I want to inaugurate this new blog with a few thoughts on magic and storytelling.Some weeks back, the film The Prestige fell through my letterbox via LoveFilm. It’s a production of the Nolan siblings, Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan. The film stars Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale as viciously competitive magicians whose attempts at one-upmanship reach brutal heights only minutes in.As a work of art, it neatly transforms the literary metaphors from Christopher Priest’s original 1995 novel to cinematic ones. It has a re-ordered chronology that harks back to Nolan’s Memento. It uses the three-act structure as a substitute for the archetypical three-stage structure of a trick (which doesn’t exist, by the way; Priest made it up, thusly: ‘First, there is the setup, or the “pledge,” where the magician shows the audience something that appears ordinary but is probably not, making use of misdirection. Next is the performance, or the “turn,” where the magician makes the ordinary act extraordinary. Lastly, there is the “prestige,” where the effect of the illusion is produced.’ From The Prestige’s Wikipedia entry.)What’s most interesting about The Prestige is that, while we have an ostensibly historical film for the first two acts, at the beginning of the third, the true identity of the film is suddenly revealed as science fiction. The effect on me was unsettling.Roger Ebert’s review concluded:
The pledge of Nolan’s The Prestige is that the film, having been metaphorically sawed in two, will be restored; it fails when it cheats, as, for example, if the whole woman produced on the stage were not the same one so unfortunately cut in two.
A reviewer called R.J. Carter, of The Trades, rather nails my view:
I love a good science fiction story; just tell me in advance.
What struck me about this pivotal moment in The Prestige was that, in switching genre, the director creates the sense of a deus ex machina. (We usually define this is as a development or resolution whose source is external to the story; it is, often, deeply unsatisfactory.) From the rational point of view, the charge is unwarranted. Not only is the science fiction element pre-shadowed, it dovetails nicely with technological aspects of magic (i.e. pushing the state of the art) and, not inconsequentially, explains the somewhat mysterious plot turns of the first two acts.And yet the feeling of being cheated remains. Even now, I remember sighing at this moment. I was disappointed. The Prestige – both in film and in terms of its meaning as the ‘twist’ that really emphasises the magic – seemed to be deeply unmagical. Banal, even. And so what if David bowiEEEE did invent the wondrous machine that made it possible?There are some wonderful metaphorical resonances. For example, the duelling scientists of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla parallels the duelling magicians. Technology is at the heart of the film. It is the technological explanation that underlies the disappearing bird (and its cage). Mundanity underlies the water torture escape and the human teleportation.Genre itself cannot, I think, be used as the ‘prestige’. It must be present from the beginning and set the atmosphere, the ground rules, and the common vocabulary of the creator and the audience. To shift those rules during the piece itself feels unfair. It is as though the story creator has set up a problem and has promised to demonstrate a miraculous escape. For it to seem miraculous, he or she must act within common bounds. The audience is prepared to be beaten to the solution to the riddle, but to be beaten fairly.At the same time, I wonder if this is a fair test. The audience knows that the trick is not real. Real magic is impossible. They know that the woman has not really been sawn in half; that the teleported man has not been teleported. Perhaps when the man really is teleported, this explanation becomes banal because it is technological; the audience would rather its effect be the result of sleight of hand, of skill and psychological misdirection that makes them feel pleasantly outwitted.I’ll finish with a quote from Net of Magic by Lee Siegel, which was presented in a TED talk by the philosopher Dan Dennett:
“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?”By real magic, people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts and supernatural powers.”No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.