Blessay 53: Magic

I’ve just watched the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts again – the blu-ray edition, on my projector screen, at home. It’s never looked better. There’s some film grain and slight pixilation but the colour and definition have been sharpened. The technology has produced some ‘magical’ improvement. Not alchemy but a shiny cleanup to draw me further into its children’s version of Greek myths. Jason is not the over-real sensation of CGI special effects but a satisfying, not-quite real result of stop motion model animation. And the film magician responsible is the legendary Ray Harryhausen. (1920 -2013)

In the early 90’s at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead I went along to experience a Harryhausen fest. Ray, himself, was in attendance for a talk, a screening of his early work and Jason and the Argonauts. But it was the interval that really mattered. For then Harryhausen, a very affable man, laid out on a desk, a sample of the models he’d memorably brought to life (Model animation was very long and exacting process of stop and photograph, move a bit, photograph again, adjust an arm and a leg etc.) A diminutive skeleton, on leave from its gaunt army, stood armed with sword and shield. “You can hold it in your hands, if you like.” said a smiling Ray. I picked up the 6 inch high menace and placed it in the palm, of my other hand, apprehensive that Harryhausen could command it to attack my fingers. Yet his skeletal soldier remained frozen, letting me admire its detail before I returned it to its creator.

Perhaps I’m mistaken but I was convinced that I was the only person, that evening, who handled a model. About 95% of the audience were young animators who hadn’t dared to be so physical. They were the newly emerging computer-savvy generation who well understood how the magician had achieved his effects. And that the age of Harryhausen’s stop motion animation was in decline. Very soon the New World of actors and objects, filmed against a green space, in a studio, transmuted to computer screen, and omnivorously clicked over by a mouse, would take-over.

Since the beginning of cinema there’s been a fascination with the filmmaker (special effects or not) as a magician. The tricks of Georges Melies still enchant us (That moon with a rocket stuck on its face is a universal icon.) Few people on the street could name its creator, yet we own his moon, with its injured eye, in our waking dreams as much as the smiling Mona Lisa reinforcing her enigmatic presence.

Marlene Dietrich once appeared in an Orson Welles’s TV magic show. She’d volunteered to be a lady sawn in half. She miraculously survived and Orson roared his thanks as loudly as the saw. As a young child I could never figure out how that was done: with my mind gruesomely tipping over into a bloody accident that was somehow covered up as they gagged her screaming, mopped up the mess and produced a Dietrich look-alike.

Yet, apart from reading fairy tales, my notion of magic came from a comic book version of The Arabian Nights and the Jewish man, with the bald head, carrying a tray of  toys and balloons, who appeared once a month on the streets of Liverpool 8.

The first taught me the responsibility of magic and the second the magic of a playful encounter.

I’d always enjoyed making up lists of three wishes then I stopped (in adolescence) when I realised that what the genie could grant you could be problematic. Most children and adults used to immediately wish for loads of money in paper form or coins (Today it would be the magic of an electronic bank deposit that is never ever queried). All very well to have the cash at home until the taxman knocks on your door and asks you to explain your sudden great wealth. A wish can contain a sting in the tail, an unforeseen consequence, great upset and deep regret. A wish cannot be undone. But you can wish not to have the power of wishing.

I once considered wishing to speak and read every language, still spoken, in the world and even the dead tongues of ancient civilisations or recently erased cultures. Yet if that were ever possible then it would result in a terrible Tower of Babel nightmare. You might find it impossible to decide what language to employ on a daily basis. Your brain tortured by a babble of competing words to express yourself. Italian? German? French? English? Japanese, Ancient Greek or Sanskrit? Hundreds of words to choose from and you cannot make a choice and find what’s most appropriate, overcome the linguistic chaos and make the right rational decision.  But is that possible? There can never be one choice or one way to understand the world: for its consciousness and politics are too fluid and changing: as George Steiner said in his book After Babel.

“The underlying grammar of all human speech forms is a mapping of the world.”

“A single genuine exception, in any language whether living or dead, can invalidate the whole concept of a grammatical universal.”

You’d have to make a second wish to have constraints placed on your power. However the problem with wishes is that they have to be carefully considered alongside of qualifications of intent, cracked open to allow a “but”, words placed in parenthesis, and the inclusion of a “yet” and “however” in certain circumstances. The power to know all languages would have to be scrutinized by lawyers till it was water-tight. Perhaps the granting of a wish or conjuring up of an occult force to reveal our hidden desires is not such a good idea after all. The magic realisation of wishing cannot be that simple or unsullied given the complexity of the world.

It’s easier to stick with make-believe and pleasurably fantasise on the wish being lucidly granted and fully realised: that your deep aims accompany effort, will, belief and ambition to realise the most meaningful project for you. Not to achieve the entire dream but as much as humanly possible, a large chunk of the aspiration. And with opportunities and luck, but not magic, if you get there then that’s fine though you may, or may not, become a happier person.

Magic has to be attempted in a world that mundanely denies its existence. I love the very human scene near the end of Arthur Penn’s film Little Big Man. Indian Chief Dan George lies down on top of the mountain to die. The clouds darken and rain hits his face. He opens his eyes, realising that he can’t magically summon up his own death. It will come when it’s the right time. To the gods, Dustin Hoffman and himself George admits.

“Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

I have to return to the magic of the man in the street of my 50s childhood. No qualifying commas round the word magic here. This kind of itinerant tramp, dispossessed man, who may have had a mental-heath problem or excessive blind innocence, walking the streets with cheap toys, to entertain the kids, has long gone. Both parents and children sensed no paedophile threat. “It’s all right, he’s harmless.” Is what people said. And no evidence, or incident, arose for us to think otherwise.

He made funny whistling noises, played a harmonica; caused pennies to appear from his ears, balloons were blown up too big and many silly jokes thrown at you. It was a crude and innocent magic that held you in its spell. My friends and I magically imagined that it was us and not him controlling the performance. Then the magic could work easefully in the moment: the three genie wishes disappearing, transformed into one wish-fulfilled moment of joy without the blight of complications, guilt or responsibility.



One thought on “Blessay 53: Magic

  1. A delightful and thought-provoking blessay. Thank you.

    A variant on the three-wishes story which has haunted me since I first read it as a teenager is “The Monkey’s Paw” by W W Jacobs (frequently anthologised and not-infrequently filmed). It’s a wonderfully creepy story, but also – I think – rather a cruel one. It takes its careful-what-you-wish-for premise somwehere especially grim.

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