Call for Music Writers: Let your voice be heard by PopMatters’ quality readership.
Call for Music Writers: Let your voice be heard by PopMatters’ quality readership.

‘Houdini’ Explains the Tricks Before Showing the Magic

Film and magic have always been intertwined. Some works take advantage of the relationship, but Houdini does not.

Magic and the movies have always been intertwined. Georges Méliès, the filmmaker perhaps most responsible for exhibiting film’s power to amaze, not only showed how reality can be transformed through cinematography, but also was a lifelong lover of stage magic. He eventually became known as the “Cinemagician”, leaving behind an enduring legacy of technical and narrative innovation within the film medium. Others followed suit, exploring how cinema could fool, shock, and befuddle an audience.

The best films, like the best magicians, amaze through sleight of hand, hiding legitimate toil behind seamless spectacle. All of this is why it’s so unfortunate that Houdini, the two-part, four-hour miniseries from the History Channel, is so heavy-handed and dull. It aired on TV, but, like so many recent shows, aspires to the self-contained storytelling and grand ambitions of many movies. It even stars Adrien Brody as Harry Houdini, a seeming coup for a History Channel miniseries, but really just further proof that the boundaries between TV and film are becoming entirely porous.

Unfortunately, Brody’s talent goes to waste, mainly because of his character’s voiceover. The miniseries follows famed magician Harry Houdini’s life as he seeks, finds, retains, and suffers fame. It’s a mouth-watering proposition, but the execution is all wrong. For whatever reason — perhaps because the History Channel does not trust its viewers — we are inundated with Houdini’s voiceover narration, which so often makes the theme explicit that we miss the miniseries’ arresting visuals while rolling our eyes. The great escape artist tells us outright a number of times that while he can wiggle free from any chains, “I can’t escape from me”. For a miniseries about a magician, it’s a too-obvious theme anyway, and to summarize it so blatantly only exacerbates the issue. One reason Houdini fails is because it shows its hand before we’re even aware there might be magic.

We follow Houdini as he grows up and moves away (“my greatest escape was leaving Appleton”, he confesses), marries a woman named Bess (Kristen Connolly), finds an assistant named Jim Collins (Evan Jones), assists MI5 in espionage, attempts to expose and debunk spiritualists, and performs death-defying acts. Unfortunately, these events are interesting only in a biographical sense, because Houdini presents them blandly and without verve. Certain shots stand out, like that of the black bridge Houdini will jump off for a trick in the dead of white winter, but Méliès would be disappointed in how the various shots have been put together. Put simply, the miniseries drags because we’re never permitted to question what we see. How did that happen? Why did that happen? Before we have a chance to ask, Houdini answers these questions through its voiceover, and merely confirms them through its visual story.

Moreover, the interplay between film and magic, specifically how Harry Houdini grappled with the two, is intriguing for a number of reasons, none of which Houdini focuses on. Tension between Houdini’s act and the emerging audience draw of the movies is hinted at through snippets of dialogue and a disgruntled Harry at a film showing, but there’s more to glean from the magician’s biography. He starred in films, consulted for them, offered advice for special effects, but ultimately he was unsuccessful in moving back and forth between the two mediums of entertainment, magic and film. Houdini’s distrust of medium would be an interesting spool to unwind, tracing his distrust of film through to his distrust of “spiritual mediums.” To be fair, the miniseries does focus on this last thread, that is to say Houdini’s exposing of false prophets. But nothing much comes of it – it would be an intriguing film/TV show that suggested Houdini’s participation in séances was his search to share his own audience’s sense of wonder. What sort of letdown is in store for the magician who masters his art, whose reality stops being wondrous and mysterious?

An interesting corollary to Harry Houdini would be card magician Ricky Jay, and an interesting corollary to Houdini would be the documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. Like Houdini, Jay is a master of his craft, only he deals more with cards and words than chains and locks. Unlike Houdini, Deceptive Practice retains much of the allure associated with its subject and his art. Jay’s personal history is notoriously shrouded, just as his ability is magisterial. He has ensured his life story is just as mysterious as how he pulls off his tricks, and the supposed documentary/exposition is really only the furthering of an illusion. Titled as if about the man’s “Mysteries and Mentors”, the film is really an extension of Jay’s act, as it gives him the dominant voice through interviews and a stunning grand finale of scene. As the camera slowly tracks in on his face, Jay recites a poem written for him by Shel Silverstein, the magician fully in control of the words, meter, and tenor of the poem, and thus the end of the film. The ending sticks with you, but because it does it simultaneously deflects attention from how little the film has exposed about Jay and his life.

Houdini, with its neat theme of an escape artist enslaved by his own reality, is an attempt at explanation, while Deceptive Practice further obscures its subject. The latter film is potentially frustrating, but more likely it is intriguing in a way that the best magic should be. Watching Houdini makes one wonder what the escape artist would have thought of this miniseries – an interesting moment occurs during a tiff between Houdini and a fake spiritualist, who after being exposed warns Houdini that once he is dead he will be unable to speak for himself. His legacy, so important to him, will be left entirely up to others. In Deceptive Practices Ricky Jay gets the final word, and controls (such an important concept for a magician) his own legacy through the latent power of film. Houdini could not harness the medium in his time, and it’s perhaps fitting that the medium would come back to simplify his bizarre life in ways it probably does not deserve.

RATING 2 / 10