And so it begins....
Being a reviewer is a risky job. If the readers agrees with my opinion, then all is well. I've helped them with their investment of time and money. If they disagree, then I've done them a disservice. And most review columns (be they book, trick or video) tend toward a rambling style that changes from review to review. There is nothing wrong with this style, but I wanted to bring a slightly different perspective to the field.
In an attempt to add a little structure to my particular column, I've created a scoring system within which I will operate. It allows me to touch upon the variety of categories that I believe to be of interest. Each topic will have its own score, as well as textual information. This format will allow you to locate the parts that interest you the most. If the technical quality of the video is of interest, then you can go right to it. If you couldn't care less about it, then you can choose to ignore it. And since a little rambling is sometimes the best part of a review, I'll close each one with a short summary that will contain my freeform opinion of the video in question.
Speaking of opinions, I should point out that I will state my honest impressions as I watch each video. Fortunately, I have a huge number of friends in magic. Unfortunately, this means that I'm going to publicly state my feelings about my friends' work. This is a delicate situation, because if I give the video a favorable review, it might seem as if I'm being generous. If I give an unfavorable review, it might test the validity of these friendships. So be it. Magic is filled with unusual situations. If I create tension with my written opinions, then at least I'll be in the excellent company of our industry's opinionated journalists.
So, here is my system:
This will concern the topics of: Editing; Titles; and Organization. Was the tape cut well, or are there more splices then Oliver Stone used in Natural Born Killers? Are the titles well done, clear, easy to locate (even during fast forwarding)? Do the explanations follow the effect in the appropriate order, or do you have to wade through a disorganized mess to locate the part that you want?
This concerns Camera Work. Did they use one or multiple cameras? Too much zooming, or not enough? Would a Lettermanesque "monkey-cam" have done a better job?
All about the physical, tangible stuff. The quality of the cassette. The box and labels. And add-ins. Add-ins are the props or gimmicks that are included in addition to the tape. Pluses include gaffed cards, trick coins, and specially printed items. Minuses include those damn little postcards that virtually no one ever sends in.
Did they shoot this on a professional set or in a hotel bedroom? Did they get a real audience, or the producer's third cousins? Was it shot live, or does it have a canned, sterile feel to it?
Are these original effects? Are they old effects that have been improved? Or did they just finish reading the Wilson course? And this section does indeed include crediting (which I believe is intrinsically tied to originality).
Ratio of effects vs. the quality of effects. And price figures into this equation as well. If the effects are good, but there are 50 of them for 20 dollars, that is a superb value. If there is one effect for 50 dollars, it had better be an excellent one.
Is the performer good? Does he flash? Did he fool me? Or is he fooling himself?
Is the video fun to watch? Is the performer entertaining? Would I show the performance sections to my laymen friends? Will I watch this video over and over, or is it shelved after the first viewing?
The clarity of the performer during the explanations. Is there enough detail, too little or too much? Needless repetition? (That is what the rewind button is for.) Are questions left unanswered?
This is my bottom line summation. The rambling part. The overall impression that the video left me with. In this part, I'll discuss all of my favorite parts. And all of the bad parts.
Each of the above ten parts will be rated on a scale from zero to ten (ten being high). These will be totaled here to create a final score from zero to one hundred. It will close the review.
So there you have it. I think this system will bring something new to the field, and will serve the needs of the average reader. In order to give you a basis to start on, I've chosen to review a classic video. It is likely that many of you already have this particular title in your collections. This review will give you a feel for my style. If you don't have this one yet, then you should get it, as I chose one of the best to start my column with.
The Greater Magic Video Library, Volume 28
Stevens Magic Emporium
2520 East Douglas
Wichita, Kansas 67214
This classic tape contains Don Alan's most famous routines and then some: The Chop Cup; Cigarette Through Quarter; Invisible Deck; Big Deal; 3-1/2 Clubs; The Card Stab; Scotch & Soda; The Bowl Routine; The Coat Hanger; Ring Flight; and The Big Nut. Other effects are performed, but not explained.
This was well done. The editing doesn't show through, being transparent to the viewer. The titles are the same format that The Greater Magic Video Library has always had. The organization is very good: a short interview (interspersed with vintage clips for emphasis), Don's act, and a separate section at the end for the explanations. Plus a cool little segment of advice tucked in at the end.
Multiple cameras were used. The camera work is good, clear and rarely misses the "moment." Only once or twice was I displeased at the shot.
The soft plastic box and labels are classic Stevens. A full-color photo is tipped in on a deep red background. Gold foil highlights the title and logo, but the black text is difficult to read on the dark red. My tape is starting to have "snow" appear sporadically throughout. But that happens after repeated viewings; for a tape that is nine years old, it is holding up well.
A professional set was used. A real live audience was gathered. Most appear to be laymen, but magicians are visible in the crowd. The reactions are genuine, and come across well. The performance section is great, with everyone gathered around Don sitting at the table.
Virtually all of the routines are original with Don, or have been improved to the point of being unique. Unfortunately, since most of Don's routines (and lines!) have been unscrupulously copied over the past couple of decades, it might appear to the casual viewer that there is nothing new here. Quite the opposite is true.
There is a wealth of material here, and most is of exceptionally high quality.
Don is in fine form here. He still catches me with several items. A few moments are bad. For example, a microphone catches a steel ball clinking against a metal bowl. I don't think it would have been heard under normal performance conditions.
I would be happy to show the performance sections to my lay friends. I have watched this video numerous times over the years, and it has aged well. Don's a unique, opinionated, funny and detail-oriented performer. This video captured him at a good moment in his career. Other than broadcast television appearances, this is his testament to magic. He dedicated his life to performing magic, and it shows.
This is a mixed bag. Don never really goes step-by-step during the explanations. Details are sporadic, but when they come, they are real gems. Often, entire parts are left out. Consider this more of an advice video than a teaching tape.
While the teaching segment is lacking in many areas, that isn't why you want this video. You want it to see a real pro work his honed act. And the bits of advice that Don tosses out are really, really good. Plus, you'll see where many of today's classic close-up effects, presentations, and lines came from. Most importantly, you get the feeling that you've spent an evening with Don. You get a feel for his style, for his sense of humor. It is a very good atmosphere. All in all, a fun, and at times, educational experience.
Please send all videos for review to:
3106 78th Avenue
Elmwood Park, IL 60707-1009 U.S.A.
End playback. Rewind.