Garin Hovannisian is known to many as a writer – he is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Family of Shadows and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic. Others know him as the filmmaker behind the psychological thriller 1915 and an award-winning Armenian documentary trilogy on genocide, revolution, and war. But it is his return to a childhood obsession in magic that marks his stunning twist of fate.
Earlier this year, Hovannisian released Magic Stories, a new and ongoing series of ideas and illusions. The concept is entirely unique. In each episode, Hovannisian writes a letter about a poetic or philosophical idea. Then he makes it into magic, offering a beautifully staged and filmed illusion in which that idea comes to life. Over the past months, Hovannisian has made magic out of such poems as Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” and Philip Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” and explored such ideas as eternal return, the end of the world, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence. Recalling the poignancy of Montaigne’s essays and the philosophical depth of Borges’s stories, Garin Hovannisian emerges as a new kind of magician – philosophical, poetic, provocative – a visionary for our time.
In his first-ever magic special, the forthcoming City of Cards, Hovannisian begins to reveal the elements from which his magic takes flight. While the Armenian American magician was born in Los Angeles, Hovannisian has spent most of his life in Armenia. And it is Armenia’s capital Yerevan that City of Cards actually refers to. In this transfixing 32 minutes, Hovannisian takes us on a magical tour of this ancient circular city – and performs illusions inspired by its legends, folklore, and superstition. As he does, Garin Hovannisian is spellbinding.
Equal parts magic special, travel show, and art film, City of Cards is a revelation of a city like no other. But it is also a revelation of Hovannisian as a magician, a storyteller, and – most surprisingly – a world-class hypnotist. As we watch, Hovannisian hypnotizes audience member after audience member in demonstrations of free will and destiny never before seen on screen. It is breathtaking to watch how all aspects of Hovannisian’s creativity finally come together. As the writer, filmmaker, and magician behind City of Cards, Hovannisian is completely himself – and his personality, rhythm, and intensity can be felt in even his own editing of the film. As a writer, Garin Hovannisian is poised, provocative, yet elegant – his sentences unfold as beautifully crafted illusions. As a filmmaker, Hovannisian is a rare auteur who, drawing on his mastery of magic and hypnosis, creates his own original language of visual style. The result is mesmerizing. It is no surprise, therefore, that City of Cards is a masterpiece of magic and hypnotism.
In this exciting new wave for magic – with Derren Brown’s brilliant work in hypnosis and Derek DelGaudio’s accelerating career in art and illusion – Garin Hovannisian is creating his own major body of work. Combining the magical intensity of David Blaine, the powerful social experimentation of Nathan Fielder, and his own unique mastery as a magician, hypnotist, and filmmaker, Garin Hovannisian is a brilliant observer of the culture and a performer of its problems and possibilities.
It is fascinating, in this light, to revisit Hovannisian’s earlier work – his writing and films which seemed to have nothing to do with magic. And yet we find, on closer look, that Hovannisian has been telling magic stories all along. Each of his works is actually structured as a fairytale or parable of possibility. And there is at the heart of each of them a magician figure – a protagonist who believes, against the odds and everyone’s advice, that he can make something impossible happen. Hovannisian’s work is full of all the symbolism and imagery he is now bringing to the foreground.
There are clues that Hovannisian’s future work will continue to delve deeper into magic. His new short film Nowhere is a stunning parable about our secret shelves – an exhilarating and twisted Jungian shadow-dream. It has all the making of the best of best short film of the year, another original combination of writing, film, and magic, which is becoming Hovannisian’s trademark. Nowhere begins its Oscar-qualifying run from parallel premieres at the Los Angeles Shorts International Film Festival in Los Angeles and the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan, Armenia.
City of Cards can be watched here, where you can also subscribe to receive future episodes of Magic Stories.
This article was written in cooperation with APG