Real Magic

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.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

5 thoughts on “Real Magic”

  1. I abso­lutely fell in the love with the storytelling in this movie when I saw it. I love how the story unfolds through the read­ing of each other’s journ­als. I was des­per­ately hop­ing for some of this bril­liance in the book and was sorely dis­ap­poin­ted. Now I really want to see the movie again.

    Congrats on the new blog.
    Have a won­der­ful day.

  2. Thanks for your com­ment, Megan. I also thought the journ­als were a great way of allow­ing each magi­cian to get inside the head of the oth­er. I guess the book was nev­er going to be as spec­tac­u­lar. But it did win a SF award, I think.

  3. Lol. Well award or not, I will flat out say it. I thought the book was stu­pid and a flat out waste of time. But maybe that reflects badly on my char­ac­ter.

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