Timing is everything. That’s true in both magic and movies. “Magicians: Life in the Impossible” might have had a bigger, splashier opening if it had opened a year ago. The documentary which began at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, ended there on a Tuesday evening, during the AFI FEST 2016 week, but although close by, not affiliated.
A few blocks down from Jimmy Kimmel’s studio, the El Capitan and the famous TCL Chinese Theatre, the Magic Castle was originally built as a banker’s mansion in 1809. By the time Milt Larsen and his brother Bill bought the building, it had been partitioned into a maze of small apartments. Bill as a magician as their father had been and with the help of generous friends, they officially opening the Magic Castle on January 2, 1963 as an exclusive private clubhouse for members of The Academy of Magical Arts.
The Magic Castle has a strict dress code. Some members of the documentary’s after-party reception didn’t get the memo, causing a slight delay. We lingered in the W.C. Fields Bar, looking at the pool cues once used by Fields and other memorabilia from past members and even a display of Day of the Dead decorated skulls created current members. When we were finally taken upstairs, we went through the fake bookcase into a lobby. We decided to try the Close-Up Gallery, where we squeezed into the second to the last show of Merlin Award-winning French magician Boris Wild to see his charming “The Kiss Act.”
“Magicians: Life in the Impossible” is in many ways a tragic love story. Directed by Christoph Baaden (“Human”) and Marcie Hume (“Sex Story: Fifty Shades of Grey”), “Magicians” began with Hume’s interest in magic and magicians. A member of The Magic Castle, Hume looked at the membership and found four world-class magicians to follow over four years: Jon Armstrong, winner of the “Close Up Magician Aware of the Year” and chairman of the board of trustees at the Magic Castle; Brian Gillis, Johnny Carson’s favorite magician; David Minkin, an award-winning magician who co-starred on the two-part Travel Channel special “Magic Outlaws,” and German illusionist Jan Rouven and his manager/partner/husband Frank Alfter, who was a Las Vegas magician on the rise.
The focus is narrow–on white men of different ages with a sidetrack to Gillis’ performance partner, Sisuepahn. The world premiere of the documentary brought a small crowd to the funky Vista Theatre. Built in 1923, the theater on the borders of Hollywood has a vaguely Egyptian theme, but on a more modest scale than Egyptian which is much closer to the castle. The Vista is a short drive to the Magic Castle as opposed to a good walk.
In the documentary, you see magicians at different stage of their lives, going through financial and personal hardships. Hume and Baaden have to provide a kind of verity that we don’t expect any more from the movies. We’ve seen so much CGI that audience members expect hocus-pocus in movies. To counter that, the directors didn’t ask for cleaned up apartments or narratives. The mess of daily life enters in.
What comes through clearly is the precarious nature of life as a magician. It’s all about the hustle, the continual charming and conning of audiences. Gillis was once at the top, entertaining for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Now he’s losing his own castle and playing smaller crowds.
Jon Armstrong is on the road so much he has a hard time maintaining a relationship. He marries but the marriage unravels quickly off-screen. He’s worked on films and TV (including the “Tonight Show”) and he’s the co-creator of the IDW comic series “Smoke and Mirrors.” We see him at San Diego Comic-Con which as far as cons go is the big one. He drives himself to small gigs. He teaches others how to perform and sells instructional merchandise. He’s relatively young, but has accomplished all of his life goals.
David Minkin is hoping that the TV show will open up new avenues for him. He’s optimistic, but viewers have to weigh both Armstrong and Minkin against Gillis. Minkin hosts magic and wine shows, but there’s always a danger of mixing alcohol with any show. Even small shows can be frustrating. During the documentary Minkin also faces the aging of one of his two dogs, Cosmo.
While some prefer intimate shows, there’s another side of magic–the big show with lots of stage hands, technically intricate large props, smoke and mirrors–the kind of show that plays to big houses in Las Vegas. Jan Rouven is a young German man discovered and developed by his partner in business and life, Frank Alfter. Rouven makes it to Vegas and near the end of the documentary, gets a contract with the Tropicana, but don’t look for him there.
Rouven is proof there is such as thing as bad publicity and his fall from grace is what has likely muted the launch of this documentary. During the Q&A the directors brought up that Rouven was facing serious charges.
According to his own website, Rouven received the Merlin Award for Illusionist of the Year in 2004 from the New York-based International Magicians Society. After working his way up from the Clarion (imploded in 2015) where he began in 2011 to the more prestigious Riviera, he finally received a headlining show at the Tropicana main theater in 2014. Rouven was arrested in March of this year on federal charges but had been under FBI investigation for months.
The documentary “Magicians” doesn’t touch on this. The documentary premiered at Hot Docs in April and the directors found out about Rouven’s arrest “days before their Hot Docs premiere in April.” The directors were completed blindsided.
Rouven pleaded guilty to charges of possession, receipt and distribution of child pornography on Thursday, Nov. 17. He may face a maximum of 20 years and a minimum of five. (https://www.justice.gov/usao-nv/pr/las-vegas-illusionist-pleads-guilty-possession-receipt-and-distribution-child-pornography) Sentencing is scheduled for March. According to the Las Vegas Review Journal, after serving his sentence, Rouven will be deported. His husband has already returned to Germany.
Imagine if the documentary had come out after the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s annual Best of Las Vegas contest in 2015 when Rouven’s “New Illusions” show was voted best magic show. Timing is everything. With Rouven’s disgrace complete, “Magicians: Life in the Impossible” becomes a curious relic. It might have made Rouven more well known outside of Vegas. His spacious Vegas villa deeply contrasts the downsizing of Gillis’ life. You can’t help but think someday Rouven will be Gillis.
In the end, most magicians won’t make the big time on the Vegas strip or as the favorite of a TV show host. Most will remain humble practitioners always looking for an audience and always trying disarm you with a quick smile and a friendly word. They won’t win awards or be the subject of a documentary. They do it for the love of magic and its effects on their audiences.
The Magic Castle celebrates all types of magicians, the ones who make a precarious living as illusionists and the ones who like the late Dean Dill (1947-2015) made his Glendale barber shop a magical place. You almost wish the documentary had captured someone like Dill. Yet “Magicians: Life in the Impossible” gives you a better appreciation for award-winning magicians and may make you wish for a little more magic in your life. At the Magic Castle, you could get treated to an impromptu show by a strolling magician while waiting in line for a scheduled performance. Anytime you can get an invitation to the Magic Castle, get dressed up in your best and prepare to be delighted.