Friday, April 13, 2007

Prestigious prestidigitation

Within the last couple of weeks I have watched two fascinating films by the same director, Christopher Nolan. Both also featured Christian Bale and Michael Caine. I recently finished my first viewing of The Prestige and my third viewing of Batman Begins. Banal as it is, my first observation was that the cockney tinged accent used by Caine that was so inappropriate for the character of Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth fit quite well with his role in The Prestige.

Perhaps a more important connection is the fact that the two films are based around the concepts of duality, identity, and the misdirection that may be required to protect them. Of course, these ideas are at the core of any Batman movie. For decades, comics scholars have debated whether Bruce Wayne or Batman is the fa├žade and which, if either, is the true identity.

Batman Begins is much more about Bruce Wayne and his development of and transformation into Batman than previous movies. Joel Schumacher’s Batman films are as colorful, campy, and over the top as 1966’s Batman the Movie and the TV series on which it was based. While I enjoyed Tim Burton’s takes on the franchise, and while his Batman was certainly darker, the characters were still surreal and imaginative enough that it could be hard to suspend disbelief. In concentrating on the “real” half of Bruce Wayne’s identity Nolan presents the characters much more seriously and on sets that more closely resemble the real world. Although the characters and situations are still not realistic, they are more “believable.”

The same is in evidence in The Prestige. The fact that it is about stage magicians adds to its realism. After all, when dealing with prestidigitation and legerdemain you can’t trust anything anyway so what’s one more stretch?

I have long been fascinated by stage magic and illusion and love to discover the secrets behind the tricks even though I can then no longer enjoy them on the same level. When I know how David Blaine “levitates” or how Criss Angel manages close up vanishes their melodramatic buildup actually becomes silly and boring. I can’t help it though. I revel in reading about the history of sideshows, scams, and magic as revealed by practitioners such as Harry Anderson and Rick Jay (who makes a cameo appearance in The Prestige as Milton the Magician).

That obsession is shared and taken to extremes by the two primary characters in The Prestige. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale, who mimics Caine’s accent) are two stage magicians working in England at the turn of the century (19th to 20th, not modern day). After an accident on stage kills Angier’s wife, the two magicians become enemies, each determined to undermine the other’s act. Keeping with the duality theme, the accident is caused by the choice between two types of knot that could be tied in a rope.

The order of events is hard to follow at the beginning due to the nature of the plot. Each magician obtains a copy of the other’s journal at a different point so we see Borden reading in Angier’s diary about secrets learned from Borden’s own journal. You see how it can get confusing? Angier obsesses over Borden’s signature illusion “The Transported Man” and follows every lead to discover its secret. As remarkable as the illusions are, any of them could actually be performed…except one.

Things turn decidedly weird when Angier travels to Colorado to visit the real life scientist Nikola Tesla, played by the most subdued David Bowie I’ve ever seen. The trick that comes into being with Tesla’s aid could never really happen, but gives Angier his own fascinating counterpoint to Borden’s deep secret.

The secret of “The Transported Man” is also the film’s message about illusion and deception: it’s quite easy to do—if you’re willing to sacrifice enough. One character, Fallon, is obviously someone else in disguise, but every time I had a guess about his real identity I would see him in the same scene as my suspect. After eliminating all the suspects, the real solution finally dawned on me, and just like most magic tricks once I knew the secret it seemed as though it should have been obvious from the beginning.

I won’t give away either magician’s big secret, but I will say that each is disturbing in its own way and that spoilers are available at Wikipedia.

Both movies on DVD may be checked out at the library.


Sharon (the Ghost of DCP Past) said...

Interesting review of both movies. I have yet to see The Prestige, but i did see The Illusionist, and i thought it was one of the better films i've seen in quite a while. Have you seen it? And if so, what did you think?

Oh yeah, so far, Batman Begins is the ONLY Batman movie i've had any use for. The others just seemed extremely silly to me. Of course, i'm not a big fan of Batman anyway. I'm much more a Spidey fan. (although the first movie was completely ruined by The Green Goblin looking like his costume was borrowed from the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers)

james said...

The Illusionist was good. I like Edward Norton (looking forward to his performance in the upcoming Hulk film) and Paul Giamatti was actually good as somebody other than the goofy sidekick or comic relief. I'm not a big Jennifer Biel fan, but that's partially because when my oldest son was two he watched I'll be Home for Christmas about 300,000 times and every time I see her in anything I'm immediately reminded of it.

I was disappointed in the magic, though. I watched The Illusionist again with the director's commentary, and kept hearing things like "at that time they really could do this type of illusion; we just enhanced it a little for the film." The slight tweaking they did made every trick look like nothing but CG even when it wasn't. In that respect at least, The Prestige is far superior, imho. The story is creepier and more disturbing too.

I'm also a Spidey fan and I was relieved to see how well Sam Raimi has handled the films, although I haven't seen 3 yet. The "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" sequence with the 1970s sitcom freeze frame in Spider-Man 2 was particularly brilliant. I was just waiting for Peter to throw a hat in the air like Mary Tyler Moore.