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The Prestige- Christopher Nolan's Masterpiece

by kamika eleanor 5 months ago in movie
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Hiding in plain sight

As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan always wants to walk a fine line.

If there's one fundamental theme that suffuses his entire filmography

is that cinema, as a shared narrative, can be a hugely powerful cultural force. I'm far from the first to notice or mention that many of his films reference film itself that, for example, the Inception team bears a strong resemblance to a film crew.

But interestingly, though a lot of his work could be called metacinematic, Nolan is extremely careful about avoiding metacinematic images in his work. For example, in the established Batman continuity, Bruce Wayne and his parents are out to see "The Mask of Zorro" film before the faithful double murder that incites the Dark Knight's whole saga. In Batman Begins, however, Nolan's retelling of that origin: the Waynes are out to the opera "Mefistofele" instead. That change is a purposeful one.

As Nolan has said in an interview: The reason Nolan tries to avoid this is because over and above everything, his cinema has always been about immersion, bringing you into a story so fully that the edges disappear and you're carried along by the narrative momentum.

This is the line that Nolan wants to walk; he wants to be immersive and metacinematic at the same time. In other words, he wants to hide in plain sight. Hiding in plain sight is essentially the subject matter of Nolan's fifth film and my favorite, "The Prestige". You could almost call this film meta-metacinematic in that it functions as a kind of rule book for how to achieve this immersive effect without seeming deconstructionist to use Nolan's words.

Just take the first sequence. The first thing you see is the film title over a mysterious shot of several misled top hats in the woods. The text here is, of course, the title card. But, if you know the film, you know that this text also has a literal function, because these hats are the prestige of the prestige itself. The second clue is in their number: doubles, copies, multiplicity.

It's the key to understanding the tricks of this film, and this is echoed in the second shot as well, with bird cages full of identical canaries.

From here, Michael Caine's character goes on to describe how a magic trick works. "Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts:" The pledge, the turn and finally, the prestige. The sequence carefully sets up the film's own pledges, that is Borden and Angier, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, respectively, illustrating its method through Michael Caine's voice-over and his trick for the little girl. But the film is playing its own tricks here, through editing.

Where is this voice over coming from? Usually in film, a voice-over means someone commenting on the events being shown from sometime in the future. When the scene ends, it cuts to the courtroom scene of Borden's murder trial picking up the last phrase, as if Michael Caine's whole explanation was testimony.

It's not until the very end of the film that we learn that the bird trick with the girl is chronologically the last moment in the film. Nolan reverses the temporal relationship between the voice-over and the scene under it. And this kind of displacement is the key mechanism for the whole movie.

"The Prestige" is all about a trick that moves its object through time and space instantaneously. This is exactly what all film editing does. Most of editing cuts between short distances and continuous times, indeed with a simple cut. That's what most people expect. But that same simple cut can traverse great distances also and great lengths of time in either direction. Nolan has described learning the power of this by watching Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line", in which Malick cuts to memories simply without blurs or fades or wavy lines and the powerful effect this can have on a viewer.

"The Prestige" exploits this power to the extreme, cutting between multiple different nested memories. Nolan sets up this device with Borden and Angier's journals. But once these devices are established, he cuts between the narratives, at will, and without warning. In this way, "The Prestige" demonstrates a unique capacity of film without compromising the audience's suspended disbelief. The complex narrative structure is totally subservient to the story Nolan wants to tell.

It's necessary to keep its twist secret until the film wants to reveal them. This is Christopher Nolan's great gift as a filmmaker. He's so in tune with the dynamics of film narrative that he can construct the plot with so much forward momentum, that even when he gives you all the clues you remain at his mercy until the very final shot. Now, if this was the only lesson of "The Prestige", I'd be satisfied in calling it a great film. But there's one scene here easily missed that adds a final important point.

- He killed him. - What?

- No, he killed him.

- See? He's alright. He's fine. Loot at him.

- But where's his brother?

You can watch "The Prestige" and enjoy the story for what it is.

That's what Nolan wants for us; he wants us to be amazed. And as the film itself says, most of us want to be fooled. But all films, even one as tightly wound as this, invite a probing eye as the boy sees into the bird trick. We can see into cinema. We're accustomed to taking most editing for granted, but the way stories are told, the tools of any storytelling medium in large part determine the way we construct our own memories, shared or personal. This is all to say that studying film doesn't kill its magic.

It feeds that magic back

into the real world.

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About the author

kamika eleanor

Movie buff and marvelhead

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