Saturday, December 17, 2016

Houdini Whodunit

It's been a while since we've shared one of Adas Emuno President Lance Strate's op-ed pieces from the Jewish Standard, so here now is one that was published in their June 24th issue, and then appeared on his Jewish Standard Times of Israel blog on June 30th. That post was updated to reflect the next to last episode of the program he discusses, and this version is further updated to reflect the season finale:

My son was about 8 or 9 when we had our first family outing to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey.

As I recall, it was his first time in the amusement park, and my first time as well. And I was pleased to discover, soon after entering, an attraction called Houdini’s Great Escape. It paled in comparison to anything that can be found at one of Disney’s or Universal’s theme parks, but I was happy to have the opportunity to introduce my son to the great Jewish showman Harry Houdini.

Houdini was a household name when I was growing up, immediately recognizable as the world-famous escape artist of a bygone era. The fact that Houdini was Jewish also was well known, especially within the Jewish community.

Houdini’s fame persisted long after his death in 1926, at the age of 52, but it began to fade in the waning years of the 20th century. I wonder how many millennials have heard of him these days. For that reason, I applaud Six Flags for keeping his memory alive. I am particularly grateful to all those who protested when Great Adventure closed the ride in 2008, and convinced Six Flags to bring it back in 2011.

We bought my son a hamster about a month or two after our trip to the amusement park, and I asked him what name he wanted to give to his pet. He answered, “Harry.” I smiled and said, “So you want to name him after Harry Houdini?” “No,” he replied. “After Harry Potter.”

I immediately realized that Houdini’s Great Escape made a much greater impression on me than it did on him, and that there was no competing with the young adult novels by J. K. Rowling, and even more so with the Warner Bros. film adaptations, with their amazing special effects, which made magic seem real. This amounts to a bit of a reversal, as stage magicians produced some of the first special effects to appear in early cinema.

Houdini himself started out as an illusionist performing in vaudeville, before achieving widespread fame by specializing as an escapologist. He also starred in a few silent films between 1906 and 1923, but he did not enjoy the same success on the screen as he did in live performance.

Significantly, Houdini was devoted to stage magic as a profession, and led the Society of American Magicians as president of that organization for almost a decade, his tenure cut short by his untimely death. The society pays for the maintenance and care of Houdini’s grave site, which is in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. The monument displays both his stage name, Houdini, and his actually family name, Weiss; he was born Erik Weisz in Budapest, the son of a rabbi, and was only about 4 years old when his family emigrated to the United States. That’s when Erik Weisz was changed to the German version, Erich Weiss.

Though Houdini died almost 90 years ago, his name recently has been resurrected on television with the airing of Houdini & Doyle, a series launched last spring on Fox. It’s based on the actual friendship between the great escapologist and Arthur Conan Doyle, the British author best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. While drawing on bits and pieces of historical fact, essentially the series is fictional and full of anachronisms, blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction in ways that have become quite common in recent decades. The central fiction is that Houdini, who is performing in London, teams up with Doyle to solve mysteries that baffle the police.

In this new series, Michael Weston (née Michael Rubinstein, grandson of Arthur Rubinstein) became the most recent of at least a dozen actors to have portrayed Harry Houdini. His predecessors include Tony Curtis, Harvey Keitel, Norman Mailer, and Adrien Brody. In this role, Weston looks Jewish, but not in a way that might be deemed stereotypical or particularly overt. His speech does not feature any obvious form of Jewish (or Hungarian) accent, although it does strike me as very similar to the kinds of voices I hear at my congregation. In short, in this series, the fact that Houdini is Jewish is downplayed significantly—but it is not entirely absent.

Houdini & Doyle is a TV version of the buddy film genre, a type of narrative especially commonplace in American popular culture, no doubt due to the diversity of American society. That’s because it depends on strange bedfellows, or if you prefer Neil Simon to Will Shakespeare, an odd couple team-up. The buddies often contrast opposing qualities—rich and poor, white and black, male and female, young and old, professional and amateur, and so on.

The great French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, argues that a culture’s myths are ways of symbolizing significant polar oppositions, and scholars analyzing popular culture, such as Arthur Asa Berger, have applied this approach to film, television, and other media. Looking at Houdini & Doyle through this lens can be quite revealing.

To begin, Houdini is American and Doyle is British, Houdini is ethnic while Doyle is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASPs are an ethnicity, of course, but traditionally they are presented as non-ethnic in American popular culture), and Houdini is an American immigrant while Doyle is native to Britain. (The show is set in London.) Houdini’s background is not emphasized in the first few episodes, but in the third episode, “In Manus Dei,” he falls ill and his mother, who has accompanied him on his travels and speaks with a noticeable accent, gives him chicken soup as a cure. Her character, Houdini’s own devotion to her, and the insecurity associated with being an immigrant all are featured more prominently in episode 5, “The Curse of Korzha,” and the fact that Houdini is Jewish is discussed briefly in episode 6, “The Monsters of Nethermoor.”

On the one hand, it is quite positive that a Jewish-American immigrant can serve as a symbol of an American in general. On the other hand, Houdini’s Jewishness mainly is reflected in his being a victim of prejudice, as he reveals in episode 6. This also makes him a champion of tolerance, as he defends another character facing discrimination and scapegoating, which is commendable. But in this respect, there is no contrast with Doyle, who is sympathetic, albeit revealed as never having been the victim of bias, while the third main character, Constable Adelaide Stratton, Scotland Yard’s first policewoman (an anachronism), also is subjected to significant prejudice and therefore is in favor of tolerance.

Having viewed seven out of the 10 episodes that comprise the first season of the program, a joint British, Canadian, and American production, I would have wanted to see Houdini’s Jewishness reflect something more than ethnicity and open-mindedness. I would have liked it to reflect as well some aspect of his religious heritage. But of course that would undercut his role as a symbol of Americans in general.

Other contrasts come into play. Houdini is a famous and self-promoting entertainer, while Doyle enjoys the quieter esteem accorded as an author, one somewhat embarrassed by the popularity of his Sherlock Holmes stories. Houdini’s success makes him relatively affluent and his brashness marks him as nouveau riche, while Doyle is the model of upper-middle-class propriety, as befits a physician. (That’s his day job.) There is a bit of a contrast between low and high culture, between the sensationalism of the popular performer and the reserve of the man of letters, which also maps onto the egalitarianism of American society and the elitism of the British (Doyle eventually receives a knighthood). It’s also the contrast between the rags-to-riches story of the ethnic immigrant and the conservative narrative of old money. Additionally, there is a contrast between Houdini’s physicality, as an escape artist and also as a fighter, and Doyle’s cerebral quality.

The major opposition on which the program turns, however, is between Houdini as a skeptic and rationalist and Doyle as a believer and spiritualist. While the belief that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead is age-old—King Saul speaks to the ghost of Samuel in the Tanach—the spiritualism movement began in the 19th century. It was inspired in large part by the ethereal (but decidedly earthly) form of communication introduced by the invention of the telegraph, and later by messages sent over the air by radio.

Doyle actually was an ardent believer in spiritualism. He believed in it so strongly that this difference of opinion eventually brought his friendship with Houdini to an end. And Houdini actually was firmly committed to debunking anyone claiming to have psychic powers or the ability to communicate with the dead, invariably revealing them as scam artists using the same methods as stage magicians.

Houdini & Doyle draws on these historic facts to set up the program’s main opposition. It’s similar to The X-Files, except that Gillian Anderson’s Dr. Dana Scully was the skeptic and David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder was the believer. Doyle’s scientific background as a physician does come into play when he solves mysteries, but it does not prevent him from believing in psychic phenomena. Interestingly, Houdini’s and Doyle’s roles are reversed in “The Monsters of Nethermoor,” but only because the unearthly phenomenon being investigated is, in fact, alien beings, and Houdini is willing to believe in the scientific notion that life on other planets is possible.

Houdini, then, comes across as something of a 20th century Spinoza, a modern secular humanist, in contrast to Doyle’s apparent superstition. And the episodes clearly favor science over spiritualism, while portraying both buddies as sympathetic characters. Here too, however, I would wish for something more than rejection of belief on Houdini’s part. I’d have liked some positive expression of Jewish faith, its emphasis on ethics, even a touch of true spirituality.

Still, I applaud the show’s creators for bringing the spirit of Houdini back to life and with renewed vigor. This doesn’t seem like the kind of program that will gain much of an audience, or even make it to a second season. But escaping cancellation may just be Houdini’s greatest trick of all.

First Addendum

Two additional episodes have aired since I wrote this op-ed, one after it was published on June 24th. At the end of episode 8, “Strigoi,” which features their contemporary, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, Houdini discovers that his mother has passed away. This and other matters prompts a trip across the Atlantic in episode 9, “Necromanteion” (the title referring to an invention of Thomas Edison's, who appears in the episode, that is supposed to allow communication with the dead via radio waves).

The episode includes a scene of a Jewish funeral. Incredibly, Houdini is shown at the grave site minus any form of head covering, and walks out on the ritual, criticizing the solemnity of the proceedings. While the intent is to show that Houdini is suppressing his feelings of grief, it also resonates with his rejection of superstition in an unfortunate manner. The episode ends with his return to his mother’s grave to recite a Hebrew prayer, alone and therefore not as part of the Jewish community. This no doubt reinforces his connection to Doyle and Stratton, but at the cost of a positive portrayal of Jewish community, and one of the most essential functions of any religious tradition.  

Second Addendum  

In the final episode of the season, "The Pall of LaPier," Houdini receives spiritual advice from a native American that he finds comforting. This is a common trope in American popular culture, the "noble savage" as a source of wisdom and superior spiritual connection in contrast to us sophisticated moderns, but once again, this appears in the absence of any link to Houdini's own faith, any interaction with a rabbi, and almost not acknowledgement of Jewish mourning rituals.  And just to be clear, the problem is not in this one series, but the fact that this is typical of the way that Jewish characters, whether historical or fictional, are portrayed in our popular culture.

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