The Illusionist


“When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

[T.S. Eliot]

In the introduction to his award-winning book, Story, Robert McKee, held as the world’s top screenwriting teacher, expounds on a series of characteristics that define story — principles, not rules; eternal, universal forms, not formulas; archetypes, not stereotypes; thoroughness, not shortcuts; realities, not the mysteries of writing; mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace; respect, not disdain, for the audience; and originality, not duplication.

In this sense, The Illusionist, is based on a masterful screenplay. The film stars Academy Award nominees Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti as two men pitted against each other in a battle of wits — Norton as mysterious stage magician Eisenheim, and Giamatti as Vienna's shrewd Chief Inspector Uhl, with Jessica Biel sharing the screen as the beautiful Sophie von Teschen.

It's a period of intense change — turn-of-the-century Vienna. When word of Eisenheim's astounding illusions reaches the powerful and pragmatic Crown Prince Leopold, the ruler attends one of the magician's shows in order to debunk Eisenheim during the performance. But when the Prince's intended, Sophie von Teschen, assists the magician onstage, Eisenheim and Sophie recognize each other from their childhoods. 

Right off the bat, we find ourselves in medias res, smack in the middle of things as Chief Inspector Uhl recounts the story of Eisenheim for Crown Prince Rudolf, son of Emperor Franz Josef who then reigned over the Austrian Hungarian Empire. The dialogue takes place after the magician's arrest during what appears to be necromancy passed off as magic show.

I won't get too deeply into the rich movie development, which includes a murder.

Suffice it to say that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Eisenheim's shows take on a dark turn and he becomes kind of a John Edwards of the 19th century. This John Edwards can summon holographic ghosts onto the stage, much to the delight of his audience.  When some of the apparitions that become Eisenheim's trademark begin to cast doubt over the Prince's actions, Inspector Uhl is dispatched at once to take care of the whole matter for the ambitious successor to the throne.

During one of the dialogues between Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl, the magician suddenly declares to his by now substantial following that his work is, in fact, all an illusion. An illusion that has become a reality for the people attending his shows who still want to hear the stories; who seem to almost need to hear them. Human curiosity excited by the veil of mystery cast by the magician? Or maybe the atmosphere of suspenseful intimacy Eisenheim creates in the theater?

Those elements play a role in the story creates an experience that does not require the magician to pass the test of truth. The emotional connection does all the heavy lifting. The experience feels real, and it is perceived as truth by the people who want to make that story their own. The film's atmosphere itself creates the illusion that we are viewing a primary historical source. 

“A story,” writes McKee, “must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.”

How does the art translate into more mundane forms of communication?

Aspiration and yearning

For example, the story of the rarefied luxury ateliers where masters of illusion worked on the art of framing charming and affluent ladies as icons and symbols of a reality the rest of us could only aspire to. Just like in the Illusionist story, the success experienced by the fashion houses brought upon them increasing pressure to expand their reach.

As in turn-of-the-century Vienna, now the magicians need to perform at the pleasure of the stock market, which means casting a wider net AND commanding the highest margins at the same time. Many of those brands have been able to do so by selling one bag at $10,000 to the high end fashionista creates hype for the brand. The halo effect then helps them sell wallets at $150 each to the mass. It's called being part of a world of dreams.

There are also significant differences in how luxury companies use their brands portfolio. Some brand, for example differentiate for price range but stay consistent — Armani and Emporio Armani, Pomellato and Dodo, Dolce and Gabbana and D&G, Prada and Miù Miù, just to name a few.

Mass market products have higher margins because it's the brand and the logo and not the product itself to create its value. Looking at how we actually want to be part of the illusion is like going behind the scenes and seeing at the trick.

We are just like Inspector Uhl. When he sees in his mind how Einsenheim managed for him to see only what he wanted him to see at any point in time, fashion houses that sell luxury goods continue to retain the air of mystique while making us want to continue to embrace the illusion of wealth and status associated with their brands.

Tapping into (latent) needs

McKee's description of the characteristics that define story:

principles, not rules; eternal, universal forms, not formulas; archetypes, not stereotypes; thoroughness, not shortcuts; realities, not the mysteries of writing; mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace; respect, not disdain, for the audience; and originality, not duplication

help us understand how while the principles of rarefied beauty and style continue to change, they remain part of the story of luxury items. The eternal forms appeal to the higher and universal realities of archetypes. Designers have mastered their art with thoroughness and originality proposing something new and fresh to their audiences with the regularity of consummate storytellers.

With social networks, much of the storytelling is now direct — spontaneously carefully staged images, videos, tweets, and instant articles in a number of platforms people use designed to tell a story. During their ascent, these platforms did not see organizations and brands are customers, because they were focused on aggregating attention.

As a result, Ben Thompson says:

in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed.


The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side.

He calls this phenomenon Aggregation Theory. Facebook dominates this new world, while Twitter as it stands today is mainly a way to get the word out to be quoted (not only) by media.

But the part that is most important as we discuss the power of social in other contexts — for example the role of technology in society for current events — is the part about people's receptivity.

Influence resides with the influenced. Motivation is a start. There's also another mechanism at play here — because we're social by nature, and cannot possibly know it all, though a few of us do try, we rely on clues from others when making decisions.

But would we try a product or do something for someone we don't like (without being forced)? Although likability can be borrowed, it is transferred only based on a more permanent philosophical alignment or agreement. How would we achieve alignment at scale? Strategic ambiguity that taps into latent needs.

The emotional connection does the heavy lifting. We don't establish it through mere facts, but by aggregating them into the frame of story. Even “telling it like it is” follows the timeless structure of storytelling.

But, it's not a conversation when we don't invite it nor facilitate it. It's still a $150 sound bite designed to appear like the promise of the world where $10,000 is table stakes.

The cult-ure of personality developed almost a century ago is alive and still going strong.

Likability and alignment are key, but influence is also a side effect of interestingness. More than fifty five million views, a million plus shares, almost six hundred thousand likes, and more than fifty thousand comments says this 21-minute segment hit a sweet spot in the Facebook world.


[edited from archives]

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