Immediately upon their introduction, motion pictures were associated with magic and played along side traditional, theatrical magic performances. An early movie projector prototype was called the “magic lantern.” Now that we’ve been exposed to the technology for a hundred years, the supernatural sheen has worn off, but does that mean that magic has vanished from the movies? I don’t think so.
The invention of motion pictures had nothing to do with conjuring, sorcery or hocus-pocus. Its pioneers were grounded in mechanical engineering, chemistry, the physics of light, etc., but as soon as their ingenious inventions reached the masses magicians began to pump fog into their shadows and investors eagerly backed them.
Let us search for differences later and look at the similarities between magic acts and movies now. Both seem to control time and space, both depend on a strategy or script, both manipulate the attention of crowds. Movies achieve illusions with props, sets and actors. Magic utilizes fetish, ritual space and disembodied spirits. Both are offshoots of the much older art form storytelling.
Cinema is a culture of the lens. It frames for us our deepest fears, highest hopes and most far-flung dreams. Magic is a culture of illusion but juggles the same subjects. Socially speaking, any good story leaps cultural and political divides. Because movies can reach any human who possesses at least one good eye, they provide a virtual common experience for the entire human race.
The origin of the word “blockbuster” in show business parlance describes financial success, the status awarded to a motion picture that breaks box office records, but let us acknowledge how those movies serve to bust through perceptual blocks of the audience at large. When blockbusters like ”Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Avatar” seep through global cultural boundaries, they penetrate social, geographical, religious and cultural strongholds, uniting the entire planet through a single story. If that’s not magic, what is?
Hold that thought and now let’s look at how pre-cinema cultures performed works of magic as a form of social medicine. Dr. Dennis Tedlock, renowned writer, teacher and anthropologist, in his essay “The Shaman as Magician,” discusses magic with a Zuni Indian guide. The natives of that remote southwest Indian Pueblo in New Mexico give a name to magic that corresponds to the seeping of something through one surface to another such as when rain oozes through a mud roof.
Notice how the Zuni word for magic describes ordinary process in the ordinary world. The term leaves no room for the uncanny, however, “all of these Zuni tricks, unlike those of stage magicians, have a purpose, a meaning that goes beyond trickery as such,” says Tedlock. He goes on to explain how the Zuni embrace folk magic for the ability to restore curiosity and wonderment in the community and for occasionally triggering spontaneous healing for its members. How could such a human contrivance as “magic” be responsible for physical healing?
Psychologists have proven not all illnesses originate in the physical body. Physical symptoms can be a result of clogged emotions and distorted perceptions. In such cases, health can often be restored through a mix of emotional catharsis, identifying, releasing and changing limiting beliefs. The challenge that shamans and faith healers face, in assisting with cures, is to interrupt the self-imposed limitations of their patients by presenting evidence of unlimited possibilities. I’m inclined to think modern stage and movie tricks soak down through the surface of our imaginations in a similar way to folk magic, and can compel positive changes in our bodies, minds, and spirits as well.
Like most modern film audiences, the Zuni are hip to the illusion and slight of hand of its shamans, but neither do they deny their healing value. Illnesses may not always curable with drugs and surgery, sometimes they’re just controlled with them. Real cures require total responsibility from the patient. A good shaman seeks to inspire total involvement, just as a good filmmaker does.