During production on the artsploitation flick Pill Head, I ran to the local deli to pick up sandwiches because, this being a nano-budget indie, it was sandwiches for dinner personally delivered by yours truly, the director.
Fresh from the set, I must have entered the deli aisle with an added flourish—after all, I was in the midst of directing a feature film. The young man behind the counter eyed me as if he recognized me or at least recognized something about me. After a beat he innocently asked, “You’re someone important, right?”
Despite being the sandwich-boy auteur, I relished the moment. How could I not be someone important? I had a bag of sandwiches, a waxed mustache and a scarf billowing off the shoulder of my black blazer.
Then he asked, “Are you a magician?”
From a certain angle—like, from behind a deli case hovering with hands outstretched over the bologna and pimento loaves—yes, I look like a fricking magician. It’s the mustache. And the invisible horn section that toots “Ta-da!” whenever I gesture.
I didn’t resent this. In fact, I found it affirming. Like many kids in my generation, I had a magic kit as a kid—a wand, rings that linked, a cheap top hat, etc., and as Francis Ford Coppola once said, “I think cinema, movies and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made films were magicians.” Presto. As the caterpillar is to the butterfly, so then is the magician to the moviemaker.
So, yes, I’m a magical, mustachioed butterfly. Judge me at your peril.
To Coppola’s point, Georges Méliès is the obvious early 20th-century example of a magician-turned-filmmaker. Every one of his innovations, from substitution splices and multiple exposures to time-lapse photography and hand-tinting frames, was in the service of some kind of movie “magic.” Cinema is an illusionist’s perfect medium and every subsequent special effect shares a common ancestor in these early works.
This comingled magician-filmmaker DNA persists through the 1900s and reappears, like an atavism, in other magicians-turned-filmmakers. Among them is Woody Allen, who was also a magician in his youth and frequently depicts magicians in his work (Stardust Memories, Oedipus Wrecks, etc.). Though at present writing, Allen is a culturally-fraught premise, a film like Shadows and Fog offers a poignant depiction of the magician’s relationship to illusion, and by proxy, cinema.
At the film’s end, when Allen’s nebbish belatedly accepts an invitation to join the circus as a magician’s assistant, someone off-screen says, “Everybody loves his illusions.” And the magician, magisterially played by Kenneth Mars, replies “Love them? They need them—like they need the air.”
And we do. Even when we’re making them. And especially when getting sandwiches.
Editor Daedalus Howell is the writer-director of “Pill Head,” now playing on Amazon Prime.