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The Prestige

"The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder..." - Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), The Prestige

Whenever someone comes up to me and points out "you tell lies for a living," I correct them that I am "in the business of bullshit." And when they demand to know the difference, or how I can possibly live with myself doing such a thing, I tell them to go watch The Prestige (starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and Michael Caine)... twice. It's a movie about stage magic, and you have to see it twice: once before you know the secret, and once after.

And if they still don't understand, I can't explain it to them. Nobody can.

There are no secrets. It's all known. Every last little bit of the puzzle has been put together long ago, and people are no more complicated than they ever were. It might be easier to do certain things, but those things were never hard.

Stage magic is such an excellent example for everything ever. When you take the process down to its simplest level, it's always something borderline retarded like:

  1. Give someone something
  2. Distract everybody with bullshit
  3. Announce what you gave them

It may sound strange, but that's a lot of card tricks right there. If you do it right, you can literally do exactly that - start talking about how easy card tricks really are, choose the eight of clubs out of a deck, and hand it to someone. Just keep talking, spread out the cards like you're going to ask someone to pick a card, then turn to the person you gave the eight of clubs and ask if he's sure that's the card he wants.

A shocking amount of the time, this person will believe he just picked the card from the deck himself. It fits all the available data. You were talking about cards, and about picking a card, and you're holding the cards out to him so he can pick one, and he already has a card. And now he's on the spot and he's confused and you're acting like he just picked a card, so he must have just picked a card. He will even swear all over the place that there's no way you could know what card it is. And a hack magician will then have him turn over the card to reveal that it is indeed the eight of clubs.

A dick magician will let the rest of the crowd call it as the eight of clubs.

But a good magician will look at them like they're all crazy, and say "how could you not remember it was the queen of hearts?" - which, of course, it turns out that it is. At which point a great magician would go on to say "I mean, I have the eight of clubs right here," and fan out the deck to reveal that every other card in it is the eight of clubs.

It's not about what you do. It's about how you do it. It's about presentation. You start with the pledge, move to the turn, and then go on to the prestige. You make a promise. You break the promise. And you deliver something better than the promise.

And the reason you do this is because nobody desires what you actually deliver.

If you walk up to someone on the street and say "hey, wanna see the queen of hearts?" nobody gives a shit.

And responding "well, what if I also show you a whole deck of eights of clubs?" will not make them any more interested.

Instead, you have to do what amounts to "hey, I'm going to tell you something; guess what it is... nope, actually, this - and also, that."

It's all about the process of revelation. The key elements have to be a surprise, but for best effect, the audience has to think they know what those elements are. It's the same in a movie; when you think you know the twist, but then you don't, you will like the movie more. You will think the movie is better.

But where a lot of people fuck up on this is simply trying to be all random and shit. They walk up and say "you know what?" and when you say "what?" they say "chicken butt," and then walk off as though they've somehow won something.

Actually, that's really kind of funny. So I guess they sort of did win something. I forget where I was going with that.