films of Steven Spielberg gross a great deal more at the box office, and nobody ever had any trouble figuring out who was the good guy and who was the bad guy in one of his movies. As a magical entertainer this is the kind of simple, gut-level entertainment you should be striving for."

This may be the type of magical entertainment he should be striving for, but it is not the kind of simple—or simple-minded—entertainment others are always striving for. It would have made reading this book a great deal more pleasant had he at least acknowledged that simple truth.

What other actors does Mr. Ortiz cite to support his claims? He writes, "Top movie stars will avoid film roles that might undermine the image they've built up. (You'll never see Chuck Norris playing a shy schoolteacher.)" Chuck Norris? This is the exemplar against which we must measure our own? Has Mr. Ortiz never heard of Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford, Jeff Bridges, even former action star Nick Nolte—men who are actually willing to do interesting and creative and artistic work—and have even managed to make a buck or two in the process? By refusing to acknowledge even obvious exceptions to his theories, Mr. Ortiz only succeeds in violently undermining his own credibility. Really, Mr. Ortiz—Chuck Norris...?

Indeed, for nearly every example of Mr. Ortiz's absolutist edicts, one can cite countless exceptions. Mr. Ortiz states that the final effect of Vernon's "Triumph" should simultaneously reveal both the righting of the deck and the face-up selection—exactly the opposite of Ricky Jay's wise choice. Mr. Ortiz says that we should never anthropomorphize the identities of the cards—he dislikes "tricks in which playing cards are personified"—as Mr. Jay does his signature routine for the MacDonald Aces, based upon Erdnase's story presentation, "The Coterie of Queens." Or, for that matter, as Eugene Burger does in his fabulous routine for Card Warp, wherein one card becomes a heretic in the era of the Spanish Inquisition, and one card becomes a torture device (not to mention that Mr. Burger becomes Torquemada—doubtless the smallest stretch of the three roles). No six-minute patter stories for one-minute effects? Peter Samuelson, one of the most original theatrical magicians of his generation, takes seven (extremely commercial) minutes in his stage act to perform the brief single transposition effect of the Mis-Made Parasol. Stating these rules arbitrarily is a formula for irrelevance and, ultimately, dismissal. These are not rules to live by—they are matters of taste.

Mr. Ortiz dislikes "using extraneous props is a card effect," but he adores David Roth's use of rainbows, felt "holes," coin boxes, tuning forks, et al in his work. Such contradictions abound throughout the text. The author acknowledges them exactly one time. He writes, "However, the prejudices I've described above are right for me. Following these biases has helped give my performances a distinctive and consistent look..." But he limits this acknowledgment solely to his discussion of style, rather than presenting it as broad perspective at the beginning of the book and further throughout. I am reminded, by contrast, of the writings of Eugene Burger, in which he often reminds the reader that he is not telling us what we should be doing, but rather, sharing with us what has worked for him. That is a wise man, who also produces extremely readable work. It is not that there are no wrong answers; there are many. But the fact that some answers are wrong does not mean that there cannot be more than one that is right.

Finally, for a man so manifestly certain of his rightness, it would have been vastly helpful if Mr. Ortiz had made rather more certain to actually be right, at least in the cases where objective reality allows for certainty. Albert Goshman never in his life opened a show by saying "Hi, I'm Al, and I'm going to magish for you." He always referred to himself as "Albert" in this setting. Always. Similarly, Mr. Ortiz generously bestows permission upon his readers to develop an idea that his himself never pursued, namely to build an entire close-up act based on "slum" magic from over-the-counter magic kits. For those not seeking Mr. Ortiz's permission, they may find the same idea described in Scott York's first lecture notes, an idea Mr. York attributes to a 1974 discussion with John Cornelius. And although I read this book in galley form, and hence have not commented on design and production issues, I dearly hope that someone has since proofread the book adequately when it comes to the spelling of the names of well- known magicians.

Mr. Ortiz is fond of pointing to what he has termed "The Fitzkee Fallacy...the belief that magic has no inherent entertainment value." While I largely agree with Mr. Fitzkee on this point—and the performance of any magic effect without the additions that Mr. Ortiz spends a great deal of time describing should largely demonstrate the truth of Fitzkee's premise—Mr. Fitzkee was certainly well-advised when, in the Introduction to his book Showmanship for Magicians, he cautioned that "The following pages, of course, set forth only my viewpoint on magic presentation." I once again encourage you to read Strong Magic by Darwin Ortiz. But I caution you to keep in mind what he lacks the wisdom to tell you: the questions are for us all to consider. The answers are for each of us to discover. Mr. Ortiz's answers work well for him, and it is quite possible that some of them may be right for you, too. But he could be wrong.

Hardcover. Publisher Kaufman & Greenberg (reviewed in galley)

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