Essay: Now you see it, now you don't. It must be magic

We know that David Copperfield can't fly. But illusions fall apart if we can see how they are done.

There is a part of us that asks: "How on earth do they do that?" And there is another part of us that doesn't really want to know. The French magic circle, the Confrerie des Magiciens, is appealing to the second part of our natures: according to a recent issue of Le Monde, its members are trying to prevent the television channel France 3 from showing the American series Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Greatest Secrets Revealed. The films, which have already been shown here by ITV, take some of the long-running stage illusions - sawing a lady in half, knife throwing, vanishing tricks - and show exactly how they are done.

Mirrors, invisible wires, false bottoms, lighting: the most effective illusions often turn out to have been achieved by the most elementary means. Yet there is little satisfaction in discovering this, no sense of having acquired some valuable piece of knowledge. On the contrary, one has a feeling of irritation and disappointment, as though one had stumbled across something demeaning. By reverse magic, the great illusion is transformed into vulgar trickery.

Of course, if we are over 10 years old, we know that David Copperfield can't fly; but how much good comes of knowing the precise means by which he doesn't do it? "We don't want to see Byron on his chamber pot," Pushkin said - though a part of us wants just that, as almost any modern biography will illustrate. Even if we have an unwritten contract with the illusionist, an agreement that we will allow him to trick us, for our entertainment, there is a nagging urge to get hold of his little secret, to steal a march on him, even at the cost of enjoyment. Magic's greatest secrets are probably best left unrevealed (especially by magicians: it seems that another kind of contract has been taken out on the man who told all to Breaking the Magician's Code).

The tacit understanding is paramount. Quite rightly, there is indignation when a documentary film-maker fakes interviews or sets up a particular scenario, then presents it as unrehearsed spontaneous action: something is being passed off as "reality" when it isn't. But, while the terms of the contract in Panorama or World in Action are usually clear, this is often not the case elsewhere. What about the trout in a natural history documentary, filmed in a studio fish-tank instead of at the bottom of a river? Is that cheating? Special effects are now so good that it is hard to tell where "authentic" film ends and fakery begins. No one is deceived by the pterodactyls that fly around in the first part of David Attenborough's new series for the BBC, Birds, but the scenes are so well done that the prehistoric creatures look as real as the real ones. And how dishonest is it to mix newsreel footage with extracts from feature films in a documentary about, say, British life in the 1950s? Or should one scrupulously identify each clip, at the risk of - the worst sin - boring the viewer?

Film is the great deceiver. The evidence of our eyes comes with a greater weight of truth than any other. It is easy to lie on radio. In the Fifties, one of the most improbable radio personalities was the ventriloquist Peter Brough; he even had his own show, Educating Archie, "Archie" being his dummy. Peter and Archie would chat away, in their different voices, just as they would on stage, except that now they were invisible. The question is: did Peter move his lips when he was being Archie? Probably not. The unwritten contract with the listener forbade it; and there is something to be said for a scrupulous, even a ridiculously over-scrupulous approach in such matters.

The problem is that it is so much harder to lie on film. It requires considerable art, an art that has been constantly perfected since Georges Melies first realised that objects on a screen can be made to look as large or as small as you want them, provided everything was made to scale.

The appearance of reality was what mattered. Now, with computer-generated effects, anything is possible - which makes it all the more important to draw the line; only, with film, some lines between fact and fiction are impossible to draw. The medium, as I said, is inherently deceptive, if only because the narrator, the camera, is never part of the action it shows; and because the action takes place in a continual present. It is no accident that television documentaries love the historic present: "Hitler is massing his troops on the Polish border," the voice tells us, in menacing tones, over pictures of jackboots and stukas; lucky we know that Hitler is fifty years dead, or we might be worried.

In some of the earliest films of the Lumiere Brothers, the people who are being filmed suddenly realise what is going on, stop and point at the camera. Their gestures are touching: here are people, now long dead, pointing across a century of time at us, the unseen spectators of the future. But that is nonsense. The people on the film were pointing at an unusual object, and doing so because they had not yet learned how to be filmed. No one points nowadays. Instead, if we get in the way of the lens, we pretend not to notice, we start to act, we tell the camera a little lie about ourselves and collude in giving the illusion, to those future spectators, that there is no intermediary between them and our ever-present lives.

It is precisely when the camera seeks to be most honest that it lies most blatantly. Think of Wilderness Walks, where two hardy hikers set off up the Pyrenees or across some other remote tract of the earth's surface, noticing everything along the way - except, apparently, the camera crew trudging up behind them. No wonder the fly-on-the-wall documentary is becoming a discredited form. But the contract is being subtly rewritten. We know, don't we, that television is not a window on the world, it can only mediate reality. And we are clever enough now, aren't we, to understand what is going on. So, a truly post-modern television doesn't even pretend any longer to offer truth, only a more or less pleasurable suspension of disbelief. Let us amuse you.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star