Fact is, poker wasn’t always legal.
It’s weird, really, when you talk about Poker as this modern sport with this enormous culture and giant piles of money associated with it, where there are books and histories and luminaries and a hall of fame. It’s weird because poker not only wasn’t legal for a long time but it’s kind of still not really ‘properly’ legal, not everywhere. There’s a lot of stuff in the history of the game that means that if you’re interested in the way cards can be manipulated, if you’re interested in card magic, there’s a very small group of people who are interested enough to pay you, and there’s a whole world of people interested in paying you if they don’t know you’re doing magic.
There is a rich intersection of the criminal, the gambler, the drifter, and the completely fake wizard, and it shows in the stories we have about these people. It shows because when you find out that guys like Dai Vernon and Ricky Jay were involved in the production of a movie.
The movie, which I didn’t know about until just this year, is a 2003 neo-noir con movie called Shade, which stars Jamie Foxx, Melanie Griffith, Sylvester Stallone (wait, really?), Gabriel Byrne and Stuart Townsend. If you are a fan of the 1990s crime comedy Shooting Fish, which also starred Townsend, and you’re reading this, I guess I’d say, hi, my sister, I’m not sorry I never returned your VHS copy, but I am sorry I lost it.
We are going to have a bit of a weirdness, though. See, this movie has both a very generic name and a very low profile. It’s not a ‘great’ movie, it’s not a beloved classic, it’s not one of those movies that someone has helpfully ripped into thousands of high quality images on the internet, that I can easily grab and put in my blog article as a way of breaking up the flow of the text and making it clear when I move on to a new point.
Telling you the plot of Shade is actually kinda unuseful; not because it’s a particularly elaborate plot, but because it’s the same plot, repeated four or five times, very nicely and neatly, without necessarily doing a Wild Things style confuse-fest.
Shade is pretty by the numbers, as these stories go. It introduces you to a nesting sequence of twists until you’re on board for the main hustle of the story, then it surprises you with the final twist, where you learn something you didn’t know going along with the story changes what you were seeing, and what it means. I mean, it’s a con movie, it’s that particular genre, and it doesn’t do it with lots of innovation or out-of-the-ordinary stuff. Not really – it’s almost paint by the numbers style of thing.
I might even call it classic. It’s certainly mostly made up of classic cons – cons with quaint old names like the ring scam or the the inside-outside, or the high roller. Cons where you might not know them by that name but you know the scam when you see it, because it’s not all from some central archive of information but the fundamental structures of the trick are all there and out in the open for everyone to see, and you just need to recognise who’s getting tricked and to what end.
Sometimes they do you dirty! You’re not told exactly why someone’s the subject. You’re not shown what a thing is, necessarily, you’re just given enough reason to feel paranoid. And maybe you don’t know how the trick is going to go, and you get to feel surprised, and sometimes you get to feel like you’re really smart, because the story was trying to make you look one way, and you didn’t.
Mystery stories are, and I hate to bring this up because I sound like the worst kind of game studies academic ding-dong, but seriously, mystery stories are a lot like a kind of game. You’re not just watching it, but the movie is inviting you to play with it, to guess where it’s going. It is just the game of a hypertext, the way that when you rewatch the story, you’re doing it with a new familiar experience, but recontextualised. That’s one of the best tricks of the magician.
There’s this mythical idea that learning how a trick work ruins it. I understand for some people, that’s true, but it’s never seemingly bothered me. Knowing how difficult a trick is to execute makes me more impressed than less, and understanding how tricks works makes me appreciate how tricks can work, and the challenges involved in executing them, then executing them under scrutiny. The things you have to think of, the things you have to think of that other people will have thought of. Then the way you have to do it at speed.
These movies, the movies about magicians, or made by magicians, or with the influence of magicians, follow these dramatic structures. They’re made to play like a magic trick – which isn’t just the natural flow of drama, despite what some movies may have said about it. It’s not that the magician is selling you a story, it’s that they’re playing with your attention, and this movie, like all the others in its genre, tries to do that.
How well does it work? Well, I twice mis-identified the main character of the story, for one. It took until the saintly appearance of Not Really Mark Twain, as definitely probably Dai Vernon, close magic card genius, and the scattering of a dozen terms of the card magic of art for me to work out what this story was going to be about, and yet, even then I wasn’t sure about how it was going to go.
And it made me happy.
This is a movie that’s not going to do a lot to really change your life. It’s going to be a fun ninety minutes, it reminded me of a bunch of cool things, and it made me appreciate the hard work of some very challenging art, being done by performers who have to be able to execute their particular performance correctly every single time.
Still, sometimes you know when you’re going to like a movie. For me? The opening to Shade immediately put me in a good mood. Just instantly got me grinning, instantly got me on its side
It’s just the credits.
It’s just showing a bunch of card tricks, some under a glass table, some over it. Watching them, I was confident I knew how some of them were done. I never imagined they were film edited. I knew they didn’t have to be. I was just watching an excellent performance, excellently done.
And gosh, it made happy to see it.