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November 28, 2012
April 11, 2010
The truly amazing thing about Criss Angel: Believe, the Cirque du Soleil-branded show at the Luxor in Las Vegas, is that it manages to fail in so many different ways at once. It fails as a magic show. It fails as a Cirque extravaganza. It fails as a comedy act. Just about the only thing it succeeds at is failure.
Prior to attending the show, I had almost no exposure to Criss Angel. I'd seen posters for his TV show, perhaps a commercial or two, but I'd never seen him perform. My impression was that he was kind of a Goth illusionist, a stage magician with eye shadow and attitude. If his Luxor show is any indication, what he is not is a showman. I have never seen a magic act with such poor staging, or one demonstrating less understanding of how to build suspense or create wonder.
There's an old scriptwriting rule in Hollywood: If you're going to fire a gun in act three, you have to show it to the audience in act one. Angel always jumped right to the third act. Giant medieval apparati wheeled onto the stage amidst fog and shadow, and before the audience could really take in all the moving parts and anticipate what was coming, strobes would flash and Angel would appear in the device's clutches. Without the setup, the effect fell completely flat.
The name of the show is Believe, but there was no effort to make the audience believe in any of his tricks. Magic is a really tough business these days. We're all used to seeing incredible effects in films and on TV. We know how easy it is to alter a photograph. Modern technology makes miracles of the past completely mundane. So for an illusion to work, for the audience to drop its collective jaw and gape in unfathomable wonder at the impossible, the magician has to sell it. I may not know how the trick is done, but I might think I know. Even if I'm wrong, there's no magic if I think I'm right. The magician has to anticipate how his audience will think the trick is done, then prove to them that it couldn't possibly be done that way. When a magician levitates someone, they usually pass a ring along the person's body to show there aren't any wires. When a magician produces a shower of cards, he shows there's nothing up his sleeve. Most of the time Angel failed to follow these basics.
Many of the big illusions happened at the rear of the stage, as far from the audience as possible. With the lighting, fog, and set, there was no clear view. Who knows how many black-clad assistants were lurking back there? Who knows how many trap doors were concealed? The best magic is done in the full light of day, so to speak, as close to the audience as possible. I'm going to think there's someone behind you unless you show me there isn't.
At one point, without any setup or preamble, he walked down the face of a vertical wall, then spread his arms and thrust out his chest dramatically, all but proclaiming, "Magic!". Anyone who's seen Cirque du Soleil is very familiar with this kind of wire work. If the intent was to present this as an illusion, you've got to get me to think no wires are involved. He didn't even try. If it's just a visual stunt, then don't try to milk applause from the audience as if you'd just parted the Red Sea.
I was a minor magic buff when I was younger. I performed some magic, even doing a couple of birthday parties once upon a time. I shopped at the famous Tannen's magic store in New York. I caught every televised magic special. My all-time favorite illusion is Houdini's Metamorphosis. You've seen it a bunch of times-- the magician's hands and feet are shackled, he's tied in a sack, the sack is put in locked box, an assistant climbs atop the box, and raises a curtain around the box and herself. "One..." she lowers the curtain and raises it back above her head. "Two..." She does it again. "Three, it's me!" Suddenly the curtain drops and it's the magician atop the box, with the assistant now shackled and bagged inside the box. Angel's version of this illusion was a disaster. He stressed that he would perform the fastest version ever, without hiding behind a curtain. But it wasn't the metamorphosis itself that was fast. He skipped a bunch of steps. He didn't show us the empty box first and try to convince us there were no trap doors. He didn't even shackle himself, or put himself in a bag-- he merely stepped into the box and had it closed and roped shut. In lieu of a curtain, he used a massive blast of fog and flashing strobe lights that both completely obscured the action and blinded the audience, so that we really couldn't see what was going on for at least 3 seconds. It was easily the worst Metamorphosis I've ever seen.
Apparently his TV show has run for five seasons, so he must do something right. But on the stage Criss Angel exhibited no charisma, charm, or rapport with the audience. His biggest trick was bringing 40-year-old patter back from the dead. He actually uttered lines like, "You've been a great audience," "You're one of the best audiences we've ever had," and "You're a good kid." He repeatedly addressed the audience as "folks". Who does that anymore? He talked at the audience rather than to them. When he brought a teenager up on stage, his script was awkward and inappropriate. I prayed for Jaye P. Morgan or Jamie Farr to dance on stage and put us out of our misery with a swift strike of a gong.
So much for the magic. What about the Cirque? The show began with about 10 minutes of horrible clown buffoonery. It seemed like the same schtick that preceded Ka, another Cirque show, when we saw it about three years ago. A couple of times during the show a bunch of costumed dancers in rabbit masks frolicked on stage in time with pseudo-creepy music. And really, that was about it. No acrobatics, no flying wire work, none of the signature Cirque du Soleil touches. Just bad theater.
I love magic. I appreciate the artistry and skill of Cirque du Soleil. The union of the two should have been a showstopper. Instead the show should have been stopped before it ever opened to the public. If you find yourself in Vegas, save your time and money.
January 22, 2009
In a private discussion group I'm part of, a thread today involved the recent Jedi's Path: A Game of Life game. The issue was that the spinner in the game apparently doesn't work very well-- so much so that one of the game's own designers handed out ten-sided dice to his kids when he tried it recently.
This boggles the mind.
The spinner is The Game of Life. I'm 40. I haven't played Life in over 30 years. But I can still vividly hear the whizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz of that spinner. It's a sound of visceral joy. Grabbing hold of that white knob, giving it a hearty twirl, listening to that sound and watching the wheel come to rest with a gentle bounce of the flap between two posts was the only reason to play the game. I loved getting my hands on that thing. It is the shining exemplar of all game spinners. That one simple hunk of plastic sustained the entire game experience.
How could they possibly have gotten that wrong?
But that got me to wondering about other experiences we enjoy not for the experience itself, but for some subsidiary component. Have you ever gone to see a movie just so you could get a bucket of popcorn? Bought a box of cereal to get at the prize on the bottom? Gone to a major sporting event just to be part of the energy of the crowd, without caring about the event itself? Do you hate fruity drinks, but love those little cocktail umbrellas?
What other experiences are appealing more for a side attraction than the main event?
January 10, 2009
...and we're back. I just updated Static Zombie to Movable Type 4.23, which will take some getting used to from my end. There will probably be some visible changes as well, but hopefully nothing has broken (comments should now be working).
July 27, 2008
The reviews are in, and apparently it was a good wedding. We've heard from many, many people (not just our parents) that it was the best wedding they've ever attended. Since they could easily have satisfied their social obligations with a simple, "It was lovely," we're inclined to take them at their word and not try to figure out what favor they're buttering us up to ask for.
There were a lot of things that went right. We had great weather, the location was gorgeous, the flowers and decorations came together to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts, making the ceremony and reception look beautiful. The W and I were disappointed with the food, which took far too long to appear and wasn't up to the same standard as the plates they prepared for us at the tasting, but it got good marks from many guests, so OK. The dancing started late, but our celebrants more than made up for that with their enthusiasm. A particular highlight was when a guest requested the DJ play Baby Got Back in honor of a friend who couldn't attend because of a bicycle wipeout, and the DJ responded with "No way" until the bride gave her approval. Suddenly the dance floor was packed as everyone cut loose. I only wish we had video.
One thing we've heard again and again from people is how much they loved the ceremony, which embraced traditions from both our backgrounds and was very personal and romantic. I suspect that's in large part due to the Ten (11) Reasons portion of the ceremony, for which my bride and I had each written a list of eleven reasons we loved the other. My best man read mine, and her maid of honor read hers, alternating back and forth one reason at a time. Neither of us had seen or heard the other's list until that moment, and there were some great points of intersection that had us laughing and crying at the same time.
There are precious few moments in your life when so many friends and family come together at once to celebrate YOU with unbridled joy. Being at the center of that outpouring of affection was intoxicating. Merely having all those people in one place at one time was something to cherish forever.
We had multiple events over the course of the week leading up to the wedding-- a bachelor party, a BBQ at our home for our out-of-town guests, and an ice-cream-and-chocolate-chip-cookie fireworks celebration, and my best man Michael was there at all of them with a set of pool noodles in tow. He set about posing people with those noodles in photographs just so, and his infectious enthusiasm for the project and skill with the shmooze had everyone wondering what it was all about. "Have you been noodled?" became the question of the week as new guests arrived at each event, gamely posing with the noodles while having no idea why. The big reveal came at the reception, but since it was daytime and outdoors the lighting made it difficult to see the fruits of Michael's efforts. It is reproduced below. Click on it for a bigger view. You may have to squinch your eyes a bit to see how it all comes together, but the fact that it came together at all is wonderful and a testament to Michael's planning and doggedness. Bravo!
September 17, 2007
May 28, 2007
Last Sunday night I landed in Seattle around 11:30 PM after a weekend of sleep deprivation, and seven hours later I headed back to the airport for a day jaunt to Las Vegas to testify in a civil case against one of the organizers of Shelby Logan's Run. For some reason the idea of flying from San Jose to Seattle and then to Las Vegas seven hours later seemed better to me than taking an extra bag with me to No More Secrets and flying directly to Vegas from San Jose. It actually worked out fine, and I can report that the desert is far more allergy-friendly than California.
Shelby Logan's Run was a Game run in Las Vegas in 2002 by some Microsofties. It was, in many senses, the Game to end all Games. While this event had puzzles, the focus was on over-the-top experiences (and where better to offer them than Vegas?). In the course of the event some or all of us camped in a dry lake bed during a torrential thunderstorm; powerboated and scuba dived on Lake Mead; shimmied up a rock chimney; captured, cared for, and ultimately scanned a living rat; fired a semi-automatic weapon; drove ATVs across sand dunes in the black of night; rode a free-fall ride atop the Stratosphere tower; performed a song in drag at a gay bar; got pierced ears; explored an abandoned prison by flashlight; and more. It was my first Game, and no Game since has delivered anything close.
The Game ended prematurely when one player fell thirty feet down a mine shaft and became paralyzed from the neck down. A clue sent teams to a site where there were multiple abandoned mines, and in plain, unencrypted text told teams to enter a specific number and no others. This player entered the wrong mine (without a flashlight, I believe), and fell. A very real tragedy.
Inevitably, perhaps, lawsuits followed. I don't know who exactly sued-- the player, his family, or his insurance company-- but all organizers of the event were named in the suit, and all but one settled out of court. The last holdout finally got to trial, and I was asked to testify for the defendant which I was only too happy to do.
Every player signed a waiver when they sent in their fee to participate. A scary waiver. It explicitly called out that players might be called upon to perform strenuous activities (and listed many examples), with possible consequences including death. I remember talking about that waiver with my teammates before signing it-- it was hardcore. I don't know how that waiver holds up under Nevada law, but it wasn't vague and it wasn't perfunctory. I took notice.
I was in the van when the unfortunate player's team arrived, and the defense wanted me to testify as to their behavior and to provide the jury with a first-time player's perspective about the Game. I agreed for many reasons, the most important of which being philosophical-- people in our society don't take enough responsibility for their own actions. Were there things the organizers could have done to prevent the accident? Yes. But ultimately, the tragedy was the man's own fault. Americans don't like saying that. We like pointing fingers and finding someone else to blame. But every single player signed that waiver. They knew the event involved operating on very little or no sleep. They knew physical activity was involved.
Earlier in the event I drove an ATV at night and opened up the throttle a bit-- until I hit the next dune. I sailed over the crest and my headlight illuminated... nothing. I had absolutely no idea where the ground was. I could have been catapulting into an abyss for all I knew. It was terrifying. Not in the casual sense the word is commonly used, either-- I mean heart-stopping, pit-of-my-stomach, images-of-snapping-my-neck raw terror. When my wheels touched down, I immediately eased up on the throttle and took a safer, more sedate pace. I took personal responsibility for my own safety. Nobody told me how fast to go. That was up to me. I chose the level with which I was comfortable.
Players were given specific, explicit instructions about where to go at the mine site. What happened was terrible and tragic, but ultimately someone didn't follow instructions, went somewhere he'd been told not to go, did so alone and entered a dark tunnel without a flashlight. People in our society need to accept more responsibility for their own actions, even when those actions are tragically wrong. And in this case, I didn't believe the event organizers should be held responsible.
Philosophically, I wish that all the organizers had gone to trial instead of settling. I understand the desire to just have it all be over with, though, and not wanting to endure the stress or risk of a trial. The one defendant who went to trial was mainly responsible for programming the hand-held electronic device used throughout the Game, which had nothing to do with that particular clue site. My understanding is that, while the plaintiff attacked the waiver, the defense strategy had nothing to do with it but rather that the defendant simply had no part in planning, organizing, or executing that particular clue or clue location. Yesterday I found out that the jury returned a verdict that the defendant did not act negligently, which I assume means he's off the hook.
I understand the plaintiffs are still going after the owners of the mine, and there I think they have a much stronger case. Why on earth wasn't that mine shaft sealed? It seems so obvious. And so, while I think the plaintiff bears responsibility for what happened, the mine company unquestionably shares in it. I hope the plaintiff has better luck going after those deeper, and more culpable, pockets.
January 30, 2007
From the Sony Jeopardy! forum, in a discussion about the typesetting conventions used by Jeopardy! clues:
User 1: Microsoft Word will not be winning any awards for typesetting as long as I have anything to say about it. For my money, that's like saying that the Harry Potter books are the pinnacle of modern literature, because they're popular.
User 2: Well, I like Harry Potter a lot more than Microsoft Word. In Harry Potter, at least some wizards know what they are doing.
October 2, 2006
With the exception of Prison Break, the second season of which is stacking up on the Tivo in anticipation of a cliffhanger-foiling marathon binge, I'm all caught up on my TV for the moment. Here's what I'm watching this season:
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Deal or No Deal
The Amazing Race
That's 21 hours a week. Then add:
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (daily)
The Daily Show (daily)
The Colbert Report (daily)
America's Test Kitchen
Ebert & Roeper
The Venture Brothers
Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law
I Want That! Kitchens, Baths, and Tech Toys
and that's another 10-11 hours per week, bringing the total to about 32 hours of television a week. Holy bejeezus, how is that even possible? Ok, thanks to the magic of Tivo, each hour is really only about 45 minutes, and some shows like Millionaire and Deal or No Deal compress even more than that with judicious use of double-speed. So that gets the real viewing time down to about 24 hours. Not all those shows will run all season long, and new series like Jericho might get the boot either by me or the network. And I'm usually doing something else while I'm watching most of the half-hour stuff and some of the dramas. So really it's not as bad as it looks. Ahem.
Anyhoo, for now I'm all caught up. But my Tivo is still bursting at the gills with unwatched movies, some recorded as many as three years ago. Curious, I just counted them. 41. Forty-one unwatched movies. Again I say, holy bejeezus! I know you're curious, so here they are:
Life is Beautiful
Sleepless in Seattle
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
The Sum of All Fears
The Triplets of Belleville
The People vs. Larry Flynt
|The Bourne Supremacy
The Station Agent
House of Flying Daggers
Million Dollar Baby
Hide and Seek
|Kung Fu Hustle|
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Bend it Like Beckham
I expect that before long, the wave of incoming television will crash over me and I'll be fighting to recover enough Tivo space to keep up. When that happens, after nuking any unseen I Want That!s and other fluff, movies are the next to go. Besides Cube Zero, which I'm sure is crap but I want to watch anyway, what should I delete first? Anything on that list really not worth watching?
June 28, 2006
Over the last several days, as allergies have once again driven me to view a shotgun to the head as a viable remedy, I have marvelled at the human nose's seemingly limitless capacity to produce mucous. You'd think that the human body, like the pool from which American Idol draws talent, would contain a finite supply of the stuff, and that eventually-- perhaps, say, after a few days of nonstop flow, it would run dry. My body's Wal-Mart is completely sold out of hair follicles on aisle one, but mucous is the blue light special. It's the freaking miracle of Hannukah.
But with the mapping of the human genome complete, the solution to all the world's fuel problems are within our grasp. The answer has been right under my nose. Nonstop. For the past three days. If scientists can learn to tap into mucous technology, the planet's oil wells will always flow freely.