Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Honor System

Stealing magic has become a commonplace crime. Teller, a man of infinite delicacy and deceit, decided to do something about it.

Teller performing Shadows in 1976 at age twenty-eight, seven years before he copyrighted it. He conceived the trick as a teenager and has performed it onstage for more than thirty-five years.
On April 11 of this year — that date is precisely known — Teller did something it seems no magician has done in decades: He became the plaintiff in a lawsuit in United States District Court to protect one of his magic tricks against theft. The defendant is Gerard Bakardy. "This is an action for copyright infringement and unfair competition under federal statutes," the Nature of Action reads. "Plaintiff seeks damages, attorneys' fees, and costs."
When Teller filed his lawsuit, it made news: ROGUE MAGICIAN IS EXPOSING OUR SECRETS!!! read the TMZ headline. Teller did not like the coverage. The publicity might have sold more tickets to the show, but it misunderstood his purpose. Most of the stories suggested that he was suing Bakardy to protect the secret of his trick, the method. "The method doesn't matter," Teller says. He has performed Shadows over the years with three different methods, seeking perfection. The first involved a web of fishing line that took a painfully long time to set up; the second version required rigid, uncomfortable choreography; the third, today's version, he has never revealed. Bakardy, who said that he had seen Penn & Teller's show, almost certainly didn't use Teller's present method. He knew only the idea and the effect it had on the audience. He felt the crackle that runs through the otherwise silent theater when Teller wields his knife; he saw that some people start to cry, little soft sobs in the dark; he heard that some people make strange noises and other people try to make noises and fail. What Bakardy stole from Teller wasn't a secret. Bakardy stole something that everybody who has ever seen Shadows already knows.
"It's a particularly great trick," Steinmeyer says. "It's beautiful and elegant. It needs no stupid patter. It needs no stupid presentation. Every one of its little surprises makes perfect sense. It has some feeling that it's bigger; it hints at things that are bigger and more interesting than the trick itself. It's three minutes long, and it's just perfect."
"It's so beautiful, I have tears in my eyes when he's finished, I really do," says the Amazing Randi. "The hush in the audience, my God, nobody breathes. I swear they're turning blue. You hardly blink. That's what makes it a very brave trick."
"Teller tapped into this idea of magical thinking," Penn says. "I see it as a reminder that this isn't the way the world works. I see it as a cautionary tale. To me, Shadows is a reminder of how happy we are that the world is the way it is."
"It's one of the top five tricks of all time," Bill Smith says. "There's no question about it."
That's what Bakardy stole from Teller: not the secret, but the magic. In his hands and in the hands of his desperate customers, Shadows risked becoming another Origami or the Zig-Zag Girl. It risked becoming ordinary, remembered for what it was only in eulogies.
But then Bakardy pulled a pretty nifty trick that was all his own. A lawsuit like Teller's has to be served to the defendant; a physical copy must be put in his hands. And over the last several months, a server has tried and failed to deliver those papers to Bakardy at addresses across Spain and Belgium. On May 8, Bakardy uploaded a video to YouTube that featured only blaring accordion music, gaudy text, and a photo of a rose in a Coke bottle. It promises a great reveal, the true story — as well as "The better than in Las Vegas trick... . " He also sent a short, cryptic e-mail declining to be interviewed for this story. ("Not now. Soon you'll see why.") That's all anybody has seen or heard of him in the months since Teller's lawsuit became public. Gerard Bakardy has vanished.
When Teller was in high school, he had a strange and pivotal teacher named D. G. Rosenbaum, an actor and magician who looked diabolical, with a black goatee and pince-nez. Rosey, as the kids called him, smoked black cigarettes and liked to crack raw eggs into his milk shakes. One snowbound afternoon, when his classroom was nearly empty, Rosey read a short story to those few students before him, including an enraptured Teller: "Enoch Soames," by Max Beerbohm, written in 1916.
In the story, Beerbohm relates the tragic tale of Soames, a dim, hopeless writer with delusions of future grandeur. In the 1890s, Beerbohm recounts, Soames made a deal with the devil: In exchange for his soul, Soames would be magically transported one hundred years into the future — to precisely 2:10 P.M. on June 3, 1997 — into the Round Reading Room at the British Museum. There, he could look at the shelves and through the catalogs and marvel at his inevitable success. When Soames makes his trip, however, he learns that time has almost erased him before the devil has had the chance. He is listed only as a fictional character in a short story by Max Beerbohm.
Thirty-four-and-a-half years after that snowy reading by his satanic-looking teacher, and accepting the large risk that he might be the only person in the world who cared about an old short story called "Enoch Soames," Teller flew to England ahead of June 3, 1997.
As it turned out, there were about a dozen people in the Round Reading Room that afternoon — a dozen people who had been so struck by that short story at some point in their lives, they too had decided to make the trip to London. There was a woman from Malibu named Sally; there was a short, stocky Spanish man; there was a slender woman wearing pale green. And at ten past two, they gasped when they saw a man appear mysteriously out of the stacks, looking confused as he scanned empty catalogs and asked
unhelpful librarians about his absence from the files. The man looked just like the Soames of Teller's teenage imagination, "a stooping, shambling person, rather tall, very pale, with longish and brownish hair," and he was dressed in precise costume, a soft black hat and a gray waterproof cape. The man did everything Enoch Soames did in Max Beerbohm's short story, floating around the pin-drop-quiet room before he once again disappeared into the shelves.
"For some reason," Sally from Malibu said, "I'm having to fight tears."
And all the while, Teller watched with a small smile on his face. He didn't tell anyone that he might have looked through hundreds of pages in casting books before he had found the perfect actor. He didn't tell anyone that he might have visited Angels & Bermans, where he had found just the right soft black hat and gone through countless gray waterproof capes. He didn't tell anyone that he might have had an inside friend who helped him stash the actor and his costume behind a hidden door in the stacks. Even when Teller later wrote about that magical afternoon for The Atlantic, he didn't confess his role. He never has.
"Taking credit for it that day would be a terrible thing — a terrible, terrible thing," Teller says. "That's answering the question that you must not answer."
Now, again, his voice leaves him. That afternoon took something close to actual sorcery, following years of anticipation and planning. But more than anything, it required a man whose love for magic is so deep he can turn deception into something beautiful.
For years, Penn & Teller sought a way to test our resistance to magic, to come up with a trick that forced us to make a conscious choice between wishes and facts. It took them more than twenty years to come up with the right trick, because they are a particularly patient brand of obsessive. They called the trick Honor System. It was an escape.
Before the show, there were two boxes waiting on the stage, which they invited members of the audience to inspect. One was clear, with a lid like a shoebox; the second, the larger one, looked like a wood crate with a hinged lid that swung open like a door. Teller climbed into the clear box — so the entire audience could see him — and then assistants put him and his box inside the wood crate and locked the crate from the outside. Houdini had done a double-box escape; it was a good trick, because it seemed impossible to push the lid off the clear box without opening the wood crate first. Someone could look at those boxes for a long time and not be able to figure them out.
Penn began his patter. He told the audience that they were about to be given a choice. Teller was going to make good his escape — there was no doubt about that, Penn said. Penn was going to start playing a song on his bass, and Teller was going to finish it on his vibraphone, done deal. The choice for the audience was whether it wanted to be mystified or informed. Keep your eyes open if you want to know the secret, Penn said. Keep your eyes closed if you want to be amazed.
Penn began to finger the strings, and on most nights, most of the people in the crowd kept their eyes open. They chose heads. (If you chose hearts, skip ahead to the next paragraph.) They saw Teller push up both the clear box's lid and the wood crate's lid with his feet — the wood crate was built with a hidden rig of pneumatic pistons so that the lid that opened like a door could also rise and fall like a levitating table. He then stepped out of the box, pushed down on the lids to close them, and began playing his vibraphone. It was an elegant little trick, simple and clean. It was an artful reveal.
But for those members of the audience who kept their eyes closed, Honor System was confounding. One moment Teller was locked inside a pair of boxes, and the next he was playing music beside his partner, Penn. There were people who went to see that show seven or eight times, and they never opened their eyes. It became a test of their personal resolve. Given a choice, they chose mystery. For them, Penn & Teller had turned magic into something more than entertainment. "Magic gives you the gift of a stone in your shoe," their magician friend Mike Close once said. In that short time between Penn's first hit on his bass and Teller's opening note on his vibraphone, magic was also an act of will.
On August 9 of this year, Teller received unusual permission from the court to serve Bakardy by e-mail and by running weekly notices in Antwerp and Fuerteventura newspapers for four consecutive weeks. The undelivered lawsuit had been hanging over him for months, and it sometimes showed on his face, these burdens of the man leading life's artists in their latest fight against life's thieves. "If he can find him and sue him and win, that would be huge for the world of magic," Bill Smith says. "It would set a precedent where there's never been one."
Nobody seems to know whether Teller's copyright filing will stand up in court. The law seeks clarity. Magic is expressly designed to be murky. Teller has requested a jury trial; whether he wins or loses could depend on how those twelve citizens see Shadows: Is it art? Is it the sort of art that one man can own?
At its recent World Championships, the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques gave Teller a special award for creativity and artistic vision. Some saw it as an unspoken show of support, a way to steel his resolve while also acknowledging that it's time for magicians to confront the kidnappers in their ranks. Even if Bakardy never answers the virtual summons, even if the lawsuit never gets settled or goes to court, maybe just the filing of it will be enough to change the order of things. Teller has sometimes told himself as much. "Nothing fools you better than the lie you tell yourself," he says.
For now, the fate of Teller's lawsuit, and of Bakardy himself, remains a mystery. The strange thing is, most of the evidence of Bakardy — the stills from his disappeared YouTube video and long-gone online advertisements, his aliases and nationality and birth date — survives only as legal exhibits in Teller's filing. Bakardy's name doesn't come up in magic forums except in reference to the lawsuit, and there are no ready accounts of anyone actually having seen him perform in those distant spots on a map. He has no known current address or phone, and anybody could be behind an e-mail. No one has any idea where he is. It's as though he's disappeared off the face of the earth, almost like poor Enoch Soames after he made his deal with the devil.
Is it possible that something beautiful, something implausible and yet logical, will emerge out of what appears to be a perfectly ordinary copyright suit? Could Teller's lawsuit be part of some incredible trick — that Gerard Bakardy is a stooge or an actor or never existed in the first place? ("The better than in Las Vegas trick..." "Not now. Soon you'll see why.") Even for someone as devoted as Teller, even for someone so good at long cons and keeping secrets, that would be an almost impossible trick. That would be the trick of a lifetime. That would be the sort of magic that would make you want to close your eyes.
UPDATE: On September 10, someone purporting to be Gerard Bakardy e-mailed Esquire, TMZ, Reuters, and Magic Magazine to inform them that he has filed a complaint in Belgian court against Teller for "libel, slander, defaming, fraud, extortion-blackmail, etc." He claims to be seeking damages of 8,000,000 Euros, or about $10,330,000 U.S. dollars. His email concluded, "Mr. Teller is fully informed about this, and I presume he's eager to give you more details. That's how celebrities are, they love the media spotlight, at least, that’s what Mr. Teller told me."

Read more:

No comments:

Post a Comment