Monday, October 30, 2006

The Illusionist vs. The Prestige

Note: I don't think there are many spoilers in the following, though there are "meta-spoilers" -- concepts that become apparent after one watches these films. If you don't want your thought-space cluttered and you intend to see these films, you may want to skip this post.

Both movies are actually pretty good, which is to say, 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 magician 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 itself), 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 mystifiers in postmodernity. They show us illusions of illusion, and we still want (unconsciously, perhaps) to believe they're real, or at least, "real."


Una de las Moiras...¿O Gorgona? said...

I like very much this review. I prefered "The prestige" as you said it contains more issues that transport the observer to postmodernity. The mystifier still seen as the beginner, as the first doer and the one who is able to play with our perceptions.

Karina Falcon

2:51 PM  
Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Your last point about the loss of mystery is very well taken I think. I suspect it is not unrelated to the loss of prestige of Science in general. Scientists are now treated like general pundits as opposed to having some fundamental insight into some subject.

I've had at least one comparative religion person say join the club. Perhaps as a researcher in English you can also readily understand the frustration of building some reserve of insight into a field to be told that it isn't fundamentally very different from that of an interested amateur.

3:58 PM  
jammy said...

well...seen one of them and liked it. The score as of now is 1/2...

2:43 PM  
Anonymous said...

Ooo, a real knockout smackdown! Is the undercard the two Capote films?

I enjoyed both, but the winner is The Illusionist. Let's evaluate. [Spoilers follow!]

There's no question which is the most expensive movie. The Prestige is produced and art directed to the hilt. By far, it's the grander, more elaborate film of the two, but you can't really penalize The Illusionist for not measuring up in that regard. It could only use what it had at its disposal.

Regarding credibility and the twists, both movies are about equally indulgent, asking tremendous leaps of faith from us. The Illusionist is like two other relatively recent films, The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects, in that it's ultimately a mystery story that doesn't reveal itself as one until the climactic scene. In the end, it's asking us to accept more than can be reasonably accepted. Still, I didn't see it coming. I figured out at least half of The Prestige's twist (The Christian Bale half). On the other hand, I thought The Illusionist cheated, but to explain would be to REALLY spoil it.

The Illusionist's score is composed by Phillip Glass, a VERY hit-or-miss film composer. Here Glass beautifully captures the Viennese flavor perfectly without sacrificing his "minimalist" principles. The Prestige is nothing more than sustained mood, but it does the job.

But The Illusionist gets the edge for being a far better directed film in one very important respect. Neil Burger's compositions, the interiors, the light and shadows do more than capture an era and evoke an atmosphere. When Neil Burger wants to capture the characters' emotions - the love, passion, rage, wonderment and awe - he knows how express it cinematically. And he knows how to capture Edward Norton so that he comes across as mystical, other-worldly and slightly messianic. This despite Norton's performance, which I thought was off.

Christopher Nolan keeps things moving along, he's ambitious, he has narrative moxie, he knows his way around a production budget. It's a good show, it's visually meticulous. But when it comes to conveying obsession or wonderment or anything emotional or visceral, we have to rely on the actors and the screenplay for that. I don't want to say he's on the level of Ron Howard - his storytelling has lots of verve - but it really isn't much more than point-and-shoot.

The more I think about it, the nastier The Prestige seems to me, and not in a fun way. For a while, it's like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, where Bugs and Daffy keep dressing up in disguises and find new ways to injure each other. This would be more entertaining if there were any clarification as to who is the good guy and who is the villian. Not until the very end does it offer a sort-of answer... I guess. But with no appealing protagonist, and no one to root for, we just watch as bemused observers while two vindictive magicians battle each other and wait for it to end. Ultimately, that becomes a pointless endeavor.

I thought Bale and Jackman were cast just right, and it gave Jackman an opportunity to display his showman's elegance that we hear so much about but rarely see outside of the theater. But it IS interesting to see Americans cast as Brits (Johansson, Perabo), and Brits cast as Americans (Serkis, Jackman... okay, okay, Australia used to be a British colony.) Johansson looked more comfortable than she has in a while. I much preferred her to Piper Perabo and her trembling lip. And yes, I'll say it: she's a beaut. She's not even my type, and I can't get over how stunning she is. The way she fits into those period costumes makes her look, er... snug. But she's still very young looking, and directors are now casting her in roles that's not quite right for her.

I was shocked to see how old Roger Rees has become. And David Bowie is suddenly turning into Tom Skerrit.

And The Illusionist had better previews before the show. The Illusionist wins!

9:58 PM  
Anonymous said...

I agree with previous comment by 100%.
The Illusionist is the one that has the prestige part - it knocks you down at the end and all you can tell after it is that this film was just magic that the film director performed in front of the cinema's audience. It fools you and makes you wonder how could you not notice it. The Prestige gets down at every detail and this is its weakness - there is no magic after all, just pure calculation and doubtful science of cloning. The bird trick and its metaphorical meaning is the movies strongest part in my opinion.

2:30 PM  
Suacer said...

I think both of the past comments are missing the whole point of the Prestige: It is undoubtedly a homage to magicians. Magicians don't do magic! They live to make you believe it is and break their heads inside out trying to figure out HOW you can make it happen. It's particularly interesting because, I just began thinking after the first 10 minutes how badly used to "magic" we are nowadays. And i didn't need to get through the whole movie to see it. It is a complete homage to these people. Truth is, today we want to believe there is such a thing as magic, but as the movie points out: there is no such thing.

Another thing going to the Prestige's credibility is the infamous invention Tesla made. The movie takes into account the real man's mysteriousness and gives us a little hint at the "what if" this man had done a marvelous machine as this one. This little point is what makes me BELIEVE in magic today. Tesla was a GENIUS of unsurpassed capabilities way beyond anything Einstein could ever be at. He was a man with true imagination that was capable of wondrous things. He was magic! He was a man that dared to challenge his time. He was a "wizard". He could make it happen. I DO believe it is possible the machine could have been done by Tesla. That alone makes me enjoy the film immensely more.

11:19 PM  
bygpowis said...

the prestige is a much better film. more to think about.

3:40 PM  
Ghost of a flea said...

To elaborate on Suacer's remarks: Yes, Tesla's presence is what distinguishes The Prestige from The Illusionist. His "magic" is, in fact, what renders this film a Lacanian rather than a Freudian text. My great disappointment with The Illusionist what its insistence on revealing the truth of the (not terribly great) mystery in the precise sense The Prestige warns us against. If we know the truth - do I need to place those words under erasure or can we take that for granted? - the magic goes away. By preserving real magic in the form of Tesla's work, The Prestige has at its narrative core a "psychotic kernel of the Real". Such is at the heart of most of Zizek's engagement with film. I have just watched The Prestige and immediately googled to see if he had written on the subject and found your (Amardeep's) post. I am delighted you had a similar reaction in connecting the film to Zizek. I greatly appreciate your thoughts on the subject and the further connection you make to The Illusionist as a text Freud would appreciate. This is a very insightful and, if I may say so, clever reading. There is a nice structural analysis (as Levi-Straussian binary or Greimasian semiotic square) to be made of the two pieces; I would go so far as to say the one cannot be properly appreciated without the other. Or at least, that The Illusionist makes no sense without The Prestige (so perhaps we need Derrida...).



10:20 PM  
Ghost of a flea said...

PS - I meant to add: The further Other against which the logic of The Prestige may be understood is intrinsic to the text. Our two warring magicians find their doubles (as it were) in the bitter duel between Tesla and Edison; practitioners of what the film tells us is "real magic".

And a further point echoing the transition from modernity to post-modernity. I like the idea of post-modernity as a site of demystification in opposition to modernity's "faith" in science. This would seem to gainsay Gramsci or, say, Bataille on modernity as the space of demystification but it accounts for the period in which both films are set. Nice.

10:23 PM  

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