Jessica Biel and Edward Norton in The Illusionist
"One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve
been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the
bamboozle. The bamboozle has captured us. Once you give a charlatan
power over you, you almost never get it back."
I just watched David Blaine pull his heart out. On a website called LookatEntertainment, you can see a full segment of Last Call with Carson Daly where illusionist David Blaine puts his fingers to his chest, digs for a bit and then, with a flip of his wrist, rips the beating muscle out of his bloody breast. How sensationalist, how disgusting, how horrifying; how fascinating, how jaw-dropping, how mesmerizing. The bamboozle has captured us.
How often we become mindless sheep who find entertainment in the weirdest of places. Plane crashes, bus crashes, car crashes. People eating bugs, people drinking blood, people ingesting semen. Predators in the water, predators caught on tape, predators arrested for their heinous crimes. Tornadoes, flash floods, earthquakes. Ghosts, UFOs, The Loch Ness Monster.
Many filmmakers attempt to prey on our naivete. Some use more flair (Johnny Knoxville with Jackass 2, for example). Others attempt to stylize it (Brian DePalma with The Black Dahlia). And others still try to be more intelligent about it. The Illusionist, directed by Neil Burger, is one of these latter types of bamboozlers. Smart, sophisticated, sometimes elegant, and more often than not, hypnotic, The Illusionist plays on our minds by presenting its audience with a world that not many people understand and most are fascinated by: the world of illusion; the world of magic. It does so with grace, intensity and verve.
The Illusionist is very much a bamboozle. The film exposes how the creation of many a filmic world can be a farce, a lie, a captivating falsity. With its wonderful use of irises and wipes, its quick cutting and special effects, its use of period costuming and make-up, its slight use of sound effects and its textured cinematography, the film is reflexive in all aspects of the term. In fact, it is reminiscent of old Hollywood motion pictures, when they were just motion pictures and nothing more. Sound only becomes necessary for The Illusionist because we, as the audience, would find it somewhat disconcerting to sit through a modern-day silent picture. All that is missing are the title cards, prominently displaying the words said by all of our fine players. The Illusionist successfully attempts to be something that it could very well have been back in days of Lumiere, Melies and Griffith, and aptly brings us back to that time.
Both Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti are wonderful in this film. As Eisenheim, a late-nineteenth century Viennese illusionist, Norton gazes into the camera with undeniable power. He commands the screen and every scene. As Chief Inspector Uhl, Giamatti plays us, the audience member who wants to know Eisenheim’s secrets–who is puzzled and baffled by them, yet, at the same time, is completely enthralled and fixated on his unbelievable performance. He must know, like the (non)diegetic on-lookers, how everything is done. And, Norton, in a cool and calculated way, does not reveal his secrets until he knows when it is safe to do so. Not until it is all over do we know exactly what has happened and it is then, again, that the bamboozle has captured us.
Like Sagan, I claim that the bamboozle has captured us because I am just as much a dolt as everyone else. I say us because I too am caught in the web. I love Survivor. I think Cops is great late-night television. I love Hot Pursuit and Caught on Video specials. I watched several programs on 9/11 this year; I could not turn away. I own a video on tornadoes and am always looking at the Doppler radar on WeatherForYou.com for hurricanes and lighting storms. I watched David Blaine rip his heart out—twice. And, I really enjoyed The Illusionist. Oh, how the bamboozle has captured us; and, at the same time, how sweet it is.