Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is it really worth it?

Right now I can safely say that Christopher Nolan is my favorite director working today. I've already written about my love for his Batman films and his 2001 film Memento is one of my all time favorites. But its another of his films I want to discuss here.

Nolan's 2006 film the Prestige is a film centered on the questions "What does it take to be truly great?" and "Is that price worth it?" If you haven't seen the film I'm going to be discussing a number of spoilers so feel free to stop reading here. The idea behind the title of the film is stated in the opening monologue:

Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts.

The first part is called the pledge the magician shows you something ordinary, a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course it probably isn't.

The second act is called the turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret, but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't want to know. You want to be fooled.

But you wouldn't clap yet, because making something disappear isn't enough. You have to bring it back. that's why every magic trick has a third act. The hardest part, the part we call "the Prestige."
A number of people think the theme of the film is contained in the opening monologue. The only response I have to that is the film's opening and oft-repeated line "Are you watching closely?"

The film focuses on a feud between "two" rival magicians working in Victorian era London, Robert Angier and "Alfred" Borden. Angier is the consummate showman who knows how to sell the most pedestrian tricks to an audience like they're the greatest in history. Meanwhile Borden's technique is much more raw and basic but his tricks are innovative and he's a natural magician who spends countless hours perfecting his craft and studying that of others.

The feud is sparked while the two work as audience plants for a successful magician. They tie the binding knots on the "beautiful magician's assistant" (who happens to be Angier's wife) for the Chinese water escape trick. Borden gets dressed down for doing weak wrist knots that won't hold on the crane that hoists the woman into the tank of water. Borden suggests using a different stronger knot for the trick but the Ingeniur (person who designs the illusions and manages their function) tells him that this different knot can't be slipped underwater and is too dangerous. The next time he does this trick the young woman dies.

Before this however you're treated to a few scenes that give you insight to the heart of Borden. Angier and he attend a performance of an old cripple doing the Chinese bowl trick. Angier is dumbstruck but Borden instantly realizes the secret. The magician acts like a feeble old cripple every time he's seen in public but as Angier points out you need to be extremely strong to pull off the simple secret of this trick.

Because Borden guessed the secret he earned some stage time with another famous magician. The magician performs a trick involving a vanishing birdcage with the bird still in it. A young child in the crowd cries that the bird was just killed, everyone tries to comfort him, even pointing out that he brought the bird back. Borden tries to personally comfort the boy showing him the bird. The boy responds by asking about the bird's "brother" at which point Borden can only point out how perceptive the boy before he goes to dispose of the "prestiged" bird and uncollapse and clean the cage it died in.

This inspires Borden to tell the boy the most important idea in his world.

"Never show anyone. They'll beg you and flatter you for the secret but as soon as you give it up, you'll be nothing to them. The secret impresses no one, the trick you use it for is everything."

Are you watching closely?

During the course of the film Borden proceeds to marry the aunt of this young boy and have a child with her. He also proceeds to start off on his own magical career working only with an ingenieur/bodyguard/personal assistant named Fallon. It's almost ruined early on when Angier decides to take his revenge on on Borden by volunteering to assist with a bullet catch so he can use his background to turn the simple trick deadly dangerous. Fallon, rushes in to save Borden, but not before a bullet takes two of Borden's fingers.

In the meantime Angier starts his career, hiring a beautiful assistant as the feud continues to escalate. But what prompts the next escalation is purely professional. Borden always spoke of a trick he designed that would shock the world and Angier notices how great it is instantly even if the audience doesn't. It's called the transported man and it involves Borden going from one closed cabinet to another accross a crowded stage in the time it takes for a rubber ball to bounce the distance.

Cutter tells Angier that it must be done with a double but Angier refuses to believe that it can be something so simple. Angier proceeds to steal the trick and use it to achieve a great deal of success until Borden comes to claim what is his and humiliates and injures Angier to advertise his improved version of the trick which now features Angier's former assistant who finally taught Borden showmanship, and whom he falls in love with.

This leads Angier to his last act of desperation. Angier travels to america based on a tip from Borden's on his method. He seeks out Nikola Tesla to build him a machine "like the one he built for Borden." Tesla tells Angier that he never built such a device for Borden but he would be willing to do so. Though Tesla, weary from his own feud with Edison, that the price of obsession is never worth it, Angier responds that if he knows about the nature of obsession he should know better than to try to warn him.

The final act of the film shows the nasty conclusion of the feud but more importantly it shows you how seriously Borden and Angier took their work. Early in the film Cutter says:

"They're magicians. Showmen men who live by dressing up plain and sometimes brutal truths, to amaze, to shock."

This is proven to be the sad truth in the final act. Angier obtains his machine from Tesla and proceeds to use it to create a final trick "The Real Transported Man." The machine however does not teleport whatever is placed within it. It creates a duplicate of it. Angier takes advantage of this to set a final trap for "Alfred" Borden. Every night Angier's duplicate takes the bow that he never could before because "no one cares about the man in the box." And each night the original Angier becomes the man in the box, setting a water tank like the one which killed his wife under his trap door to serve as a new watery grave each evening.

While that single outburst is shocking, "Alfred" Borden's is a bit more haunting. His total dedication to his secrets winds up costing him everything. He loses his wife and his assistant/mistress, he nearly loses his daughter and "part of him" even loses his life. Cutter was right. "Alfred" Borden was really Albert and Fredrick Borden. Two men sharing one life, trading off on taking the bows and hiding in the background as Fallon. Each man living half a life in their dedication to their work at the cost of everything else.

Like almost all of Nolan's films he doesn't leave you with any easy answers. Both men gave everything for their work, but in the end was it really worth it. I've spent a lot of time thinking of exactly that haunted by this film and the things it forced me to confront about my values and what they could actually mean, and above all if they really are worth it. The quest for greatness is simple, but it was never easy.


Joe Maurone said...

Interesting question (Is it worth it to be great?). I do want to make one distinction thought, given that the site is dedicated to the idea of heroism. Heroism and Greatness are not synonymous; Heroes are usually great, but great people aren't necessarily heroes ("I am the Great and Powerful Oz...).
So for me, the question becomes, is it worth it to be a hero? I think a case can be made that it's not always desirable to be great, because being "great" can mean many things out of context. But I think it's always "worth it" to be a hero, even when it's hardest to be so, because to be a hero means you are staying true to your morality and defending your values..."price no object." (There is the question, of course, of selfless heroism, but given my Objectivist leanings, I think it's obvious where I stand on that matter.)

Landon Erp said...

Thanks for the comment Joe. I viewed the Borden's as heroes or at least anti-heroes. Especially Albert, if you watch the film enough times you can tell when which Borden brother is Alfred or Fallon. He shared half his life with his brother and at the end of his brother's life he said it was enough, it was all he wanted. There were times where all he wanted to do was be with his wife and daughter and had to spend time with Fredrick's lover as well as times where he had to simply hide in the shadows where most people just wanted him to go away. But it was worth it to him in the pursuit of his career goals.

Where I question its value and the biggest question I really took from this film was when does a trade off become a sacrifice. When are you giving up something you really want for something less important if you have two things which are most important to you which sometimes contradict each other.

It could be said that The Borden's could've avoided all of their heartache if they had just let the women they loved in on their secret, but to do so would make them vulnerable to their loved ones' reactions to dissappointing and sometimes brutal truths.

That's why my focus was fixed on the Bordens as opposed to Angier. I saw the Borden's as heroes or at the very least anti-heroes because they held on so strongly to their values, while all Angier did was sacrifice anyone who got close to him, dying miserable and alone.

To be honest I thought of adding an addendum to the end of the piece along the lines of this but I thought it might already be running a bit long.

Joe Maurone said...

Your post reminded me of a few lines from the song "Mission" by Rush:

In the grip of a nameless possession/
A slave to the drive of obsession/
A spirit with a vision is a dream with a mission...


If their lives were exotic and strange/
They would likely have gladly exchanged them/
For something a little more plain/
Maybe something a little more sane/

We each pay a fabulous price/
For our visions of paradise/
But a spirit with a vision/ is a dream with a mission...

Joe Maurone said...

Speaking of "paying a fabulous" price and's funny you talk about Nolan and Bale, when Bale is known for going to great lengths for a role physically, putting his health at risk in the process...

Let's hope his next role is not as a male soprano in the 1800's...