Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Tiff With Christopher Nolan, Part 1 of 2.

Oh, Christopher Nolan. My love, my main man. Perhaps my favorite director—or, well, one of ten—until this.

& this.

& this.

[ Okay, this last one is at least kind of hilarious: Nirvana baby with muppet limbs, says I. ]

Why, Christopher? Why, after an utterly, undeniably brilliant career, would you choose to spend your bazillion dollar budget on a lifeless, incoherent, awkwardly cast action movie? Did you really think Ellen Page was an acceptable choice? Or Marion Cotillard, for that matter? & why can you kill dream bad guys? Why is "Limbo" an awkward rip-off of the oceanside scene from Pierrot le Fou? Why was this movie, which could have been so cool, just so goddamn uninteresting? Why, Christopher? WHYYY?

Ok, let's end the fantasy conversation with a man who has no awareness of my existence & focus on what's going to happen now: My goal, by the end of this two-part entrystravaganza, is to explain both my (apparently rare) utter displeasure with
Inception & my love for the genius that is (or, was) Christopher Nolan. Actually, I think I'll do it the other way around, because to understand why I was so unhappy, I think it's important to understand what I was expecting &, therefore, how far this movie fell from my estimation—& from its lofty predecessors—leaving me with only the sourest of parental disapproval: that worn, head-shaking, "I'm just so disappointed in you, Christopher..."

Part 1: The Best Damn Magician Movie You Will Ever See.

As a specific point of comparison, though all of his previous writer/director endeavors—
Following, Memento, The Dark Knight, &, okay, maybe not Batman Begins—would do, I've chosen what I think is by far one of his best films: The Prestige. I know, I know; Memento is brilliant, can't be beat—but hear me out. & if you haven't seen The Prestige, pretty please, close this window, open up
some obscure Russian pirating site
Netflix & make it happen. (Seriously: as much as I'd love for you all to read my ramblings, they'll spoil it & then some, & that's the last thing I want.) For those of you who have seen it, though, a quick refresher:

The movie chronicles a rivalry—that is, a years-long, death-dealing, limb-maiming back-&-forth—between two turn-of-the-(20th)-century stage magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) & Robert Angiers (Wolverine). Both are impossibly dedicated to their craft—&, after a tragically mistied knot, to one-upping the other, in illusion & in life, though it soon becomes clear that these men have difficulty distinguishing. Meanwhile, on the periphery of our story bubbles another feud between great rivals: Nikola Tesla, played by David Robert Jones, & Thomas Edison, played by the Fear his omnipresent henchmen inspire. Tesla—with the help of his assistant, Gollum—works on the cutting edge between science & miracle, & is therefore referred to throughout the film as a "wizard," a man "who can actually do what magicians pretend," but persecution by Edison's agents has sent him into hiding—that is, until Angiers calls upon him to help oust Borden once & for all. Throw in some standard Personal Life Issues, a phlegmatic-as-ever Scarlett Johannsen, Michael Caine playing Michael Caine, & you're ready to embark on a whirlwind exploration of magic's darker side, the pains of true obsession, &, above all else, the fickle delight of self-delusion through cinema.

But before any of this—before you can watch these two-plus hours of magical derring do—Nolan presents you with the Rules: three simple tenets of your basic magic trick, as explained by Sir Caine's distinctive patter:

Every magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called the Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object—perhaps he asks you to inspect it, to see that it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. Of course, it probably isn't. The second act is called the Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something, & makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you're looking for the secret. But, of course, you won't find it, because you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet, because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part: the part we call the Prestige.
Because this is, of course, what you've tuned in to see: behind the scenes of magic shows, the inner workings of the impossible. & so you do, for a decent portion of the film: bullet catches, water escapes, foldaway birdcages, all laid bare to your eyes, act by act, enough to take the sheen off stage magic entirely. That is, until Tesla gets involved.

In a last desperate competitive act, Angiers seeks out the shunned scientist to commission a machine that can rival Borden's Transported Man illusion—in which
Borden appears to teleport across the stage in an instant, quick enough to catch a ball he tosses from one side to the other. Though reluctant, Tesla constructs his approximation of what Angiers wants—which is, in the end, essentially a cloning machine, a device that creates a copy of whatever is placed in it, while also sending that copy several hundred yards away. Thus, by adding a trap door in the machine's base, Angiers can let himself fall below stage, while his clone carries out the trick's final act, making it appear as if he's transported miraculously; unlike his earlier attempt at duplicating Borden's trick, which required a boozy look-alike to take the bows in his place, Angiers can now enjoy his own Prestige—in both senses of the word.

& still, mess ensues: it becomes necessary to dispense of the clones, so when the Angiers who presents the trick falls through the trap door, he lands in a water tank, which locks, drowning him. Every time Angiers performs the illusion, he kills himself—or, rather, a part of himself. Blackest means for brightest ends; when a man remarks that the Machine must have "some disappointing trick" underneath its bells & whistles, the ever-wise Caine replies, "Most disappointing of all, sir: it's real." & so, a movie that would appear to disenchant ends up championing simple stage illusion by making explicit the horror inherent in Real Magic. In the end, it's a parable about not watching too closely, about being content with deception & bemusement.

Of course, this parable takes on a far greater significance when one reflects upon the medium in which it's presented. For example: early on in the film, when Borden & Angiers admire the dedication of another magician—a man who always pretends to be frail in public, in order to better conceal the strength that his tricks require—Borden remarks: "Total devotion to his art. Utter self-sacrifice. It's the only way to escape... all this." As we later learn, Borden is hinting somewhat at himself & the sacrifices he makes: living only half a life, sharing a persona with his twin in order to hide the Transported Man method. However, the comparison becomes especially potent when one considers what a devoted actor Christian Bale is—
dropping over 100 lbs, gaining them all back in muscle, donning any accent thrown at him, each time for a diametrically different role. Both Borden & Bale (really, any actor) necessarily share this desire to escape themselves, to transcend the bounds of their own specific flesh—& how better than to be immortalized in celluloid as someone else?

& consider this: when all is said & done, both men die over the course of the film, & both return from death. Like a deck of cards or a bird, they disappear—into noose or water tank—& are brought back: Borden, by his twin, Angiers by his clone, reappearing in real life just as each once did onstage. It's magic: movie magic. The film itself is the Transported Man illusion, a trick played out over a two-hour canvas; recall the first line: a disembodied whisper, "Are you watching closely?"

Ultimately, The Prestige is itself the Prestige of a far greater trick: that is, Nolan's ability to involve you in his story, to bend your sympathies, your heart rate; to make you see Robert Angiers instead of Hugh Jackman, North London instead of Los Angeles; to show a single man twinned, a living man's corpse. The three acts of a magic trick reveal themselves to be the three acts of a screenplay, & we understand why we've been watching all along: as Angiers lies dying in the film's final moments, he chokes out one of the most eloquent explanations I've heard for why people engage in art, & especially in film:

The audience knows the truth: the world is miserable, simple, solid all the way through. But if you can fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder.

Such dazzling, effects-heavy movies offer exactly this kind of escape from the vulgar & the mundane—& yet, still, as with stage magic, the audience rides a razor-thin line between buy-in & skepticism, always begging to be let in on the secret, while simultaneously hoping against hope never to know. We can never really
believe what we see in a film, because somewhere behind the emotion it conjures, we see familiar famous faces, feel the scratch of theater seats; because, as Angiers himself points out, "if people really believed the things I did"—cloning & murdering countless Hugh Jackmans, chopping off Christian Bale's fingers—"they wouldn't applaud; they'd scream."

& so, Angiers finishes his speech, falls, & Michael Caine's dulcet tones re-recite the opening explanation—now worn with new significance: scanning over the resurrected Borden, Tesla's duplicated tophats, one of Angier's hundred bodies floating lifeless in a water tank—& we are reminded, almost explicitly, of the most simple of truths, the one we dare ourselves not to confront as the credits draw ever-nearer & overhead lights threaten to shock us back to Real: "Now, you're looking for the secret. But you won't find it, because, of course, you're not really looking. You want to be fooled."

This concept is something that I think is present across all of Nolan's work: the immense power of our own minds, & the danger inherent in the supreme pleasure that fictions pose. Nolan's Batman, as the prototype of a self-made superhero, is constantly presented with his own mortality, his own limits—but, as the Dark Knight himself glibly remarks, he "can't afford to know 'em."
Following's nameless leading man spends his time "shadowing" strangers as a cure to loneliness or boredom or both, creating dramas & mysteries into which he can escape, even at his own peril. Leonard Shelby, memory-lost protagonist of the backwards Memento, is ultimately a self-perpetuating serial murderer who sets himself up to forget his crimes—&, in fact, to kill the only man who might make him realize the truth. These characters are troubled men—lost in themselves, prisoners of their own worlds—all of whom brush up against the deliciously metafilmic implication that illusion can be balanced equally with fact, that the mind is truly the last great frontier.

That said, stay tuned for Part 2: Along Comes Inception.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Tranquilize—The Killers (feat. Lou Reed).

Yes, I've been on a bit of a Lou Reed kick recently. Something about being back in New York City, I think: streets that hum with vulgarity & wildness; dirt & plastic rubbed deep into the sidewalks by countless pairs of big black boots. This song, though, is relatively new—to me, at least—& really surprising, because of all bands to have a deep enough appreciation for Lou to write a song so perfectly in his style, I would have placed the Killers (quick & cheap & soon extinguished; "Mr. Brightside," echoing like ping pong balls through a 2007 skull) around the bottom of the list. Still, I find this really wonderful—catchy, interesting, well put together, with that bizarre turn of the horror movie children's chorus halfway through.
I was just sipping on something sweet, sing the young & the old man together, & I feel a little twinge, a glimmer, like some things are indeed worthwhile.

No comments:

Post a Comment