“Magic for Beginners” is a peculiar and utterly fascinating essay film by Jesse McLean, exploring the phenomenon of “movie magic” and the way that we displace our emotional lives onto media images. The film uses a variety of strategies, including interviews, intertitles, staged scenes, and manipulated found footage. We hear several people tell about experiences where they became perversely enslaved to media images, such as the typical tale of a girl who was so in love with Leonardo DiCaprio that she saw the movie “Titanic” over and over, plastered her bedroom wall with his pictures, and almost made herself believe that he was her boyfriend. We see quotes, in intertitles, from Andy Warhol’s writings, in which he writes about how the emotional intensity of television allows one to avoid the confusing and difficult feelings of “real life,” and what a relief this is. We see images of actors, staring into the camera and working themselves up into entirely fake fits of tears, notwithstanding the real waterworks they produce. These are complimented by shots from Hollywood fantasy films, distorted by shimmering rainbow colors. At one point, fantastically, the film even employs a “flicker” effect (as in the famous film by Tony Conrad), embodying the phenomenon of induced media psychosis, so common in our culture.
The film ends with a collage of many, many, many young and not so young people performing the song “My Heart Will Go On,” obviously culled from YouTube. While this sort of YouTube collage has been seen a lot in films recently, it is uncanny how well it embodies the themes of this essay. The more untalented each particular little girl is as she sings her heart out, the more pathetically obvious it is how all of these people are suffering from an overwhelming emotional deadness, created by living in an environment where emotions are artificially siphoned, vampire-like, onto media images, and ordinary people have completely forgotten how to have emotional connections with each other on a daily basis. These girls imagine themselves soaring into an emotional epiphany as they sing, an epiphany which finally becomes real to them if their video goes viral and is seen by hundreds of thousands of admiring fans. (Not likely to happen.)
This macabre and entirely depressing spectacle is only bearable because the sight of these girls (and a few boys) and their complete inability to feel anything is so sad that it is funny. “Magic for Beginners” is a witty and insightful essay about the dilemma of mass media and our emotional life, but it is a video which itself uses a variety of sophisticated media strategies, making its points not through the over-determined single-mindedness of Hollywood films, but always through juxtapositions and indirect commentary, forcing the viewer to wake up rather than fall into a dream. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, Jesse McLean is using the master’s tools to dismantle his house with an impressive power and clarity.