THE MAGICIAN AND THE CINEMA by Erik Barnouw

THE MAGICIAN AND THE CINEMA

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Barnouw tells an engaging story to introduce this scholarly lark: in high school, Barnouw catalogued magician John Mulholland's books on magic and, meeting him decades later, mentioned ""how often, in exploring film history, I had come across names I had first met in his books. Had magicians had a larger role in the evolution of motion pictures than was generally recognized?"" A rhetorical question, it quickly seems, as Barnouw conjures up--to the accompaniment of eerie posters and other archival trove--an era when ""every new scientific invention had magic possibilities""; the magic lantern made apparitions materialize; and one after another future filmmaker experimented with optical trickery. Then came the Cinematographe (1895), and the scramble ""for wealth and glory""--led by magician/impresario/master of special effects Georges MÉliès. Also in the running were Billy Bifzer, D. W. Griffith's chief cameraman-to-be; Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, founding partners of American Vitagraph; and the great Houdini himself--who turned his celebrated stage feats into film climaxes. . . which, by camera magic, anyone could now perform. The irony, as Barnouw notes, was that the films displaced the magicians. Looking at the films themselves, he traces the magic/film intersection through several stages--from the first ""actuality bits"", through filmed magic ""beefed up by film trickery,"" to the trick film: ghosts, vanishings, metamorphoses, ""cheerful"" mayhem. Plus: devices special to the film, like reversals, slow motion and accelerated motion. A few concluding words ponder--with reference to the ""media""--the acceptance of illusions, now, as ""something real."" A spiffy addition to early film history.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1981
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press