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Trickery and Illusion: The Magic of Cinema
Sarah Wood
Trickery and Illusion: The Magic of Cinema

The magic of trick photography and early cinema had its origins in a very white western form of magic. We’re talking really about conjuring tricks at children’s parties (the effect of which is wonderfully analysed in Jeanette Iljon’s That's Entertainment... (the Conjuror's Assistant); magic of delight and entertainment. What we see evolving in the patterning of experimental film is a far more universal understanding of magic. The recognition if you like of the primal, the natural, on one hand, with the technological on the other, allows the mechanical to be the subject of the film rather than its control.

Magic is ultimately about the exploitation of our fears of the inexplicable, of the unanswerable questions in life. Each culture has its own superstitions and vulnerabilities and taboos that magic will exploit. Cinema as a truly universal language isn’t just about letting an audience watch film of themselves or their own very geographically limited experience re-enacted. It is not just about the Lumière factory workers simply watching their own life recorded and replayed on screen. Nor is it simply about their fantasies re-enacted by Méliès. It is at best a medium that can approach the universal human questions with more than one or two tricks in its magic box.

What unties a viewing experience is very basic urge to see light in the darkness. Some critics have defined the history of cinema as starting with the flicker of shadows thrown onto cave walls in the dark and it is this primary sense of fear and fantasy which engenders much of the sensation of cinema. It is another area in which film projects magic.

Here are the true inheritors of the magic lantern show. Watch, for instance, Michael Curran and Imogen Stidworthy’s collaboration Closing/Close By (2000). A light from a match briefly illuminates the faces of the artists/performers as they try and read details from abstracted film scenarios. Cinema is small stabs of light in the darkness. Or experience Liz Rhodes Light Music or William Raban’s Diagonal sculpting light in the dark. The effect here is primal. It is a far cry form the narrative tropes so wittily teased apart by Swann and Barber, here we are directly experiencing the effect of light and the philosophical questions it provokes in relation to darkness. Or watch Guy Sherwin’s performance Man with a Mirror. Playing with our anxieties about youth and age, Sherwin’s ingenious performance is a trick of the light, allowing film as a time-based medium to transform time: this is the magic of cinema.

Sarah Wood
Still from Closing/Close By by Michael Curran and Imogen Stidworthy, 2000
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