Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reflections on "The Prestige"

"Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled"

I saw The Prestige yesterday, and enjoyed it much more than the reviews had led me to expect. Christopher Nolan is a superb director.

The ending is intriguing and not entirely obvious. So I've been reading a lot of posts about exactly what happened. The IMDb FAQs do a good job of explaining in broad terms what we see and where the main issues of contention are amongst viewers. But I wanted to post a few reflections on my reactions to the film, before I forget. So go away now if you don't want spoilers!


Here are my four thoughts...

1. I guessed that "Borden" might actually be twins about halfway through, which was great because I could then appreciate a lot of the hints dropped during the film. It also meant that I found the tragedy of the Bordens' relationships with Sarah and Olivia very moving.
Borden: I love you.
Sarah: You mean it today.
Borden: Of course.
Sarah: It just makes it so much harder when you don't.

2. I wrongly thought that Cutter was somehow manipulating the situation to steal all three men's tricks. I'm not sure this theory really hung together, but I do think Cutter is a more ambiguous character than he seems on the surface. His motivations for wanting Tesla's machine and for betraying Angier at the end are not clear cut.

3. I didn't foresee that Tesla's machine might actually work. I assumed that Tesla and his assistant were pulling a fast one on Angier (with "Edison's men" being part of the con); and when we see (in Caldlow's flashback) two Angiers appearing at the same time I was amazed, even more so when the camera pulls back to reveal many drowned Angiers in tanks in the abandoned theatre. I loved this twist.

4. After some reflection, I love the film even more, because it is also possible that Tesla's machine doesn't work. The inability to choose between the two possibilities is delicious.

This fourth point is the one I want to linger on slightly.

One view is to take everything at face value, to believe that Tesla's machine creates a duplicate, which is drowned and disposed of at the end of every performance. This works logically, and is satisfying emotionally, in that the tragedy of Angier's story is that he doesn't know if the machine transports-the-original-and-leaves-a-copy or leaves-the-original-and-creates-a-copy-elsewhere. Every night he doesn't know if he is to die horribly in the tank or take rapturous applause as the prestige. The Angier that comes out of the show believes he was transported, but he has no way of telling if his life actually began just moments ago. Every night, the prestige thinks "Transported again!" Every night, the man in the tank always thinks "WHY AM I IN THE TANK?! I WAS ALWAYS TRANSPORTED BEFORE! WHAT WENT WRONG TONIGHT?!"

In this view, Borden is simply stumbling across what happens every night. The blind stage hands take the tank containing the drowned Angier to the old theatre, whether Borden is there or not. No-one knows but Angier. Cutter discovers Borden trying to free Angier and believes that Borden was responsible for the tank being there. Cutter is puzzled as to why the stage hands had been taking the tanks away every night, but later discovers the reason: Tesla's machine works.

But there is another view.
Cutter: You're a magician, not a wizard.
What if the story of Tesla's machine is simply fiction, written by Angier to misdirect Borden? In fact, why did Angier give Tesla his "diary" in the first place? Borden's trick baffles Angier, and Borden's fake diary sends Angier halfway across the world. So Angier decides in turn to create an illusion that will baffle and obsess Borden, and thereby gain revenge for the humiliation.
Angier: [to Borden] You always were the better magician. We both know that. Whatever your secret was, you have to agree, mine is better.
The film begins with the line "Are you watching closely?" and ends with "Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled". We want to believe the science fiction ending. We want to believe that we've just seen proof of a strange inventor's amazing duplicating machine. And emotionally we want to believe that this story is about the tragedy of a man who is so obsessed with magic and revenge that he drowns himself nightly. We're not really looking. We don't really want to work it out. We want to be fooled.
Angier: You never understood, why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you got to see something really special... you really don't know?... it was... it was the look on their faces...
So how does illusion work then?

I don't know. I'm not a magician. And before the film I couldn't have told you how the tricks with the caged bird were done. So what do I know?

But it's far from impossible for this to be an illusion.

Firstly, Angier has a strong motive to create an illusion: the death of his wife, the humiliation of not knowing how Borden does his trick, compounded by the humiliation of being sent on a wild goose chase to visit Tesla.
Angier: The man stole my life. I steal his trick.
And again:
Angier: I don't care about my wife. I care about his secret.
Secondly, Angier has the means to create an illusion: He might, for example, have had waxworks created to be put in the tanks, hoping that Borden will follow them to the abandoned theatre and be mystified. He might have paid Root huge sums to have his features altered and to do the 100 shows without getting drunk. Root also has a motive: he was tricked by Borden into losing his lucrative gig, and tied-up and suspended on stage.
Root: Did you think you were unique, Mr Angier? I've been Caesar. I've played Faust. How hard could it possibly be to play the Great Danton?
Thirdly, events after Angier's return to London have the structure of an illusion, as described by Cutter:

The Pledge is the implicit one that that this is a magic show, like any other (with theatrics, trap doors and light effects). And yet there is a buzz that something more is going on: For example, there are only 100 shows; the impresario is apparently made to believe it is somehow "real" magic; the stage hands are blind; Angier does not allow his mentor Cutter backstage; and the ticket prices are astonishing. We are to believe that the explanation will be extraordinary rather than mundane.
Angier: No one cares about the man in the box, the man who disappears.
The Turn is the drowning of Root in front of Borden.
Judge: What a way to kill someone.
Cutter: They're magicians, your honor. Men who live by dressing up plain and simple truths to shock, to amaze.
Judge: Even without an audience?
Cutter: There was an audience. You see, this water tank was of particular significance to these two men. Particularly dreadful significance.
The misdirection is solidified in several ways. Root is no longer "mute, overweight, and... very drunk". Moreover, Cutter identifies the body in the mortuary as Angier. Even if Cutter wasn't fooled, he might have his own reasons for not revealing it was Root, such as not wishing to give away professional secrets, or loyalty to Angier, or blackmail. Furthermore the fake diary gives Borden a story of a real Tesla duplication machine.

And finally, the Prestige is Angier turning up at the prison. The man Borden saw die is alive after all.

In this view, the tragedy of Angier is that his elaborate illusion and murder - for an audience of one - is pointless. He gets the satisfaction of having fooled the hanged Borden twin, but here in front of the dying Angier is the face of his enemy, and his enemy's manner here suggests that he simply does not care about Angier's illusion. He has lost his brother and and he has lost Sarah, whom he "loves more than magic".

(By the way, and this is a really minor point, is that while I think it is likely that Angier set up Borden for the murder, it is also possible that he didn't. In the machine-works view, it is possible that Borden's arrival backstage was unanticipated. Angier might simply have taken advantage of the situation to let Borden hang. In the machine-is-a-fake view, Borden's arrival backstage was very much anticipated. It is the turn. But again there is no guarantee that it was part of Angier's plan for Borden to end up charged with murder.)

So which view is correct? The machine-works or the machine-is-a-fake? Each results in a very different interpretation of the ending, each tragic in its own way. I don't know. And it's not really the point. Nolan wouldn't have filled in the blanks of the machine-is-a-fake view for us anyway:
Borden: Never show anyone. They'll beg you and they'll flatter you for the secret, but as soon as you give it up... you'll be nothing to them.
The point is: were we even looking for a "mundane" solution? Wikipedia, for example, gives the impression that the magic is real, while IMDb doesn't question the veracity of the Tesla tale, even when describing alternative theories about the efficacy of the machine.

I believe that Nolan's film is illustrating the contention that we want to be fooled, and so we don't really look.

I didn't look.

Did you?


  1. Interesting reading, and a very plausible 'mundane' solution. Of coarse, the sci-fi doesn't really fit into the film, and therefore the important point may be to see this apparent sci-fi as a trick, which can be worked out. However, you do really need to start seeing whole scenes of the film as only existing in the imagination of the characters for this to work. Therefore, Nolan presumably is happy with 2 simultaneously correct endings to exist, depending on how literally you take the film.

  2. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
    Arthur C. Clark

    This was the closing years of the nineteenth century, modern physics was just kicking off and what looked like miracles were being plucked out of the air all over the place. Tesla's teleporter isn't out of place in what is, after all, just a story.

    The physics was only a hundred or so years out - teleportation *has* been achieved, but only for photons, bits of light. It's all based on physics that was being developed at the time of the film.

    One of your comments is a very good description of the Quantum Suicide experiment, in fact the film is actually a good description of somebody actually carrying it out - and if he continues then there's always going to be one who survives, however unlikely the odds, this is a rough description of Quantum Immortality. All real, if a little fringe, interpretations of quantum theory.

    "The Angier that comes out of the show believes he was transported, but he has no way of telling if his life actually began just moments ago. Every night, the prestige thinks "Transported again!" Every night, the man in the tank always thinks "WHY AM I IN THE TANK?! I WAS ALWAYS TRANSPORTED BEFORE! WHAT WENT WRONG TONIGHT?!""