Monday, April 12, 2010

519. A Random Videographic Adventure with Alexander "The Great Raguzi" and Ron "The Voice" Jackson at Pechanga Casino, April 10, 2010

Picasaweb Caption That Goes with the Images: When I first met Alexander "The Great Raguzi" on Thursday, Midnight, at a Rite Aid Parking Lot, in Riverside, California, and we ended up talking and yapping for about an hour, I think both of us were probably looking for something new, something random, something different, something unexpected in our own lives. As my poetry professor Barry Spacks started a short story, "Change your life, until your life changes." And that is what exactly happened--both our lives changed, even to the smallest degree, through our own interaction--before I knew it, I was doing videography and photography work for Alexander at Pechanga Casino on a Saturday afternoon--it was my first, small-paid video/photo gig--and it was just wonderful to jive with someone that you never met before, but a few days later, you felt like you knew them for your entire life. I left Alexander in a big smile with my work. A new resume item: "I even astonished a magician with my video work!"

Youtube Caption: Adventures with the Great Raguzi, Magician: Collage of Magic Acts at Pechanga Casino, April 10, 2010. Shot and edited by Victoria Minnich.

Youtube Caption: Adventures with the Great Raguzi, Magician: Act with Lights and Dove at Pechanga Casino, April 10, 2010. Shot and edited by Victoria Minnich.

Youtube Caption: Adventures with the Great Raguzi, Magician: Act with Knots and Candle at Pechanga Casino, April 10, 2010. Shot and edited by Victoria Minnich.

It was Thursday night, and I was determined to participate in Duke University's "
Green in Three" video contest. The only problem was that all my 30 hours of rock crab footage was in Riverside, and I was in Santa Barbara that week. So, after having a superb photographic discussion with Shannon Switzer (she'll be a conservation photographer for Destination Three Degrees, two elite surf kayakers traveling through the Hawaiian islands to raise awareness about plastics in the ocean), I started to head home to Riverside, with the worst traffic ironically in Santa Barbara. I was going crazy because I couldn't buy a rock crab at the Ranch 99 market in San Fernando Valley, so I started to improvise my initial ideas and head home. By the time I reached Riverside, it was 11:30pm at night and I needed to get some sugar free candy at Rite Aid. So, I go about in my usual routine and I'm sitting in the car, moving my cell phone around to get it charged, and this man approaches me--he's tall mid-aged, very-cool looking African American wearing some hip clothes that were kind of like funk army-wear--and he asked me to roll down the window. "Excuse me for asking, but you went on a road trip?" There was a hesitating part in me at first--I'm wired up to editing a film with a deadline for the next day--and some random guy I don't know wants to discuss a road trip close to midnight at a Rite Aid parking lot! Well, the hesitation started to melt away, as I began telling him about how my friend Shannon and I went around the Pacific Coast, but not the midwest or East Coast--which this guy's from Chicago--but maybe in the future we can take a longer trip. I was quickly learning that this person was very kind, intelligent, open-minded, had a charming personality, and though we were two random people we ended up having a lot to talk about. I soon learned that his name was Alexander Germaine "The Great Raguzi," a professional magician who was about to do an opening act in Pechanga Casino, and Alexander learned that I'm a graduate student in science and art--with film training--and then I learned that one of his sons was accepted into medical school at UCLA and UCI (his son worked with Dr. Neil Schiller at UC Riverside, who I knew through my younger tennis days) and my eyes bulged because I had a few friends from high school who tried to get into medical school and they ended up having to go all the way back east--being rejected by the programs in California... my gosh.... Before I knew it, Alexander was performing magic tricks right in front of me--with a handkerchief and a few coins--as I was left flustered wondering how he performed these tricks (increasingly frustrating for a scientist, eh?) as he was explaining to me the philosophies of magic: (1) the whole goal of a magician is to practice tricks to a point in which the audience experiences a sense of astonishment (from experiencing the unexpected, from being innocently fooled) and that (2) magic is a combination of blending math, science (physics), engineering, and most importantly... psychology. In addition, the word "magic" is always a word of attraction to people. Always luring people to watch. And I even learned some more of Alexander's background: how at a certain point in his life he was involved in engineering but received a two-year grant from the Chicago Arts Council to pursue magic full time. And that's when his pursuits led him to California. Alexander also trained with Siegfred and Roy and worked with tigers! (that's probably how he learned how to stay cool on stage; it's easier to perform in front of other humans instead of tigers, who can attack you if they sense any fear around you) (and operated an organic restaurant).

As I am learning there is a whole tight circuit of magic entertainers out there... Alexander is the first magician I have gotten to know well, but I also encountered a fellow UCSB graduate by the name of Jason Latimer, back in April of 2009 through Dr. Lawrence Krauss at the Origins Conference. Jason was proclaimed to be the World Champion of Magic, and at the time I didn't know the significance of this "title;" it sounded a little to glorified for me especially upon first encounter with a guy who could exchange little balls in three cups at a fancy party in Arizona. I just visited Jason's website and now I understand better this entitlement, and how he is blending academics, technological innovation with psychological illusion. Jason's work is at the cutting edge of BOTH the science, technology, and art of magic. Jason's the same age as I am and he's built an entire empire around himself! And so it goes with my accidental, strange encounters with magicians, eh? Random academic party in Arizona and a Rite Aid parking lot in my Riversidian hometown!

Before Alexander and I parted, he recruited me to videotape and edit his act at Pechanga this Saturday, and I was to call him the next day so we’d both confirm. It was like a reward was waiting for me after the stint with the 30-second rock crab video to Duke. He flat out told me that he admired my sense of enthusiasm, my energy, and excitement. And me? I sensed his knowingness… and his trust. He was not someone who talked the talk. He walked the walk.

When I drove home to pick up my black bag full of rock crab footage (you'd think it was full of a million dollars stolen from a bank, from the outside looks of it), I couldn’t help thinking how glad I was to keep all the “Roadtrip Nation” orange paint on my car. This interaction was by far the best conversation ever started with my roadtrip nation signage. Over the year, I had thousands of strange looks but only two people approached me and asked what exactly Roadtrip Nation was… but this is the first time Roadtrip Nation led to new friendship and even a job-line on my resume! I have my mom and a few fisherman friends on my case to get all the painting off the car, but now they have to think twice about giving me such kind of advice. I probably wouldn’t have met Alexander otherwise!

I am really glad that Randomness happened. It happened at the right time. I was also prepared to see Randomness—I was in a groovy film-making mode. I was in the “change your life, until your life changes” mode, even if it’s as subtle as making a new friend. But then again, who said making friends is a subtle process? The whole experience felt like a Michel Gondry Moment (MGM). I like to call them Michel Gondry moments, the whole pursuit of finding the magic of humanity in the cold and ordinary, always with a pinch of surrealistic mysteriousness…. Heck, it was midnight! Recently I had been taking photographs of “famous people,” including Gondry himself (also Malcolm Gladwell and Barbara Kingsolver). I look at those pictures, and I felt a sense of impersonality and distancing. I felt that my assumed role was just another body count to purchase and consume their books and movies. And that is why I felt like an unwelcomed "paparazzi" rather than a welcomed “photographer.” I look at the photographs above of The Great Raguzi and his sidekick Ron The Voice Jackson, and I feel warmth and love, and that I was embraced as a human and a part of a production team, and that means a lot to me, especially after this string of encounters that embodied alienation….

This interaction all happened amidst my 30 second rock crab film frenzy. I started to realize that editing my film footage is my cocaine, my crystal meth, my ultimate high. I’m an editor addict. When I start, I don’t stop. I don’t eat, I don’t sleep until I finally finish my film that I intend to create. When I was swiftly editing away into the wee hours of the night this rock crab film, I was thinking that this society makes film production such a BIG DEAL, and that for me, film editing is so easy and intuitive that I perceive the process as a sequential arrangement of moving photographs (which I did before I was actually filming, making arrangements of photographs to tell stories). At one point I felt like I was mindlessly arranging flowers blowing in the field… and ANYONE can arrange flowers… at least in my mind. Then again, I have to remind myself I’m a freak. I’m a right-brained, left-handed person in a largely left-brained world.

So, Friday night after my rock crab film frenzy, I called Alexander around 11:40 pm and said I can do it. And the next morning he gave me some general logistics… I was supposed to look for Timmy D at the casino. And through this conversation, I learned the concept of negotiating price. I gave Alexander two prices. The bare minimum student price for labor and products, and the bare minimum stipend appreciation price because I really want to do this, and this is partly an experiment and a training session so we can feel each other out, and I can gain something on my resume. I told him, “I’m stating two prices because I want to show you that I don’t want money to be an issue. I want a token of appreciation for my effort, but I really want to film your magic show and I don’t want price to be much concern.” And Alexander and I were both fair to each other. I received the stipend appreciation price (plus a tip and a coffee!!!) divided into initial halfway payment then final payment upon delivery of the goods. And later on Alexander said he would be prepared to write me into the budget so I’ll be properly paid! I’m glad that I was able to be upfront about this issue. I myself have a hard time discussing price, especially as an artist who wants to be inspired, not motivated to make money (but money is a matter of survival, the money is used to keep my visceral components alive so I can do art). My visceral self (my agent, my bulldog manager) is negotiating the contract and my artistic self is in performance.

I watched my fishermen friends Ernie and Jules in operation in terms of price and negotiation. Ernie and Jules are two people who love their jobs. Their profession is 50% work and 50% hobby, adventure, and pure fun. But they have to have this visceral side to them where money has to be upfront such that they can sustain their work, their fun, their adventurous livelihood. Ernie strategizes to have people pay right before the boat takes off on the sportfishing trip, so that the business side is over and done, and then it’s all about having fun! Jules keeps close tabs of his receipts, and he acts as a distributor of seafood, which eliminates some of his reliance on middlemen. It’s amazing I have learned so much about the psychology of business just by watching my fellow fishermen interacting with their customers. I would have never learned this through school. I would have had to see independent businessmen in action.

On Saturday, April 10, 2010, I drove down to Temecula from Riverside and showed up to Pechanga around 12:15. There was some bizarre freeway traffic before the entrance (probably a bunch of wine snob tourists) and I had a hard time finding the showroom. Alexander accidentally told me I was supposed to be at the “ballroom,” not the showroom… but that was straightened out fairly quickly. The ballroom was bizarrely empty. No one was around for some corporate Survivor’s meeting.

My walking through Pechanga Casino was a strange, novel experience. It was the first time I entered a smoke-filled, flashy casino in CALIFORNIA. I mean, it was a classic Nevadan, Las Vegas experience, except I was in California! My brain was not used to such displacement. Everything in Pechanga was neat and straight and looking brand new, the usual fantastic flashiness of Vegas. Lots of employees, lots of customers, lots of business. I passed by hundreds of people dribbling away their money to slot machines, as if they were playing to dream, playing, losing money in order to win a dream. Gambling felt like a displacement for hard work, for earning your money. I felt it was a place where the value of the dollar was completely lost… but then the casino makes so much money that they could afford a fancy-super amazing, professional showroom that holds really big gigs, ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to David Copperfield to Jamie Fox to the Gypsy Kings to many many more! So, other people waste away their money to win their dreams while some of this money is displaced to the world’s top entertainment! I don’t think that’s a bad thing… partly…

The Pechanga Showroom was extremely high-end professional. Everyone there had their place and if one person screwed up with their job, everyone screwed up and looked bad. Everything was super-organized. And for some reason, when I was walking around, I felt embarrassed for not knowing who was doing what and why, and I felt I needed some kind of stage production course or at least some one-hour training session so I felt more comfortable knowing everyone’s places and operations. Professionality was of essence especially when I saw all the posters of the big names in the backstage area. I told Alexander I was back stage at the Arizona State University arena, in which I sensed professionalism in the production of the Origins conference, but I didn’t feel that same wired tension of “if you screw up, you’re screwed.” The operation felt like there was room for glitches, and it didn’t even matter if you did mess up. The university is a place where mistakes are partly welcome. That's how you accidentally discover new things!

I signed in and received a cloth sticker from the police officer, stating that I was legit. I could tell that this officer and a few others who worked at Pechanga held some Native American blood in them; you could see it in the structure of their faces, the darker tone of their skin. It was cool. I finally hunted down Timmy D and Alexander and met his sidekick Ron “The Voice” Jackson, who was a professional heavyweight boxer (?) in the past. Alexander and Ron look like two peas in a pod. I had to borrow a monopod for my camera (good thing I did because it’s hard to do good hand-held work when shooting at a distance). It turned out that my clothes were a problem—I was wearing a nice shirt and nice shorts—but I didn’t know I had to be in uniform. Production crew was supposed to wear black: black shirt and black pants… and I myself was an eyesore. I was a white sheep. Ooops. Alexander didn’t know either. But we resolved the problem. I borrowed Timmy D’s production shirt and I blended in with the crew afterwards. Now I know for future reference. Crew are men (and chickas) in black. I explained to Timmy D that I’m used to doing film work on boats and in the field, so I didn’t know that there was a standard dress code.

After getting used to the fancy arena and stage area, I spoke with the audiovisual director to make sure where I can and can’t be, to make sure I’m not stepping on his toes or the production’s toes, as well as not being a nuisance to the audience. The director also gave me an overview of the show, in order to know what to expect (a little bit), which helped me in filming. Pechanga tapes all shows sometimes for commercial purposes, but mostly archives the tapes more so for legal purposes because in Power Player, a contestant could possibly win a million dollars! It turned out that I could be in the “front area” and the front sides, but these areas (especially the front) were largely horrible shots and I ended up finding a niche in the very back, toward the middle (with slight angles), such that I didn’t interfere with the audience whatsoever.

As the show started, I was thinking of a way on how I was going to retrieve multiple angles (as I am a one-camera girl). I retrieved establisher shots of (1) the stage area (2) the audience (3) the band (all distant and close-up). During each act, I stayed put in one area and largely filmed The Great Raguzi at full-body or ¾ body. I began to realize that magic on film would only work if you film it continuously—to make the magic tricks believable. I couldn’t create shot diversity within acts, but among acts. In between magic acts, I transferred my position to get a new angle. As Raguzi was marching through several acts, from Act of Lights and Doves, to Act of Ropes, Act of Flags, Act of Handkerchiefs and Knots, Act of the Guillotine, and Act of Cards with the Snake… I started to notice how smooth, professional, and modest Raguzi was, especially in his suit with a jacket of long coat tails! Most magicians are very fast and jazzy and showy, but Raguzi present himself as “this is who I am and this is what I do, and can you figure me out?”

I could say that the Act of Knots was most impressive because Raguzi chose the most superb audience member who was totally jiving with the tricks and the show in general. This kid looked like a stage performer himself! I retrieved the best footage for this act! I had one technical difficulty in my part, but I managed to adjust in just enough time. The brightness and contrast was a huge issue due to the spotlight effect on Raguzi, and I ended up having to adjust shutter speed, and since that moment all of the film came out in full quality…. All of the acts were choreographed to superb music, much like Jason Latimer’s shows, and it was a very cool, and classy assemblage of music, ranging from classical to jazz to modern Cirque de Soleil soundtracks.

Before I knew it, the show was done, and I rushed back stage to meet up with Alexander and Ron. We “cooled down” and talked much more. I ended up taking some phiotographs of Alexander and Ron and the doves and not only that, we reviewed the video footage and did on-the-spot editing. That was an excellent move in my part. It’s so important to review and reflect upon the footage right away! The audio was superb with my Seinhausser! About an hour later, I left the stage very happy, and so was the great Raguzi: “We need to take good care of this girl!”

It took a while for me to wind down after what happened. To shut out my state of being stunned and exhausted, I ended up calling three or four people, and my friend Connie called me for a photography gig at her wedding this summer! My golly! What fun! Finally, around sunset, I mozied over to a 24-7 Kinkos (Fedex Office) off of Winchester (it’s a wonderful Kinkos, nice and big and lots of space), and I went straight to downloading footage and photographs, marking the best footage, and editing the necessary and needed and most aesthetic. I knew that emotions and creativity were spontaneous creatures (or beasts) inside of me and all of us humans, and that I had to feed off of the emotional recency. Otherwise, this project would become another buried piece of material that would be difficult to unearth. Sitting on this project was NOT an option.

And I suppose in this brief window of time, which ended up being around 10 hours, I learned the most about myself. I learned about my workflow in photographic and video editing. How fast I was able to sort and edit and compile and make a final product. In total, I think it was a 12-hour photo-video editing and uploading gig. I really felt in this round of video work, I was learning the most about myself. I was creating an optimized, orderly workflow for myself, such that if any future client off the street wanted video work, I could create a neat operation. Any possible way to get a few gigs every once in a while to have a little bit of income and keep the student loans down to a minimum *gulp.* At first I felt vulnerable because I was thinking about how I needed to learn much more about Final Cut Pro, but I decided to make the best of what I knew at the time.

A brief review of my workflow process: (1) download all footage (2) arrange footage in nice, neat folders (3) reviewed the footage (4) place markers around the footage that I liked (like identifying the best photographs of the heap) (5) dissected the video footage to its elements (6) dissected the audio to its elements (7) mentally identified the best footage and recordings (8) took a step back and decided what elements to resynthesize into my own products based on (a) what the client wanted and (b) what I wanted to do (9) each new project got its own timeline in final cut pro. Footage and audio editing was to the extent of (1) some audio adjustments, when the recording was too soft or too loud, not in the range of -12 to -6 db (2) some video adjustments, cutting out shaky footage, changing the contrast when the footage was too bright and (3) added some cross-fade transitions (4) added some showy Livetype.

By the time I had the idea for the collage, it was around 3 am in the morning. My mind was still going through an adrenaline rush, but it had NO ABILITY to be exacting and precise. I retrieved all the best footage and barely managed to arrange it into a coherent 37-second collage that complimented Ron “The Voice” Jackson’s introduction to The Great Raguzi at the very beginning of the show. I sped up the timing of some acts in order for all footage to fit as well as make sure that the Guillotine Act was well-timed. I called this timeline a “Pizza Collage” because I was so mentally out of it I was essentially assembling material in a state of subconsciousness. I could not precisely correlate the video and audio such that it could have a form of music beat to it—which is what I would have done if I saved the project for the next morning, but I had no time to procrastinate. Procrastination was not an option with this project.

By the time everything was done, and I was packing up, it was 4:30 am. Just me and one worker at the Kinkos. I drove home happy and had a fake white caramel powder coffee drink from Shell for “dinner” and by the time I reached home in Riverside the sky was turning from dark to dusk. My parents were already awake when I came home, and I crashed for three hours on my sister’s bed. I woke up at 9 and started working on downloading the footage on Youtube and burning DVDs for Alexander and Ron. It took a while for me to upload four videos because of several snafoos (1) I had to create an extra email to create an account for “TheGreatRaguziMagic” (2) Youtube was not uploading some of the larger-sized “mov” files (3) there was a music copyright issue with the Act of Flags that Youtube detected right away! I can’t believe it! That unfortunately took another three hours of my life. Maybe I worked longer than 12 hours. More so 16 hours… a full day of editing life on a total high.

(Called Bob) I then finished stuff, went jogging around 3pm. I met up with Alexander at Starbucks Canyon Crest around 4pm when I told him over the phone “I’ve got the goods!” I show ed Alexander the work and it turned out that he REALLY LIKED the short collage I made! Alexander was so happy with the collage that he said he would use it for part of his Magic Act Reel. What an honor, a compliment! As a magician who is in the business of being astonished, my work has managed to astonish the magician, Raguzi! Pro bonus for my resume and one of the most interesting compliments I have ever received. I may work with Alexander next weekend for a prom, but there might be a conflict with work back up at UC Santa Barbara.

After the business part of our discussion, I ended up showing him my new 30-second rock crab film (30.08 second rock crab film) to Alexander and he was impressed with the diversity of footage (it took a long time to collect… over 9 weeks in the summer of 2007!) as I explained to him what price transparency was and Gwaz’ ingenius environmental advertising idea. Then we had fun talking about photography. Alexander showed me his relatively new Canon Rebel SLR camera with two very nice lenses. That camera was very nice. I really enjoy the colors and the sharpness of the images that the camera was producing. Maybe my next “real” camera will be a Canon. I’m not sure… it’s a long way from now. Alexander was considering in taking a photography course through a camera store, but I offered to take him out for free and expose him to the basic elements of composition. And a final cherry on top—I was taught my first magic trick of “misdirection” with two pennies. He was thinking of using me for a levitation trick and I told him I loved lights, plasma lamps, lava lamps and such.

We parted in our separate ways, with both of us feeling good. “Change your life, until your life changes,” Barry Spacks’ voice whispered in my head, and I think both of us walked away feeling changed, even just a little bit. The initial randomness at the midnight conversation in a Rite Aid parking lot didn’t seem so random after all. As Alexander says, “We are here for a purpose… it was meant to be….”

It’s interesting to explore human relationships that are partly professional and partly fun and friendship. I am learning how to balance both. I think this whole experience has made me realize how personality-driven I am in terms of meeting people. I am more intrigued by personalities and outlooks to life than by people’s content. So it goes to show I don’t hang out much with graduate students at UC Santa Barbara. I think I’m at a phase in my life where it doesn’t really matter what discipline you are. If you have an optimistic, unique outlook to life and an original assemblage of skills and knowledge—it doesn’t matter what job you have or discipline you are in—I will most likely be your good friend.

So it goes to say I never thought I would be involved in “magic.” I think the pursuit of science and advancing knowledge is the process of demystifying the magic and mystery and mythology… and such is the long-term relationship between science and mythology anyway… from the mystical and supernatural and unexplained shifted to the scientific and mechanical understandings of the world…. It’s hard to for my head to wrap around the question, “Where does magic fit in my life?” For me I find that sense of “magic” in myself when I go through that adrenaline rush of losing myself in the activity of creative film editing, as well as the magic of mind in attempting to explore and de-mystify human-environmental relationships.

And then I came to realize that the The Great Raguzi’s mindset is not magical or mystical whatsoever. Magicians are not mythological shamans who have a supernatural understanding of the world. In fact, Raguzi has mechanically and artfully learned how to create the “magical experience” for the unknowing audience. Magicians are very exacting, precise people who have a blend of knowledge in science and art. They are people who know how to precisely, mechanically manipulate objects and subjects such as to (1) astonish people, (2) fool and deceive people, and (3) essentially screw around with people’s heads. In all honesty, I think magicians are essentially the professional and legal versions of cheating and breaking the rules of human perception…. They have found loopholes in our mind’s construction of reality…. Something like politicians and boards of directors on megacorporations (they’re very good at disappearing and re-appearing-in-other-places acts), except they’re actually entertaining. Coming to think, you have to be a very sophisticated person, and very talented person to pursue the construction of magic as a career. I feel like Raguzi is a fascinating character who just stepped out of the documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, by Errol Morris.

I think I can learn a lot from Alexander’s… or Raguzi’s… perspective... this intention to astonish and screw around with people’s heads. These are my intentions when I edit my films: (1) to expect the unexpected and (2) to mess with people’s heads with existing ways of reality. But in my case of exploring coupled human-environmental systems, my magic tricks don’t involve handkerchiefs and decks of cards. They are about human-environmental problems… they are political and scientific problems. And this is where I see the bridge of Raguzi’s magic into my life… we have the same intentions, but I need to learn how to metaphorically overlay his tricks with the real-world tricks of human-environmental change. As Alexander said, he was willing to perform a fish magic trick for my Fish-in-a-Box film.

Besides learning magic tricks, I’m sure I can learn so much about stage production and tactics of mainstream entertainment…. It’s been a beautiful few days, two people with different roads in life have an unlikely encounter and develop a friendship…. And yes indeed, it’s a game of paying it forward; these have been Michel Gondry Moments, making the extraordinary out of the ordinary… like reality has its own magic… only if you choose to see it.


Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more specific than elsewhere, thanks.

- Norman

Anonymous said...

Very good article! Could you follow-up on this subject?