The Prestige

GF and I went to see The Prestige today, which we'd been eagerly anticipating after seeing the preview. It was good, certainly watchable -- but not quite as good as we'd been hoping for. Conceptually it's smart -- the stages of an illusion, mapped onto the stages of the film -- with plenty of twists and turns along the way. But it's not getting a rave from me. The ending seemed kind of a cop-out (and I won't say more, since I loathe spoilers). The characters were stylishly portrayed, but not very deep -- certain phrases keep getting repeated throughout the film, in part to add to its "twisty" quality (this film is, after all, from the guys who did Memento) -- but "getting your hands dirty" or "secrets are my business" don't in themselves constitute psychology. An emotional loss is supposedly the trigger for an obsessive competition between two illusionists, which soon overshadows any possibility of the characters really showing emotion.

I am interested, however, in figuring out what cultural forces are at work to give us several films featuring magicians all within a few months -- I haven't yet seen The Illusionist, and I need to hurry up and do so before it disappears from our local theaters. In this film, illusion/magic are used as ways to demonstrate cultural anxieties about science -- about scientific ambition, about the costs of experimentation, about the boundaries of what seems possible, or allowable by common sense, the government, etc. It also reaches back to certain late-Gothic 19th-century tales (Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, for instance) which themselves were responding to cultural concerns about science. Even the choice of Jackman and Bale lends a postmodern gothicky comic-book feel to the film in its revisioning of late 1890s culture.

Much of the film depends on nested flashbacks and narrations, many of which are nestled within one or another character's diary -- each magician's journal gets read by his rival during the course of the movie -- which, because of the overt comparisons at the film's beginning to the stages of a magic trick, we are led to believe beforehand are nothing but distractions or tricks. So why care? The "puzzle" such as it is, can only be halfway figured out by the viewer who inhabits a rational-epistemology world (and it's not so difficult to do) -- the other half you couldn't guess, and in order to accept it, you must equally and simultaneously inhabit an irrational, fantastic universe. It is perhaps fitting for a film about doubles to require its viewer to take on a split mind -- but it isn't quite satisfying enough -- as an experience or as a narrative.