“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” – Cutter
In Christopher Nolan’s filmography it appears that The Prestige is his dark horse. Memento stuns and confuses its audience with its complex structure; Batman Begins offers a dark, art house portrayal of a superheroes psyche; The Dark Knight takes themes of chaos and order to their logical (and illogical) conclusion, and Inception with its layers upon layers of dreams.
However I rarely see anyone mention The Prestige in this pantheon of modern films (perhaps I’m not really looking) and I think this mentality is built into the film. It seems colder to the touch than the films I have just mentioned, this is because it is subtly playing a trick on its audience. I believe that the film itself is a magic trick. To clarify, it has its own internal logical system just like Memento and Inception which dictates the narrative, the structure and pretty much everything else you can think of. For example, Mememto’s narrative structure is like that of an amnesiac and Inception has the logic of a dream. Similarly, The Prestige is about magic, so that’s where its narrative and themes derive from.
To demonstrate this, we must begin to try and understand (and also as a little refresher for those of you who haven’t seen the film in a long time) what actually happens towards the middle/end of the film:
- Borden does his transporting man trick and Angier copies with his inferior version
- Angier buries one of the Bordens alive and Borden tells Angier that “Tesla” is his method and the key word for his diary
- Angier goes to America to find Tesla and begins reading Borden’s diary
- Angier finds Tesla who, at first refuses to build him a machine, then builds him a machine
- The machine is said not to work
- While reading Borden’s diary, Angier realises that Borden has been tricking him, that Tesla didn’t actually build him a machine
- Tesla builds his mysterious machine that seems to clone cats and hats.
- Angier returns to London, with his new machine and blind stage hands.
- Contacts Cutter to arrange last shows – to attract Borden.
- Shows start, Angier’s trick is miraculous, there is seemingly no way how Angier could do it, and even Borden can’t figure it out.
- Borden sneaks under the stage, finds Angier in a locked water tank.
- Borden is framed for Angier’s murder
- Borden goes to prison.
- He is visited by Angier, who turns out to be Lord Caldlow
- One Borden is hanged
- The Other goes to kill Angier
- Angier is surrounded with tanks with dead bodies floating in them
- This implies that Angier did create clones of himself
- “No one cares about the man in the box”
- When Angier dies and kicks over the lantern as he dies, resulting in a fire which destroys the machine and the evidence of the bodies.
- Borden is reunited with his daughter and the film ends
So at first glance, it seems more or less straight forward? It’s got a few twists and turns, and a nice resolution at the end. Sure, we don’t know how Angier did his trick, but at least Borden is happy – well, one of the Bordens is anyway. We did get a twist that there were in fact two Bordens, so maybe we are recovering from that. But if we take this view, then the only explanation of how Angier did his trick is to say that film takes an unjustified sci-fi turn. I argue that this is not what the film is.
I think the most important thing to remember when reading my cod-synopsis is that the use of the epistolary form. The novel The Prestige of which the film is based upon is told through this form. With epistolary form the main thing to remember is that it is essentially unreliable, you have to consider: who is writing it, and who are they writing it for? What are they hiding, what impression are they trying to give off? Nolan pulls this off excellently, and subtly. See, films are a widely different medium to literature (where epistolary form and subjectivity is more common). It’s generally more difficult in films to portray subjective perspective primarily because the audience automatically assumes that what they are seeing is real unless we are explicitly told otherwise.
Think about the recent film Wolf of Wall Street where Belfort says “I was driving my Ferrari” and a red Ferrari comes roaring out of a tunnel and he says “No, it was white!” and then the car’s colour changes accordingly, or perhaps for example, David Fincher’s Fight Club where it’s all about subjective experience. With regards to The Prestige we hear the differing voices in narration, but I don’t think that most of us instinctively think that they are lying to us. If done poorly or averagely, it can feel like we have been cheated in some way.
Furthermore, in The Prestige it’s not just one diary that’s being read, Angier reads Borden’s diary and Borden reads Angier’s diary. So both magicians are, unsurprisingly, trying to trick each other. In this way The Prestige is being told inside out. Both diaries reveal to their intended reader (ie the other magician) that the diary is constructed to fool them (and in turn, us as an audience). But we get the reveal that Angier is reading Borden’s diary through Borden’s realisation that Angier is tricking him. Let’s break it down a bit: Borden (in prison) is reading Angier’s diary. Angier is telling of how he went to America after Borden told him the keyword. Then, Angier writes in his diary (intended for Borden) about his discovery when reading Borden’s diary.
So are we really to believe that Tesla’s machine worked the way he said it should? Or that Tesla even built the machine? Or that Angier even met Tesla? Or that Angier went to America at all? If Tesla built the same machine for both magicians, then how does Borden not know what it is? The reason I ask all these questions, is because we have to consider who Angier is writing for. It’s quite clearly Borden. He’s trying to misdirect Borden and us about the actual application of Tesla’s machine. It’s also obvious that Borden lied about Tesla.
If we return to my central hypothesis that Nolan – in the context of the film – is quite literally a magician. Just as magicians use misdirection to lead us to a false conclusion and distract us from the real inner workings of the trick, Nolan does the same thing. The prestidigitation happens off screen, while we are distracted by other things. In Inception, the twist isn’t the totem spinning at the end; it’s a question of where Cobb goes after Limbo. Nolan tricks you into thinking that there is twist, when the actual twist (or magic) has been conducted elsewhere. Likewise, in The Prestige the twist isn’t that Borden has a twin it’s how does Angier do his trick. Borden’s twin is incidental to the actual twist. Though, it does bare some thematic relevance in that Borden’s point as to why he was a better magician (and how he saw through the Chinaman’s act) is that he was living his act. It is revealed that Angier has been living his act, hence Lord Caldlow and the mysterious machine. Perhaps the body’s in the containers are all just part of some elaborate scheme to finally upstage Borden. I for one wouldn’t put it past him.
The aforementioned implicit epistolary form is the first way in which Nolan misdirects. Secondly, the devil’s in the details. The use of Tesla as a figure to anchor the story is really quite clever. Tesla, of course a real life figure and in popular culture he is surrounded by myths of his accomplishments and inventions. He is embodiment of scientific unknown and eccentricity. So when he turns up in the film, through a shared cultural knowledge of Tesla we think “Oh I wonder what he has up his sleeve” and the idea that he could make a cloning machine is sort of accepted by us.
But I think his inclusion is similar to when Angier is introducing his first attempt at copying Borden’s Transporting Man where he says something along the lines of “This is a technique taught me by the Buddhist monks in the Himalayas”. Angier is misdirecting the audience – not us, because by way of dramatic irony, we know how the trick is done – by telling them to look for something mystic and not something concrete.
And that is what we as an audience are doing at the end of the film. Looking for something immaterial, we are taking a leap of faith without even considering the facts. And that’s fine. We do it when we watch films all the time. If you have watched the Steven Benedict video on Inception, listen to what he says about the café scene. The idea that we just accept a scene for what it is; is a similar idea in The Prestige when we consider how ready we are to accept the sci-fi ending.
More interestingly, I find the question of how we should go about how Angier did his great trick. Well, in a sort of but not really anti-intellectual way, I don’t think we should. To do so is to go against the ethos of the film. How does he do his trick? I have no bloody idea. If this film is Meta through and through (and it is) then it would behove us to consider Cutter’s words spoken to…well…us?
“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 work it out. You want to be fooled.”
If you view this from a purely contextual and cinematic viewpoint and not a narrative one, then I think the film very clearly making a point about the magic of cinema and filmmaking. At its core, it means that part of us doesn’t want to know all the ins and outs of how a film is made, we would rather be left in ignorance and keep some of that unknowingness and magic in the film.
I can hear you saying “Greg, sure there’s all this meta-ness in the film, but why is that clever?” Well, dear reader, I don’t just fawn over Meta things (things about themselves in some capacity) although I do generally have a soft spot for them. Anything can be about itself, but it only reaches its true potency when these ideas are combined with other more conventional or recognisable methods.
The reason why The Prestige is such a great film isn’t just its clever tinkering with narrative modes; it’s the strong, real, visceral emotional connections that are created between characters. If it didn’t have the love interests, the dynamic tension between the two magicians, the wise old Cutter, it would be a vastly inferior film. By which I mean that, you don’t need the “meta-ness” to appreciate it as a good film, all the elements work internally. The quote I used from Cutter (“You want to be fooled”) applies just as much to the characters as it does to us. The power that the act of being Meta can give is that which elevates a work above itself, something that really gets you to think and it’s not that often that films like this come around – at least not in mainstream filmmaking. This is what Nolan is best at in my opinion; he is essentially, a popcorn director with art-house sensibilities. He understands all this clever stuff, but also understands marketability in ways that other directors are completely oblivious too. Although he is playing to a wide audience, he doesn’t dumb his films down for them.
Are you watching closely?