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In creating "Blind Love: In Memory of Steve Jobs," Illusionist Paul Gertner wonders how humans will process emotions in a digital realm

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by Ken Cancelosi
November 15, 2011 4:52 AM
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Paul Gertner's latest illusion is important not just because it is dedicated to Steve Jobs. It also raises certain questions about how humans will express emotions in a digital realm.

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.)

Paul Gertner with Johnny Carson


Penn and Teller and David Copperfield – acts who work on a larger scale – get more press because they play to big crowds. By its very nature, Paul Gertner's specialty, micromagic (or table magic), is an intimate and intricate affair traditionally performed sitting down at a table with a skeptical audience surrounding the magician on all sides, scrutinizing his illusions from mere inches away.

While researching Paul's career for this piece, I came across his most renowned creation: an ingenious variation on the well-worn cups and balls routine. In the past, magicians who had mastered this illusion gave themselves an advantage by using felt or rubber balls to make it easier to move them around. (Such balls don't make any noise when you load them under the cups.) But, as you can plainly see in this video, Paul doesn't give himself any advantage; he uses balls made of steel, and the result is thrilling. Take a look.
 


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?


Ken: It does come across.

Paul: Good.

Ken: The way I figured it, about 3 1/2 minutes of this routine is accomplished holding your breath. I read about the...secrecy surrounding the methodology of magicians. Is that something you want to talk about?

Paul: I'm trying to be careful not to reveal too much of the method. Because, hopefully, I'm not going to see too many people picking up and copying the ideas.

Ken: Did Tom Waits' “Grapefruit Moon” reach you in some way? How did you come to pick that one for this routine?

Paul: I had the idea for the act sitting on a plane going from Pittsburgh to L.A. I always wanted to do something with a Tom Waits tune. So, I started going through Tom Waits' music on my iPhone [...]. When I hit “Grapefruit Moon,” as I listened to the song, this whole routine came into my head. Within three hours, the exact routine was in my head. That hasn't happened too often. It was kind of a bolt of lightning.

Ken: To be clear, you thought of it in three hours and it took you how long to execute it?

Paul: Yeah, five months to put together. Before I could do it the first time, I had to build it. The little tree [in the video] took a month and a half to build. You don't go into a magic shop and buy one of those.


Ken: In this piece, there's plenty of acting on your part – most of it projected onto an iPad. I was struck that this appears to be the perfect metaphor for the way technology has changed the way we conduct our lives. The way we remember. The way we grieve. The way we fall in love. All of it projected into cyberspace. There is, sort of, a digital version of ourselves now that didn't exist 20 years ago. This feeds the idea of dedicating this piece to Steve Jobs, who brought these technologies together that changed our lives.

Paul: I think you’re right on target in terms of this whole idea of projecting our emotions into cyberspace. You see this on YouTube. It's very freeing on some level. I'm not an actor. I'm a magician and I've been taking acting lessons over the last ten years. Most magicians probably view me as more corporate and...business-like. So, when they see me do something like this, it's like – whoa! Where did that come from? For this piece, I was [acting] for a camera that was going to be on an iPad that I can't see. It frees you up to be totally different. It's sort of like an actor [getting into] a role and [letting] himself go. I can't see [the audience], and since I can't see them, I don't pull back in relationship to how the audience is reacting, and I think many times, actors do [exactly that]. In my case, [the performance] is already done. I've done it in my private little studio.

Are digital emotions just as valid as real ones? How will technology change the way humans use emotions — create them, exchange them, preserve them and relive them.


Ken: Let's zero in on this. Are digital emotions just as valid as real ones?

Paul: That's where it will be interesting to find out. I don't know. That's the big question mark...whether these digital emotions that I'm doing on the screen are able to connect with the audience. I don't know whether it does [connect] as well over the video. When I've done this act live, it's freaky, because people forget whether it's me [looking] through the screen at them and at the cards or if I'm not looking through the screen at the cards. I've gotten quite a few responses from magicians who have watched this online who have said, "Damn, I was halfway through the routine before I realized that he can't see anything. That's not him looking at me. That's the video." I just had a good friend write me, and he told me, "It's not connecting with me because of that wall there. The video."

Ken: That guy is nuts.

Paul: (Laughs)

Ken: I totally bought into the idea that I was looking at an expression of your digital self. That those emotions were valid. There is a bittersweetness to that performance which really affected me.

Paul: If it does comes through, [it's because] it's an honest performance. I've been through that phone call with my wife many, many times. Fortunately, we're still married. She's put up with a lot – a crazy performer who’s obsessed with magic.

Ken: How many magicians out there – and I'm talking about micromagic performers – how many are doing this kind of emotional storytelling?

Paul: There's a small handful. There's a gentleman named René Lavand from Argentina. Juan Tamariz from Spain. It's an honor to be considered in those categories. These are my heroes. I think it's kind of harder with close-up magic because you're so close to your audience. It's much easier to fool people with a card trick. [Creating a storyline] is much more risky because...you're baring your soul a little bit. When I did this the first time, my feet were shaking [...] because it was for a group of magicians in Buffalo, New York at a very exclusive close-up magic convention.

Ken: How long have you been in this business?

Paul: Since 1974.

Ken: Coming up on 40 years. How much of that time have you spent speaking to your audience emotionally, rather then just inspiring a sense of awe through your illusions?

Paul: Unfortunately, sad to say only within the last 10 years. I started working with an acting teacher. I started that in 2001. That opened me up toward being willing to do things a little different. Before that, I was more corporate. Very business-like. My magic was very good technically. My presentation was a bit more one-dimensional, though. I could fool you really bad. But, I wouldn't draw you in as much because I would not expose that much of myself. My magic was almost robotic at times. If I hadn't been exposed to acting class, I wouldn't have been able to come up with this routine.

Ken: You got past 50 and you decided to take more risks.

Paul: You look at things differently. I wish I would have taken acting class when I was 20. The weird thing you have to realize about magicians as performers is they do everything themselves. They write the script. They direct the show. They pick the music. Other performers have directors and composers. A magician is a solitary [profession].


Ken: Talk about how technology affected your life.

Paul: I recently did this act at a TEDx conference [Technology Entertainment and Design] and...I opened up the presentation by showing home movies that were filmed by my father on Super 8 in 1954, 1955, 1956 when I was a one-, two- and three-year-old, and he loved making movies. Do you remember the show Candid Camera?

Ken: Of course, Allen Funt.

Paul: He loved Candid Camera. My sense of reality was distorted at a very young age and in our house nothing was quite as it seemed. My father liked making these crazy, funny home movies with me, the kid, being the butt of most of the jokes. That was what created my interest in this world of magic and illusion. [In the movies] he was basically pulling magic tricks on me, but using editing. He did it with a Bell & Howell camera and a Cathcart editing machine. Today, he would be shocked to discover what I'm doing with an iPad. He wouldn't understand what an iPad was because he died at age 47 in 1969. So, that was the beginning of my experience with technology.

[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?"

Ken: (Laughs)

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.

Ken: (Laughs)

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.

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