Friday, October 20, 2006

The Illusion of 'The Prestige'

Ever since I was small I have been fascinated by magic. No, not black magic and that sort of legerdermain. I mean magic tricks--- the Harry Houdini kind of stuff. There are in fact three parts to any good magic trick-- the pledge in which you show the audience sometime, the turn, in which you take it away, make it vanish or the like, and 'the prestige' where you bring it back, unharmed, seemingly miraculously. It is of course an illusion, but human psychology is such that it is infinitely fascinating, at least to a lot of us.

The movie which opened tonight in theaters across the land is called 'The Prestige' after the third part of every good magic trick. This particular movie has an all star cast including Michael Caine, Scarlet Johannson, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, and a surprise appearance by none other than David Bowie. The movie runs about 2 and half hours and is rated PG 13. There is no gratuitous sex or violence or for that matter bad language. And it is endlessly fascinating..... Finally a movie that is not wearing out a tired old formula one more time. This movie has much to commend.

The heart of the movie is about two magicians in Victorian England just before the turn of the twentieth century who are bitter rivals. Each tries to steal each others secret and best tricks, and both lead lives full of secrets, illusions, tricks, sleights of hand, one could even say double lives. But if I say more on that subject I will give away the game.

But in order to be a good magician you must be a master of deception of various sorts. Things are not ever quite what they seem, and the movie explores what happens when life imitates art and the deception bleeds over into the daily lives of the characters played so ably by Jackman and Bales. Michael Caine is his usual Cockney self played to the hilt as the sponsor of one of the magicians. Each strives to achieve a more and more stupendous trick at great cost--- one loses his wife, and the other loses, well 'hocus pocus' (which comes from 'Hoc est meum corpum'--- This is my body), I'd best not say.

There are various plot twists and turns, and one needs to concentrate carefully lest one miss a vital clue. There are secret clues, secret diaries, secret meetings, secret trists. There is something for everyone in this movie--- cute children, fascinating scenes and scenery, intriguing dialogue, beautiful cinematography, and even a stint in the Rockie Mountains in Colorado Springs, which according to the story is one of the first cities to have electric lights.

What happens however to the soul of a person who lives a life shrouded in secrets and secrecy, where deception becomes second nature, and duplicity is part of the game? Do they become pathological liars? Does it lead to mystery or to double lives? Is it really worth the price of admission just to live an intriguing life? This movie explores all of this in a coy sort of way, but there are moments when you realize that while even death can be counterfeited and occasionally cheated, the only life worth living is a true and honest one.

You may ask--- why? When one tells or lives a lie, then inevitably one has to tell more lies to cover the first ones. And when one gets a reputation for deception, lying and manipulation then of course no one trusts you. And when no one trusts you then you have no good loving intimate relationships, for love is based and grounded in trust. Who can totally love someone they don't totally trust and won't be totally honest with. Perhaps only God can totally love a person he knows better than to totally trust. Is it really worth living a lie in order to gain fleeting fame or a moment's prestige? Is it really worth winning the battle with one's rival, when in the end victory will be hollow, and the competition which drove you led you to behave in immoral ways? This too is a theme in this complex movie. While not quite a brain teaser, this movie is certainly thought provoking. It is hard to know who to like or identify with in this hall of mirrors.

In the end the movie raises the question about human curiosity, and how indeed it can kill the cat. What is it about human nature that loves to be fooled, and then surprised, and then astonished, and then reassured in the end that all is well-- it is this latter which the Prestige part of the trick plays upon. There is a human need for reassurance that all will be well and all manner of things will be well. We do like our happy endings and proper resolution of dilemmas. Why is that?

Perhaps in the end it is because we live in a storied world, an ongoing drama, and we long to know how it will turn out. We can accept a lot of twists and turns along the way, as long as "alls well that ends well". One could say we have teliological souls, souls that long for joyful resolutions of all life's crises and mysteries. souls that look forward to a blessed conclusion to things. We may be thankful that they still make rich movies like The Prestige that don't require violence and promiscuous sex to keep the rapt attention of a good audience. This is one you can take the family to-- though it may be a little intense and long for the wee ones.


David Johnson said...

The genre seems to have been covered towards the end of the summer in "The Illusionist." But from the sound of it, this movie is different enough in theme to be worth watching. "The Illusionist" did have some questionable morals, too.

I wonder, though: is it merely that we want to know that "all's well that ends well?" Do we just want to know that the story ends happily, or is it something deeper? Perhaps deep inside we all realize just how broken everything is--parents die, kids grow up and move away, friendships become distant and strained, "all good things come to an end" (this side of eternity, of course), and "things fall apart." Maybe what we really want is to see all the broken things mended--to see that day when good things will never end and when death itself will die. The thing is, we know that for that day to come about, it will take a "magic" that is beyond the skills of the special-effects crews and the Harry Houdinis of the world.

Reel Fanatic said...

Great stuff .. I stayed away from The Illusionist specifically because it seemed to have little do with actual magic .. I'm happy to hear Mr. Nolan didn't make that mistake, and am very excited to see this one later today

David said...

Wow! That's quite a review, now I gotta go see it. Much better than "Man of the Year" with Robin Williams, where I spent my money yesterday.

Shawna Renee said...

Great review. My husband and I saw The Prestige this last weekend too. We loved it. David Johnson, The Prestige is very different from The Illusionist, and it is well worth seeing. I think the thing that hit me most about this movie is the extents human ambition will go to be the best. Ambition without moralarity is a very scary thing.

ap said...

Dr Ben, one theme that emerged for me was the danger of sacrifice. Sacrifice is a powerful act in a life--even for bad ends. Both characters were willing to sacrifice greatly and the more they sacrificed the more tied they were to their addictions.

Ben Witherington said...

Ap-- you are so right. Sacrifices can be offered to the wrong gods, as well as to the right one.


Love's Work said...

I thought the movie was fantastic. I remember reading Gillian Rose's book "Morning Becomes the Law". In the book she did an analysis of Schindler's list and noted that the movie left out some very important material about the General who ran the concentration camp that Schindler frequented in order to save the people. The movie left out (what the book included) the fact that Schindler and the General came from the same exact backgrounds.

Rose says that the original book makes the reader deal with the good and evil in one's "own chest" but the movie sentimentalizes Schindler and therefore takes away the struggle within ones self.

I loved Prestige, and I do not think that it made the same error, because the beginning both character seem to have some good mixed with their evil it is only when Jackman's wife dies that the spiral of wickedness begins. The movie is a great example of how one can try and make an idol a reality, only to have it destroy you.