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Film Review: "Saturday at Reubens"

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It's far too common for the media to portray magicians and magic in negative ways. Magicians are often shown as anti-social, tux-wearing, rabbit-wielding nerds with few redeeming values. And it's rare that a filmmaker would care enough to go beyond this shallow stereotype to explore what magicians are about. This is what makes "Saturday at Reuben's," a documentary by filmmaker Leslie Danoff, such a wonderful and refreshing film. It portrays the true magic behind our art and shows how it binds us all, young and old, together.

The film presents a community of real-life magicians who gather in the backroom of a New York City delicatessen every Saturday afternoon. The meetings have been going on for decades, with the oldest in the group having participated for some 60 years. The film's magic lies in its ability to show how the older, experienced magicians pass their knowledge of the craft to younger magicians. And it effectively captures the warmth, humor, enthusiasm, generosity, and rapport of magicians as they share moves, stories, advice and friendship.

Through the course of the film, we get to know various magicians, both amateur and professional, and inexperienced and experienced, but all compelling. There's Jerry, the retired tax attorney who used magic to diffuse tense audit and other situations in his line of work. Matthew is the young, brash and accomplished magic pro who gave up medical school to work at magic full time.

Sophie is the rare female in the magic brotherhood (and sisterhood) who is new to magic and soaking up knowledge. There are touching scenes that show her listening and learning from the experienced magicians and practicing on her own at home. Jeremy, Danoff's son, is the teen who has a good foundation in magic and is also learning from the more experienced performers. The film is seen mostly through his eyes.

The most compelling personality is Sol. As a WWII American Air Force navigator, Sol's plane was shot down in Western Hungary in 1945. He and his crew successfully eluded the retreating Germans and made their way to the Budapest Railroad Marshalling Yard and onto a train heading to Odessa. He and other American airmen rode in a boxcar that only a month earlier, was carrying Jews to the gas chambers.

"Each time the train needed to take on water for the engine, we all piled out of the boxcars," says Sol. "This is when I first discovered there were kids on the train. They like most of the adults around them were uncommunicative and had faces of suffering. Standing near a water tower, I picked up a little stone, rubbed it on my head, and brought it out of my nose."

"After a couple of moves, the children began to smile, for the first time in ages... The parents, seeing the effect the magic had on the kids, began to look up and respond, too... For a minute, two minutes, their sense of wonder and delight diluted the hurt they had experienced..."

The film masterfully introduces and explores each personality and does a great job of showing what magic means to each person and the many ways that they learn and contribute to weekly meetings. A highlight is when we see the young Jeremy performing professionally, for the first time, at a Bar Mitzvah. Here, the film intercuts Sol teaching a trick to Jeremy at the delicatessen, with Jeremy performing it for spectators (the sorcerer's apprentice has learned well).

My favorite part occurs when Sol teaches the young Sophie a trick and tells her that someday, she is to teach it to an eager youngster to pass on the art. While the film features some good magic to watch, there are no magic explanations or exposure.

In all, "Saturday at Reuben" is an excellent and refreshing documentary that ultimately shows how magic brings people together. It can be enjoyed by all who love magic. And it's a great film to show at ring or assembly meetings, or any gathering of magicians.

-Wayne N. Kawamoto

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