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kottke.org posts about magic

The hidden heart of Howl’s Moving Castle

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 26, 2017

howl - falling star.jpg

1.

Hayao Miyazaki is our Ovid, a fluent, majestic storyteller with a gift for deep connections and sudden transformations. At the end of his career, he’s rightfully acquired a reputation as a curmudgeon, a traditionalist with a dim view of human nature and our technological prostheses. I worry that this obscures the other Miyazaki, the environmentalist pacifist, a perfectionist who nevertheless sought and found miracles in everyday life. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the only Miyazaki we knew. We saw him much more dimly then, but I do not know if we see him better now.

My favorite Miyazaki film is 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle. I would not say it is his best, his most beautiful, or his most perfectly realized. Princess Mononoke is more epic, more careful in its throughlines and narrative choices. The Wind Rises is more personal, more human and moving. Spirited Away is a masterpiece of story, art, and character, every scene and frame indelible. Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro will last forever in a way that Howl’s Moving Castle may not.

None of this matters: Howl’s Moving Castle is my Miyazaki film; you may choose your own.

howl - whole cast.jpg

2.

A number of Miyazaki’s films deal with fractured and unlikely families. It is probably fair to say the residents of Howl’s castle are the unlikeliest.

At the same time, despite their differences in appearance and circumstance, the characters are all so much like each other. It is as if each one stands in for different sides of all the others, like the brothers of The Brothers Karamazov.

Howl, Sophie, Calcifer, Markl, the Witch of the Waste, and Turnip-Head are all, in one way or another, shapeshifters. Some of them by choice, others by curse; the choices become curses, the curses choices. They are all orphans. Before we meet any of them, we learn that they have committed themselves to something that they did not fully understand, which they would undo if they could, but which they are powerless to speak about or tackle on their own. They are all fearless and cowardly, timid and reckless. They understand each other in ways outsiders never could.

In most Miyazaki movies, he resists turning the narrative into a love story. In Howl’s Moving Castle, he resists his own resistance. All of the characters are in love with each other. Instead, they have to learn how to accept love. There are lessons in this.

3.

Here I have to confess that I have never read the Diana Wynne Jones novel on which the movie is based, or any of the others in the World of Howl series.

I have a friend who is an enormous fan of Morrissey and The Smiths, who collects anything and everything associated with the singer, but has refused multiple opportunities to meet him in person. “My relationship with him now, exactly as it is, is perfect,” she says. “It could only change for the worse.” This is how I feel about reading Howl’s Moving Castle.

4.

The story’s plot is about as coherent as the castle itself. It’s a dozen stories bolted together, creaking and wheezing, pieces falling off, until it collapses altogether. Like other Miyazaki films, we’re thrown into a world we don’t understand, and gradually the universe’s rules are revealed.

But the rules somehow never really pay off. Sophie’s curse is never really broken, by Calcifer, the Witch of the Waste, or anyone else. It just unwinds itself. The climactic moment, where Sophie travels into the past to see the first meeting of Howl and Calcifer, offers no attempt at explanation. (Like Dante into the Inferno, Sophie just trudges into a hole in the ground, a mute dog as her silent Virgil.) All the plot lines end simultaneously not really due to any underlying logic but because the movie simply runs out of time.

None of this matters. Like Turnip-Head, I will throw myself in front of this film’s catastrophic collapse to protect its characters, not because I am strong, but because it is my turn.

5.

I asked my friend Margarita Noriega, a digital strategist, social media genius, and Miyazaki fan, to tell me what she finds compelling in Howl:

Howl’s castle, like many of Miyazaki’s objects-come-alive, is powered by a terrific, dazzling magic that contradicts itself. It has an opalite quality, akin to a clear opaqueness. To his enemies, the magic all around Howl is a sinisiter curse in need of purging by the righteous. To his friends, it can heal a broken heart or give flight to the grounded.

What kind of thing can make one person see evil and good? In Howl’s world, like ours, perspective is everything. The indescribable beauty of living and loving is a contradiction to the realities of aging, death, and war. It is magic because it is a power which defies a dark reality.

The most relatable thing about Howl, Sophie, and the other residents of the castle is how they experience emotions so big and so complex that they don’t fully understand them. They don’t understand each other’s motives. They don’t understand their own. But somehow they learn to trust and care for each other anyways. And that care — not power, knowledge, or any other transaction — manages to save them.

Howl flying bow.gif

Ricky Jay, sleight of hand

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2016

Let’s all just take the rest of the day off and watch Ricky Jay effortlessly perform impossible card tricks. (via @sampotts)

Documentary about actor and magician Ricky Jay

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2013

Deceptive Practice is a documentary about Ricky Jay which features, among other things, a shaggy-haired Jay playing Three-card Monte with Steve Martin on an 80s chat show.

Jay is a fascinating guy, as this 1993 New Yorker profile of him by Mark Singer demonstrates.

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

“Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.”

After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.”

Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.”

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right-what was the card?”

“Two of spades.”

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

Anyway, the film is coming out next week in NYC. (via @aaroncoleman0)

More Apollo Robbins pickpocketing amazingness

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 06, 2013

In January, I linked to a piece in the New Yorker about master pickpocket Apollo Robbins.

One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. “When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,” he said, showing me. “The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.”

Robbins was recently a guest on the Today show and the amount of criminal shenanighans he pulls off in this four minute video is astounding:

(via digg)

How to pick a pocket

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 06, 2013

If you read the piece on pickpockets in the New Yorker last week (and if not, I encourage you to), you’ve got to check out this video they made of Apollo Robbins taking all sorts of stuff from Adam Green, who plays the bewildered NYer writer part perfectly. Way better than the YT video I embedded last week.

The neuroscience of pickpockets

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 01, 2013

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Green profiles Apollo Robbins, by most accounts the world’s best pickpocket. How he goes about engaging his prey is fascinating:

One day, over lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant in a Las Vegas strip mall, Robbins demonstrated his method on me. “When I shake someone’s hand, I apply the lightest pressure on their wrist with my index and middle fingers and lead them across my body to my left,” he said, showing me. “The cross-body lead is actually a move from salsa dancing. I’m finding out what kind of a partner they’re going to be, and I know that if they follow my lead I can do whatever I want with them.”

Robbins needs to get close to his victims without setting off alarm bells. “If I come at you head-on, like this,” he said, stepping forward, “I’m going to run into that bubble of your personal space very quickly, and that’s going to make you uncomfortable.” He took a step back. “So, what I do is I give you a point of focus, say a coin. Then I break eye contact by looking down, and I pivot around the point of focus, stepping forward in an arc, or a semicircle, till I’m in your space.” He demonstrated, winding up shoulder to shoulder with me, looking up at me sideways, his head cocked, all innocence. “See how I was able to close the gap?” he said. “I flew in under your radar and I have access to all your pockets.”

Hard to choose just one passage from this story, so I will also include this bit about attention:

But physical technique, Robbins pointed out, is merely a tool. “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention,” he said. “Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about “surfing attention,” “carving up the attentional pie,” and “framing.” “I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would,” he said. “If I lean my face close in to someone’s, like this” — he demonstrated — “it’s like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, ‘You had a wallet in your back pocket — is it still there?’ Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I’m free to steal from their jacket.”

This routine is a pretty good demonstration of how Robbins diverts attention for the purpose of theft.

Sympathetic magic

posted by Aaron Cohen   Jul 24, 2012

Lapham’s Quarterly has a (not so) brief history of superstition, which introduced me to the phrase ‘sympathetic magic’. I also like the quotation bolded below.

For all its erudition and analysis, The Golden Bough has for more than a century helped cement the idea that magic is inappropriate, wrongheaded thought. Yet what separates magic from religion or science is not its methodology — Frazer himself notes that it “is therefore a truism, almost a tautology, to say that all magic is necessarily false and barren; for were it ever to become true and fruitful, it would no longer be magic but science” — it’s that ordinary people can do it, transforming their lives with the ambitious power of everyday thought.

Disdain for sympathetic magic, particularly for its simplicity and its universal application, can be traced back two millennia before Frazer and his peers. In the Laws, Plato’s Athenian Stranger complains of the gullibility of the citizenry, lamenting that “it would be a labor lost to bring conviction to minds beset with such suspicions of each other, to tell them, if they should perchance see a manikin of wax set up in a doorway, or at the crossroads, or at the grave of a parent, to think nothing of such things, as nothing is known of them for certain.” Even aware of the fallaciousness of such belief, Plato seemed hesitant to ignore it altogether, and the Laws goes on to advise that while white magic is perfectly acceptable, any professional diviner or prophet suspected of “doing mischief by the practice of spells, charms, incantations, or other such sorceries” be put to death, while an amateur practitioner should pay a fine.

How to beat a chess grandmaster

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 06, 2011

Watch as magician Derren Brown beats a room full of grandmasters and other top chess players even though he doesn’t really play chess all that well. At the end, he explains how he did it…it’s a dead simple clever method.

The CIA magic book

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 30, 2009

The Boston Globe has a slideshow with a few examples from the now-declassified Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.

CIA shoelaces

Here’s the associated article. One could imagine a Mad Men/Bond-style spy show set in the 1960s that would utilize these techniques.

Ricky Jay

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 19, 2009

Can you resist reading an article that starts off with an anecdote this interesting? I couldn’t.

The playwright David Mamet and the theatre director Gregory Mosher affirm that some years ago, late one night in the bar of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Chicago, this happened:

Ricky Jay, who is perhaps the most gifted sleight-of-hand artist alive, was performing magic with a deck of cards. Also present was a friend of Mamet and Mosher’s named Christ Nogulich, the director of food and beverage at the hotel. After twenty minutes of disbelief-suspending manipulations, Jay spread the deck face up on the bar counter and asked Nogulich to concentrate on a specific card but not to reveal it. Jay then assembled the deck face down, shuffled, cut it into two piles, and asked Nogulich to point to one of the piles and name his card.

“Three of clubs,” Nogulich said, and he was then instructed to turn over the top card.

He turned over the three of clubs.

Mosher, in what could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive act, quietly announced, “Ricky, you know, I also concentrated on a card.”

After an interval of silence, Jay said, “That’s interesting, Gregory, but I only do this for one person at a time.”

Mosher persisted: “Well, Ricky, I really was thinking of a card.”

Jay paused, frowned, stared at Mosher, and said, “This is a distinct change of procedure.” A longer pause. “All right-what was the card?”

“Two of spades.”

Jay nodded, and gestured toward the other pile, and Mosher turned over its top card.

The deuce of spades.

A small riot ensued.

That’s from a 1993 profile of Ricky Jay, who is probably more well known now for his acting (Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Deadwood, The Spanish Prisoner, The Prestige) than his magic scholarship. Check out a couple of Jay’s tricks on YouTube: Four Queens and Sword of Vengence. (via df)

The Neuroscience of Illusion

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 27, 2009

In a bit of a sequel to Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer talks to Teller (of Penn and Teller) and learns how the tricks that magicians do can be explained by neuroscience.

Our brains don’t see everything — the world is too big, too full of stimuli. So the brain takes shortcuts, constructing a picture of reality with relatively simple algorithms for what things are supposed to look like. Magicians capitalize on those rules. “Every time you perform a magic trick, you’re engaging in experimental psychology,” Teller says. “If the audience asks, ‘How the hell did he do that?’ then the experiment was successful. I’ve exploited the efficiencies of your mind.”

Galangal

posted by Ainsley Drew   Mar 30, 2009

Related to ginger, galangal has been used since medieval times to spice food and quell digestive issues, but it doesn’t taste like your friendly, corner-store ginger candy.

If you were to bite into this tuberous rhizome, you would be very surprised at the slightly sweet, “perfumy” taste and scent of it, not to mention the spiciness factor. While not exactly “hot” like a chili, galangal has a sharp pungency to it that will make you gasp and perhaps cough a little.

Galangal’s role outside the kitchen includes a place in folk medicine and hoodoo magic, where it’s called “Chewing John.” If you’re entering litigation and require a favorable verdict, you’re supposed to chew it thoroughly before spitting it onto the floor of the courtroom.

If only Blake Griffin of the Sooners had hocked a ginger loogie yesterday, North Carolina would have been sent packing.

Video demonstrations of 20 magic tricks.

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 20, 2007

Video demonstrations of 20 magic tricks.