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Posted on 03/26/2005 3:41:10 AM PST by MississippiMasterpiece
LONDON - Derren Brown, it seems, can read the minds of pedestrians. He can beat half a dozen world-class chess players in simultaneous games, determine how many fingers people are holding up behind their backs and talk a London cabdriver out of being able to find the London Eye, the huge Ferris wheel that looms over the Thames.
Naturally, none of his clever tricks will work on this psychologically astute interviewer, who plans to use mysterious journalistic techniques to unearth his darkest secrets. But the coolly charming Mr. Brown decides to try anyway. He produces a sheet of blank paper and issues an instruction: draw a picture.
"Try to catch me out; make it a bit obscure," he orders. "Don't draw a house; don't draw a stick man." Walking to another room and out of sight, he decrees that the picture should be concealed until the end of the interview - whereupon he will reveal what it is.
Mr. Brown, 34, describes himself as a psychological illusionist, meaning that he uses a mix of techniques like sleight of hand, misdirection, hypnotism and subliminal suggestion to perform feats that seem impossible, even supernatural. He has become a British media star, unnerving audiences with his "Trick of the Mind" television programs and sold-out stage performances. But he is no David Blaine, shrouding himself in smoke and mystique, no show-bizzy David Copperfield.
Like most illusionists, he executes feats that seem impossible, even supernatural. But he admits to possessing no magical powers. He is not psychic. He cannot read your thoughts by staring into your eyes. Everything he does, he says, can be logically parsed.
"I could sit someone down and take them through an episode of my show and explain everything," he said recently. (He could, but he will not.) It was a rainy evening and Mr. Brown, slender, with thinning hair and a goatee that can look menacing on television but not in person, was speaking over white wine at a London hotel.
Dressed in an expensive-looking suit, he seemed strikingly free from Blaine-style otherworldliness as he described how he became interested in magic when, as a student at Bristol University, he was riveted by a stage magician. Mr. Brown taught himself hypnotism, branched out into standard magic, and began performing in pubs and at parties. One night, having just performed a particularly elaborate card trick, he realized that what he had enjoyed most was not the trick's execution, but its psychology, the interplay between magician and subject.
Mr. Brown devised a new approach that combines magic and psychology, tricks of the hands with tricks of the mind. Each of his programs starts with a disclaimer in which he asserts, essentially, that he is not supernatural, only clever. He then does a series of stunts.
In one episode, Mr. Brown determines which of a number of used-car salesmen are lying about their pasts. In another, an undertaker hands him a stack of photographs of people, some dead, some living, and Mr. Brown successfully separates them into "deceased" and "live" piles. In another he gives three men the task of moving a complicated set of random pieces of furniture from one room to another, having predicted exactly where the volunteers will place the pieces.
How does he pull it off?
Another difference between him and his trickster colleagues is that he is willing to reveal his techniques - up to a point - and sometimes dissects a stunt after the fact on his shows. But his ultimate coyness makes you want to grab him by the sharp lapels of his pinstriped suit and demand some answers.
"I'm purposely ambiguous, I realize," he said, "but the moment I explain something fully, the level of amazement disappears."
Mr. Brown is a born-again skeptic, a one-time fundamentalist Christian who renounced his religion in his 20's when he saw how uneasily his fellow Christians responded to his delvings into the unconscious. Though the history of magic is also the history of those who want to debunk it, that is not his aim, exactly: he is not setting out to expose or humiliate.
But at a troubled time in which the uneasy and the unfulfilled often seek extrasensory explanations to life's mysteries, Mr. Brown is a committed rationalist. In one program, he traveled to the United States and persuaded professional psychics and spiritualists that he was a bona fide practitioner of their arts, presenting himself at one point, for instance, as a man who learned to read minds after being unexpectedly struck by lightning.
That he always fooled them made him a little bit wistful. "I would love to be proved wrong," he said. "I would love to see a ghost. I would love for somebody to sit down and give me a psychic reading that I just can't explain."
Mr. Brown has little time for a social life; he split up with his last serious girlfriend several years ago. But he doesn't, as he says with a laugh, "use my powers for evil" - he stretches the word out into "eeeee-VILL" - by, for instance, transforming his powers of suggestion into powers of seduction. "The last thing you want to do is go down a route where they're responding to your 'techniques,' " he said.
On the other hand, in his poorer days Mr. Brown was not above occasionally talking his way out of a restaurant check by convincing the waiter that he had already paid. Recently, he said, he used his talents to defuse a situation in which an aggressive youth approached him on the street, yelling, "What are you looking at?" (Mr. Brown responded with a rapid series of diversionary non sequiturs, he said; the man burst into tears.)
Now, back to the interviewer's hidden drawing. It is supposed to be a dress but looks more like a triangle decorated with circles and lines. Afraid that she would give it away, the interviewer has scrupulously avoided talking about dresses or indeed women's clothing of any kind.
Mr. Brown explains that some people are almost laughably simple to read, while others are more suggestible - easy to influence into thinking or doing things. A third group, to which I am sure I belong, is neither.
Instructing me to concentrate, he pulls out a blank sheet of paper and begins sketching, chatting all the while. He tells me he "sees" a conical shape with spots on it - some sort of decorated lamp with a blob on top. And knock me down if he does not produce a near-exact replica of my drawing, the only differences being that he has more dots than me and his stripes are horizontal, not vertical.
It is now clear why the actor, director and keen amateur magician Stephen Fry, snookered by a fiendish card trick, said, "I just want to burn him at the stake and watch his witch's heart bubble."
By way of appeasement, Mr. Brown explains a bit - that I am sitting near a rug with geometric patterns that might have unconsciously inspired me, for instance. But he leaves me pleasantly unsatisfied.
Clearly, none of my obfuscatory skills worked on him. But maybe I should not feel too bad.
"Journalists tend to be very easy to do this with," he says.
Journalists will believe anything that political correctness tells them to believe, and nothing else.
Translation: they are idiots and mean.
I would like to see this guy perform. Sounds interesting.
I'm purposefully ambiguous.
Or maybe I'm not.
"Journalists tend to be very easy"
Maureen Dowd comes to mind
He's great: it's really bizarre to see him in action.
I recall one where he was at a dog-track, convincing the girl behind the booth that he had a winning ticket (he didn't), and she paid out. No matter how you watch it, you can't see *why* she believes it, but she does. When he asked her 2 seconds why she paid him, and showed her his ticket, it was just utter confusion on her face. He could do it repeatedly.
I also remember one where he had about 10 medical students in an old building (maybe it was Battersea Power Station or something like that). He just chatted with them in the dark, and had them convinced that there were ghosts in the room and that sort of thing. A group of 20-somethings were screaming in hysterics at nothing: it is incredibly impressive. I like it how he doesn't lionise himself: he has got no ego to speak of.
I'd really recommend looking up his DVDs at Amazon or wherever. Another Brit who is similar is Paul Zenon. He's a street magician/comedian: his tricks are sometimes incredibly impressive, and when they're not, they're incredibly funny. He had a couple of drunk guys out on the street, and he offered to make one of the guy's shoes disappear. He takes it in his hand, raises the shoe, and lowers it on each count: ONE, TWO (throws the shoe into the air), THREE. The shoe lands on the bus-shelter, and the guys are dumbstruck. He's like David Blaine, but doesn't take himself at all seriously (David Blaine mixed with Tommy Cooper maybe).
It's certainly true for a lot of the games in casinos. The mentality of blackjack or craps players is much like what you describe. I think it's an effect of the human imagination dramatising our endeavours to give them significance. And not without cause. If we reduce (say) blackjack to pure maths, then there is no reason to play any more, since the only conclusion to come to is that the odds are with the dealer, regardless of what we do, and so there is no point in playing.
However (!), poker is another story. Me and some friends are doing weekly poker games here. Great fun, and the psychological aspect is not just a construct of our minds: it's absolutely necessary here. Odds are vital, but can't play the entire game for you. Two of the players are post-docs in maths, but never win :)
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