The camera has penetrated the fabric of everyday life in unsettling and insidious ways, but not quite enough to mistake the pseudo-documentary-ness of The Magician for recorded reality. This micro-budgeted Australian film utilizes the kind of diegetic cameraman and video non-aesthetics approach that we half-bought in reality-dubious work such as Ben Coccio’s Zero Day and Zak Penn’s Incident at Loch Ness, blurring our certainty of genre. Is it “real”?
Interestingly, the articulation of the man behind the camera as a constantly reminded presence in the story world serves the complete opposite function that experimental filmmakers like Jon Jost, in Speaking Directly, hoped to achieve through the exposing of the filmic apparatus: a Brechtian awareness of the non-real. In The Magician, the technique aims for an even more immersive cinematic experience as it tries to leave us in the realm of the “slight doubt” as to whether the Melbourne hitman’s violent undertakings constitute candidly captured reality or ingeniously fabricated fiction.
The Magician might have worked better if it could have sustained for its first several sequences a sense of genre confusion. But its very first scene involving murder immediately undermines any hope for a documentary-like impression. No matter how natural director Scott Ryan’s performance as the hitman is, the film ends up as more of a testament to new media’s promises of the democratization, and banalization, of filmmaking, than as a mastering of it.
This hitman is really a kind of flâneur with a voyeuristic neighbor (Massimiliano Angrighetto) tagging along to capture his thuggish ways. There are a few interesting moments in which the filmmaking neighbor tries to intervene in the organic performance of his muse by questioning the “ethics” of the outlaw, or by begging him to use “the least amount of violence necessary.” There is an intimacy that develops between the two men, which precedes the film itself (both the one we are watching and the one being made within it): The hitman’s very agreement to being watched from so close reveals a kind of contract for contact—albeit one always mediated by the recording device. At one point, the man behind the camera seems to flirt with the hitman, calling him charming. The hitman’s response is a, well, charming and rugged smile, followed by a “You think I’m a poof?” completely devoid of violence. In another scene, the men discuss how much it would take for them to eat a bowl of their own shit (100 grand) and a bowl of each other’s shit (500 grand). Crime and murder end up seeming like just an excuse to hang out while keeping the poof-ness at bay.