Review – Derren Brown – Miracle (needed)

They say, “Never meet your heroes”. Nothing to do with halitosis apparently. It’s something about your expectations exceeding the reality and tempting disappointment.

Since he first started reading minds on TV over a decade ago, Derren Brown has been an absolute hero to me, almost a god. He inspired my second novel and motivated me to practice prestidigitation and mentalism right up and into the Magic Circle (available for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, etc.).

I even met him once and though, sadly, nothing magical passed between us, we also didn’t have the opportunity to disappoint each other. And we both were far too polite to mention the halitosis.

What they don’t say is, “Never see your heroes live and working at what they’re supposed to be best at”. Which is why I allowed myself some expectations when I sat down to witness his latest West End show Miracle. A title filled with irony and yet unable to hide the fact the show really needs one.

It’s not that Brown’s effects were transparent, though a couple were surprisingly so. And it’s not that he has lost any of his charisma, though in the second half he does try to ape charismatic faith healers in a theatrical expose that falls short. It’s just that, unlike the preachers he attempts to shame, his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. Presumably the greed that drives American faith healers, spurs them into passionate reveries, a misapprehended dedication which inspires their followers. Brown attempts to copy these evangelical tirades but then, almost immediately, is betrayed by his own disgust for the characters he’s impersonating as well as a lack of, dare I say it, faith… in his own cause.

Oh darn it. Now I’ve revealed something that was in the show. And he had asked us all so nicely at the beginning, not to tell anyone what we were going to witness.

And honestly, if Brown had produced something truly unique or original or just looked like it took some effort or care, I would be respecting his wishes and be offering you so much exultant, content free, wind. But I got the feeling that his desire for secrecy may have had more to do with a lack of confidence in the production than a desire to surprise and delight further audiences; that if potential ticket buyers knew more, they just might stop coming.

So what’s gone wrong?

Simply, it seems that Brown and fellow genius/mentalist/actor/other hero director Andy Nyman have failed to dress the effects with the care that they used to. What made Brown such a class-leading, unique performer was his ability to build stories around his effects with beautiful logic that created almost entirely credible explanations. Brown’s fans mould themselves in his image, they see themselves as intelligent, thoughtful, and sceptical if not downright cynical – but then they swear by his declared techniques. So if, for example, you put enough subliminal suggestions around an ad writer’s journey to work you will be able to influence him to come up with a precise idea you’ve already predicted. Obvs! If you find a truly compliant person, whittled from a large group through a bunch of psychological games, you can safely play Russian Roulette with them. For sure! If you crowd-source your lottery numbers, the group will come up with the winning combination. Well. The first two anyway. But Miracle just feels cobbled together; like they could no longer be bothered to put the work in.

Even the audience seemed less enrapt by the great man.

“Was there a reason you thought of that particular number?” Brown quizzed a gentleman who had earlier been selected to dream one up.

“Because that’s the one you told me before the show,” the man replied. Brown cringed and repeated several times that that was not the case, sounding rather like the lady who protesteth too much and not the old Brown who might have confidently joined in the fun with a, “how am I going to get away with the ‘no stooge’ thing now?…” or whatever.

In Absolute Magic, Brown’s bible for magicians on the art of magical performance, he insists that, “You must entertain and enthral, and not drift into risible pretension or alienate with an insensitively handled agenda.” Unfortunately, with Miracle, Brown does just that.

In the first half, he clumsily tries to inject an agenda, about the deadening aspects of the mid-life crisis and the reviving qualities of risk, into a number of unoriginal effects. Effects which have either been seen so often the risk appears minimal – such as the game of Russian Roulette involving a spike hidden in one of a number of identical paper bags (an effect so well-trodden Brown preceded it with a montage of YouTube videos of worse magicians getting the trick wrong) – or simply lacking the dramatic build up to mean much or give credibility. When he got an audience member to dine on a broken lightbulb with him, he offered a half-hearted suggestion that taking a risk like this would help her be braver about finding her own way in life. A large part of this was whilst she was off-stage and most of it was said only after the effect was over. I’m sure the Derren Brown who was my hero would have used his miracle making, mesmerising authority to build up the spectator until she really believed she could do this impossible thing, and only then would she cautiously be allowed to put the glass in her mouth. But he barely tried, and she simply, trustingly, put the glass in her mouth, chewed and swallowed it.

Afterwards, as she was ushered to her seat, Brown instructed the audience “Obviously don’t try this at home, you need someone like me to talk you through it.” But that’s it. No theatre, no attempt to create an impossible story around it and would my hero, the old Brown, even suggest that there was anyone like him?

It was in the second half that Brown tried to take on the persona of a faith healer. One girl started crying on stage because she thought she’d been cured from crippling anxiety only to get up on stage and be faced with the full force of it. Brown seemed lost for words. He was at once affecting change for those who would believe and yet trying to peddle an anti-belief message; you are the agent of your own change etc. It’s a familiar tightrope for him and yet, in Miracle, it proved an impossible one.

And there we have it. The conviction that Brown put into his TV work seems to have, hopefully briefly, departed him in Miracle. With that unshakable self-belief gone, he fails to inspire, the experience seems a little empty and one wonders whether this is Brown’s own mid-life crisis enacted on stage.

It’s not easy to watch gods become mortal. Yet, in showing his feet of clay, Brown unconsciously points to the footprints he has left behind. Miracle will remind you that we shouldn’t take for granted the wonders he has created, what astonishments he has wrought and how, over the years, he has taught us all to be a little more sceptical and question what we see. In Miracle we see more vulnerable Derren Brown, we see that he is a human after all, but that, as he reminds us at the beginning of the show, is quite a miracle in itself.

 

First published in

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Thank goodness

Adam Curtis is back again on the BBC which means there is some real thinking going on on the telly again.

Trailer:

Here is the link to the iplayer version streamed by the BBC that, I believe, won’t play in the United States – the same place which, ironically, is exactly where Mr Curtis’ work needs to be seen.

It’s hard to recommend that people should watch this as it is, in fact, so dense in places it needs to be watched twice.  But it is that good – twice it is.  Curtis again uses his cold war information film technique as he skips through and carefully selects his modern history. He gracefully draws the link between an American obsession with ‘justified self-interest’ as expounded by Ayn Rand in “Atlas Shrugged” and used as a social template by Alan Greenspan -to the policies of Clinton’s administration, leading to the collapse of the Indonesian and east Asian economies, impoverishing the East, tempting the 9.11 attacks, and how it culminated in the 2008 crash as America fooled itself that it’s economy was stable because it was driven by computers – when it was really China freezing their own currency to drive down prices and flood the American market with goods, using the dollars they gained, not to invest in their own economy but buy US bonds. The stability of the US ecomomy drove riskier and riskier atittudes until the system imploded… oh but there is a conspiracy of the elite financiers trying to save themselves behind it all.  Watch. Enjoy. Think.
Someone has kindly serialised it on YouTube:

Ayn Rand got a stamp of disapproval

 

Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Do not be fooled by the subtitle – this is not self-help. This book will not help you become more successful. In fact, its more honest subtitle would be, “… and why you’re a failure and will always be one.” Malcolm Gladwell, best selling author of Blink and Tipping Point has returned with an analysis of the elements that have made some of the world’s most successful people successful and, guess what, they all turn out to be things you cannot acquire.

Gladwell didactically enumerates the attributes of “outlying” success, as if they were character creation elements in a Dungeons and Dragons game. His outlier hero is a combination of:

· Being born at the right time

· Talent

· Dedication that will render you 10,000 hours of practice in your field before you are in your mid twenties

· A relatively high IQ but not necessarily an ultra-high one

· A wealthy enough family background to give you the opportunities and backing

· A society which appreciates your medium

· Charm

· Luck.

So unless you are under eleven years old this book will be of no practical help. If you’re over thirty, as I suspect most readers will be, this will only serve to remind you of all the ways that your own life has gone wrong. And really this list contains little that we don’t already know to the point of cliché. Being in the “right place at the right time” covers most of it.

Gladwell has selected his “extraordinary” achievers carefully. Bill Gates, The Beatles and Robert Oppenheimer. These people, he claims, lie outside the normal graph lines of success, they are “outliers” and somehow, by creating a new word for it, the reader is asked to believe that he has found something new. However, even his 10,000 hour paradigm is so loose as to be useless and in his argument that the Beatles somehow did their 10,000 hours practice playing in the clubs in Hamburg before they became successful doesn’t actually add up. Bill Gates fits quite neatly into his list of attributes, he was the right age to exploit the creation of the personal computer, in the right place: California. He had had access to a computer and programming from 1968, which is extraordinarily early, and could get in his 10,000 hours before he was 21. Robert Oppenheimer had the charm to talk himself out of an attempted murder rap on his own tutor and then went on to lead the Manhatten Project winning the race to split the atom.

Bizarrely, Gladwell lastly examines his own mother’s life and her route from racial underclass to middle class. I can’t believe that Gladwell’s graph really shows that she lies far outside the graph of many who struggle from poverty of racial exclusion. This, I imagine, is more sentiment than it is the cold analysis that Gladwell claims to use. As a social scientist he seems lacking. He suggests no control groups or exceptions, his selection is limited. Simply applying the same factors to other “household name” successes soon shows the limitations of his list of attributes.

Madonna, for example may have got a huge amount of dance practice under her puff skirt before she became successful, but she had barely sung a note before she began her outlying career as a singer. She was, however, in the right place at the right time: The New York club scene in the early eighties vacuum left by disco. Her background was not wealthy but her tenacity is undoubted. And Richard Branson? A privileged public school boy, he signed Mike Oldfield at an early age and, apart from a failed national launch of a school magazine he had had little practice running a publishing business let alone an airline by the time his brilliantly named “Virgin” was a household name.

But I can tell you something that these two, ignored, outliers had, along with all the ones that Gladwell chooses. Something his analysis seems to neglect completely, presenting a cosy naive vision of the elements of success. The one thing all outliers and successful people possess is a certain ruthlessness and willingness to exploit people and situations when other, more normal people, might be concerned about social consequence or following moral codes. The Beatles famously sacked their drummer Pete Best, the notorious fifth Beatle, because he didn’t fit in (where was Ringo Starr during Gladwell’s Hamburg 10,000 hours?) with the wholesome image they decided to project to gain the less rebellious teenage market. Bill Gates’ Windows system found him repeatedly prosecuted for anti-competitive business practice. Oppenheimer, as we learnt, thought nothing of trying to poison his tutor. What these people share is an ability to navigate their way in life without their “moral compass”.

Gladwell’s “Outliers” is a limited and benign vision. In the end you are told very little you didn’t already know. Like so much social or behavioural science you feel you’re paying Gladwell to state the obvious. He, or his editor, has a knack of knowing the point that a reader will get bored at and enlivens his writing just at that moment with a new nugget of information or conclusive thought so the writing rewards along the way but Gladwell never gets deep under the skin of success.

The simple fact that extremely successful people do not apparently possess, to the same degree as normal “inliers”, the moral self-limiter which prevents exploitation of others and that this is not even touched upon in Gladwell’s analysis (possibly the fear of lawsuits has neutered this project) leaves this book a hollow work of interesting but empty assertions without the real work of either rigorous analysis or inspired insight.

New Art from China – Saatchi Gallery

Like most people my age I have the abiding memory of, whenever a toy broke in my hand, inspecting it more closely and through the mist of my tears discovering the words, “Made in China” embossed on what was, inevitably, an unbroken part.  It is no wonder then that one’s first reaction to the words “Made in China” is, well: shit.

What’s rather refreshing about this new exhibition in Saatchi’s crisp new Duke of York’s space in Chelsea is that, like the giant mound of excretia made from tarred and melted army toys in the second room, this reaction seems to have been anticipated.

Is it crap?  Well no.  It doesn’t smell, you don’t have the pleasure of making it and judging from the hoards of well heeled chelscensters at the public opening, it cannot really be indulged in private.

It is interesting and amusing and pretty much does what we tend to like “Art” to do nowadays; which is divert with facile allusion.  Rather like high end “Dancing on Ice“.  It comments but then excuses itself from comment when it gets it wrong by being “Art”.

The centrepiece of the show is the room full of aging world leaders wandering about in electric wheel chairs, half asleep, frighteningly real wax works, living out the random conflicts and bumps of their confinement.  At one level you can find the “comment”, though the leaders seem unidentifiable, in the obvious allusion to world conflict.  On the other hand, their journeys are so slow and their sensors so diplomatic that it becomes ludicrous and the satiric edge is dampened and… well never mind, it’s art.

The unstated comment that underlies this exhibition, though, is interesting.  So deeply ingrained is the propaganda of the Revolution, the theme of the glory of the common worker overcoming the decadent capitalism of the bestern wankers is apparently unintentionally evident in almost every work.  We have the real, stuffed, hard working donkey, pushing over the metal, industrial, artifical New York skyscraper; the apparently minimalist decadent blank canvas, which on closer inspection is being hurried over by worker ants; the iconic busts of western art are impaled by the fieldworkers pitchforks grown in to the shape by nature.  It’s not difficult to work out which end of the chippy spectrum these artists, and their country, are coming from.

Art and politics love flirting with each other, each thinking the other gives them some edge.  But they’ve never mixed well.  After all, if a week is a long time in politics, a decade is a blink of an eye for great art… so if you’re looking for that, you won’t find it here.

Saatchi’s advertiser’s eye for the catchy and current undermines his search for great art.  This, like so much “Sensation” brit art and too many ads, is amusing, interesting and instantly forgettable.  What was I talking about?