Flashback Friday: The Instant Orange Tree Trick in The Illusionist Wasn’t Just a Hollywood Fiction
“Everything you have seen is an illusion. It’s a trick.” ~Eisenheim
The debate may go on for years. Just as the debate regarding who was the greatest magician, Houdini or Howard Thurston, once was all the buzz near a century ago, I think there will be an ongoing debate regarding the greatest Hollywood film about magic and magicians, though on a much smaller scale. I have already written about The Prestige, first of the two candidates, and this morning am making my case for The Illusionist.
The Greatest Film Ever About Magic: The Illusionist
From the opening notes of the film’s score by Philip Glass I was enthralled. The feel of the film from the opening credits into the opening scene was itself so convincing, so perfectly rendered and magical. High expectations were created by this wonderfully mysterious, graphically aesthetic ambiance and the film delivered on that promise.
Bob Yari Productions Presents A Koppelman-Levien/Michael London Production In Association with Contagious Entertainment A Film by Neil Burger If you do not know the film, the featured stars are Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti and Jessica Biel, though Rufus Sewell as Crown Prince Leopold helps the film. As noted above, the opening creates a beautiful suspense. At two minutes in one is already prepared to weep. The melancholic beauty of the score runs beneath the skin directly into your veins, and is swiftly conveyed to nerves and heart.
In that first scene the magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is seated on a stage, concentrating intensely, illumined by a spotlight. We see him first from the point of view of the balcony, then from the side, then close up on his face, beads of sweat building on his face and forehead. Cut to audience, agitated, someone saying, “It’s her.” And then the police, in late nineteenth century garb, march in to take their stations about the stage as Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) declares, “I hereby arrest Eduard Abramovicz, also known as Eisenheim the Illusionist… on charges of disturbing public order, charlatanism and threats against the empire.” The film then flashes back to show us how we came to this electrically charged moment.
The film is a love story at its core. When Eduard was a poor boy from the lower classes his childhood sweetheart was the upper crust Sophie (Jessica Biel). The heart of the story is the great lengths to which Eduard will go to obtain his heart’s desire.
But it’s also an inside look at what magicians were about, and how people respond. In one scene Eisenheim has been asked to entertain the Crown Prince and his guests at a private party. In this scene Eisenheim performs a number of stunning illusions, one of them being to make a small orange tree to grow from a seed and produce fruit, within minutes. The trick becomes a recurring theme in the film because Inspector Uhl keeps wanting to know how it is done.
What’s astonishing to me is that this orange tree trick was actually one that Houdini once did. It went like this. At the Chicago World’s Fair, before Houdini had really made a name for himself, he did this routine where he would be dressed like an Indian fakir and play a little flute or whatever he could think of while sitting cross-legged on the ground trying to attract a small crowd. He had a sheet or something lightweight laid out and he would then take a seed and “plant” it. He would make music and there would be a slow rise underneath and he would peel back the sheet to show a six inch sprout. He covered it, played a little more and it grew, and grew some more till it became a small tree with fruit. In other words, what we saw Hollywood do on film was an illusion that Houdini himself invented and performed as a young man.
One other touch I especially liked was the story within the story of how Eisenheim became Eisenheim. The tale of his meeting an old magician is straight out of the Borges tradition, and magical realism, a form of story that became the spark which lit the flame of my own inspiration for several of the stories in my published volume Unremembered Histories.
Meantime, if you’ve not seen the film, it’s a wonderful journey and the payoff is satisfying. Here is the scene in which he performs the Instant Orange Tree illusion.
In need of a little magic in your life?
Check out The Illusionist.
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com