I was watching Congo, the other night, the 1995 movie based on Michael Crichton’s book of the same name. I had never heard of either, so as the movie went along I kept thinking is this a comedy, a political thriller, a monster movie? Well yes and no to all of those, although perhaps more accurately it could be seen as a fantasy update of King Solomon’s Mines.
Anyway it was entertaining enough, but as the end titles rolled I saw on the credits “martini illusion” by Ricky Jay. Now, as regular readers will know, I’m a great admirer of Ricky Jay (isn’t everybody?) and I know he does movie consultancy work via his company Deceptive Practices, providing “arcane knowledge on a need to know basis”
Still I was surprised to see his name there, and even more surprised that there was a “martini illusion.” Of course I knew there was a martini scene in the movie (above): Amy the talking gorilla (don’t ask) demands a “green drop drink,” is given a martini and drinks it. This was one of the reasons I thought the movie was a comedy. But it wasn’t a major scene, and certainly it was no big deal, especially since this wasn’t a real gorilla but obviously somebody in a gorilla suit. Couldn’t the actor inside have drunk whatever was in the glass? Or failing that, just poured the contents down into the cavity of the suit?
Well no, apparently not. I tracked down an interview with Ricky Jay on the AV Club website:
AVC: On Congo, you were a technical consultant.
RJ: Oh God, yeah. Well, actually, there, when working with producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, our main task was to have an extraordinarily expensive gorilla suit protected. The gorilla was drinking martinis, and we had to make it look like the gorilla in fact did this, while making sure that there was no risk to a suit that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I mean, it is fascinating on some level how varied and different what we’re asked to do might be.
We were creating, basically, a cocktail that drank itself, so there was no chance of anything spilling or gumming up the works. “
I think the real surprise here is that the costume cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, because frankly it looked like it cost about 50 bucks. But who am I to be critical?
An early version of this “illusion” was devised by Pythagoras, although his version didn’t involve either a martini or a glass, but rather an earthenware vessel with a kind of reservoir in the centered which siphoned off the liquid. It was supposed to promote moderation. If wine was poured in above a certain level, the vessel acted as a siphon and the whole drink would come pouring out the bottom and into your lap.
My wife also tells me that her dad, who was a sometime amateur magician, did a “disappearing milk trick” – milk poured into newspaper cone but never coming out. He performed it for her and her siblings when they were small children. I’d have thought an audience of your own kids would be more rather than less skeptical, but they loved it apparently, and I suppose tricks with liquids are always going to be impressive.
Want to see a picture from the New York Times of Ricky Jay at breakfast? Yeah, of course you do. I don't believe either of those vessels is a trick glass.