Review by Michael Claxton
In Twelve documentaries, Daniel and Donna Zuckerbrot explore magic, mysticism, and much more.
Daniel and Donna Zuckerbrot are the creative talents behind such outstanding documentary films as Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic, and The Strange Genius of Stewart James. Their most recent venture is Enigma?, a documentary series that has been broadcast on Canadian TV. The twelve-part series, some of which will soon be broadcast on HDNet in the United States, is produced under the banner of Reel Time Images; the programs explore magic, spiritualism, religion, and the occult. The series promises to take “both a sceptical and respectful approach to those who appear to hold rather unusual beliefs.” In the nine documentaries sent for review so far, the even-handed look at occult subjects, while sometimes too even-handed, makes for intriguing viewing for both magicians and general audiences. Each program is approximately 48 minutes long and consist of archival films and images, interviews with scholars and contemporary footage of strange and unusual activates.
Three of the programs focus on familiar names in the magic world. Max Maven: A Fabulous Monster weaves footage from Maven’s show Thinking in Person with commentary from Eugene Burger, Stephen Minch, Michael Weber, David Ben, Patrick Watson, and Maven himself, to form a portrait of this intriguingly “unabashed” intellectual. His indictment that 20th-century magicians “have taken something very inherently profound and rendered it trivial” epitomizes the philosophical depth that Maven brings to magic and mentalism. Another film, The Houdini Code, traces, for a general audience the well-known story of Houdini’s complex battle with spiritualism and the controversy over alleged spirit messages received by Bess after his death. Using archival footage and interviews with biographers Bill Kalush and Larry Sloman, as well as Jamy Ian Swiss, James Randi, and Bill Rauscher (author of a book on the subject), the film examines Houdini’s’ will to believe and the fraud that later occurred in his name. The third magic name is Jeff McBride, whose A Magickal Life was reviewed in the May 2008 issue.
Three programs in the series address legendary occult figures: Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and the Fox Sisters. Madame Blavatsky: Spiritual Traveler chronicles the life of the spirit medium and founder of Theosophy, whose 19th-century embrace of Easter religion and culture has made her a hero to some, and whose documented fraud and plagiarism made her a pariah to others. Aleister Crowley: The Beast 666 sketches the man who liked to call himself “the Great Beast” and whose critics called him “The Man We’d Most Like to Hang.” A self-proclaimed prophet and holy man, Crowley wrote the mystical tome The Book of the Law and established an occult temple in Sicily. His messages of sexual freedom and drug experimentation provoked fury but were embraced, unsurprisingly, by a new generation in the 1960s. Kate and Maggie Fox were the founders of the Spiritualist Movement. . In 1848, their spirit rappings in upstate New York captured the imagination of a public hungry for belief in the supernatural. Their confessions of fraud late in life were greeted both as the “death blow to spiritualism” and dismissed by the faithful as desperate acts of fallen heroes. Spiritualism: The Fox Sisters dramatizes their story.
These three polarizing subjects are difficult to discuss objectively. Ardent believers and entrenched sceptics are likely to be equally irritated by the inconclusive “some say/others say” narrative strategy. Many Magicians will no doubt feel that the sympathetic experts who comment on Blavatsky, Crowley, and the Fox Sisters are overly credulous and will wish that more sceptical experts had been sought out to balance the interviews; the producers neither endorse nor denounce these important historical characters, preferring to emphasise the enigmas that surround them. Postmodern viewers will appreciate the approach. John Nevil Maskelyne might not have. The final three programs center on the practices of tarot, hypnosis, and table-turning. I was rather surprised to learn that table-turning __ that much-derided Victorian spiritualist pastime – is still practiced today, but the film Conjuring Philip mixes footage of contemporary table-turners with the story of a group of psychic researchers in Toronto in the 1970s who invented a fictional Renaissance-era aristocrat named Philip and then attempted to conjure his spirit! Professors of philosophy and psychology are called upon to debate psychokinesis, ideomotoraction, and other relevant phenomena. Hypnotized!; the Trance State features Mike Mandel, who is a stage Hypnotist in Toronto, and several professional hypnotherapists. The relationship between entertainment and therapeutic hypnosis is explored, as is the science behind hypnosis and the controversy surrounding some of its applications. Finally Tarot takes a look at the historical development of the taro deck and its divinatory uses to which some put these 78 cards, which are thought to represent human archetypes and thus to give access to hidden truths about our world. For magicians, on e highlight of this program will be David Ben’s performance of a tarot effect involving, fire, earth, water and air.
While watching the over seven hours of these documentaries, the skeptic in me occasionally rolled his eyes at what struck me as claims of esoteric nonsense. I felt only slightly guilty smirking at modern-day table-turners ¬– an awfully sincere bunch they are – and a bit unnerved listening to the admirers of Aleister Crowley describing his drug-and-sex lifestyle as just a “bad sense of timing.” However, I also found these programs to be effectively produced, educational, balanced and thought-provoking. They certainly open one’s eyes to the variety of diverse beliefs that flourish in this world, and the programs are well worth watching.