Close Magic: Derek DelGaudio's Illusions of Other People

By Phillip MaciakApril 1, 2021

Close Magic: Derek DelGaudio's Illusions of Other People
SEVEN YEARS AGO, I spent most of my birthday on a train to Chicago. It was our first winter in St. Louis, we’d just been hit by a big blizzard, and we were scheduled to travel north for a conference, but we’d booked the Amtrak tickets already in order to avoid icy roads. So we felt good. We’d take the early train, be in Chicago by the afternoon, and then have dinner at a restaurant with a bunch of people I hadn’t seen in a year. Big plates of fries with specialty mayos and burgers cut in half.

Instead, the tracks froze on the other side of the river, and we sat squirming in coach for 13 hours, 20 miles from St. Louis, waiting to finally lurch toward Chicago. By the time we arrived, we’d canceled my birthday dinner, and only narrowly made it to the hotel in time to order from room service. We ate in bed and watched a David Blaine magic special that was airing on network TV.

Despite the boutique madness of sitting stock still on a train for half a day, the whole rigamarole resulted in me getting two of my absolute favorite earthly delights: a hotel-restaurant-grade club sandwich and an hour of close-up magic on TV. It turned out to be one of my favorite birthdays. I think about that day a lot, particularly recently, as even its most annoying misadventures have come to seem like luxuries in our quarantine year. Just imagine:

a) riding maskless on a train, sucking down all that Amtrak air like you’re never gonna die;

b) planning to have a big dinner with friends;

c) planning to share appetizers;

d) canceling that dinner because “we’ll probably run into each other tomorrow”;

e) splurging on a cab from the train station;

f) getting into a cab;

g) David Blaine entering your home;

h) David Blaine standing very close to you;

i) David Blaine shuffling a deck of cards and handing it to you and you handing it back;

j) David Blaine sticking a knitting needle through his hand;

k) David Blaine suggesting you touch the knitting needle;

l) you touching the knitting needle;

m) David Blaine eating one of your drinking glasses.

Were we ever so young and free?

I thought of Blaine’s special and that night earlier this year when I watched his most recent streaming event. There’s no close-up magic in that one. In fact, in one of the most spectacular displays of social distancing I’ve ever seen, all that happens in it is that our guy straps himself to a couple hundred balloons and floats over the deserts of the American Southwest for an hour or two before he hops off. It’s the sort of big endurance trick with which Blaine leavens his ordinarily small prestidigitations. It’s the magic of him being okay.

I love David Blaine. I love his scungey, mid-'90s DiCaprio vibe. I love his affectless patter. I love the way he makes his close-up tricks both so seamless and so effortful. You can tell — or he wants you to tell — both how hard this stuff is and how hard he’s trying to keep you from seeing how hard it is. I love how close those tricks seem to actual magic. The blood drains from Harrison Ford’s face as Blaine pulls a playing card out of a piece of fruit. The Roots flee in terror and ecstasy. I’m not ashamed to admit it: I feel wonder when I watch those card tricks. But when he goes big, he misses, to me. I don’t care about him standing in an ice cube or staying awake for a week or whatever. And I couldn’t convince myself to not just fast-forward to the end of the balloon special just to make sure he didn’t plummet to his death. He made it down alright, but, all the same, it would have been a pretty poetic end to the career of a magician most famous for somehow not spraying his audience with blood and spit if, during the one year we can’t get closer than six feet from each other, he’d just fallen out of the sky like Wile E. Coyote. Splat.

I thought about Blaine again this spring when he popped up, out of nowhere, as a cameo in Derek DelGaudio’s Hulu magic film, In and Of Itself. It’s not really a spoiler to say I cried real tears when I saw him. He was crying too. Almost everybody was.

Derek DelGaudio, like Blaine, is a close-up magician. But where Blaine’s vacant stare and monotone diction let the tricks do all the talking, DelGaudio presents his sleights of hand with the halting profundity of a high-level TED talker. I don’t mean that as a slight. (Regrettably, that pun was intended.) Blaine uses his social awkwardness to create pockets of cringe, spaces within the world of the trick that tempt the audience to look away, and it’s in those spaces of discomfort where whatever virtuosic humbug transpires. Blaine, in other words, exploits the formal structure of repulsion. DelGaudio builds through intimacy. He uses the let-that-sink-in pauses and PowerPoint koans of the viral lecturer to leverage his magic. Where Blaine pushes the viewer into the sort of extremity that would cause them to overlook something, DelGaudio welcomes his viewer to pay closer attention.

Throughout the film, I often wondered how DelGaudio did many of his shocking tricks, but, to be honest, that was a disappointing endeavor. In a few cases, the trick seems to have either an embarrassingly mundane explanation or an unthinkably miraculous one. DelGaudio’s turn is to convince the viewer to believe the improbable explanation rather than cynically grimace at the ready-to-hand one, to choose — consciously or not — the power of telekinesis and superhuman empathy over the power of a dozen incredibly busy stagehands poring over surveillance footage. But that’s not the point anyway. The question of how DelGaudio does what he does is, at every step, subordinated to the question of why.

Nominally, In and Of Itself is a magic show. DelGaudio is a brilliant magician and theatrical performer, and Hulu’s production is straight-forwardly the document of a show he performed in a small, off-Broadway theater several hundred times between 2016 and 2018. But the handful of casually stunning magic tricks are there mainly to contextualize DelGaudio’s real prestidigitation: the spontaneous generation of empathy and seemingly spiritual intimacy with his audience in the theater. People who attended the run of In and Of Itself have testified to the show’s unusual emotional intensity, especially in its second half, when the sleight-of-hand gives way to a series of tricks that take shape around the specific identities and anxieties of dozens of individual audience members.

As a magic show, the film begins haltingly, though DelGaudio is fluent in his adaptation of the kind of semi-comic one-man-show aesthetic that Mike Birbiglia has perfected in recent years. The first trick — a deeply understated, whimsical paper ship in a bottle — doesn’t even occur until over 12 minutes in. After a long, searching pause in the proceedings, then, DelGaudio opens things up a bit, but not necessarily for more magic. In fact, it’ll be another 25 minutes before DelGaudio performs another trick. In the meantime, however, we start to understand the unusual role the audience will play in what’s to come next. DelGaudio calls for a volunteer whom he entrusts with a comically large, leather-bound notebook. That volunteer is tasked with leaving the show at that point, writing down what they imagined might happen after they left, and then returning the following night to produce the book during the next show. It’s here where we begin to realize that this show is somewhat light on traditional magic tricks because the magic DelGaudio’s looking to conjure is something much more ordinary. For any of this to work, the person needs to come back. For any of this to work, the person needs to choose to give their time and their imagination and their care to this magician and a theater full of people who haven’t yet even begun to gather. The trick is that he’ll have trusted a stranger, and they won’t have let him down.

If this sounds sentimental, it is. But the bracing power of pure sentiment is another of the show’s revelations. In this sense, given the scarcity of actual illusions, In and Of Itself might seem to have more in common with the sort of endurance performance of David Blaine. How long can you stand to see Blaine loudly chew glass or stand on a tall pedestal before breaking yourself, taking on his pain in your own body by way of a chill or a shudder? How long can you watch Derek DelGaudio’s audience members cry before taking on their emotions in your own body, through your own tears?

The crying starts about two-thirds of the way through. At the beginning of the show, we watch each audience member pick a ticket from a large wall in the lobby. Each ticket names an identity: “I AM a freak”; “I AM a teacher”; “I AM a mother.” DelGaudio has a stack of the stubs from each performance sitting on a table on the stage. For this particular moment, DelGaudio has an audience member select a stub at random. DelGaudio announces the name and spends the next several minutes telling a shaggy dog story about an elephant (blearily animated on our screen) while collecting postmarked letters from a cubby at the top of the stage.

When the owner of the ticket is eventually summoned, DelGaudio hands over the stack of letters and asks them to choose one. (This trick, like much of what happens for the remainder of the film, is a montage of many different iterations from the various nightly performances taped for In and of Itself.) DelGaudio then says:

“Two things are about to happen. These two things are gonna happen almost simultaneously. One of these things, you will see. And the other thing, we will see…What the rest of us will see, in my opinion, it’s better.”

As we watch this succession of volunteers open the letter in front of them, we realize that each person is improbably reading a personal letter from a friend or loved one, written in advance, mailed to Derek DelGaudio, and somehow selected by the volunteer. It is, essentially, an almost unimaginably elaborate card trick. The first few register shock and disbelief. One young woman impulsively shouts, “What the fuck!” And then somebody cries. And then somebody else. For a few minutes straight, we watch volunteer after volunteer weep silently on stage. Tears well, they roll, lips tremble, brows collapse. But it’s not just their faces; it’s their whole bodies. Left alone in the center of the stage, filmed in a medium shot, their hands shake, they press fingers to their lips, their torsos rock forward or back, they are physically overwhelmed. I cannot stress this enough: everybody cries.

If it hadn’t already, in this moment, the show’s main interest shifts from the magician’s dexterous hands to the stunned and startled faces of the crowd itself. And that’s where the camera stays, registering the sorts of minute movements and expressive facial landscapes mostly obscured now by masks. There are strikingly few tricks in this magic show. And it’s not because they are so spectacular that they speak for themselves. It’s because it’s the tricks that are the misdirection. An origami boat making its way into a whiskey bottle. A brick disappearing. We expect these to be where the magic happens. But, for DelGaudio, magic is other people. When we see those audience members transform, when they are startled by intimacy, when a room of hundreds becomes a solitary place, they become something else. They disappear, they dissolve, they transmogrify, they are lost or found.

But that happens to them. I’m not sure what happens to us, at home, a year into quarantine, watching this documentary. In and Of Itself is a film about the illusory depth of screens, the sanctity of snail mail, and the totemic significance of big, leather-bound books. It’s about a theatrical experience that happened, was extraordinarily meaningful to all those involved, and which you cannot ever experience yourself.

I won’t spoil the final trick here. Explaining it would blunt the impact it has on film, but, suffice it to say: something happens, very directly and individually, to every single person sitting in the theater. Do they cry? They do. Do they feel miraculously seen and understood? They seem to. In and Of Itself is the record of a show that no longer exists, but, more than that, it’s the record of a show that seems so much more patently impossible right now than even those old David Blaine tricks or the train that delivered me to them in Chicago. What the audience experienced in that theater is unique, personal to them in ways both literal and figurative. So, what is it to us? Are we just gawking at these people and their spontaneous effusions of emotion? Is DelGaudio’s trick that he’s manipulated a roomful of paying customers into crying their eyes out? I don’t think that’s quite the case. But I also don’t think it’s not the case.

DelGaudio implies that his show is one about identity. Who do we perceive ourselves to be? Who are we seen to be? Is this your card? Is this you?

But I don’t think identity is really the crux. Or, at least, it’s not about individual identity. A roomful of people become known to each other and, in various ways, subject to one another. The tears level them. (This is especially important considering how many celebrity faces you can pick out of different reaction shots, Blaine among them.) The theater becomes, is always, a shared space. DelGaudio’s magical performance of knowing each individual audience member is not an end in and of itself, so to speak. What exists, by the end, is a community, even if only one folded out of paper and floated before stage lights. So what does it mean that we’re outside of that, neither seen nor belonging?

This show predates the pandemic, but I don’t know that the film can exist the same way without it. Would I have been quite untethered enough to weep at the mere sight of David Blaine had I not spent the past calendar year so isolated from friends and faces and theaters? Come to think of it, would I have been so grateful to see David Blaine those years ago had I not spent the day drinking stale coffee on icy tracks outside of Alton, Illinois? The resonance of this show, for me right now, rests in its fantasy of pre-pandemic closeness, its spectacle of large gatherings in small spaces, its promiscuity with tears and snot and clasped hands. The way a room like that becomes an organism, an ecosystem. That very thing is what makes such spaces dangerous these days, but it’s also what makes them so necessary. Whether it’s a theater or a classroom or a dinner table. As we watch these people streaming in our homes and on our devices, pressed together, leaning on each other, DelGaudio seems to offer an account of something lost well before the quarantines began. But someone will return it, we trust. They’ll be back. In order for any of this to work, they have to come back.


LARB Contributor

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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