Friday, May 23, 2008

Mentalism and movies - I disclaim the connection

I have heard far too many mentalists* brush off the use of disclaimers** with a statement like this:
"What if an actor came onscreen at the beginning of the movie and told you that he was just an actor and wasn't really the character he played, and the whole thing you were about to watch was just a story. Wouldn't that hurt your enjoyment of the movie?"

I've heard/read that statement or similar from people too numerous to mention. You'd think that an avocation as seemingly creative as mentalism would come up with different agruments (it's like all of the creative geniuses who use "out of the box" to describe creative thinking). However, my bigger argument with this is that it doesn't hold. The analogy just isn't there. Why not? Let's explore.

Who goes to movies? Most everyone. Who knows about movies? The number increases. There are magazines and websites devoted to movies, and to the various components thereof (actors, special effects, etc). A good chunk of these magazines and websites cater to the general populace. Actors are interviewed on tv and in print. (Which would, in a sense, be a version of a disclaimer: "See? I'm not really Iron Man.") In short, there is a cultural understanding about the nature of movies and how they work.

Now let's take mentalism. ("Take my mentalist, please!") Who goes to see a mentalism show? A small number of people. Who goes to see a GOOD mentalism show? That number shrinks. Considerably. And while there are websites and publications that deal with the intricacies of mentalism, the vast majority don't cater to the general public. In fact, the average person on the street is much more likely to have heard/heard of/seen Jonathan Edward, Sylvia Browne or Allison DuBois than Max Maven, Banachek or
Derren Brown. This means that the cultural expectation for those who deal in psychic phenomenon is that one is either
a. real, or
b. a big old slimy fraud
depending on one's perceptions of the aforementioned Edward, Browne, and DuBoise.

While I agree that it may be bad theater to tip your hand prior to the show, I think many take it too far. To extend the analogy, it doesn't lessen my enjoyment of the Indiana Jones movies to see an interview with Harrison Ford, where he tells us that in his next film he will play a completely different character.

I know there are people who are going to believe no matter what. After one of my own shows I had a lady call me and ask if I could tell her where her missing opera tickets were. But guess what. Even with the cultural knowledge regarding movies, there are some people who believe them. Watch the documentary "Trekkies" to see some examples. Or check out the number of people who have listed "Jedi" as their religious affiliation. Just because I think some people are deluded doesn't mean I have to feed the delusion.

I know I won't convince many to change their tune here, just as their "argument" doesn't convince me. If anything, though, I'd like them to take a look at that hoary "but what if an actor..." analogy that so many use and see it for the straw man it really is.


* For the uninitiated: a "mentalist" is an entertainer who specializes in the theatrical pretense of psychic abilities.

** A "disclaimer" is an acknowledgement that one is indeed not a real psychic.


John said...

I really enjoy a good mentalism program. I occasionally include a mentalist effect in my own show and would like to do more.

It's funny that I go to a church with a great magic show and that's okay because deep down they know that it's an act. (At least that's what they tell themselves.) But throw in a little mentalism and all of a sudden you're talking to spirits and dabbling in the occult! Mentalism has a way of freaking church people out!

Anonymous said...

Not just "church people.' People. It freaks *people* out.

MU said...

it freaks people out becaues it dabbles in and pretends to portray things that are (or could be) real.

Anonymous said...