Neil Burger and Steven Millhauser, 2006
Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, and Christopher Priest, 2006
Ah, coincidence. In the late 1990s moviegoers were treated (?)
to not one but two biopics about Steve Prefontaine. One would
have been insufficient! In 2006, instead of 1970s track dudes
we had turn-of-the-century magicians. Not only that, but each
film featured one of the two most recent alumnae of Esquire
magazine's Sexiest Woman Alive feature. And that kind of sums
of the difference between these two movies. Scarlett Johanssen
appears in The Prestige. She is a homina-homina movie
star, and The Prestige is a major film. Jessica Biel
appears in The Illusionist. She is a slightly
trout-faced sitcom actress, and The Illusionist is an
instantly forgettable trifle.
I like to watch movies knowing virtually nothing about them
other than that someone recommended them. If you are similarly
inclined, be warned that I am about to spoil most of both these
movies. If you think you might want to watch The Prestige,
stop here and come back later. (If you think you might want to
watch The Illusionist, read on so I can save you two
hours of your life.)
Let's get The Illusionist out of the way first. A
teenage working-class boy in Austria-Hungary catches the eye
of a pretty aristocrat girl, but her chaperones keep them
apart. He travels the world and comes back years later as
a stage magician, successful enough to perform for the
Habsburgs. He finds that his one-time paramour is engaged
to a mustache-twirling muha-muha prince. Then things seem
to go horribly wrong, but ha ha, it was all a ruse on the
part of the illusionist. Who would have seen such a shocking
twist ending coming, other than everyone who's seen a movie
in the past fifteen years?
The Prestige also has a twist ending — Welcome
to the Anytown USA Multiplex! Twist endings in all 18 theaters,
each more twisted than the last! — but it has more going
for it than the empty puzzle-box of The Illusionist
with its star-crossed ciphers and cartoon villain. The
Prestige is about the rivalry between two stage magicians,
Alfred Borden and Robert Angier. Initially they and Angier's
wife all work for the same show, until Borden's recklessness
gets Angier's wife killed onstage. They go their separate
ways. Borden starts his own show, which Angier sabotages,
disfiguring Borden; Borden returns the favor, and their
competition turns into an arms race. Borden premieres a new
trick that Angier can't figure out: he enters one box and
immediately appears in another on the other side of the stage.
Angier is able to duplicate the feat by using trap doors and
a lookalike, but that leaves him under the stage while the
lookalike receives the applause. And he's sure Borden isn't
doing it that way. Angier's obsession with learning the
secret makes him such an easy target, so desperate for an
answer, that Borden manages to convince him that the illusion
is real. And Angier is so deranged that he goes halfway around
the world to the recently closed American frontier, where Nikola
Tesla has set up shop in the Colorado mountains, to get the
world-famous inventor to build him a machine like the one he
built for Borden that actually duplicates him.
This is a wild goose chase, of course. Tesla never built
such a machine for Borden. He's never heard of Borden.
But he builds one for Angier anyway.
"With a sinking heart," Roger Ebert writes, "I realized that
The Prestige had jumped the rails, and that rules we
thought were in place no longer applied." Why sinking? Why
not soaring? Who wants a movie on rails? Ebert's remark
reminded me of one person's complaint back in 1998 that
Photopia really "bothered" her because of the "abrupt
switch in genre": "Huh? What? Did I miss something? Real-life
to fantasy? [...] Sudden appearance of fantasy where I was
least expecting it, threw me. I stopped 'buying' into it."
My response at the time: "I took a class on fantasy literature
when I was at Berkeley. Pretty much every book on the reading
list was just like this: combining gritty realism with fantasy,
and throwing into question the boundaries between the two.
That's what makes it interesting. That's what makes it
literature and not genre hackwork." I still basically endorse
that and think it applies very well to The Prestige.
The story of the dueling magicians was reasonably diverting.
Tying it into the rivarly between Tesla and Thomas Edison made
it very interesting. And then that one element of the fantastic
made it literature.
Mike D'Angelo, who initially gave The Prestige a blah
review and then saw it again and upgraded it to his #1 movie of
2006, wrote that "A second viewing reveals the real trick here:
the way the Nolan brothers tackle the existence of God without
once using that word." He didn't say how, but I think I can
reconstruct the argument: at the end of the movie, Angier says
that the reason he devoted his life to stage magic was that
"The audience knows the truth — the world is simple,
miserable, solid all the way through — but if you can
fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder,
then you got to see something very special... you really don't
know? It was the look on their faces..." And while he's
talking about stage magic, really he's talking about religion.
Deep down, everyone knows that there are no miracles in the
universe, but they go to church because they want to be
fooled, because, as Borden says, lightly punching a grimy
London wall, it takes them away from all this. If this
is indeed the central metaphor, then it's clear how D'Angelo
gets God out of Tesla's machine.
I think that interpretation holds up, but I would add something
else to it.
In 1770 an Austrian inventor created a device called "The Turk,"
which he claimed was a machine that could play a strong game of
chess. It had a complicated set of gears, but they were just
for show — nearly a century later, one of the Turk's
later owners revealed that, yes, all along there had actually
just been a man inside the box. Still, all the apparatus needed
to pull off the illusion made the Turk an impressive feat of
engineering. The devices the Prestige magicians use to
create their illusions are also impressive feats of engineering.
At one point Angier puts on a vest that allows him to snap pieces
of a birdcage back up his sleeves, seeming to make the cage
disappear and freeing the bird inside. This garment is an even
more complex apparatus than, and only slightly less astounding
in its effects than, Scarlett Johanssen's corset. But adding
Tesla to the mix prompts the question: why use technology to
simulate miracles? Why not use technology to create
miracles? A little over two centuries after the premiere of
the Turk, machines could defeat the best chess players
in the world. And as for Tesla's duplicator...
...well, that's clearly the stuff of fantasy. Curse you,
filmmakers! You broke the rules! Hey, you know what else
was the stuff of fantasy before Tesla was born? Holes in the
wall that you could plug devices into to make them run by
themselves. I watched The Prestige on a little box that
can show moving pictures on a bright screen, the same little box
that I am now using to display the words I am typing, words that
I can effortlessly move around by pushing a button and spinning
a ball. It is powered by alternating current. Alternating
current was developed by Nikola Tesla.
The duplication machine in The Prestige is miraculous,
yes. But it is really no more impressive than any of the
miracles Tesla did bring about. We now take those for
granted, so the story invents a new one, one by which we will
be appropriately awed, the way we should be awed every time we
turn on the radio. The promise of The Prestige is that
what we fake today, we will do tomorrow.
And incidentally, its twist ending functions differently from
that of The Illusionist. It's not just an empty
exercise in mentally reordering what we've seen: "I thought
he was sad, but really he was just pretending to be sad!"
What the ending of The Prestige does is retroactively
add resonance, literary quality, to what had come before.
And that's not all. See, in The Illusionist, we are
supposed to interpret what we're seeing one way and then be
surprised when it turns out that something else was going on.
In The Prestige, we are supposed to interpret what
we're seeing one way, and then be surprised when it turns out
that something else was going on, and then be horrified
thinking about the implications of the real explanation. Here
I'd thought Spoorloos was hard to take. This was a
hundred times worse.
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