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Friday, November 10, 2006

Undead? Maybe. Unperson? Uh, Can I Get Back to You? The Prestige, the Movie

So you may not believe this, but I was holding back somewhat in my earlier entry on The Prestige. It would have been very easy to keep on with the "And ANOTHER thing . . . " but I knew that there were some points that would work better in contrast with the movie. Spoilers out the yin yang for both movie and book. Not that metaphors of balance really apply here

Because I'm a bit of a masochist, I've been skimming the novel again to refresh my memory on certain points. In addition to the masochism, I have a few other goals in mind. First, I wanted to see the degree to which my harshing on the novel was justified. Second, I wanted to see if some of the things introduced by the Nolanseseseees in the screenplay had any basis in the book. Third, I wanted to see whether the movie allowed me to pick up or better understand things I'd missed in my irritation with the book.

There are a number of alterations made in the screenplay that are fairly content-less. Some of these are narratively expedient, allowing for compression of events, resolution of somewhat tedious digressions in the book, better translation of character-developing events from text to film, and so on. The most straightforward of these is rewriting the manual for your basic stage illusion. Oh, sure, Priest talks about the three parts, but his text is the typical verbose nightmare. The words "Pledge" and "Turn" never make an appearance, and even Prestige is used differently, with no particular emphasis placed on the return of the disappeared item.

There's also the valiant stab the Nolans take at making Priest's novel . . . well . . . comprehensible. The basic structure of it sounds straightforward: Present-day bullshit; Borden's "book"; present-day bullshit; Angier's journal; present-day heinous, nonsensical ending. But Priest takes stream-of-consciousness to the plot level. Near the end of Angier's journal, we find that Borden's book was actually tarted up and published by Julia and Angier in an attempt to humiliate the surviving Borden. If we take this to be true, then there is a great deal in Borden's book that is unreliable in a completely different way than the reader has assumed it to be. And there are other things that simply make no sense whatever if Angier has had the final cut, as it were.

The Nolans journal double-bluff is, in contrast, a model of clarity and straightforward narration. Having Borden's journal written as a cipher is a neat way to allow Borden to reveal his own character gradually and in deliberately deceptive ways. It's applying a postmodern take with a much lighter touch, for the most part. (And, frankly, it makes the Tesla mislead about 17-bazillion times more believable.) But as superior as I think the plot structure of the screenplay is to that of the novel, I still found various things confusing, even having read the book. Thus, I was left with finding certain things understandably predictable (because I already knew the trick) and in other cases finding myself with a serious case of the who-shot-who-in-the-what-now?s.

In terms of changes that are more substantive, but still not particularly content-ful, there's the idea that Angier and Borden knew one another as apprentices to an older, more traditional magician. This device conflates an extended period of time during which Borden is trying to make a name for himself as a magician. Angier, who is definitely still a dabbler, spends his time writing smug, humorless letters to the editor of trade magazines admonishing magicians for their old-fashioned obsession with secrecy. The presentation, Angier insists, is all.

The Nolans' version of these men might seem to err, for once, on the side of broad strokes, rather than subtle shading. Their Borden is the icy, dispassionate technician—all insight and innovation. Angier is the consummate showman (in fact, some of his moves, including the top-hat tossing, are robbed from Priest's Borden and given to the Nolans' Angier), obsessed with not being the Prestige, the one crouching in the box while someone else gets the applause. Rather than this signifying a sudden subtlety dry spell at Nolan ranch, I think that the screenplay is recognizing another of the novel's shortcomings, namely the near interchangeability of the two magicians' characters. And in the course of remedying that, they toss a little more duality on to the fire.

Another advantage of creating the professional acquaintance between Borden and Angier, is that it makes the rivalry more urgent and palpable. And in deference to the text, they do use snippets of Priest's text to stitch together these two men and their relationship. For example, the story of Chung Ling Soo is a simple anecdote in Borden's portion of the novel, told to reveal the lengths to which magicians will shape their lives, public and private, to guard their illusions. In the screenplay, this anecdote is economically used not only to nod to Borden's secret, but to stoke the fires of the rivalry, and even to establish Angier as the less perceptive (and arguably less able) of the two.

There is, however, an interesting element of the rivalry that the Nolans excised entirely from the screenplay. In the book Borden is responsible, not for the death of Angier's wife, but for the miscarriage of his first child. Some might argue, but I think the whys and wherefores of the grudge from Angier's perspective are another relatively content-less plot change with some narrative advantages. But however dramatic and ironic Julia's on-stage death may be, the real kick-off for the rivalry stems from one of the novel's more intriguing aspects, and Borden's character ends up being sacrificed to the desire for more drama and more romance.

In the book, Angier's early career involves a "mentalist" act and, later, doing seances (both at Julia's instigation). Borden is enraged by this both in the abstract and in the specific instance of a relative being exploited by Angier's chicanery. As Borden is attempting to expose Angier in the middle of a seance, Julia gets roughed up and miscarries. (Julia herself makes it to the end of the novel, and the two end up having three children together).

Of course, leaving aside my blanket statements about sociopathy in my last entry, I'm predisposed to be interested in the divide between illusionists and charlatans—those who deceive to entertain versus those who deceive to exploit. As such, I'm disappointed to see that this element didn't even make it to the cutting room floor. That said, Priest utterly fails to pursue that line of inquiry. I'm not sure I can ding the Nolans entirely for ignoring it, but I can be disappointed that it wasn't something they recognized and decided to run with.

Some of the non-contenty changes end up complicating things in a not-entirely-laudable way, though. As I said above, I've got little issue with making Angier's actual wife, rather than potential baby, the first casualty of their rivalry. I appreciate the dramatic purposes it serves to have Julia be a much more direct and obvious victim of Borden's professional hubris. However, I think there were some fumbles in the execution of the plot change. Borden's insistence that he doesn't know which knot he tied works well enough to foreshadow his duality (and to foreshadow the fact that all Borden sanity is not, perhaps, created equal).

But the plot device of the knot itself has no analog that I can see in the novel, and it ends up not making much sense, at least to me. If there is an advantage in terms of showmanship to one knot versus the other, that was not clear. If the more difficult knot is merely to satisfy Borden's sense of self-satisfaction, Julia's support of his dick waving and her final and fatal nod to the knot doesn't quite make sense. The only kind of sense that M and I could make of it was that it was meant to contrast to Angier's (much) later assertion that Borden never really "gets" magic, being focused on the technique as he is. Still, it's a pretty obscure point, pretty obscurely made.

The other fumble only shows itself later. The fact of the matter is that killing off Julia gives Angier tortured widower street cred that then needs to be revoked. In the book, Angier is kind of eternally a 12-year-old girl. In his journal, he declares his love for one woman and 5 days later reveals that he has been deceived. His courtship of and romance with Julia is more extended, but ultimately, he meets Olive/Olivia on a tour of America, and throws away everything to be with her. He has another tryst (one of the primary reasons that Olive/Olivia leaves him for Borden) with yet another woman, a brief resurgence of interest in Olive/Olivia, and ends with a kind of tepid reunion with Julia.

In the movie, of course, Angier is half mad with grief right up until the point that he's half mad with slashy obsession for Borden's, um, trick and tells us "I don't care about my wife!" It's possible that the Nolans, as writers, failed to plan adequately and/or didn't recognize the whitewashing effect this would have on Angier's character. I suppose it's not impossible that Nolan, as a director, underestimated Hugh Jackman's ability to sell the grief (he'd be a fool to have, and given the compelling evidence of his directorial skill, it seems unlikely), but this feels like a botched Pledge/Turn—an attempt to keep the audience thinking that they know Angier to be The Good Guy (even if Borden is more antihero than bad guy) until he's revealed to be madder and more bereft of humanity than (probably) either of the Bordens.

Other changes that the Nolans make are not quite content-less and not quite baseless, but they're what one might call a radical interpretation of the text. The class issues in the movie fall into this category, I think. Certainly it's true that Borden is the son of a tradesman (cabinet-maker which I guess is traditional for magicians and wheelwright), whereas Angier comes from a wealthy family. But the class issues are only of limited interest to Priest, who seems, almost deliberately, to minimize the economic disparities.

Borden's father is relatively prosperous, and Alfred has enough education under his belt to know that the French accent that he affects in his act is terrible. (Angier, in his journal, fixates on this, rather, which could be indication of his snobbishness. ) Also, of course, we're see Borden through his writing, which bears no stamp of any class or education issues, despite the exaggerated lower class accent Bale uses in the movie.

Angier is the second son of an Earl, and therefore is subject to the whims of his older brother. Certainly he has an income until he turns 21, which gives him more socioeconomic breathing room than Borden, but he also has his money troubles. And Julia is an actress, and an ambitious one, in contrast to Sarah, who is a woman of "considerable birth" who is disowned for marrying Borden. When Angier inherits the title and lands from his brother, the estate is nearly bankrupt. So even the ultimate retreat to stately Wayne Manor is kind of a convenient plot device for Priest. As such, I'm inclined to blame Priest for the fact that I was genuinely surprised at the reveal that Angier = Lord Caldlow, because it's so deemphasized and irrelevant that I'd forgotten it entirely. Pity, that, because had I remembered it, I might not have spent a good deal of time being annoyed that Angier had an inexplicably American accent.

In sum, I think playing up the class issues is a good idea on the Nolans' part. I'll admit that I'm just a sucker for bourgeois/proletariat subtext. But less subjectively, there is something more satisfying about the class-conscious elements results in a more satisfying narrative. It ramps up the sense that Borden-at-the-dock is well and truly fucked. It makes it all the more galling when Angier is able to throw money at the problem and secure the grand illusion for which two men (right or wrong, crazy or sane, creamy or chunky) have sacrificed their goddamned fingers. And if you were on the Oblivious Bus with me that day, it makes the Angier = Caldlow thing a real gut punch, particularly with the totally manipulative moppet-of-great-cuteness prop, +5 vs. evil rich guys.

And, of course, there are weighty changes, too, most of them improvements. But I'll start with those I was either not so wild about or the point of which escaped me. Exhibit A: the finger gag. Yes, Angier and (one of the) Borden(s) are constantly fucking with one another's tricks. No, there is no maiming, accidental or voluntary. I cannot fathom what, other than some kind of Equus-level trauma possessed them to write the finger-removal scene, film the finger-removal scene, and take the finger-removal scene to the final edit, and I'm pretty robust to dismemberment. On the flip side, although Borden nearly kills Angier (at least according to Angier; we once again see the lack of finesse with which Priest handles the dual narrative within Borden's book [which, of course, turns out to be a triple narrative]) during the underwater escape trick one night, nothing that Borden does causes Angier any kind of permanent impairment, so I can't think where the cast, cane, and limp come from.

I've suddenly come over all fluffy and find myself wanting to qualify this criticism. This reviewer makes the point that the brutality behind the simple magic tricks (something completely absent from the novel, incidentally, although I gather it has basis in fact) is the faintest echo of the unapologetic coldness, calculation, and violence of which these men are capable. In that light, the fingerless Bordens are a powerful metaphor, but dude, a fucking chisel? I'm squeamish about my fingers. Who knew?

Although I'll say that I think the Nolans do a great service to all readers of the novel by actually writing a story that explores what it is like to live, split not only in mind but also in body. As with the decision to distinguish Borden and Angier from one another more sharply than Priest does, the neatly binary identities of the two Bordens ("I loved Sarah, he loved Olivia," "Today you love magic more than me," etc.) might seem a bit pat. But once again, any narrative shortcuts the Nolans take are infinitely preferable to Priest's treatment. In this case, Borden's book in the novel records none of his supposed attempts to ruin Angier's illusions. This leaves us having to make an important assumption on our own, namely that one of the Bordens is much more invested in the rivalry with Angier (and probably a great deal more insane) than the other. The screenplay isn't perfect in this regard, but at least it explicitly addresses the question.


That said, I can't say that I am pro-Fallon. The disguise was quite pitiful, and I'm pretty sure that there were mentally stunted bivalves who would have spotted the fact that it was Christian Bale, apparently constantly on the way to a Fiddler on the Roof audition. Sarah's contact with him, coupled with her apparent failure to figure things out until very late in the game indeed, serves to make her look like she enjoys receiving head injuries in her spare time.

Fallon-as-hostage makes for a briefer, more striking reason why Borden would (supposedly) hand over his journal and decoder at a moment's notice (the "Tesla" solution comes to Angier through a torturous route in the book, and Angier only obtains Borden's journal after one of them is ded from goo!ghost); but ultimately his frequent presence forces the triviality of the secret to the Transported Man on the audience. And, frankly, the Tevye costume puts a damper on the emotion in the final meeting between the two halves of Borden.

Olive/Olivia is more of a mixed bag. In the book, it's clear that she would clean up at any and all Dames and Broads auditions: She's American; she's definitely Olive, not Olivia; she calls people "hon" without irony. I'll grant you that the broadness of Priest's approach to a "character" resulted in many eye rolls. However, the Nolans seemed unwilling (or Scarlet Johanssen was unable) to go to the White Trash well with Olivia, and they didn't have a strong alternative vision for her. She's unconvincing as a love interest for Angier (both because he's meant to be the grieving widower and because he's so very upper crusty), and not much better as one for Borden. Her primary purpose seems to look vaguely period appropriate. Maybe she was some kind of bakshish to avoid costumer meltdown. Anyway, I ended up being impatient with her presence on screen.

I would like to give you an even-handed, informative review of David Bowie's performance as Nikolai Tesla. I cannot do so, because my review consists of SQUEE! It's the GOBLIN KING playing TESLA. When you hit that many of my nerd sensors at once, I cannot be held responsible for either what comes out of my mouth, nor for rolling over and going to sleep immediately thereafter.

Also in the neutral zone, I wish I had more to say one way or the other about Michael Caine. Certainly the voice over in which he introduces the lingo sent a chill of anticipation down my spine every time. But the role of the ingenieur is very much downplayed in the movie. Borden's has been excised entirely (in the book, incidentally, he is the only person who knows Borden's secret)to make way for Fallon, and it's just not clear what a vital role these men play in the magicians' lives. Caine has some fine moments, but the character felt extraneous.

But on to the good. Given the Fallon Fallacy, the Rebecca Hall does a laudable job reflecting Borden's duality. Bale, of course, brings the creepy icy–hot to the party, and he moves deftly enough from one identity to the other that everyone watching, in frame and out, is kept off kilter. But that subtlety would have been lost opposite a less skilled performance. I'm going to assume that Hall was able to pull off the hint of uncertainty, even in the tenderest moments shared with borden, because it's her job and she's good at it, but I could almost believe that she was simply never told which Borden Bale was playing.

It should go without saying that Jackman and Bale both exceed not only the novel (DUH), but I think they usually rise above some of the potholes that remain the screenplay. Allowing Jackman to play Root (his double for the initial ripoff of the Transported Man) was looked fun for him and doubling one's Jackman pleasure is never a bad thing. However, it does end up feeling a bit gratuitous, given that poor Bale has to work with the crepe hair and the stoop and the meshugeneh I dunno what while playing his own twin.

Beyond assembling formidable talent in the cast, the Nolans deserve credit for sorting out the mess that is the ending of Priest's novel. The writers of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 once revealed that they'd chosen the movie Sidehackers on the strength of its Ross Hagen-y goodness in the first 20 minutes or so. This left them blissfully innocent of the extended gang-rape scene in the middle of the movie right up until the point that they had about 48 hours to deliver puppets making jokes about it to Comedy Central. My own version of this was proposing a play to Shoestring, which prided itself on doing plays with a social message, that turned out to have an extended S&M orgy about 2/3 of the way in. Let me tell you, that is not an artistic element you want to discover alongside a minister.

I digress, but in a pointier manner than is my wont: My theory is that the Nolans are slackers who failed to finish the book before signing on the dotted line. In fact, I have a funny little Tex Avery scene that plays in my head wherein they run to and fro, tearing at their hair and trying to pry open the nearest window for defenestrial purposes as they take in the last 25 pages or so.

See, my goo ghost summary was, in essence, accurate. However, I'm afraid that I have to expound on the end of the novel so that all y'all see the Herculean task presented to our slackers. And so . . .

Borden is obsessed with the mechanics of the "In a Flash" illusion. He attends Angier's performances again and again. The climax of Borden's story is reached on the night that he manages to be chosen as one of the on-stage inspectors before the trick. He slips backstage by pulling off his disguise and bossily telling the stage hand that "It's part of the act!" (So far, we're on the same page as the Nolans, right?)

As Borden descends beneath the stage, he sees the power source and cables for the apparatus (he recognizes these because he had, at some point, incorporated tesla coils and shiny electrical stuff into his own illusion). And he starts a thorough inspection, noting code violations and fire hazards. That's really only a slight exaggeration of how bogged down things get just when Priest should be bringing the action to a fevered pitch. Borden unplugs the smoking apparatus, thinking that he's saving Angier and a theater full of people.

As Borden realizes that Angier will not see him as a cuddly wuddly Saint Bernard for ruining his illusion, Borden heads for the exits. It's here that he first encounters the goo monster. When he gets gooed (tactilely only, this is a nontransferrable, stand-offish ectoplasm), he thinks that this is part of how Angier accomplishes the illusion. Later, he hears of Angier's death from injuries sustained while doing the illusion, and there is Major Guilt, but not so much guilt that he isn't thinking about trying to buy the apparatus at auction.

From Angier's perspective, here's what happens: The illusion is interrupted and the semitransparent, semisubstantial "Prestige" appears where he's supposed to. Angier is momentarily freaked out by this, but his slashy fixation on Borden (whom he has recognized) will out and he just kind of . . . forgets about what he perceives to be the Prestige.

Soon he has more to worry about than even revenge on Borden: He's ill, but not ill. He's lost 20% of his body weight and he has general magicianly ennui. He carries through with his previous plan to "kill" the Great Danton and quietly assume his title and lands. His health declines, and his ennui runneth over. He almost dies, oh, two or three times. But then he's resurrected so that he can go on making fake money (which he will leave locked in a room in the manor for no particular reason) with the apparatus. And then he really most sincerely dies. We promise.

But wait! Remember the goo ghost? He's been living in London, smeared with greasepaint, hoping to find a way to control the raging spirit that dwells within him. Or something. His whack from the ferula gemina apparently left him with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, so he decides to do some live-action slash roleplaying with Borden. Think I'm lying? This is a 100% unembellished description of events in the novel: Goo!Angier sneaks into the dressing room between shows, straddles Borden, and commences to penetrating. Then he pusses out and Borden dies anyway of a heart attack.

Goo!Angier then turns to hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home. Realizing that rail travel is an efficient alternative to Quantum Leaping, he heads for the manor. All of Angier's kith and kin are remarkably blasé about this. You'd think they'd be constantly bitching about all the pens he drops, or at least wondering why he wasn't falling for the floor. But no, they set up beside the cancer-ridden Angier (whom Goo!Angier thinks of as the Prestige, naturally), who really, definitely, absolutely dies.

Goo!Angier (who really is unforgivably emo) cannot go on blah blah, Julia, blah blah half a life blah. So he decides that he'll teleport himself into the dead body of his Prestige, which will bring them both back to life. Um . . . what? Why? Huh? But seriously, that's how Angier's journal ends.

Things pick up again in the dreadful present. Borden's descendant is compelled to go to the crypt in the dead of night. There, he discovers dozens and dozens of absolutely not alive, inanimate Prestiges (seriously, they sound kind of like Stretch Armstrong dolls, only less life like). Each is frozen in the position held by Angier when he stepped into the apparatus. Each appears to be incorruptible. Each is on shelf that is neatly labeled with index cards bearing the date and performance at which the Prestige was created. On each of the cards "25g" appears. Why? Only Christopher Priest's stylist knows. And then Zombie!Angier taps Borden's spawn on the shoulder and commences to lurching about the moors. The End.

Let me just count the ways in which the Nolans' story is tighter, more compelling, and . . . oh, not complete gibberish? The realization that the Prestiges of the movie were true, living copies of Angier was a genuinely hair-raising moment, especially when paired with the method of disposal. Lordy, the naked terror that Bale conveys as he's wildly battering at the box . . . Aiyeee! In fact, I was so chilled in the moment that it was at least 3 minutes later that my internal complaints about the fiscal irresponsibility of having a new underwater escape box for each and every one of the Prestiges began.

Likewise, Borden's end is bleak and rage making. A far cry from the oblique and confusing "revenge" that Angier takes by publishing Borden's book, framing Borden for his own murder paired with taking up his title and, oh, by the way, have I mentioned that all ur moppet are belong to us? Truly diabolical. The Hollywood ending was not ideal (sooo very predictable), even if it did afford us the luscious Ark of the Covenant shot of row upon row of the Prestiges. But having read the book, one is grateful for not-so-small favors in the way of closure.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Franzi said...

I thought that the movie had a lot of weak points, but I really did love the bit where Borden was trying to break the tank. That scene made me have more sympathy for his character than anything else in the movie. It's the dickiest thing Angier does in the entire movie, and the "bad" twin reacts by doing something genuinely decent. It made me wonder how guilty he really felt about Julia's death. Well, that and think slashy thoughts. (Not that the entire rest of the movie didn't...)

The thing with the knot was interesting. Angier (and probably the audience) keeps forgetting the reason Borden gave for suggesting the other knot, namely that it was safer on the way into the tank. Borden is more worried that the knot will slip and she'll break a leg; Angier is more worried that she won't be able to do the trick. Angier turns out to be right, but Borden may have more respect for her as a performer.

But I'm rambling. I'll have to go check out the book.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

Ah ha! Thanks for the insight about the knot being safer on the lift. I didn't catch that implication, but it at least imparts some sense to Julia's acquiescence of it..

And yes, slashy thoughts always.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Franzi said...

Here I am again, searching on google blogsearch for Prestige fans.

I ended up getting the book for Christmas, and I was actually pleasantly surprised. I know what you mean, but I think some of the incomprehensibility works pretty well in a Real Literature kind of way.

I think the 25g thing is explained by Tesla's warning and by the kid prestige. It must be the amount of gold or some other substance he took through the transformation with him, no?

I thought the book treatment of the prestiges was much more interesting because it so clearly (if confusingly) has something to do with the soul. It felt more in keeping with the setting to me than did the cloning thing from the movie.

The ending of the book didn't bother me. In something more sf/f-ish, I think it would have, but the book was clearly setting us up for one of those unresolvable Real Literature situations where nothing is quite literal.

11:18 PM  

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