Monday, October 30, 2006
The Illusionist vs. The Prestige
Note: I don’t think there are any plot spoilers in the following, though there are “meta-spoilers”—concepts that become apparent after watching each film. If you don’t want your thought-space crowded and intend to see one or both of these films, you might want to skip.
Both movies are actually pretty entertaining. “The Illusionist” has a fairy tale quality and the merits of simplicity; its dominant metaphor is the illusionary quality of cinema. “The Prestige” is more complex and discursive; it’s ruled by the metaphor of electricity—which is to say, invisible power. Christopher Nolan’s film gives a critic much more to chew on, both in terms of its myriad plot twists and concealments, and in terms of the self-reflexivity of its dialogue. “The Prestige” is the kind of film Slavoj Zizek would enjoy, while “The Illusionist” is the kind of film Sigmund Freud would enjoy.
In magic, the illusionist is like a therapist. The audience comes to him to be told that there is in fact still mystery in the world, or at least technical skill so good it passes for mystery. (Even if everyone in the audience knows it’s a trick, a sense of mystery attaches itself to the magician, the performer, who makes the sleight-of-hand seem believable.) This is therapeutic because “we” want to believe in the existence of mysteries, or at least we did at one point in the recent past (modernity). The magician is like a priest, who trades not so much on his audience’s faith but on his audience’s desire—even unconscious desire—that the trick be “real.”
These metaphors are the films’ subjects. The two films are actually quite different when it comes to how they frame the performance of magic. “The Illusionist” aligns itself with the magician-hero, and amplifies the mystery of Edward Norton’s invocation of ghosts--before deflating the mystery at the end. “The Prestige,” on the other hand, proceeds by indirection (like a magician), and gives many indications along the way that its purpose is to show the work “behind the scenes” of magic. The disappearing bird trick is explained, and it turns out to be ghastly: when the magician waves a sheet and then puts his hand down on a flat table where, moments before, a live bird fluttered, he has actually collapsed the cage into the table and killed the bird. The bird that appears, “magically,” in his hand a moment later, is in fact an identical bird, his “brother,” as a distraught child says at one point. The bird becomes a sacrifice—something the magician must destroy to give his audience the illusion it wants. By showing us the trick, the film distances itself from from the performance, which “The Illusionist” avoids doing. But as the ending of “The Prestige” is approached (and I won’t give it away), the film reverses itself, and comes to embrace the aura of “magic” it had earlier been debunking, and it does so, surprisingly, using the idiom of science itself—Nikola Tesla in his latter years.
Which brings us to the present moment, which it might be convenient to call “postmodernity.” Now we happily use IMac’s and drive fancy GPS enabled cars (note: not me), and have only the faintest idea of how they work. We might know the components, but we have neither the technical capability nor any particular interest in knowing how the machines around us are engineered. We’re in a bubble of technical illusions, but we have little to no sense of “mystery” as a result. If in modernity electricity was mysterious ("invisible power"), in postmodernity the functions and devices it enables are merely there. We could extend this to the films themselves, or more specifically the gap between the films’ subjects and the films as we experience them at the present moment: the magicians are mystifiers in modernity (who seem to want to resist it, but in fact depend on it entirely—cinema, electricity), but films about modern magicians are the real mystifiers in postmodernity. They show us illusions of illusion, and we still want (unconsciously, perhaps) to believe they’re real, or at least “real.”
Does The Prestige preserve the novel’s twentieth-century frame narrative? Or is it just the story of the two Victorian magicians?
Miriam, no. It’s just two Victorian magicians (with the frame narrative, my point in this post becomes moot.)
I’d actually forgotten that it was based on a novel. (BTW Would you recommend the novel?)
I enjoyed Chrisopher Priest’s novel quite a bit, although I admit not remembering much more about it than that.
A couple of Priest links:
Dave Langford’s review of The Prestige
Priest’s own site, called, hey, “The Prestige”!
A fun John Clute review of a collection of essays on Priest
Does The Illusionist deflate the mystery in the end?
Isn’t the ‘explanation’ the Chief Inspector’s, rather than the movie’s?
Scott, I saw it a couple of months ago, but I seem to recall Ed Norton running off in disguise (and therefore, alive) being shown as a literal event. The reconstruction of what happened leading up to that point is the Chief Inspector’s, but do we have any reason to doubt it?
Ray, thanks for the links.
Amardeep, are you saying that these films about magicians during the first blush of “modernity” are really exhibiting postmodern nostalgia for what uncanniness remained during modernism? That makes some sense; certainly The Illusionist was dipped in a honey glaze of nostalgia. It also explains how magic relates to the sentimental love story that animates The Illusionist.
At the same time, the magicians strike one as symbols of modern “invisible power”—information and ideology. The way that Edward Norton brings down Rufus Sewell has everything to do with his ability to provoke certain interpretations of events by planting evidence and exploiting his celebrity.
That said, The Illusionist has nothing to recommend it; I can’t speak for The Prestige. I think Amardeep is right about the social conditions that helped create it. Still, there are far denser works of literature, even denser works of film, that try to recover the numinous. A recent example would be The Science of Sleep.
Joseph, that’s a good restatement of my point, I think.
It’s too bad you didn’t think much of The Illusionist. I admit my taste tends to be a bit idiosyncratic on popular culture; I once wrote a 1000+ word Valve post on Toy Story 2, and a similarly long post on different historical versions of “Rumpelstiltskin.” I have a feeling most Valve readers will be with you in finding this film too sentimental. (People are more likely to enjoy “The Prestige,” I suspect.)
As I was watching The Illusionist I kept thinking of the ghost/hologram illusion in the idiom of cinematic self-reflexivity: the filmmakers are showing us a version of what they themselves are doing. That becomes interesting in light of the alignment of the ghosts and the technology film in the story: the spectres of cinema, if you will.
Amerdeep—I did like this post * a lot*, but as far as invoking meta-cinematic metaphors as a defense of merit goes, don’t you think a self-reflexive meditation on the immersive power of cinema is a pretty cheap currency these days for extravagant genre films looking to cash in on their inherent extravagant-genre-film-properties in terms of artistic respectability?
[I didn’t see The Illusionist, just a general thought]
<CITE>The Illusionist</CITE> was lovely in many ways, but I felt that it contained a very serious error in the use of cinematic language. (I think I can describe this without creating a spoiler.)
Through most of the picture, there is meant to be ambiguity about whether Eisenstein has acheived certain things through stage trickery or “real” magic. But the film uses computer effects, rather than practical effects, to show us Eisenstein’s performances. As things progressed, I found that this threw me off, as the language of contemporary film is that anything done using computer effects combined with real actors on a real set is meant to be regarded as unambiguously real in the world of the film.
I finally got around to watching both of these and I liked them both, but they were very different movies.