Research Proposal: Prestige: Where Theatrical Conventions Meet the Real

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¶ … Prestige: Where theatrical conventions meet the real life of cinema in Tesla's laboratory

Christopher Nolan rose to prominence as the director of Memento, a film that challenged conventional narrative structure and notions of cinematic time. Nolan's 2007 film the Prestige is a similar cinematic artifact: a curiously plot-driven film that disdains linear time and the viewer's innate urge to make sense of what he or she is seeing in a coherent fashion. It calls upon the viewer to follow the events of the film very closely, and often seeks to confuse rather than to satisfy the viewer with its use of illusion. It deploys the tools of magical tools of cinema to destabilize the viewer's sense of reality and security, much like one of its characters, the real-life inventor Nikola Tesla, who used the creation of electrical current to change the nature of human life.

To use the words of late filmmaking pioneer Stanley Kubrick, the Prestige is a film that goes beyond a mere "series of dialogue scenes" which often make films "little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action." Instead, Nolan uses the cinematic technique of 'flash forwarding' in time to create suspense about a crime that may or may not have occurred. Ironically, this method of storytelling, only possible on film, is about a criminal act upon the stage -- namely a magic trick gone horribly wrong that may or may not have occurred intentionally. Kubrick's words suggest that filmmakers do not sufficiently appreciate the magical potential of cinema, and Nolan's work is about magic, but also the human potential to overcome apparent physical limitations on stage and transcend time and space without the use of stagecraft or cinema.

On one hand, the Prestige could be read as a perfect illustration of Kubrick's words. Film can make even events on stage seem fantastic and transcendent of reality. Yet on the other hand, the film is ironically dependent upon the viewer's knowledge of stage conventions, because the nature of the trick it depicts is only fantastical if it actually takes place in real life. Granted, both stage and screen can inspire a conviction in the supernatural: Houdini was said to possess superhuman capabilities by some of his most ardent admirers, even though the master himself always insisted that his works were illusions. Nolan makes use of the techniques of filmmaking and their illusionary capabilities from the first scene of the film to show how magic on stage and cinematic art question our notions of what is real. The first scene is surreal, as the character played by Michael Caine named 'Cutter' speaks directly to his captive audience, breaking the fourth wall. The first shot is of a hill littered with magician's top hats, and then Cutter reveals himself to be an old-time showman and producer of magical equipment, the man behind the magic of these hats, a stereotypical representation of old-fashioned magical art in a film about a trick that may not be magic at all.

Although he is a theatrical man by trade, Cutter uses the vehicle of the cinema, talking directly to the audience to explain how a magic trick is as intricately structured as a traditional plot. The structure of a trick is that an apparently real situation (which he calls 'the Pledge'), is followed by 'the Turn' which challenges the viewer's sense of reality, and finally, the part of the trick from which the film gets its name, the 'Prestige,' is when reality is restored, along with the sense of comfort and security that the world is as it should be (the magician emerges alive, the rabbit is produced, the woman is whole again after being sawed in half). But also in the mind of the viewer there is the sense that the viewer has seen "something shocking… never seen before." All is well, yet everything has changed. Of course, the film will attempt to further undercut the sense of security conveyed by 'the Prestige,' partially by showing tricks that go horribly wrong, and also depicting tricks that cannot be explained.

Nolan's film is set in Victorian England and details the story of two aspiring magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden who are apprenticed to a master and work as confederates in the audience for his tricks. Alfred is the more daring of the two. He is always taking risks that the more cautious Robert fears to try. Part of their work is to play a group of 'ordinary' working men and assist the magician in his set up, or his 'Pledge.' One trick involves the magician's beautiful assistant (really Robert's wife Julia). She is imprisoned in a Chinese Water Torture Box, from which she magically wriggles free of her bonds after the curtain is drawn. However, a mistake happens: One day, Julia and Alfred try a showier and more intricate knot, ignoring the warnings of Cutter that Alfred often goes too far in his magical innovations. Alfred ties the ropes too tightly, and Robert's wife dies, unable to escape. The security and safety of illusions is forever destroyed. Magic -- whether cinematic or theatrical, is shown to have real-life consequences.

The two assistants become rivals. Robert becomes a lonely and embittered man without a family while Alfred becomes a great artist, husband, and father. Intercut with scenes of Alfred's success are scenes of a courtroom, in which Robert is apparently on trial for committing murder. The sense of death and illusion are intertwined in the film, further upsetting the notion that the staged art of magic is 'safe.' The more realistic texture of the cinema raises this question of what the 'Prestige' of restoration really means: is everything made whole once again? Robert's life has been changed forever, as a result of a trick.

Most of the film revolves around a specific illusion, called the Transported Man in which the showman Alfred seems to transgress the time-space continuum. The trick is simple -- on film. Alfred walks through one door the side of the stage and then walks through another door in a blink of an eye. With cinematic trick photography, the illusion is easy, but the film asks the viewer to believe that this illusion is real. Again the different types of awe able to be conjured by magic on stage and on screen are raised but not answered in the mid of the viewer: the Transported Man is impressive in real life, not in the cinema. But ordinary events are given weighty significance since the magic of cinema allows for such conventions as flash-forwards and jump cuts to make even simple scenes seem ominous.

This blend of cinematic and theatrical conventions reaches its height in the scene when Robert goes back to America, to Colorado Springs, to meet with the inventor of AC/DC power Tesla. When Tesla is portrayed, the appearance of the film immediately experiences a textural shift in tone and appearance. The scenes of the theater are warm and bright, bathed in theatrical spotlights. The costumes are either ornate, as in the case of Alfred's showy costumes, or dingy and Dickensonian. But the blue-green hues of Tesla's laboratory are futuristic. The film, set in Edwardian England, on the cusp of modernity and during the waning days of the Victorian era, thus illustrates the difference between the two time periods. If one were to subject the film to a pure mise-en-scene analysis, and compare it with the opening scene of Cutter explaining common, theatrical tricks, these would seem to come from two different films.

Just as human history was at a critical juncture between the pre and post electrical era during Edwardian times, the film shows both, in two very different lights. The film, both theatrical and cinematic shows the different sides of magic -- magic… [END OF PREVIEW]

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"Prestige: Where Theatrical Conventions Meet the Real."  Essaytown.com.  October 23, 2009.  Accessed April 25, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/prestige-theatrical-conventions-meet/4845.