Look, I don't mean to come across as crass or insensitive, but I'm officially tired of hearing about Steve Jobs' legacy. I'm not saying he wasn't the visionary, creative genius we've been reading about or that the changes he brought to the human world aren't remarkable. But there are only so many words one can read and only so many lazy documentaries one can watch on this one guy. (Besides, I’ve read tens of thousands of words by writers famous, infamous and unknown, and none come closer to explaining Jobs' purpose, personality and legacy than the commencement speech that he himself delivered at Stanford University.)
So, when my friend Rich sent me a link to a Steve Jobs tribute video by a magician named Paul Gertner, I will admit to a little eye-rolling – that is, until I saw the video.
About halfway into "Blind Love: In Memory of Steve Jobs", a six-minute video featuring one of illusion's most talented figures, it hits you hard that this is no magic trick. Sure, we see the traditional moves and we watch familiar tools whiz by us – the deck of cards, the coins, the delicate unfolding of hands and fingers. But what stands out is the power of the story itself, and every sublime detail, every articulated nuance of emotion is conveyed in the most unusual way possible: through sleight-of-hand magic.
"Blind Love" couldn't possibly be mistaken for a feature film at just six minutes in length, but its theme – how technology has come to dominate our lives – and its kaleidoscope of sublime choreography takes the viewer through an emotional transformation that seems just as effective as it would be a feature. With a little help from an iPad and Tom Waits' classic "Grapefruit Moon," Paul Gertner weaves an unexpected spell of melancholy and longing, detailing one man's inner journey from love to the bittersweet celebration of loss.
I'm under no illusions that this routine was created especially for America's newly minted patron saint of technology. It wasn't. The choreography is far too complex to have been created in a matter of days and the technical preparation seems head-spinning when you start to deconstruct it. Therefore, it seems all the more remarkable and generous to me that Mr. Gertner, who makes his living performing at trade shows on behalf of companies like Apple, took his intimate, hard-won creation and handed it to the memory of Steve Jobs, and he did it free of charge!
Depending on who you are, the name Paul Gertner will either inspire wondrous amazement or utter indifference. Those in the former camp know him to be without a doubt one of the finest sleight-of-hand, close-up magicians in the world, and that's no hyperbole. For the purposes of this article, those in the latter camp sit uncomfortably, indeed, because it is likely they have never had the good fortune of witnessing his remarkable deceptions, whether in person or on television. (The late Johnny Carson, himself an amateur magician, sat in the former camp, having witnessed Paul's work up close and personal on the Tonight Show on three occasions.)
But, this piece doesn’t seek to burnish the man's reputation; he certainly doesn't need any help from me. I wanted to know how a man like Paul Gertner, a technical sleight-of-hand master, came to create a video as transcendently moving and fascinating as the one you saw above.
So, I called him and we talked about it.
Ken: Thanks for doing this. Talk about this type of performance art – the use of music and emotion in magic. I know David Copperfield does a little bit of this.
Paul: You're right. Copperfield has done a good bit with this angle, these ideas, in terms of using the music and a story. Magicians are always attempting to incorporate a story or emotion into magic [...] and I say attempting because a lot of times what magicians tend to do is they base everything on the trick. And if it fools you, that's all there is to it. But there is history of [illusionists] doing that. I'm certainly not the first one to attempt it. But it's not done as often as it should be.
Ken: When you created "Blind Love," did you tell yourself, "I want to move my audience. I want to speak to them in a way that I've never spoken to them before"?
Paul: Yes. In fact, this was designed for a magician audience initially and my thoughts were to confront them with the emotional choice that many performers make. That choice is between people – their relationships and so on – and their art. The initial routine had a different ending than the one we see now. The initial routine was designed to present a performer sitting with a deck of cards and thinking of the woman who he [is in] a relationship with. He had to make a choice between her and the cards. In fact, at the end of the routine, he did make a choice. In the original version, she ended up on the floor. It was a bit of a brutal ending. In the magic world there are magicians out there, very well-known magicians, that have made that choice, and I wanted to confront [them] and [have them] see themselves in that situation and say, “Oh my god. This is about me and [what] choice did I make.” Some magicians have made the same decision to have both, like I did – a career and a relationship. Some chose just the career. Some [have] said the magic just has to be a pastime and that family is more important.
Ken: That comes across in a section of the routine where you are dealing below a picture of your wife. You appear to have a choice between your two loves: your wife and your magic.
Paul: I'm doing at that point what magicians refer to as a “second deal.” It's a gambling technique. You aren't dealing the top card. You are dealing the one under [it]. The second card. Hence the name second deal. I'm [attempting] to grab the woman's photograph and
it is my wife's high school photo, and each time I attempt to, there is a flash on the screen of her image. Finally...I grab the card and the moment it's in my hand, my face on the screen morphs into her image just for a few seconds...and as I set her down she fades away. My thinking [is], what's going on at home? What am I missing by staying on the road?
[Note to reader: if you would like to watch Paul's home movies, go here.]
Ken: People are going to say that this trick was built in the editing room with digital effects. I want you to speak to those people directly. I know that's not true because you are completely blind in this routine. They only way to know where you are in the trick is to listen to the music and take your cues from that.
Paul: What you see there is what I'm performing live. Now, obviously, I shot a number of takes in the course of doing the routine. I'm shooting from a couple different angles only to give the best representation of the routine. When I showed it to my brother for the very first time on video, he looked at it and said, "Now, this isn't something you're going to do for anybody live. Right?"
Paul: I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Who did the C.G.I. for you? Who did the green-screen stuff? How are you creating that illusion of your face?" I said, "No, you're watching a live performance." So [there is] no trick photography. If you watch me do it live, that's what you'd see.
Ken: You're considered one of the finest technical sleight-of-hand magicians around. A friend of mine told me that you can force a card behind your back. Is that right?
[Note to the reader: When a magician asks you to "pick a card" as part of a magic trick, he is usually executing a classic "force." The magician has usually picked the card ahead of time, and with various techniques, he can induce you to choose the exact one he wants you to pick.]
Paul: Yeah. (Laughing)
Ken: You can force a card from behind your back!
Paul: Yeah, I can fan out a deck of cards behind my back and ask you reach in and pick a card. I can control what you take and make you feel like you've had a free choice.
Ken: That seems impossibly hard, like learning to read lips or something. Deaf people can read lips but that doesn't make it any less remarkable. This seems amazing to me.
Paul: Without revealing too much of a magic secret, there are certain techniques magicians learn on the fly. You use your audience as guinea pigs and after you've done it for five years, it gets to the point where it becomes natural.
Ken: Let's change course. Why Apple? Did Apple products change your life?
Paul: I bought one of the very first Apple computers in 1981, I think it was. I've had nothing but Apple my entire life. About 30 of them. I love Apple products.
Ken: What about this latest round of technologies? The target [market] is the regular guy on the street [as opposed to the techno-hobbyist] who wants to experience that Jetsons moment.
Paul: I'm fascinated by this new round [of technologies]. In the TEDx talk, I use the Arthur C. Clarke quote, "Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic." I tell my audience, “If today I was able to demonstrate some of the technologies you’ll be using 40 years from now, you’d walk out of the room thinking you'd seen the most amazing magic trick you've ever seen.” The technology we'll be using 40 years from now will be inconceivable to us while we sit here today. When I saw the iPad for the first time, I didn't want to see it right away, ‘cause I didn't want to buy one.
Paul: I couldn't afford to go home with another device. I didn't look at it for the first two or three months. And somebody showed it to me and I went out that night and bought one. Because I said to Cathy [Paul’s wife], it's like a [magic] trick. If I went into a magic shop and plunked that thing down on the counter and said, "This is a new trick," I'd pay thousands of dollars for that. I've paid thousands of dollars for [magic] tricks many times that didn't do half of what [the iPad] does. It was just shocking at the time that it was available to the general public.
Ken: What about Steve Jobs himself?
Paul: Yeah. I found him to be an interesting personality to keep an eye on. They say that he wasn't that technically brilliant. But he could envision what people would buy next. He had an interesting mind on him and on some level, it was magical thinking. I'm sorry I didn't get to meet him.
Ken Cancelosi lives in Dallas, Texas and is co-founder of Press Play.