We just watched Penn & Teller’s Magic and Mystery Tour, their 2003 documentary on traditional magic in China, India and Egypt, and really enjoyed it. Penn and Teller resolve to track down performers who are still doing the street magic that inspired western magicians in years gone by — the Indian Rope Trick, the Egyptian Gali Gali men with their cups and balls, and Chinese classics like the mask trick and the glass bowls trick.
Each segment is very self-contained, and full of the brash Penn humor and Harpo Marx Teller mischief that they’re known for. There’s a bit of general history and cultural overview in each nation, but the emphasis is always on magic and its odd history in each nation — Mao’s purge of street magicians, the hieroglyphs that (may) depict an ancient cup-and-balls routine, the colonial soldier who faked evidence of the Indian rope trick.
But where the video shines is in the intimate views of the lives of the magicians and their families in the countries that P&T visit — a village filled with traditional magicians in China, a slum known for magicians in Calcutta, the descendant of Luxor Gali-Gali, an Egyptian magician who played the Ed Sullivan show and attained fame in Vegas.
The documentary left me with a sense of the overall oddity of devoting your life to magic, and the strange ways that magicians all over the world, and all through time, are bound together by this craft of trickery and illusion. Teller has a moment where he addresses the camera at some length on the nature of the linking rings and the cultural differences in the way that it’s transformed that is one of the most interesting bits of video I’ve ever seen.
Oh, and the Crosby and Hope-style title animation and theme song are a hoot.
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