Sunday, October 22, 2006

A feat of grand prestidigitation. (A review of "The Prestige")

When you go to the theatre, you pay for your ticket, but those who perform pay too. Whether trading their treasure for store-bought secrets or bloodying their minds on the cliffs of Sophocles, they pay -- and joyfully.

- Teller, “The Price of Admission.”

To begin:
Magic is dying.

Stage Magic, in particular. With the notable exception of Penn & Teller (as well as Ricky Jay, although he actually does close-up tricks on a grand scale), stage magicians as a whole have fallen into a tacky rut, awash in a sea of flowing shirts and suggestive hand movements. They've forgotten the dignity. And more importantly, they've forgotten to strive for innovation. During the classical magical era, which existed from the late 1800's to around the 1940's, stage magicians were in constant competition and demand, which drove them towards the creation of better tricks in order to survive.

These days...such a demand doesn't exist. And because people have become accustomed to magic as something that exists alongside bad synth music and purple sequins, many people who actually attempt magic fall into that persona, because they believe that's what people want. It was a world that I once belonged to, a world that I have long since left behind.

A world that to this day, continues to break my heart. And so it is, with this broken heart left over from days when I made coins move from hand to hand, and let cards find their way into the air…I wish to speak about a film. A film featuring magicians from the turn of the century, the time when they were wanted, where people would come from miles around to see that fellow on the stage. “The Prestige”.

There’s an image from this film, one that has burned itself into my memory. Not the central image. Not one from the climax, not one built upon a foundation of reveals, not one that has been expressively made to shock and/or titillate. But even so… It consists of a single man, bathed in streams of light. A man standing not atop the stage, but beneath it, basking in the glowing lights that are pointed his way by mere coincidence. A man beneath a stage, bowing in the face of thunderous applause, applause that he has earned. But applause that the audience directs somewhere else entirely. No one cares about the man in the box. But that man, that palm, that technique, that sleight, that pass, that feat of prestidigitation…that is what magic is.

It is this image that makes “The Prestige,” matter. To me, at least.
Because if nothing else, this film understands magic.

But that isn’t what it’s about. And that isn’t what makes it triumphant.
“The Prestige,” is a film full of magic, that isn’t necessarily about magic. No. It’s about many things. So many things turning over in its mind, so many things being turned in front of us, so that we as an audience make think and wonder. So then. What is it about?

“The Prestige,” is a film wherein a pair of magicians endure themselves to each other through the machinations of seething hatred, a bitter rivalry that drives them forward, making them both seek a path that would allow them to be great. Trying to be someone special. Trying to be some kind of a man, the kind who would be remembered for his craft, for that single moment when people make look on and feel that something truly special has taken place. And is it for this obsession, that these great men, these uncompromising bastards; it is for this obsession that they do terrible things. To each other, and to themselves.

This is a great film about terrible things.

About method, and about the madness that comes with it.
All the while enforcing that air of beautiful refinement and dignity that magic hasn’t be associated with for far too long. Yes, this is a beautiful film in regards to technique. The images are crisp and well composed, the sound thunders and whispers whenever each is appropriate, and the editing uses the primal power of cuts to tell this story with nearly unfathomable grace.

Dancing around time as its characters dance through space, playing with revelations and a style of storytelling that recalls Mizoguchi’s “Ugetsu Monogatari,” in the way that it telegraphs the place where it is going to end up, even though it initially appears to be something else entirely. Brutally enforcing its ideas about who these men are, about how far they are willing to go, about how downright cold and uncompromising they are willing to become. Not attempting to force empathetic attributes upon characters who are willing to sacrifice everything they ever had, if only to destroy the other.

Showing us conflicts that really happened, and people who really lived. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Chung Ling Soo. Two people who destroyed each other with their rivalry. And a man who wasn’t what he claimed to be, who tragically died upon a well-lit stage.

Men who sacrificed everything.

The film shows us these things, these tragedies of reality that hadn’t yet fully budded and died, and gives us everything that we need to know. Everything we need to raise the question of human limits, the limits of how far we’re willing to push our hearts and our minds. How we’re willing to split ourselves, make ourselves diamond hard and arctic cold, all in the name of things that we tell ourselves are needed. No one cares about the man in the box.

Magic is, by its very nature, an ugly beast. It wears (used to wear) that glossy finish, those plastered smiles, those solemn bows for things that may or may not have actually been done. But magic is lies and deceit, shills and marks. Magic is paying a man to hide in a table full of stinking fish guts. It hides the hours and weeks of dedication put into serving the master that is the audience, claiming mysticism where the secret is actually bruises on the palms and days spent doing nothing but making hand motions in front of a mirror. It’s beautiful.

And yes, it’s dying. And as such, it’s a pleasure to see a film that treats magic as something to behold, beyond what they know of shallow illusions. In this place, this beautiful thing is treated with respect. With reverence. Which is needed, in a world where it has gotten to a point where people aren't exposed to it, and as such, they cannot know. Or perhaps…they do not want to know.

All they remember is that final moment, “The Prestige,” of the title, where you make that coin transpose in between their interlocked fingers. Where you stand out there and smile broad. That’s all that is remembered. And as is surely going to be the case with this film, people are going to focus on the end, on the moments of revelation. On the secrets. But that isn’t where the power lies. The power is in that unseen man, bowing beneath the stage.

The power is in realizing just how horrible they are willing to become. How much they are willing to pay, willing to go so deep within themselves that it nearly feels like drowning, breath growing short as it gets cold and dark, where nothing can be seen except that vital need for something, something, something…until all is lost. Minds decorated by shattered glass.

Such things might be lost within the thriller framework that the film occupies so well, creating an atmosphere of tension that only serves to further our journey into the depths of this world of deceitful destruction. So much is here, in the tautest manner possible. So much to see. So much that may be looked over. So much that may be passed right on by. Just like magic, with its epic and involving history, that people look at with casual glances before going about their lives. Seeing only the entertainment, while not always looking close enough to see the art.

Like I said, it breaks my heart.
Does it mean more?
Does it mean less?
To me?
To you?

It asks a lot of questions. It covers a lot of ground. It shows lots of history. It touches upon true pain. It gives a glimpse of true horror. It gives us a chance to wonder. It’s peppered with intelligent set pieces, it’s full of performances by fine actors, and quite frankly, it’s one of the best films of the year. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

To end:
Take a bow.

How much is it worth to incandesce”?

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

A simple exercise.

Here we be. Here I am. And now, there might be something that can be done. Something that I could say or do. Something that I could think. Just talk. Don’t think, not this time. That’s all you need, just to start with a beginning, letting your feet get just a little, just a little, just a little damp. Just enough to know where you are. Give you a solid ground of liquid, a fair bit of, “My feet are wet.” Just enough to put you someplace where you know you have someplace to go. So. Here you are, you brainless git. So talk. Talk to someone. Or with someone. Or perhaps, even about someone.


There’s a girl, one who just walked into this place, shirt slipped off the surface of her shoulder, giving the quiet establishment a fair glimpse of her fair skin. Probably caring about the 80’s style implied by her dress, but not talking, not looking at anything other than the pale yellow of her cup of tea. The light of the world is shining on it, that cup. It glows with the certainty of a new day. It’s lovely.

She’s alone.

There’s a man, hair tousled either by design or by long nights where sleep had become nothing but a distant memory. His lips move, a reaction, oblivious to anything other than the words that emerge from the face of his tiny laptop, neither knowing nor caring that he telegraphs his words to the outside world. He might be watching. He might be typing. He might be reading. Whatever it is, it’s clear to all that the man wishes to think. It’s a noble endeavor if there ever was one. With that, I wish him the best.

He’s concentrating.

There’s a woman, jaw working with the undulations associated with chewing a piece of gum. It’s a free sample, one that came attached to the label upon her coffee sleeve, one that she probably didn’t realize would make her mouth move up and down and around, a person with her cud. She should learn to chew with her mouth closed, some might say. I’d be among them. But she won’t stop. And she won’t notice, even if she’s told.

She’s reading.

There’s a man, one who walks with the small-paced swagger that reminiscent of fathers and grandfathers, men that you grow up with. Men that sometimes, you wish will pass you by. His graying beard and cheery smile seem out of place. He looks like someone you would see walking down the street in the midday son, whistling some bygone tune, not thinking about buying tea in a coffee-joint primarily frequented by pretentious fucks. Myself included.

He’s gone.

There’s a cashier, hands making noises that sound like porcelain, moving in places that the eye can’t manage to see. Working quickly and efficiently, not quite having reached the point where the day since passed hangs from the neck like a weight, every movement redefining “sluggish.” But still, she looks out the window with an interest that recalls freedom, even as she smiles at all those who sit within the world that is currently her realm. The smile might be genuine. It might just be another lie.

She’s energetic.

There’s a new man, one who looks over the ridge of his thin, metallic frames, giving the people among him a glare that suggests a bored sense of superiority. He has work to do. At the very least, that’s what he thinks, as he prepares his laptop for his business with a languid pace, practically sneering at anyone who chooses to look his way. His hair is short, his clothes are neat.

He’s a prick.

There’s a woman, with a man. They sit close together, their backs facing this pair of prying eyes, not giving a face to the lack of a name. But they’re close. His hand placed against her right shoulder, massaging it with firm circles, her neck moving slightly in accordance with his efforts. They move in sync, action with its reactions, the pair of them keyed by the same glow that affected that cup of tea. And when her head turns, I can finally see her face.

She’s happy.

And then, there is a man. Or not. He’s male, that much is certain. But he moves with steps not easy enough for his height, jerky movements that telegraph nerves and disunity with the world at large. He might be a boy. He might be. He might be an adult on paper, but his face looks onward at this place as if it doesn’t have a clue, glancing from person to person without knowing who anyone is, as if he were trying to accomplish something. He wants to be a man. Maybe. Maybe he’s just waiting. Waiting by passing the time, letting this space waste the day, letting his movements waste him away. And that might well be true. But he might also be waiting for something else. Inspiration? Life? Love? Dreams? Existence? Nothing. Knowing nothing. He’s hoping for so much. For everything, even.

He’s…well, I imagine you can guess.

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