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Women in Boxes

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/16/08 11:36:39

"It's the ladies who are magic."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2008 CINEVEGAS FILM FESTIVAL: Johnny Thompson, appearing onstage as the great magician Tomsoni, once produced two birds from thin air, only to discover one of the creatures had died. Desperate to put on a good show, Thompson began to manipulate the bird’s wings wildly, fooling no one in the audience. Enter his wife and assistant, Pam. Johnny whispers through clenched teeth that the bird is dead, but please, for the sake of the act, pretend it is not. Ah, but Pam instantly understood something Johnny forgot: Tomsoni is not a great magician. Their winking act, an intentional over-the-top self-parody, consists of a bumbling, incompetent showman and the beleaguered, unimpressed assistant. And so upon receiving the deceased bird, Pam held it up for the audience to see, frowned, then tossed it offstage. The laughs were huge.

The moral of the story: never, ever underestimate the magician’s assistant, who is often the most important person on stage. The documentary “Women in Boxes” revels in this lesson, tracking down a dozen or so lovely assistants (and their grateful bosses) as they recount their best anecdotes about the business.

Directed by Phil Noyes and Harry Pallenberg with key input from writer/co-producer Blaire Baron Larsen (despite the various credits, the trio considers their film a group effort, and the possessive belongs to all three), “Women in Boxes” follows that simple yet often overlooked rule of documentary filmmaking: find a group of people with an interesting story to tell, and let them tell it. The filmmakers are unobtrusive in their efforts to let these women take center stage, and the result is as fascinating and delightful as if you were to sit down with them yourself for a fun afternoon of reminiscing.

Of course, this is no cheap exposé on the backstage world; the film only reveals one stage secret, and it’s a secret so old and so open that it’s not considered a secret anymore within the industry. (Namely: in the early days of magic, the “sawing the lady in two” bit actually used two ladies. Nobody these days uses that gimmick, though, as everybody’s figured out newer, fancier twists on the trick.) The film does assume a slight understanding of these tricks, however, especially during conversations on the sword-through-the-box trick - it’s no bit of false modesty or industry protection to discuss how if an assistant isn’t quite ready for those blades, she can get seriously injured.

Instead of discussing how these women do what they do, the film wants to find out why they do it. What would make a women want to contort her body into aching shapes, to wind up covered in bruises and cuts and burns, to practice for hours upon hours the slightest detail, only to wind up as second banana to some chump in a bad tux? More often than not, the answer is love: either romance (most assistants are wives, ex-wives, or wives-to-be of their magicians) or family (there’s nothing like the beam of a father’s pride upon learning that his daughter wants to come on stage and help with the act). This makes sense, as such acts require a great deal of intimacy; the assistant must be able to predict the magician’s every possible move, especially the wrong ones, in which case she must help keep the show moving forward. These shows are a parade of give-and-take that only two people who truly know each other can deliver.

By covering a wide variety of ages and styles, the filmmakers are also able to track the history of the magician’s assistant (the archival photos and video footage is a treasure trove to any admirer of the stagecraft). This includes a discussion of sexism, but in a surprisingly playful way: what is it about magic that gets people excited about female mutilation? Is it the simple fact that sex sells? Is it that some people, as the movie suggests, just like to see women meet the business end of a saw? And what of the most avant-garde pieces like the one described by Teller (himself arguably the most famous of all modern assistants, albeit male) in which women are mutilated but not “returned” to one piece? Oh, and let’s not forget Luna Shemada, the female magician who dresses in men’s clothes; why the insistence on tuxedo frontmen and evening gown assistants, even if our frontman is a frontwoman?

The filmmakers let these ideas bounce around on the sides of their movie, creating intriguing dialogue without bringing down the simple amount of sheer fun that comes from listening to these women share their war stories. “Women in Boxes” is a lovely tribute to these professionals often overlooked by an audience eager for cheap thrills. When magician Goldfinger reminds the audience that the marquee reads “Goldfinger and Dove,” not just “Goldfinger,” we can now appreciate why he’d want his better half to share top billing.

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