Format court review of Magic for Beginners by Adi Chesson

Magic for Beginners – Jesse McLean


Screened at this year’s Mostra in Venice, as part of the competition Orrizonti: New Trends in World Cinema, “Magic for Beginners” more than fulfils the section’s demanding criteria. By revisiting the television and the new media that form an integral part of our lives today, American artist Jesse McLean conjures up an original take on the ubiquitous phenomenon of the viewer’s vicarious experience of emotions.

The film opens with shots of a young prairie girl from the 60s with a voice-over of a woman recounting her inordinate obsession for Leonardo DiCaprio. Parallel to this, we see a photo montage showing a young boy, with another voice-over describing the childhood capers of an arcade game fan. Structured alternately between these discrete segments, the (pseudo-)narration is punctuated from time to time with faces in close-up and quotes from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol pertaining to the television and media.

McLean’s technique consists primarily of recreating a familiar universe for the viewer, with references to American TV, and by extension classical cinema, both visually and aurally: a sci-fi/space fantasy-like musical score, the trite theme song from “Titanic”, scenes of DiCaprio signing autographs, etc. From this common ground – almost universal if we go by the innumerable Thai, Chinese, German, Italian versions of Dion’s number – the director elaborates a sometimes ironic discourse on the way emotions are lived in this era of media culture. At the same time, she interrogates the relative notion of “reality” between the screen and real-life. The fuzzy, prism-like TV images seem to symbolize the affective breach faced by today’s spectator-voyeur, who experiences fictional emotions at least as intensely as his own. Consequently, he is confronted with his own rapport with the image. The emotional component is further reinforced by the close-up shots of two people in tears, staring straight into the camera. These faces beckon the spectator to identify with them, at the same time shocking his sensibility through their artifice (a technique used brilliantly by McLean in “Somewhere only we know”, the third film in her trilogy “Bearing Witness”). Similarly, the final karaoke scene made up of several different post-modern sources – reality TV shows, web cam images, home videos, … – is representative of the entire media gamut the artist explores.

Between video art, experimental cinema and conceptual art, Jesse McLean’s film demarcates itself from established classic genres. If the Orrizonti competition explores precisely this new kind of cinema that questions and demolishes traditional cinematographic codes and habits, “Magic for Beginners” is certainly an exemplary work in this respect.