Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Instant Orange Tree Trick in the Illusionist Wasn't Just a Hollywood Fiction

“Everything you have seen is an illusion. It’s a trick.” ~Eisenheim

The debate may go on for years. Just as the debate regarding who was the greatest magician, Houdini or Howard Thurston, once was all the buzz near a century ago, I think there will be an ongoing debate regarding the greatest Hollywood film about magic and magicians, though on a much smaller scale. I have already written about The Prestige, first of the two candidates, and this morning am making my case for The Illusionist.

The Greatest Film Ever About Magic: The Illusionist

From the opening notes of the film's score by Philip Glass I was enthralled. The feel of the film from the opening credits into the opening scene was itself so convincing, so perfectly rendered and magical. High expectations were created by this wonderfully mysterious, graphically aesthetic ambiance and the film delivered on that promise.

Bob Yari Productions
A Koppelman-Levien/Michael London Production
In Association with Contagious Entertainment
A Film by Neil Burger

If you do not know the film, the featured stars are Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel, though Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold helps the film.

As noted above, the opening creates a beautiful suspense. At two minutes in one is already prepared to weep. The melancholic beauty of the score runs beneath the skin directly into your veins, and is swiftly conveyed to nerves and heart.

In that first scene the magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is seated on a stage, concentrating intensely, illumined by a spotlight. We see him first from the point of view of the balcony, then from the side, then close up on his face, beads of sweat building on his face and forehead. Cut to audience, agitated, someone saying, “It’s her.” And then the police, in late nineteenth century garb, march in to take their stations about the stage as Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) declares, “I hereby arrest Eduard Abramovicz, also known as Eisenheim the Illusionist… on charges of disturbing public order, charlatanism and threats against the empire.”

The film then flashes back to show us how we came to this electrically charged moment. The film is a love story at its core. When Eduard was a poor boy from the lower class his childhood sweetheart was the upper crust Sophie (Jessica Biel).  The heart of the story is the great lengths to which Eduard will go to obtain his heart's desire.

But it also an inside look at what magicians were about, and how people respond. In one scene Eisenheim has been asked to entertain the Crown Prince and his guests at a private party. In this scene Eisenheim performs a number of stunning illusions, one of them being to make a small  orange tree grow and produce fruit, within minutes. The trick becomes a recurring theme in the film because Inspector Uhl keeps wanting to know how it is done.

What's astonishing to me is that this orange tree trick was actually one that Houdini once did. It went like this. At the Chicago World's Fair, before Houdini had really made a name for himself, he did this routine where he would be dressed like an Indian fakir and play a little flute or whatever he did while cross-legged on the ground trying to attract a small crowd. He had a sheet or something lightweight laid out and he would then take a seed and "plant" it. He would make music and there would be a slow rise underneath and he would peel back the sheet to show a six inch sprout. He covered it, played a little more and it grew, grew and became a small tree with fruit.

In other words, what we saw Hollywood do on film was an illusion that Houdini himself invented and performed as a young man.

One other touch I especially liked was the story within the story of how Eisenheim became Eisenheim. The tale of his meeting an old magician is straight out of the Borges tradition, and mystical realism, a form of story became the spark which lit the flame of my own inspiration for several of the stories in my newly published volume Unremembered Histories.

Meantime, if you've not seen the film, it's a wonderful journey and the payoff is satisfying.

May your own life continue to be filled with magic. 


David Saltman said...

Agree with you that The Illusionist is far better than The Prestige and certainly a contender for best film ever on magic. (How about Bergman, Fellini & Kurosawa, though?)

But about the orange tree - didn't Robert-Houdin do this long before Houdini?

ENNYMAN said...

Thanks for the comment... and yes, it may well have originated with Houdin. My recollection of the incident was that he learned that even with an amazing trick it takes more than that to make a name for oneself. People gather, then walk away... "Oh that was interesting."

Thanks for pointing that out. As for the other films you cite, maybe I should have suggested "Best Hollywood Film on magc." I am not familiar with the Kurosawa one you cite (I know of some of his others) ...

Anonymous said...

Such a beautiful movie. I've watched it again and again and cry buckets each and every time.
The score is deeply emotional, bitter sweet and moving. Even the opening piece leaves one with a sense of longing and a twist in the stomach, that feeling of loss before the film even begins.
The cinematography is beautiful, so well done that one is left feeling they alone are being shown the deepest secrets of Eisenheim's heart.
AlchemistNZ Soapmaker