‘Magicians: Life in the Impossible’: Film Review | Napa Valley 2016

Subjective Films, Film for Thought
Casts a magnetic spell.

Professional practitioners of the black arts are the subject of a documentary shot over a four-year period.

As with all well-told stories, there’s more than meets the eye in Magicians. Beneath the dazzling stagecraft of its four subjects lies the mystery of character and the paradoxes of the day-to-day balancing act between passion and survival. Subtitling their documentary Life in the Impossible, directors Marcie Hume and Christoph Baaden have crafted a dynamic and intimate look at a showbiz subculture through the experiences of a well-selected quartet.

The four subjects’ specialties and styles cover a wide spectrum, but whether they call themselves illusionists, prestidigitators or mentalists, they’ve all rejected the supposed security of the workaday world to pursue what they love. Whatever setbacks they might face, it’s clear that the ability to wow an audience empowers them.

Jon Armstrong, a master of the card trick, can now embrace the geekiness that once made him an outsider. Brian Gillis, championed and admired by the magic-savvy Johnny Carson, weathers recessionary challenges and considerable downsizing on the home front. Jan Rouven, a German-born rising star of the Las Vegas strip, resolves not to rest on his laurels after achieving his professional dream. And David Minkin, a self-described “stepchild of magic,” is determined to bring his more existential slant on illusion to the small screen. (The series he’s shown developing, Magic Outlaws, would run for two seasons on the Travel Channel.)

Shot over a four-year period, with ace camerawork by the directors and Bryan Donnell, Magicians moves with confidence through such expected haunts as the Magic Castle in Hollywood and the glitzy stages of Las Vegas. But the filmmakers also hit the not-so-glamorous road with some of the magicians; like comedians — and comedy is a central element of most of their acts — they’re always hustling for the next gig, which might be a public performance or a private event. While the audiences are almost always rapt, a memorable scene finds the engagingly intense Minkin dealing with a very drunk bachelorette party, and finally drawing the line.

The magicians let the cameras into their personal lives as well, and the film offers revealing glimpses, crisply edited by Colin Hawes and Baaden, that make their points with a nuanced touch. Drawing in the viewer with a tantalizing mix of intimate moments and unanswered questions, the doc navigates the performers’ relationships with new spouses, exes, parents and, not least, the canines who are some of the performers’ most constant friends. Rouven and his manager, Frank Alfter, a one-time professional magician, are life partners, and like many longtime couples, they enjoy the kind of barbed banter that can be discomfiting for the viewer, and which is cast in a deadpan light for the movie.

The directors include no epilogue addressing Rouven’s recent ignominious fall from the starry heights. But regardless of that turn of events, his story is by far the least interesting in the film, serving primarily as a striking contrast with the continued struggles of the older magicians, whose interests lie in the fascinating fringes outside the more conventional spotlight.

At its strongest, Magicians: Life in the Impossible explores the tradeoff that any artist makes, while examining the specific pact between these performers, with their esoteric and finely burnished skills, and the audiences who are thrilled to be fooled so creatively, in what’s perhaps the only harmless deception they’ll ever encounter. The cinematographers capture the payoff of that pact: the magicians’ pride, the amazement on seen-it-all adult faces, the speechless wonder of a tiny Comic-Con attendee, in Princess Leia garb, upon her firsthand encounter with Armstrong’s sleight of hand.

Best of all, even after all the behind-the-scenes footage of magicians making a living, the movie can induce delighted gasps. Minkin expresses concern that magic loses power when viewed onscreen rather than in person. But his knack for levitating items is one of the film's most alluring motifs, and in his simple, low-key illusion that closes the doc, presto change-o — he and the filmmakers deliver an exhilarating flash of masterful pizzazz.

Venue: Napa Valley Film Festival
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Production companies: Subjective Films, Film for Thought
With: Frank Alfter, Jon Armstrong, Brian Gillis, David Minkin, Jan Rouven, Sisuepahn
Directors: Marcie Hume, Christoph Baaden
Producers: Marcie Hume,Christoph Baaden
Executive producers: Glen Zipper, Greg Stikeleather, Doug Blush, Lance Burton
Directors of photography: Christoph Baaden, Marcie Hume, Bryan Donnell
Editors: Colin Hawes, Christoph Baaden
Composers: Brooke Blair, Will Blair

Not rated, 88 minutes

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