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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