a case for magic

an interview with Franco Mattiello

Once upon a November, in a coffee shop in Leeds, I met a magician named Franco Mattiello. This is a true story.

Before I rocket 2,000m deep into the oceanic trenches of this interview, I’d like to present you with an inconclusive list of some things I consider magic:

Christmas (secular); Liza Minnelli (both personality and creative output); science (all of it); Disney World (surface-level); autumn-ness; ‘looking back with fondness’; the good parts of the internet; memory recall via scent; weighty, sparkly snow; love at the beginning; love at the end; old people; places of worship; every animal; drunkenness abroad; cleanliness; most Apple products; violent thunderstorms; dusty books, dusty bars; the kind of music / art / words that stick to your synapses, forever; the carbon cycle; feeling ‘good’, feeling ‘seen’; soulmateship in friends; a depression, lifting; new tastes, new sounds, new feelings; travel — including cars and trains, but especially planes, which I fear because they are impossibly magical, and in that way cannot be at all safe, ever, do not try and convince me otherwise.

(New to the list! The photograph of the black hole. We tried to Ansel Adam the void and it stared right back into the camera like: finally, bitch.)

Sometimes, magic is the answer to the joyful unexplainables. More often, it’s the illusion we’d rather not have explained — either because it’s more fun, or we just can’t be bothered to understand. (In my case, that’s physics. But also, math and everything else I decided was inscrutable and boring, and therefore, ‘magic’, at age 15). Magic is the awesomeness that dances its way through the heavy nonsensicalness of life. A good WTF, amongst the angry, sorrowful, anxious varieties.

And then, there’s the magician-type magic.

Of which there are, in my estimation, three types. The first: childhood birthday parties, top hats, colourful scarves; the second: vintage memorabilia, Harry Houdini, Vegas; the third: hoodies, immaculate facial hair, tattoos, a television series, faux street cred (the essence of Drake). In 2019, many a magician will have lived through the first iteration, spent a lifetime dreaming of the second and realised their final form in the third. And they are dead serious, these magicians; about their craft, their profession. They are artists — some are athletes. Their work really means something. It’s more than a trick, it’s an illusion; it’s more than illusion, it’s a real spectacle of impossibility.

Watch a video of a magician performing, and while their audience (these days: strangers on the street, celebrities) are absolutely screaming like, no, WTF just happened, our magician is just like: lol, told ya so, going to swagger away now and leave you with your broken sense of reality. That is powerful stuff; more than that, it looks cool. It also makes for some very good ol’ fashioned viral #content, because that’s where all our modern magicians build their brand. The shows are still important, especially if they’re televised. But so are Instagram followers, YouTube hits. If they’re the result of a television performance (Britain’s Got Talent, for example) — even better.

Drake-ness, Britain’s Got Talent, YouTube; this was where my head was at on the whole magic thing before I met the magician Franco Mattiello in a coffee shop (Costa!) in Leeds. Around 2AM one evening, I watched a video of Dynamo dumping what seemed like an impossible amount of fish from a bucket onto the road and wanted to know how and why people got into this sort of thing. Also, why we - the public, the celebrities - still like it.

The thing about this interview, is that I forgot almost all of it. And not because it was six months ago. I left that Costa amnestic and scrambled, like I would from a bottomless brunch. Not a bad feeling, but still disconcerting. It had all happened so fast.

The speed at which Franco Mattiello manoeuvres a conversation is still indeterminable by scientists (including Dr. Katie Bouman, the photographer of deformed spacetime). For Mattiello, every illusion is a shape-shifting route to a successful escape. He talks and talks, and snaps his fingers, and talks — and when it’s all gone wrong he’s talking his way into making it all go right. And it does go right; because whatever mistake has been made has now become part of the act, and is all the better for it. The creation of a magic moment is a once upon a time with the directive of a happily ever after, and no in between. A magician’s job is to carry you through a new story and make you believe in the fairy tale.

None of this is easy. It’s been a lifetime of making. Mattiello began learning magic as a child after seeing David Blaine’s tv special Magic Man. “It was unlike anything I’d seen at the time,” he says. “I thought: I have to learn this.”

He thinks that growing up in Harehills made him a better performer. “The romantic story would be, you’re a kid and everyone’s going crazy like, look at this magician,” he says. “The real story is: you’re a kid, you’re doing magic and when it goes wrong people tell you it’s shit.” It made him tough-skinned, he thinks. He can handle the hard situations, like when a trick starts goes wrong.

Lots of kids learn magic, or guitar, or a myriad of other one-day forgotten hobbies — but Mattiello never stopped. He was still performing in grammar school, then high school. “I was good enough at a young age to get paid to do it,” he says. And he’s kept on doing it, ever since. And suddenly he’s doing it, the magic, right here in this Costa.

I could tell you about the magic, which was actually, mostly not magic at all, but mentalism. But the truth is that writing about the experience of magic is like placing a watercolour under fluorescent light; each word accelerates the process of decay. What I can say is that I never saw it coming. This was a conversation rife with magical happenings, as I now believe every conversation should be. I was, over and over again, genuinely astounded; by the time I was halfway into a trick, I had no idea how it had begun — and certainly couldn’t predict how it would end. Also, sorry, how did he know my sister’s name — or that of all the places I’d go on holiday, I’d choose Iceland? Also, why did I choose Iceland?

“That feeling that it brings you, that’s the aim,” says Mattiello, after I say oh my god and screech like 24 times. “Now, I get the feeling with a cleverness of a method. I get a buzz for it. Like, wow: that’s genius.”

The last time he felt that way was about a month ago, when he met another mentalist. Mattiello practices both mentalism — a category of illusion that imitates mind reading — as well as magic. “A magician might do a disappearing act, or change the colour of something,” he explains. “A mentalist will create the illusion of reading your thoughts by influencing your choices.” Both magicians and mentalists meet at the Bradford Magic Circle, a congregation of practitioners in the area, to discuss concepts and techniques.

The practice is important. It involves literal practice — performances for friends, family — but also literal study. “You’re reading book after book after book,” says Mattiello. And then, like all art, you need to develop your own style. It’s so easy, he says, to imitate the characters that have been successful — the David Copperfields, the Dynamos.

“It should be used as a gateway to express who you are,” he says. “You should have your own style, do you know what I mean?”

We talked about the style thing. The modern day street swag. How to approach a table of strangers. The psychology of those seated at the table; the alpha males or females, the hecklers. The people who hate magic because they just can’t face an unsolved puzzle. The ones that love magic and demand you do it all, over and over again, for their friends. We talked about the struggle of performance; the days when you don’t want to show up, but have to, anyway. About finding your voice, and yourself in your craft. There was more mentalism, more magic.

And then I was out the door, back on the street. It had happened so fast. Amnestic, scrambled. What lasted in my brain was the answer to this question:

Why is magic so important, now?

“I’ll tell you why,” says Mattiello. “We’re in a day and age where financially, everything has gone up. Jobs aren’t paying as much. Everyone’s preoccupied in their worries — things going on, family problems, financial issues, relationships. Whatever it might be. And here’s the thing, right? I could walk up to someone and perform for them. They could have the world on their mind and for five minutes they won’t. Because I’ve contradicted their train of thought. Everything they thought was impossible was actually possible. And they just witnessed it. You know what I mean?”

a prologue

Well mes amies, it’s been a few weeks. But post emosh is deffo still a go, and I am pleased to hype up your life with the news that there is (ALREADY) more on the way.

Here are your *bonus* recs for this week:

  • Alec With Pen. What can I say about comedian/illustrator Alec with Pen except what he says about himself: “For my entire life, my impulse was to keep my uglier feelings private… But having this platform where I can air out my gross, fetid inner life to people who feel the same—or at least think it’s funny—lets me feel a new sort of ownership over my problems.” If you are on Instagram he is definitely worth a follow.

  • Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Gwyneth Paltrow & Goop. A story from last July but STILL so very good. If you’ve not read anything by Taffy before, man oh man you are in for a treat! Start with this one and then try this, one, here. Your eyes will be burning from the extreme pleasure of reading her work.

  • Behind the Illusion, by Darcy Oake. Decided to do a bit of magic-related reading. Signed myself up for Leeds Library card. Really great, 10/10 decision. Except that there was only one (yes, 1) book on magic which was by a Canadian magician named Darcy Oake; a finalist on Britain’s Got Talent who can performs some crazy tricks, including this one with doves. Surprised how much I enjoyed this book, which is currently overdue and accumulating fines.

You can follow Franco Mattiello on Instagram here, and check out his website here.

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xo,

j