A rotund magician walking up the basement steps behind me asked how many people I'd come to the Magic Castle with. "I don't know," I said. "I'm here for a promotional séance." I failed to tell this magician that Houdini comes out on DVD and Blu-ray Oct. 7, because this was my first promotional séance and I missed my cue.
In the dining area of the Hollywood landmark, a private club for magicians, I explained to the maître d' that I had come for the Houdini séance. Because I was the first person in my party to arrive, I was mistaken for the host and led to the small séance chamber full of handcuffs where I walked around the table and saw that the place card next to mine said "Christina Radish." (Christina Radish never arrived at the séance, further cementing my initial impression that Christina Radish was not a real person.)
The room had a circular table in the center with 11 chairs, all of them, of course, empty. The walls were crowded with Houdini paraphernalia: the aforementioned handcuffs, a milk can large enough to fit a man, a trunk in the corner, an organ, a large portrait of the dead magician. I don't know how long I had been in the room before the publicists and the journalists and the screenwriter and the actor began filing in.
The screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, is a man who is exceedingly comfortable holding forth, and he quickly asserted that his candor led to the now-standard practice of adding disclaimers that studios are not responsible for opinions expressed by individuals on DVD commentary tracks. Meyer later asked, "Where's Adrien?" meaning Adrien Brody, who played Houdini in the two-part miniseries, and I found myself unable to picture Academy Award–winning actor Adrien Brody attending a promotional séance, even though the profusion of cutlery guaranteed a highly elegant dining experience.
Damon, the bespectacled journalist sitting next to Meyer, tried to micromanage the discussion for a bit, and then later, after Meyer said that it was silly to think dramatized historical movies would be factually accurate, Damon said, "We're in the era of nitpicking," which was so Damon. Incidentally, Houdini is not particularly historically accurate. It contains an elaborate meditation on his (made-up) government spying gig in Europe, but who doesn't love a spy caper?
After dinner and an unknowable amount of Cabernet, Josh the self-professed séance manager told us to leave the room for 20 minutes; I sat on a bench in the dining room where Damon told me how pleased he was with Meyer. When we came back, the plates and glasses were gone and we sat down to wait. A gaunt man in a gray suit emerged from behind the portrait of Houdini. He had the facial bones of a line drawing and was completely silent, staring at us. "Well good evening," he finally said, then saying very matter-of-factly that he would "attempt to open the door between this world and the next."
The magician, Rob Zabrecky, affected an unnerving air; although I am sure he blinks like any other man, I cannot recall witnessing him do it. He did several tricks I want to describe as spellbinding and you know what, YOLO, they were spellbinding — Zabrecky described this series of tricks as his "ramping up" when the writer of a movie about magic complained that he was bored by the magic.
As the séance finally commenced, Zabrecky told us all to hold the wrist of the person sitting to our right. He called on the spirit of Houdini, and if the knockings and bells ringing and fake thunder and the voice of Houdini coming out of the walls are to be believed, then Houdini did materialize in that small room. It's hard to say what happened as it was quite dark, but I can say that Houdini's spirit did not comment on the fictionalized biopic, nor did he reveal whether he prefers Blu-ray or DVD or if this is indeed the era of nitpicking.
Some unexpected movement in the room had knocked all my notes to the floor, and I bent down to retrieve them when the lights came on. Zabrecky fixed his blank eyes on me and asked if I'd been taking notes during the séance and I said no, no. Certainly not. It was true — I had been holding the wrist of a publicist the whole time.