Judd Ehrlich’s Magic Camp, a film about child magicians, film puts us among 97 young conjurers as they devote a week to honing their skills and sharpening their performances. Many are slightly nerdy, a bit pudgy, and most confess to feeling socially awkward: their love of magic serves as an escape and, for some, a way to grow in self-confidence.
The summer camp takes place on the Bryn Mawr campus. The story focuses on five unique campers: Reed Spool is a high school dropout and reigning “best magician” at the camp; Zoe Reiches, one of only seven girls in the camp, uses the stage persona of Wonder Woman. She declares, “A lot of people are mistaken that girls can’t actually do magic. I would like to see a female magician with a male assistant.” Brian Woodbridge suffers from Tourettes and ADD and claims that “magicians are already deemed as being a little awkward. I can come in with all of the tics and nobody’s gonna say anything.” Zachariah Ivans is a “dedicated Christian” who explains that “magic is the art of impossible . . . Christianity is about a guy who is died and rose again. That’s impossible.” The youngest at age 12 is Jonah Conlin, graceful, adorable, and remarkably dexterous with deck of cards, who simply says that he likes “the elegance of magic.”
The film doesn’t stick exclusively with these five magic makers as it explores feelings of camaraderie and homesickness that comes with being away from home at summer camp. We see groups of conjurers practicing their hand motions as well as coaching sessions on delivery, showmanship, creating a character, and even how to dance on stage. We get some insight into how a few tricks are done while we are immersed in the divine nerdiness of kids obsessed with being magicians. And their skills are pretty impressive, and, as with any good magic, watching it I found myself feeling like a kid all over again.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
If you are really interested in the art of magic, the documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, honors the history and artistry of some of its greatest practictioners (previously reviewed in The Arts Fuse). Inspired by a 1993 New Yorker article on Ricky Jay, the filmmakers spent years convincing him to share his knowledge of magic’s history, his collection of obscure memorabilia, and some of the background to his state of the art prestidigitation—though never his secrets. Jay is one of world’s greatest living close-up magicians and sleight-of-hand artists. Having seen his showRicky Jay and his 52 Assistants at the old Hasty Pudding Club in 1993, I can attest to the stunning dexterity, the seeming impossibility of his tricks.
Introduced to magic by his grandfather Max Katz, young Ricky Potash began performing magic at age four and over the years became completely obsessed with its history, serving as an apprentice to such masters of close-up magic as Al Fosso, Slydini, Cardini, and Dai Vernon. His desire to honor these great artists is one reason the ordinarily private Jay agreed to the document his performances.
Directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein have gathered together footage of a very young Jay performing, archival footage of the past masters, snippets from his live 52 Assistants show, and some breathtaking anecdotes told by those familiar with his performances. Since the 1970s, when a very long-haired Ricky Jay appeared regularly on television and opened for rock ‘n roll acts around the country, he has become a regular performer in the films of David Mamet (who also directed his stage show) and acted in a number of other films, including Deadwood on HBO. He has established a consulting firm on magic called Deceptive Practices, which advised on both The Prestige and The Illusionist. He is a speaker and author of books on conjuring literature, con games, sense perception, and unusual entertainments.
What is most engaging is Jay’s ability as a storyteller and his respect for and knowledge of the history of the art. As he endlessly shuffles decks of cards, seemingly calling up any card at will, he thrills us with the stories of the masters with whom he studied. In an age of high tech spectacle and Las Vegas magic, this film honors the elemental thrills of Jay’s agile magic and his memories of a great tradition.