Are You Watching Closely?

30 December 2013 Comments Off on Are You Watching Closely?

topher Nolan productions, as well as telling a thoroughly intriguing story. This week has no particular significance in terms of “The Prestige,” but I came across a scene from it recently, which brought to mind again the effect it seems to create on those who watch it. I firmly believe that I can review the movie in this column without giving any spoilers. Let’s see.

In my experience, there are two kinds of scary movies. One is the traditional horror story. It introduces supernatural elements and dangerous circumstances that put the characters in (mortal) peril. “The Prestige” belongs to the second type: even though it features human characters who are faced with emotional dilemmas, it does so in such a way that you feel like there’s always something that isn’t revealed to you. As an outsider, you are not privy to certain, possibly integral, details or plotlines. You feel the same tension that the unknowing characters do. Interestingly, the book on which the film was based is the first kind of scary; I couldn’t even get to page five, because it already seemed like a violent and vengeful death was imminent. To this day, I don’t know if that’s true.

“The Prestige” is one of those rare movies where, at the end, all the loose ends are tied up without losing the pervasive sense of mystery. True to this scenario, the movie itself fits the description of a magic trick, as outlined by Michael Cain’s character Cutter:

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret…but you won’t find it, because of course, you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act: the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’”

Even disregarding the plotline, the feeling evoked by the movie is like that of a magic trick: it keeps you on your toes. You are constantly participating and investing in the relationships between the characters, trying to figure out what’s going on behind the scenes to create the illusions they are throwing at each other. In the process, you become an audience for the philosophical suggestions made by the movie.

The film contains many words of wisdom; most of those you’ll probably hear from Cutter. Befitting an actor of Cain’s stature, this character is the moral backbone of the whole story. His role is essential, because the movie is constructed around the tension resulting from the competition between two magicians, played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. The enmity that pervades their relationship throughout the movie causes them to cross certain boundaries. This, of course, brings us back to the philosophical aspect, as we question to what extent the magicians’ actions are right or wrong.

The same happens with a more famous Nolan production: the Batman trilogy. Here, too, the films try to shed some light on the justification for Batman’s behavior, or give a voice to the not-so-senseless musings of the Joker. It being the reinterpretation of an existing story, we more or less know that in this series, too, the hero will somehow manage to triumph…or do we? In “The Prestige,” the clues seem so fragmented that you think it’s one of those movies that will never reveal its secret. But it does. And it’s not disappointing.

Another intriguing parallel the movie draws refers to the rivalry between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison in the late nineteenth century. The two were, in actuality, inventors from that time period. Edison is of course world-famous for his invention of the light bulb, among many other things. It was as if he and Tesla, as the two greatest inventors of their time, were in competition. Being more idealistic, Tesla’s discoveries were not commercialized as much, and for a time after his death, he was almost forgotten. In the 1990s, however, his reputation had a resurgence of fame. Comparisons were made between the two inventors, focusing in particular on the rivalry caused by each man’s championing of a different electrical technology:  i.e., on the notion that Tesla, through his progress on the AC (alternating current) method of distributing electricity, was unintentionally subverting Edison’s development of the DC (direct current) system. The science here shouldn’t scare you: the crux of matter is that AC was at the time beginning to be seen as a more efficient means of transferring energy. Ever the businessman, Edison had much invested in the promotion of the DC method, while Tesla was more idealistic in his work on AC technology. Because of this characteristic, Tesla was marginalized.

“The Prestige” finds Tesla as a retiree, who is trying to live quietly. The rivalry that has worn him out was actually quite similar to the one our two magicians are experiencing: idealism vs. realism. In this interpretation, we don’t know what happened to Edison, but Tesla is seen as a ruined man. With the escalating competition between the characters played by Jackman and Bale, this seems prophetic.

Like a great magician, Nolan makes the pledge, takes the turn and delivers the prestige, which is what gives any magic trick the “wow” factor. It’s the glory of the illusion.

If any of you who have managed to read this far haven’t yet seen the movie, I urge you to do so. “The Prestige” is a classic, a must-see. In fact, it may take the darkest turn you will ever see in a movie looking at magic and illusion.

There, you see? No spoilers.

P.S.: Speaking of “spoilers,” I wanted to note the significance of this week for the Whovians out there: the clock strikes twelve for the Doctor! Good-bye, Matt Smith.