Friday, April 20, 2007

The Prestige (2006)

Virtue to Extremes is Vice

Christopher Priest - Author
Jonathan Nolan - Screenwriter
Christopher Nolan - Screenwriter
Christopher Nolan - Director

Hugh Jackman - Rupert Angier
Christian Bale - Alfred Borden
David Bowie - Nikola Tesla
Michael Caine - John Cutter
Rebecca Hall - Sarah Borden
Scarlett Johansson - Olivia Wenscombe
Samantha Mahurin - Jess Borden

(I am gong to try to write less by assuming that you, dear reader, have seen the movie and understand it's physical premises.)

The Prestige offers an excellent opportunity to examine how virtues such a passion for excellence and self-sacrifice can become horrific Faustian examples of destructive obsession.

Self-sacrifice is often considered a virtue when that sacrifice is for another's good.
But self-sacrifice is also what obsessive people do for something that they selfishly want but don't need.

Here are some examples of he sacrifice that they risk and experience for the sake of their art.

Angier and Borden are assistants (plants) for another magician for which Cutter is the engineer. They go to a Chinaman's magic performance to discover the fishbowl trick. They see the man acting crippled afterwards getting into a carriage. They surmise that he's totally devoted to his craft.
BORDEN: This is a performance. This is why no one can detect his methods…total devotion to his art. A lot of self sacrifice…the only way to escape all this (reality).
The concept of sacrifice is evident in the very next scene when Borden assists for The Great Virgil. In the small audience is a lady (Sarah) and a little boy (her nephew). When Virgil smashes the birdcage hidden under a cloth, the little boy cries: "He killed it!" speaking of the bird. Of course, Virgil reproduces the bird. When Borden approaches the boy, and shows him the live bird, the little boy asks, "But where's his brother?" Borden considers the boy for a moment and says "He's a sharp lad." … and later it is Borden that must discard the very smashed and dead bird hidden in the table's false top.

This dramatically foreshadows the sacrifices that both Borden and Angier will make in their attempts to rise to fame.

In showing a coin trick to the lad later, Borden advises never to show how the trick works because as soon as he does he'll be "nothing to them. Nothing." Notice here that PRIDE is the motivation. Borden says, "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything."

In the next flashback scene Borden recalls how he used the trick to sneak into Sarah's apartment. But, telling her how he did it would not have impressed her. Being there, nonetheless, does.

Fallon (Borden's twin in disguise) is leaving Borden as Sarah comes in.
Borden tells his expecting-with-child and very worried girlfriend how he does the bullet catch.

There is a key exchange in this scene at 29:44:

BORDEN: Don't worry. Don't worry. Because, I not going to let anything happen. Every thing is going to be all right, because I love you very much.
SARAH: Say it again.
BORDEN: I love you.
SARAH: Not today.
SARAH: Well, some days it's not true. And today you don't mean it. Maybe today, you're more in love with magic than me. And I, being able to tell the difference makes the days it is true mean something.
Indeed we begin to see that the love for magic and craft create a dysfunction in Borden's life.

Next we find Angier, in disguise, aiming a loaded gun at Borden and asking, "Which know did you tie?" Borden catches the live bullet, taking off two of his fingers.

Days later, when dressing the wound, Sarah can't believe the wound is still bleeding just as it first did. Of course, this is the other twin, who with the help of his brother, has chiseled off the same two fingers. Self-sacrifice for the trick. Passion for excellence or obsession?

Cutter returns to Angier to keep working. They both know that Borden's mistake and arrogance killed Julia. Angier changes his name to The Great Danton. As they prepare the climax bird trick this exchange (35:34):
ANGIER: Cutter the bird cage can't be our climax, everybody knows it.
CUTTER: Not like this, they don't.

ANGIER: I don't want to kill doves.
CUTTER: Then stay off the stage. You're a magician, not a wizard. You've got to get your hands dirty if you're going to achieve the impossible.
(and the dove nods its head)
Hinting at the Faustian pledge that Angier will eventually kill far more than just a dove, getting his hands dirty with more that dirt and the blood of a bird.

The bird trick goes wrong when Borden shows up to "fowl" it. This is payback for his fingers and the loaded gun. Although Angier wants revenge now.

Angier gets an audience with Tesla. Tesla shows him the effects of alternating current. Angier wants Tesla to make a "real" machine for him, not a trick.

Angier's Moment of Grace - Part 1 (51:27)

Tesla warns Angier to drop his obsession because of the cost (51:27). "No good will come of it." Angier thinks Tesla is talking about money, but Tesla isn't. Tesla admits that good came from his obsessions at first, but he has followed his obsessions too long, and now he is their slave…and one day "they will choose to destroy me."

Angier's Moment of Grace - Part 2 (52:35)

Olivia tries to get Angier to drop the obsession of revenge by suggesting that they are now even. He explodes:
ANGIER: Even? My wife for a couple of his fingers? He has a family now, and he's performing again. Borden is out there living his life, as he always intended, as if nothing has happened. And look at me. I'm alone, and no theater will touch me.
OLIVIA: Us. You're going to need a better disguise.
In both of these Moments of Grace scenes, our tragic protagonist rejects the grace he is offered by first the scientist and then his lover. He is given an out, a way to live in peace. But he rejects it and embraces the obsession of his craft and the obsession of his revenge.

Olivia's line "you're going to need a better disguise" foreshadows the disguise he has to come up with, not just to sneak into Borden's show, but to come up with a "better trick," and how he disguises his "double." Angier will need a better solution than just a twin. "Better trick" is in quotes because in terms of a true moral premise "better" in this case is "worse" and "trick" is not a trick but a "real" Faustian event.

As the story continues, Angier's revenge gets out of control—a counter point to Cutter's remark that Angier rejects: "We don't do tricks we can't control."

Indeed, Angier soon makes it clear to Olivia that he doesn't care about his wife's death, but getting his hands on Borden's secret.

Tesla "perfects" his cloning device, but warns Angier that the box will only bring him misery. Tesla's advice is to drop it in the deepest ocean. The box, of course, the physical object of Angier's pursuit, is a metaphor for Angier's psychological obsession with revenge, which should be dropped into the deepest ocean, as well.

But Borden is as much involved in the obsession, at least for his craft. Sarah pleads with Borden, who is probably the evil twin:
SARAH: I want you to be honest with me. No tricks, lies and secrets. Do you love me.
BORDEN: Not today, Love.
Distraught at their dysfunctional relationship, Sarah goes to Alfred's workshop, looks at the birds that are mostly destined to death, and then hangs herself. She's a bird, who is willingly sacrificed (by the Borden's) for the sake of the ultimate trick (which she does not understand). Her hanging sounds like the fatal snap of the birdcage.

In the end, after Borden is scheduled to die by hanging, his little girl, Jess is brought by Lord Cordlow to visit before he dies. Borden looks at Lord Cordlow, it's his nemesis, Angier, as it has always been. Borden tries to tell the guards that he's been tricked and that the man that just walked off with his daughter is the man he's accused of killing. But no one believes him.

Cutter delivers Angier's devices to Lord Cordlow and is shocked to see Angier.

Borden says goodbye to Fallon, who will live on for both of them. Borden says he's sorry for a lot of things. He wishes he had left Angier to his trick.

As Borden mounts the gallows, above the trap door that will kill him, just as the trap doors killed Angier's clones, Cutter and Lord Cordlow push the Tesla's box to end of a dilapidated theater warehouse. Cutter explains that his earlier description to Angier about the sailor who almost drowned who said drowning was like he was going home, was a lie. Cutter says to Angier that the sailor said, "It was agony." Angier dreadfully looks in the tanks holding his dead clones...100 of them. He reminds himself: "No one cares about the man in the box."

He hears a noise. Is it Cutter? No, it's Fallon, who throws the rubber ball at him -- the rubber ball that symbolizes the transportation of a man from one place to another. Angier, distracted, picks up the ball, and Fallon shoots him, just as Borden says "Abracadabra!" and is hung.

Then Fallon/Borden explains the trick, to the dying Angier.
BORDEN: Sacrifice, Rupert, that's the price of a good trick. But you wouldn't know anything about that would you?
Angier: It took courage not knowing if I'd be the man in the box or the Prestige. You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. Their world is miserable, solid, all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second…then you cold make them wonder….it was the look on their faces.
Pride. Lord Cordlow dies, next to 100 of his clones that he has killed.

In retrospect we might figure out that Angier sets up his death during the 100th performance, by luring Borden back stage, and then Cutter, not knowing the trick, and Angier not appearing that night as The Prestige, is able to pin his own murder on Borden to get revenge.

The Moral Premise

In consideration of the moral premise we typically have a vice that leads to some physical detriment; and a virtue that leads to some greater good.

But in a tragedy, such as The Prestige, you have the two prongs of the moral premise that both descend. That is, a vice that leads to some physical detriment; and the vice's extreme that leads to some greater detriment.

Thus, our tragic moral premise can be stated this way:
Obsessive Pride leads to dysfunction; but
Obsessive Revenge leads to destruction…100 times over.
If you have additional insights or a contrary opinion, let me know. Add a comment.


Lindsay said...

My husband and I just watched this movie last night. The twists and turns and reversals kept us riveted until the end. Your analysis helped clarify some points for me--especially the discussion of obsession. At the end of the movie I wondered: who became more evil? The man who killed "himself" 100 times, or the man who allowed his brother to die?

Stan Williams said...

Good point, Lindsay. There is poetic tragedy in this film. Angier essentially commits suicide over and over for the sake of art. And Borden may appear to do the same; but it is only once, and it is his brother--another. Although the jailed Borden tries to convince his prison guard that he's been duped by Angier, (and it could be argued that Borden does not let his brother die willingly,) his acceptance of the death-embracing (not death-defying) Prestige (at his hanging he proclaims confidently, "Abracadabra!") is very much the same as Angier's suicidal "stunts." In both men there is a callous grasping at pride, which they pitifully stage as art. It is a pride that I think is very much evident in our culture; and although people don't want to talk about it, they subliminally identify it in this movie as unfortunately true.

Anonymous said...

I really loved this movie, although I got lost countless times. However, I was able to catch on if I watched closely enough. I love movies that have twists and turns and then at the end everything comes together. You've got to have a good eye to see every detail. Directors who direct those movies are taking a huge risk and also very much entertaining the audience. I absolutely adore The Prestige, actually mostly for its acting and plot. I wonder though, does anyone know if Borden was onto the whole thing, the whole time? Did he know every detail of Angier's scheme? He was much more clever and well-thought-out than Angier. Angier, I think, just wanted to know Borden's secret so he could pick up from Borden's knowledge, patch it up, make it better, and become more famous. I'd have to say that I do like Hugh Jackman as an actor, and Christian Bale too. They're both incredibly talented. I also have always admired Scarlett Johanssen's acting skills.

Tony said...

One thing I'm puzzled about is when Angier tried the teleporter for the first time, which one shot the other? What I mean is, did Angier shoot his clone or did the clone shoot Angier? Not that it would seem to matter since they were the very same in every respect or were they?

Al said...

Heres something I posted elsewhere:
Regarding all the fools complaining about Angier comment about not knowing whether he was to be the one to drown:
He actually wouldn't, since neither of the Angiers would know whether they are the clone. Like some of the more intelligent posters broughtup, their memories are identical, and at first reaction both would think they are the original(hence one says "I'm not the.." while the other one shoots him) Thinking of it as exactly what one would do in the other's shoes. The surviving Angier was probably smart enough to later realise then he doesn't actually know whether he is a clone or the orignal. Whoever the last surviving Angier is is still wondering whether he is the "first clone", or one of the many subsequent copies of it(as we should be) What is known though that the "original" Angier is dead, as he was shot if he was teleported or later drowned if he stayed in place. Beyond that no one knows for sure, apart from Tesla and Nolan. One can speculate however, and purely speculate that since it was built as a "teleporting machine" that the original was teleported and shot, and his first clone never had to die.(until bale ruined the party) I think is a really thought provoking film that makes you think about the reality of our existence. The sixth day had a similar theme, would you be immortal if you could clone yourself? Nah!!

Stan Williams said...

Al, just remember that the only things we know about the characters is what is portrayed on the screen. While it's fun to speculate why a character did something, or how it happened, we're not dealing with reality here. The physical story is fiction and is destined to be inconsistent at some point. In the end, unless it's explicitly portrayed "no one knows for sure," NOT EVEN Tesla and Nolan, and certainly not the director or writer.

Anonymous said...

Who was the "evil" character? I think that it is Angiers. After all, it was Angiers who sought revevenge agains Borden for accidentally killing his wife. Angiers started the rivalry. And as for Angiers sacrificing himself repeatedly, it was not really his true self he was sacrificing. His repetitive suicide can be likened to the top hat that got reproduced at Tesla's lab. The top hat was prop, a representation of the half of his life that lived on stage. He may have killed himself, but it was only the "prop" side of himslef that he killed. Had he realized the evil of splitting his sould into 2 halves, he would not have been the evil character. However, for the sake of outdoing Borden, he repeated killed himself for the sake of the show, each time becoming less and less of the true half of himself, and by the end, his whole existence was the fake "prop" half of himself.