Monday, March 12, 2007

The Prestige

Watched The Prestige last night. It's a nifty little exercise in the craft of misdirection and the magic of the reveal. Two dueling magicians driven into an obsessive rivalry fight to possess the secrets of the "Transported Man" - an illusion that may or may not involve "real magic."

The story takes the very modern notion of the double or the twin, and adds to it a very postmodernist spin: that of replication and waste. The double is the mirror, but there is still a line between what is real and what isn't. Replication is the ecstatic reproduction of reality, and the overwhelming of the real by the unreal. The line disappears and we are in a Baudrillardian simulacrum.

Overall the story doesn't take much time to ponder these philosophical questions. Instead it works very hard on the mechanics of achieving its effects, and the script works very hard not to cheat its audience. In fact it does such a good job of holding up to the "it's obvious on the second viewing" Sixth Sense standard, that it nearly telegraphs the ending.

For example, in the Christian Bale storyline, it's pretty clear that there's something up with his sidekick: heavy beard, big hat, never talks. It's also clear that we're supposed to attend to his wife when and her constant questions. Does he love her today, or does he love magic.

Similarly, in the Hugh Jackman storyline, it's pretty obvious that he's not the one who dies at the beginning, but until I saw all those cats, I thought it might be the drunken actor he hired to impersonate him. The hats are also an arresting and lovely image.

The one way the story does cheat is through the character of the daughter. In the end, she makes Christian Bale's "good" character far more sympathetic than he deserves to be. If he's the real "hero" of the story, why did he let things go on so long? Why didn't he abandon the charade after his wife's death?

The Daily Dramatica blog has a good article about identifying the Main Character in a complicated story like The Prestige. It's a tricky one to get your head around because of the various twists. I've attempted to put together a storyform for the movie but even the little things are hard to figure. Is it a success or failure story? Is it a good or bad outcome? Do we ignore the sub-plot about the daughter, or is it central to solving the MC's problem. Can you separate the twin brothers in to two separate characters, or do you treat them the same way you would a single character with a strong internal conflict?

It's definitely a good movie for thinking about storytelling and the desire of audiences to be simultaneously fooled and awed, but also reassured as to the nature of reality and in the end, let in on the secret.

(There's also a cool section of the film that takes place in Colorado Springs. We meet Tesla who is conducting his experiments in some gigantic house, apparently on Pikes Peak. It's completely ridiculous. There are these beautiful shots of Jackman in a snow covered forest coming up the mountainside. The only thing is I live in the Springs and I've never seen trees like those around here. Coincidently Pynchon does the same sort of thing in Against the Day bringing his characters to Colorado to meet Tesla. But to his credit he does a much better job of setting the scene and referencing real local landmarks like the Antlers Hotel and the Cog Railroad.)