[17 February 2010]
The true test of a great magician is not just his or her ‘tricks’, but how they sell them to the audience. It is not enough to have a variation of picking someone’s card out of the deck – especially since the Internet has taught many of us how to do that one – you have to be a showman that makes people want to believe in the magic while also trying to figure it out. In this regard, it’s important to have a connection with the magician’s personality as you’re not as likely to buy into the schtick of someone you dislike.
This is why I’ve always preferred guys like Penn & Teller, the self-aware, admitted illusionists who dispel with the idea of magic. Their entire act is an approachable, intelligent insider’s peek at the magic trade, but the real trick is how they reveal without revealing much at all. They tell audiences it’s all about memorization, distraction and speed, and even show how a trick is done, yet still have an act so cool you’re left wondering if theirs is the real deal. In short, Penn & Teller, in their live show and several televised specials, have been performers who can blow your mind without trying to mind freak you.
Which brings us to Criss Angel, and his 15-disc Mindfreak: Collector’s Edition DVD set. Angel is the gothy Vegas magician with a penchant for eyeliner, jet black hair dye, chain jewelry, leather vests and shirtless performances. The eponymous star of A&E Network’s Criss Angel Mindfreak show, he is of the David Blaine school of dark, moody, bad boy illusionists who must shock audiences into paying attention with big stunts. Angel does this in each installment by performing several smaller tricks while working up to a grand finale over the course of five seasons, along with the set’s “Halloween Special” and six episodes not previously released on DVD.
Angel’s stunts are at times creative and impressive. His escape from a moving truck filled with explosives is neat, but not amazing. However, when he hangs fish hooks through his skin and dangles from a hovering helicopter, it makes you pay attention. Not to mention it’s always fun to see tricks pulled on passersby since their reaction is often good for a laugh.
But throughout much of the collected set, Angel fails to wow – and “wow” is pretty crucial for a magician. Even though the magic is fake, it shouldn’t look it. His performances frequently look like laughably bad trickery. For instance, when Angel “walks” on water in a pool, you can almost see a glass platform underneath his feet. Further, a “continuous shot cam” promise, which is meant to add credibility to the trick, pops up time-to-time in the set but does little to add to believability. And it certainly doesn’t help that the show utilizes heavy editing at other times.
Of course, that’s a conundrum with televised magic shows: camera cuts and editing are necessary to make a compelling visual product, but take away from the trustworthiness of the performance and open up too much room for multiple takes, scene rigging or even special effects. It’s sad but true, but when a magician tells you he may fail or even die in the service of his art, you want the threat of death to be real.
Angel is probably a nice guy, but it doesn’t come across here. His persona is so gimmicky and orchestrated to attract younger viewers that it’s hard to push beyond the brooding, “aren’t I intense?” mood to actually root for him. The show is so caught up in selling the ‘Criss Angel’ brand that it fails to craft a narrative to sell the man. Without a story to follow, Angel never becomes human enough in the course of the show to be concerned about his survival. Not only would a new viewer not know or care who Angel is at the start of the series, one is never made to care. So if he were to perish in that aforementioned truck (spoiler alert: He survives), it wouldn’t elicit more than a “What a shame.”
Then again, this set isn’t for new viewers since it’s hard to imagine the uninitiated shelling out $100 for it. The packaging, bisected in the middle with an image of Angel being cut in two with a pop-up buzz saw, is fun but diehard fans probably already own much of this previously released content. Aside from the Halloween Special and those six new-to-DVD episodes from Season Three, there are several forgettable featurettes, including some magic trick tips and a getting-to-know Criss Angel interview.
In the end, the greatest detriment to this “Collector’s Edition” is that Criss Angel has been drinking too much of his own Kool-Aid, which he probably also uses to dye his hair. Although his antics are mildly intriguing, because he never presents viewers with a likable showman, he can’t compensate for the weaknesses of magic on TV. As a result, Criss Angel’s show isn’t mindfreaking (whatever that really means), but it is pretty freaking mindless.