Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Prestige: They Want to be Fooled

Part 4 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan. Originally posted December 12th, 2008.

The Prestige is, on the surface, a story concerning rival magicians in Victorian London. But, at the heart of things, it is really a film about film-making.
As far as I'm concerned, the goal of any film is threefold. I call it the 3 Es: Engage, Entertain, and Enlighten. Before either of the later two can happen, the audience must first be engaged. This means giving them a point of reference; that is to say, introduce them to something familiar right off the bat: a character that is relatable, and a situation or conflict that is easily comprehended. Once the audience is engaged, it is the filmmaker's duty to then entertain them, by putting the established characters in humorous or nerve-racking situations. There is a certain flare for creating truly entertaining scenes that only a few select directors possess. There is a kind of showmanship quality to film-making. The final thing a film must do is enlighten the audience. That is, the film should come to a point that stimulates the mind of the viewer. This is not always achieved and is even more difficult to pull off than pure entertainment. This third aspect is what separates great films from those that are simply good. It helps the film stick in people's minds long after they have seen it.
The above three elements of the film viewing experience are directly comparable to the three stages of a magic trick, as discussed in The Prestige. These are The Pledge, The Turn, and The Prestige. The Turn is when the audience is shown something ordinary; a handkerchief or a small bird. This is much like the beginning of a film when the audience is engaged by something equally familiar. The second part is The Turn, when the ordinary thing is made to do something extraordinary, like disappear. "But," as Michael Caine's character says in the the film, "you wouldn't clap yet. It's not enough to make something disappear. You have to bring it back." This seemingly miraculous return of the vanished object is The Prestige, and it is the most important part of the trick. These latter two parts are similar to the way entertaining the audience can bring them to something enlightening; how a heart pounding chase scene can wind and twist and turn, and then deposit us at some great, profound truth.
Another convention of magic tricks that is shared in film-making is the suspension of disbelief. It is said in the film that the audience knows that it is only an illusion, but they don't want to know how it is accomplished. "They want to be fooled", as they say. This is equally true with the film viewing experience. Any individual of even average intelligence knows full well that what they are witnessing on screen is not entirely real, but they ignore that fact. They want something extraordinary. They want to see something aside from their familiar reality. They want to escape, and it is the job of both the magician and the filmmaker to render a believable fantasy for the viewing public.
Filmmakers are the magicians of their day. With both magic and cinema, people go to the theater to see something outside of their own, regular experience. They are, at first, presented with something against which they can compare their own lives. "I know what this is. I get this", they think to themselves. Then, through this relatable proxy, the audience is taken on a journey into previously unknown territory, where they witness things they had never imagined and certainly did not expect. Then, at the end of this voyage, and indeed because of it, we come to a profundity that we had not known, yet it is undeniably true. We leave the theater having gained a fuller experience. Or course we know it was all smoke and mirrors, but to dwell on this notion would ruin something very special.

No comments: