I really like card tricks. I don’t have a great explanation why, but there’s something about them that I just adore. It’s a bit of an unusual hobby. Not one I take too seriously, so please don’t expect Houdini if I ever ask you to pick a card. Like all forms of art, magic is about self expression. I might perform a trick I learned online, but I do it my way. That’s one of the great things about magic: everyone does their tricks their own way. Some opt for spectacle, some go for comedy, and some, like the hugely successful Shin Lim, elevate magic to new levels every time they open a deck of cards.
A lot of people do card tricks. The idea of doing card tricks, which are silly at their very core, really seriously, and really really importantly, is wonderful.
Penn Jillette said that right after Shin put on what may be the greatest card trick performance of all time. One of those rare moments where something truly incredible has just taken place, when something as silly and unimportant as taking a playing card and making it disappear, becomes a totally transcendental moment for all involved. That’s real magic. If you’re not aware of Shin Lim, I highly recommend you look him up and watch some of his performances.
If you ask me (and technically you did when you clicked on this article!), the art of telling stories is humanity’s greatest creation. Personally, I’m fond of the more unusual methods of telling stories, which is why some of my favourite things are wrestling and magic. I love magic for the performance, the variety of ways a magician can lure the audience in and manipulate them, weaving a narrative of falsehoods right before their eyes. I love wrestling for, well, basically all the same reasons I just mentioned for magic.
Ultimately I feel the point of telling a story is to make your audience feel something. You want to manipulate their emotions, and there are easy or difficult ways to do that. It’s easy to make someone feel happy, or sad. Show your audience a puppy – happy! Kill the puppy – sad! Also, don’t do that! The point is it’s easy to instill the most basic emotions, but what about complex emotions like pride or wonder? How do you make your audience proud of a fictional character? How do you create awe with an obvious illusion?
There are a lot of connections between wrestling and magic. Both are very old forms of entertainment that have adapted and persisted to this day. Both involve highly flamboyant, expressive performances. Both are steeped in lies. Precious, fragile truths that must be kept from the audience at all costs. Maybe less so today but still, the lie is important to maintain. Ultimately, both wrestling and magic are extremely silly. Arguably little more than children’s entertainment, if you take a very base view of both.
All art has it’s naysayers – that’s kind of the point. Few art forms are the butt of more jokes than wrestling or magic, but all art has value. The most basic job of art is to entertain, but to be truly considered Art with a capital ‘A’, it needs to mean something. Art makes you think, Art makes you feel. Usually when a medium of artistic expression becomes popular, there will be those who will run it down to try to discredit its legitimacy. The famous film critic Roger Ebert once claimed video games could never be art. There was a time when the Roger Ebert’s of the world claimed film would never be art. All art forms get derided, but all art forms are capable of creating something wonderful. Usually, it just takes the right people to come along at the right time.
What pro wrestling and magic have uniquely in common is that neither are brand new ideas. Wrestling has been around since the 19th century, and magic dates back to prehistory. These aren’t the new kids on the block, fighting to make a name for themselves. No, these two have a long history and neither have really gained the respect of their peers. There’s no Louvre Museum of German Suplexes and Vanishing Elephants.
There are remarkable similarities in the performances of both forms. Pageantry is paramount; music and lights are used for dramatic effect. Both work best in front of crowds, as the crowds are crucial participants in the show. The performers themselves often put their bodies on the line for their craft. Either can be used as vehicles for comedy, drama, suspense and awe.
Then, there’s the lie. The Magician’s code. Kayfabe. These things are identical in every way, an obvious truth that we all ignore because beyond the lie is a whole world of incredible things. Wrestling is fake. There’s no such thing as magic. Who cares.
Which gets me neatly back on topic. If neither wrestling or magic are real, how can they be important? Important, like cinema or literature? I have a theory. Sure, wrestling and magic are silly by their very nature, but what art isn’t? When you watch a film, or read a piece of fiction, there is always some degree of disbelief being suspended. Those stories aren’t real either.
What separates film from pro wrestling is that wrestling dances right on the edge of your disbelief. Wrestling challenges you to know it isn’t real, but still go along for the ride. More so, it challenges it’s performers to keep you on the path. It’s their job to get your attention, and to hold it so firmly you never waiver back into disbelief. I have been a wrestling fan most of my life, and while watching Wrestle Kingdom this month I genuinely, earnestly, cheered on Kota Ibushi to win and become champion.
The wrestling analyst that lives in my brain could have soundly assumed Ibushi would win; it just felt right for the story. That did not stop me from getting emotionally invested in the match, and that didn’t stop me from jumping out of my chair when the three was counted. I felt pride. That’s the true beauty of wrestling: it walks a fine line but when the greats like Ibushi manage to pull it off, it’s magical. I got the same feeling watching Shin Lim perform for Penn and Teller. A whole theatre of people who know full well there’s no such thing as magic, still completely stunned by a perfect performance. I felt awe.
There’s another part of Penn Jillette’s quote I’d like to discuss:
There is this theory on magic, that I believe very much, which is once one thing is seen to be phony, the whole thing crumbles, and it crumbles completely. So it needs to be perfect, or not all.
I think the same theory holds true for wrestling. When things go wrong in a match or in a magic trick, you see the seams and it all starts to unravel. However, there’s more to this sentiment. Penn goes on to say that, although he and Teller saw some of Shin’s moves, they still felt it was perfect. No match, no trick, is ever perfect. Perfect art doesn’t exist, unless it engages you so much emotionally that it feels perfect. Magic and wrestling are uniquely suited to this pursuit, because chasing perfection is intrinsic to both. That perfection is explicitly unobtainable, but it is in the pursuit of perfection that greatness is achieved, and magic is made.