Thursday, January 31, 2019

Rage Against the Dying of the Light: Dealt (2017)

Richard Turner in Dealt. (Photo: Geoff Duncan)

I thought I’d just about finished reviewing documentaries after that last piece. After all, documentaries aren’t usually known for their aesthetic innovations. But then along comes Dealt (2017), about Richard Turner, the world’s most renowned card mechanic (i.e., white-hat card shark), who just happens to have 100% vision loss, and the way that it introduces its subject, follows him through a turning point in his life, and conveys it all with a purposeful cinematicity just begs to be unpacked.

Biographical documentaries often settle on the safe, conventional structure of explaining their subject’s documentary-worthiness and then trying to figure out how s/he got to that point. It looks as though director Luke Korem started out with that in mind, too, so the film opens with a long list of talking heads discussing how great Turner is, along with clips of him doing various tricks at his various high-profile performances. But the way events turn out build another layer on top.

First, the basics. Richard Turner is a card mechanic, someone who goes around teaching people how a card game might be fixed – how a cheater might operate. He’s the true heir of legendary card magician Dai Vernon, having not only perfected his teacher’s craft but moved beyond even what Vernon himself could do. He completely bamboozled world-class magicians and magic historians Penn and Teller on their show, Fool Us (2011-). And he did all of that while legally blind. Blindness is his personal bane, and his obsession with proving to himself and others that he’s not, in fact, disabled has been the prime motivation behind everything he’s done, from insane stunts in his youth, such as riding a motorcycle with a deaf friend sitting behind him yelling out obstacles and traffic signals, to earning a black belt in karate via one of the toughest exams in the U.S. (so tough it was technically illegal and had to be held over the border in Mexico). The documentary follows him around from just before his son, Asa Spades Turner (get it?), goes off to college to right after he begins touring a new one-man magic show about his life. Apart from his going blind from disease in his youth, this period turns out to be the most pivotal in his life.

Turner used to hate being called blind (it still rankles him, judging from much fury emanates from the screen when he’s asked about his formative years), and given how much he’s achieved, rightly so. It would be amazing for anyone to be able to do what he can do, and to have done all the other things in his life that he’s done. (Don’t believe me? Watch his one-man show performed for MIT.) Adding that he’s blind, especially when it’s announced before he performs, may seem like enhancing his achievements, but the category of “disabled” can transform his tale from a regular-guy inspirational story to an √úbermensch spectacle; when you regard a deity, it is no less a supernatural being if its celebrated interventions could have otherwise been achieved by human hands. The tension between these two perspectives on Richard Turner – disabled man and superhuman – is the narrative impetus of the documentary. Refusing to acknowledge his blindness, he would depend on his son and wife, Kim, instead of getting a guide dog or even a cane. But after Asa goes to college, Turner has to accept the fact that if he needs to use tools, he should use actual ones instead of people. He finds a mentor in his sister, Lori, who suffers from the same sight-stealing illness but learned to accept it earlier. Lori, by the way, is the head of a large construction company, and is shown in the film describing a newly built house to Richard while guiding him through it. As he gradually comes to accept who he is, warts and all, he admits on camera to feeling liberated, finally free of the indignations and prideful shame of his past. He embraces this change wholeheartedly in his one-man show. This narrative structure is more commonly deployed for LGBT+ people coming out of the closet, and it reinvigorates this trope to see Turner finally learning how to accept himself.

Turner’s specialty is card magic, an inherently visual medium (one would think), and the film camera captures the split-second when the tricks are comprehended; a slow-motion shot of Turner second-dealing (dealing the second card in a deck while keeping the top card in place) is revelatory. Even more so is how the film re-enacts Turner’s vision loss. Throughout the film, we see Turner navigating the world with the aid of his son and wife. The way Asa and Kim guide him around and describe things to him, and the way he tries to envision the world through tactility and imagination, offer a peek into what it must be like to be blind. But Korem allows us to see for ourselves as much as possible. As Turner describes his then-diminishing vision, the camera replicates it the best it can: first the lens goes out of focus, then a black dot appears in the middle and gradually expands, and finally we’re left with only peripheral vision, the outermost ring of a fish-eye lens. Turner explains how he rode a motorcycle with only peripheral vision by keeping his eyes on the lane lines, and the corresponding re-enactment evokes a thrilling sense of danger: if this were all I could see, how in the world would I be able to dismount the bike still alive?! That specific sequence, probably more than all the other records of his exploits in mountain-climbing, tightrope-walking, deep sea-fishing, or even karate, fully imparts to us the overpowering force of his life energy.

The film takes on both perspectives at once – regular guy and √úbermensch. The inspirational story here isn’t that, with hard work and long practice, you, too, can become a world-class card magician, but that there is always the possibility of self-acceptance, no matter how much the cards are stacked against you.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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