The Illusionist: The Bamboozle has Captured Us

ed norton and jessica biel in the illusionist
Jessica Biel and Edward Norton in The

"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."
-Carl Sagan

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
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.

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