Sunday, April 24, 2011
Cast: Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Sir Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie
Director: Christopher Nolan
Runtime: 130 min.
Verdict: For whatever that’s worth, a personal favorite.
Genre: Sci-fi, Thriller, Horror, Drama
(I assume here that you are reading this one because you have seen the film. I shall be speaking in terms of the plot details and if you are yet to watch the film, kindly do that before venturing anywhere beyond the words – SPOILERS AHEAD!!)
Just this other day a Sathya Sai Baba statue started oozing perfumed oil. A miracle, hail the devotees of Baba. P.C. Sorcar Jr. probably doesn’t even have a statue. That every phenomenon is scientifically explainable, and more importantly plausible, is a belief The Prestige unassumingly adheres to. Many might cite it as an instrument of the supernatural, but then they might be playing the lay man to Christopher Nolan’s Nikola Tesla. And then again, has there hardly even been a fantasy or a mythology which didn’t acknowledge an interpretation guided by science fiction? Or in some cases, even solicit for such reasoning. A plausible interpretation that is. I mean, as long as there is a contraption, his dead wife can sit right alongside Uncle Boonmee and we wouldn’t mind one bit. Christopher Nolan, you see, is the crowned Emperor of the Plausibles, and with The Prestige he tells us why.
It is not the point that both the men can conjure ash from thin air with a swift motion of the hand. The point is that P.C. Sorcar Jr. causes illusions, while Sathya Sai Baba causes miracles. The audience is us, in both cases, but then our reactions are guided by our prejudice towards the ends – one being satisfied with our appreciation and money, while the other only concerned with our soul. There is devotion to the art, and then there is devotion to the audience, and when it comes to a magician it could mean one and the same thing. Or maybe not. What is the man’s greatest performance – that he could pull idols out of himself, or that he managed to hold an image of himself before an audience for all his life? The theatricality of a scorpion bite, the fever, and the dawn of the new soul is not lost on us. For a magician the audience is the art. A performer to one is an audience to the other, and mind you there is always a performance and always an audience. It is one of the great themes of Christopher Nolan’s, the illusion of a performance for an audience and caused to meet different ends, be it Lenny Shelby’s mind for himself or a masked superhero to an entire city.
It is a debatable predicament, more so at the heart of filmmaking, as to where the art exists – on the medium or within the audience’s minds, whether it is a fleeting moment of trickery and deception and illusion, or whether it is a self perpetuating engine infesting itself within the recesses of the memory and consciousness. There is Alfred Borden, there is Robert Angier, and there is Nikola Tesla. And there is Michael Curtiz. Or say, even Alfred Hitchcock. Christopher Nolan is tremendously aware of these moral implications. This is not a filmmaker who would want to cut a clear demarcation between the right and the wrong, but it is fascinating to read where he thinks each of his character is with relation to the other on the morality scale. Getting your hands dirty scale. He has an acute sense for placing the right moral reflector (one who’s aware of the stakes, and thus one who’s fair) in his narratives, and in Mr. Cutter (Sir Michael Caine) he has the film’s morality. And in the film’s opening frames – the innocent little girl and Mr. Cutter, the ultimate audience and the ultimate illusion – which understandably are its closing frames, we could conclude that Mr. Cutter, and hence Mr. Nolan, shall always be a supporter and probably a protector of the Official Secrets Act (1923), an act he would consider fair practical and necessary. The truth is the least important thing. The establishment is not supposed to be walking amidst the crowd, sharing the same platform or mixing with them. Of course, it needs to exist for them, albeit on a higher platform. There is an angle of elevation here – one that is earned, and one that is needed – that Nolan believes in, and it is this angle of elevation more than anything that is at stake in here. Who the worthy performer is and who his intended audience, is the question at the heart of The Prestige. A question that keeps shifting bases and stages and countries and people and relations, only to arrive not unhurt and only to a pragmatic truth. Sometimes, the people deserve their faith to be rewarded.
I said, Mr. Nolan is not one of those filmmakers who would want to cut a clear line, or one who would suggest there are possibly one or two ways about it. His films are his arguments to the contrary, that two ways can exist only on a broad level, and suggesting that as we go deeper there exists a mess waiting to happen caused by the existence of the multiple shifts, and the domino effect they cause. The film opens to multiple hats, multiple cages, multiple birds. As shall be revealed later, multiple people.
And yet, despite the similarity, or in come case the congruence of their appearance, as Duncan Jones’ Moon re-iterated, these multiple elements are not interchangeable. The selection is the cause for every question thereafter. Who goes below the stage? Who goes into the box? Who gets to be the Prestige? Who takes the bow? Who gets to be hanged? And most importantly, a question not asked enough. Which Alfred Borden twin is which? Who gets to be the Father?
Amidst all this, the cut and dried question of who remains the protagonist, and who gets to be the antagonist is probably lost. For Nolan, this is an important place to begin, to create murk out of a seemingly simple equation. To present the premise, and to go deeper and deeper. What we would now refer as, with a smile and a wink, multiple levels. This is the illusion of the narrative caused by an illusionist’s eye for engineering a narration. The structure is the performance. The narrative is the Prestige.
Like a true master, he leaves neat little audio-visual clues everywhere. I spoke about the hats and the cages and the birds. One of the great tricks he pulls out is because of Mr. Christian Bale, a man who certainly has the devil inside of him, and one who can summon it at will. Christopher Nolan has always been about montage, about editing, about images meshing together to create an equation. Here below, he presents the opening layer of the narrative – the illusionist Robert Angier seemingly killed by a curious and probably malevolent Alfred Borden. The emotion on Mr. Bale’s face, and the magical medium shot that follows it, is just about as effective and as economic as a filmmaker can get in presenting an equation to an audience, and burn it on their memories.
I wouldn’t be able to do justice about the neat visual trick doubling as a metaphor that Nolan pulls here, courtesy a medium shot on a magician on stage. I would suggest you visit this moment. As Borden looks at him, consumed almost suffocating with what are definitely not good intentions, the film cuts to this frame, where we see Robert Angier for the first time, eyes closed and arms outstretched. It is a moment caused due to relative motion, like when you stand on a railway platform and cut everything except the moving train out of your vision, and your brain perceives it as motion. Here, we’re not sure if Angier is going down, or if the curtain is pulling up. In hindsight, we are not sure if they are any different.
And yet, this moment is not merely about its surface. Not merely about the vicious antagonist or the sagacious protagonist. We hear Cutter’s voiceover, his voice to the little girl, the little girl who is later revealed to be Borden’s daughter, and he says – The Magician shows you something ordinary, like a deck of cards, a bird…..or a man. The audio of “...or a man.” coincides with the video of Alfred Borden. Who is the performer here? Who is the audience? What is the illusion?
In hindsight and after multiple viewings the most curious aspect upfront is Alfred Borden’s demeanor. Not merely curious but unsettling that begs strange thoughts, and leads to strange relations and answers. Here is a man we know nothing about, who merely is a magician himself, and who has been convicted of murder, and is in for the drop. Who happens to have a daughter. In the court, during the trial, in the prison, during the subsequent conversation, we meet not merely a remorseless unruffled man, but a man at peace. He doesn’t seem interested in the trial. He doesn’t seem affected by Lord Caldlow’s solicitor. Here is him.
We meet him, we feel him, and he immediately fits his bill. A mysterious man, a mysteriously cold being. If Batman had been this dispassionate, The Joker would be the one tearing his hair apart. The perspective here has been sealed moments later, when the camera and the narrative descends on a train towards Colorado Springs, and meet Angier’s diary and Angier’s thoughts and him pursuing and deciphering Borden’s mystery. And yet, in the flow of the narrative, we forget the fact that Borden is interested enough to read Angier’s diary. Although it was Borden who was amongst the audience, although it was Angier who was on the stage, the man of mystery is Alfred Borden. Angier simply feels like us. Curious. A different spin, a misdirection has been caused. Things are never what they seem.
It is this epistolary structure, or rather an improvisation of it, that gives Nolan the leverage to stealthily sneak in a trick while we are busy preparing not to miss the apparent one. The Borden diary is what’s guiding our perception while the Angier diary is what is preparing to catch us unawares. For the entire first half, it is acknowledged through the rivalry, through precise framing of the angle of elevation, and through a Pavlovian conditioning of our visual senses as to who the performer is, and who the audience, and how this angle is chartered. The visual strategy employed here is subtle and fascinating, the subtlety a byproduct of Nolan’s seemingly coy editing and turning the scenes into a slew of clues, clues that are keys not only to understand the narrative but to reveal the spin on his politics. Like for instance a neat little touch here, a trick for Angier, a clue for us. Another descent, and this time into Borden’s diary. Christopher Nolan sure as hell is rigorous. And precise. A slow zoom to the reader (the audience) follows. And then, the masterstroke of the voiceover affecting the visuals, providing the services of both misdirection and a clue. Read the subtitles, and interpret them the way you choose to. Only Christopher Nolan would reveal all of the film’s secrets, and still end up being the smiling one.
Here is a visual synopsis of them. These are moments when Borden and Angier are both under the same roof, and when either of them is performing. Do note that the angle of elevation does matter. And it is earned.
In this frame above, it is Borden on stage. And Angier is below it.
Oh yeah, look how neatly I inserted a frame of Mr. Cutter’s reaction to advance my argument of him being the film’s moral core, and whoa, how neatly I slipped in a link too. I have my moments. And at this moment in the narration, it is revealed, through the Borden diary, that Angier has been sent on a wild goose chase, in the presence of a performer of a vastly different kind. There are certain rules that double as clues filmmakers tend to spread out into their narratives, like for instance the stage, or you know, the presence of the assistant. Who is Nikola Tesla? He seems to be a wizard, but then behind his complex contraptions lay simple scientific explanations. Is he the God, or the God man here? The ultimate illusionist?
Borden’s diary ends here, and so does the agent of diary – the assistant Olivia (Ms. Johansson) – who shifts from Angier’s camp to Borden’s. Up until now, on the stage, Borden had been alone, a mystery on stage, a mystery to his wife, and a mystery in the prison reading the diary smiling at Angier’s transatlantic shocker. And here, in one smooth stroke, in one neat shift, the equation is completely reversed. The diary turns against Borden, his world constructed out of an illusion falls apart. And Angier, the man standing alone, becomes the mystery. The narrative completely leaves Angier’s voiceover, and in a matter of moments it is Borden who’s pursuing Angier, playing the unsuspecting audience to his performance.
But then again, once Borden has had to become one of us, the question that is quite neatly pushed aside by the momentum and density of the narrative, is that which of the Bordens is it? Who ventures backstage? Who is so obsessively affected by advances in his art? Is it both of them? Who is who? Has Christopher Nolan used them interchangeably or has he hinted at the individuality between Alfred Borden?
In one of the film’s great sequences, not merely highlighting the film’s central themes, but demarcating the contrast in beliefs, Borden and Angier watch Chung Ling Soo walk into his horse-carriage. It is a sequence quite early in the narrative. Both the men are established in a medium shot, in a single frame, arguing about Ling Soo’s dedication. And thereafter, they are never in the same frame, Borden understanding completely the Chinaman’s nature, and that acknowledged by a reverse medium shot of Ling Soo from his perspective. A sort of psychological and thematic connection established between them both. And all this while, in a completely different frame, out of the loop, stands Angier with a look of WTF on his face.
Borden knocks on the wall he is leaning on. He confesses the need to transcend the mortality of their existence. A decaying wall of a dry famished building. As was the case with Memento (L.A.), Nolan’s London isn’t a city in ruins, but one of contrasts. Aloof, indifferent and apparently brittle. And yet, when serviced, it is responsive, revealing its malleability. On one end is the cramped up decaying reality of the world as Borden’s house, and the other is the neat polished sharp interiors of the stage, shining when lit, and yet dim glum and dark around the edges. A city in transition, one might claim, and one that identifies the class. But then, The Prestige is not a period piece (as interpreted by traditional Hollywood). Nolan is not interested in those details, and his period is merely a time defined by capitalist accession. A world not rife with opportunity, nor filled with bourgeoisie notions of art and morality, but one that lends itself to the pragmatic reality of escapist tendencies. And alongside its themes of male rivalry and psychology, Nolan’s visual style justly considers it as modern and present as any.
Both men discuss this need once again, in the film’s final moment, where their prestiges confront each other. Between here and the sight of Ling Soo, Angier has travelled not merely chartered a transatlantic journey, but the chasm that existed between the frames when Borden knocked on the wall. And remarkably, Borden admonishes his pursuit, and remarks on the futility of such a chase. Is this the same Borden who understood Ling Soo? He is the one who married Sarah, but is he the little girl’s father? Where does one Borden begin and the other end? Or is the great trick, the great sacrifice lay in their ability to cloak the chasm that existed between them – one a docile worker bee and the other the romantic in pursuit of and escape from reality. Was the one who tied the ambiguous knot the one who had the rope around his neck? Was Borden’s cold demeanor within the prison actually an acceptance of guilt? And the stage of the hanging platform is not lost on him either. Who was the one who readily sacrificed his two fingers? Who was the one who used to be Fallon most often? Christian Bale has the clue in his eyes, and the truth of the two Bordens is not so much seen as it is felt.
Just as great magic doesn’t play itself out on the stage, The Prestige, the real Prestige plays out in our mind. It is a haunted film, and it has disturbed me for years now. I might not understand Angier’s multiplied selves other than some kind of existential concept, and the image of the men in the box some kind of thematic inversion of the birds in the cage. I acknowledge the presence of Duncan Jones’ Moon too, as a kind of revenge of these clones in the box. But it is the tale of two Bordens that has always been within me. At what point in their lives did the two brothers decide? A wife is a man’s ego, especially one he loves. How does it feel to share her? The two Bordens meet each other one last time, across the bars, and it is the film’s greatest scene. It is heartbreaking here to imagine the loneliness that would surround the surviving Borden. And yet, it probably reveals who is the elder of the two brothers. And this is The Prestige’s masterstroke. Its great revelation. Something that Robert Angier so thoroughly misinterpreted. That the performer and the audience was one and the same all along. The illusion of the performance was the escape. Everything else was merely the reality of life.