Story Pile: The Prestige

The Prestige was a 2006 thriller film that’s pretty much successful enough and attached to enough big names in the mainstream movie space that it kind of sits in that space of oh, I’ve heard of that. It’s also a movie built around a twist, and it’s a movie with – well, with prestige.

It’s got Michael Caine! It’s got Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale and Jacko Wolverine and Scarlett Johannsen, and David Bowie! This is a movie with some cred, and that means that it’s a little more seen than most of the ‘magic’ movies I thought about talking about.

It’s also kind of one of those movies that movie makers seem to like making and movie nerds tend to like talking about, so I feel a bit like I’m treading old ground here. You know, it’s got it all, it’s got a nonlinear framing device, it’s got mysteries, it’s got extremely difficult performances to pull off and some technical tricks and CG that makes it look like you weren’t using CG and it’s a period piece so you get to put everyone in funny outfits and top hats. The only thing it really lacks is singing, which Hugh Jackman would have gotten in there if it was up to him, you know it.

Anyway, I’m going to talk about the movie, which is kind of built around twists, and just mentioning that there are twists is going to be a twist so yeah sorry, I spoiled you that there’s a twist (and I don’t actually care) and there will be more, after the cut. Also I’m going to mention other things he did, like Inception and maybe make fun of people who claim those movies are super complex.

However, in deference to the fact that this movie does Go Places, I have selected my screengrabs for this article entirely at random from a website that has way too many of them. There is literally no way for me to be sure what exact context I’m giving these things, but trust me, it’s not intentional.

I already knew about this movie when I decided to start on this subject matter, but I was especially brought to remember it when I checked Ricky Jay’s IMDB page, to see when 52 Assistants was first performed. To my shock, Ricky Jay wasn’t just a consultant on this movie, but he was in it, a consultant who also performed in-universe magic, showing the actors segments of tricks so they could perform them authentically, but doing so without teaching them to perform the whole trick.

That makes me so weirdly happy: the tricks that were performed were ultimately performed by the magician, but the actors were the magician’s instrument. That kind of thing tickles me, the idea of Hugh Jackman as basically a long pair of tongs for one of the greatest card manipulators of my lifetime. I also think it’s the kind of thing that Nolan, the director, would have loved too, but possibly for different reasons.

Christopher Nolan seems to really enjoy making movies that are about making movies (broadly) or how hard it is to be the incredible genius that is Christopher Nolan (more specifically). It’s most notable in Inception, where the character roles can be directly connected to the work of the people whose work creates movies (ignoring all those untidy actors) and the whole story of the movie is of convincing someone of something by telling them a story, but his work has a bunch of related ideas, ideas that, I guess, make up ‘Nolanish’ stuff.

Even in his Batman movies, he brought those out, like a disdain for a complacent audience, a belief in the importance of dramatic structure, and narrative that cares about the presentation of a constructed character. In a lot of ways, Nolan’s Batman does something I really like, which is show that the Batman character is a character created by the person of Bruce Wayne. Secret identities are really important to characters, because diegetically, that identity is something the character crafted, and that means that crafted identity shows something of the person who crafted it. This is a point I’ve gone in on in the past.

Still, The Prestige is one of those other Nolan movies, and it also gets to be about one of his favourite things, practical effects instead of CG. Yes, it seems that Nolan claims to dislike computer graphics, and that’s why in the Batman movies, Batman’s armour had to be ‘realistic’ looking, and as a direct result left us with a Batman with a thirty degree field of vision. There is nonetheless, no effect more practical than that of just honest-to-god magic performance, and the movie makes great pains to tell you with its introduction and framing that what you think you’re seeing is just a trick, always just a type of a trick.

This is a movie! It can do things with edits and cuts to always create the illusion of better magic than the actors can pull off, which is fine, but at the same time the in-universe narrative has to justify everything it does with its tricks, because they’re not only real things happening in the narrative, but the technology of the time makes some tricks that are reasonably doable now by anyone nearly impossible by any but the most skilled then.

It is kind of ruined for me then, that the story veers into magical realism with the introduction of Nikola Tesla, yes, that Nikola Tesla, and introduces actual honest to god impossible nonsense. It’s meant to represent some kind of crossing the rubicon, or maybe the involvement of the other, but at the same time, in a story that’s so aggressive about playing fair with the tricks and the ramifications of those tricks, it feels when you introduce an actual wizard, really cheap.

At its core, this movie is about a duel between two identities; Angier and Borden, not the actual people themselves, but the public personalities of the magicians. It’s not enough for one to hurt one another, what matters is the ability to punish one another for failures as magicians, and that means that a brutal end (just murdering someone) is far less important than making sure the right person suffers for that murder, and to whom. It’s an interesting little story, and it manages to be complicated without being befuddling.

Which is one of the other tricks Nolan likes. The movies are often wrought with a lot of the symbolic, and complicated framing devices, but he also signposts them so it’s not especially difficult to track the narrative, but you get to feel remarkably clever when you do.

I liked this movie, with its dissection of the structure of a magic trick – the Pledge, the Turn, and the Prestige, and I especially like it in light of the way this movie subtly sneers at the audience. There’s this bit, where Cutter says that the audience looks for an explanation for the trick, but doesn’t really look, and he never goes in on what that means. What is it? If you really wanted to know where the bird went, in the magic trick, what would you do? Would you leap the stage, and start rifling through the magicians pockets? Why don’t we do that, beyond the question of social grace? Is that what it means, that we hold ourselves back from discovery because we want to be compliant in our being fooled?

Or is it just Nolan sneering at the audience, for believing the story they’re told, coming out in the script, given comforting life by the excellent performacnce by Michael Caine?

One of the things about magic, and one of the things that a love of magic has subtly nudged me to doing in my life, is to always double check, as much as I can, the whole frame of what I’m talking about. What am I assuming, what am I taking for granted? What’s actually required for what I just saw to be true?

And who benefits from me thinking it’s true?

I like The Prestige and I like Inception and I am always immensely cautious of people who describe the movies as sophisticated or clever or difficult. Not because someone can’t struggle with them – that’s absolutely possible, and it’s no mark against you if you don’t. Rather, it’s because these movies are trying to play a magical trick on you, the viewer: It’s trying to lure you in, and make you part of an in group of those people who Get It, and how Getting It is a sign you’re smart.

It’s not sinister.

It’s just a little self-serving.

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