Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"The Prestige" ~ A Tale of Two Shadows


Note: This post contains extensive spoilers for The Prestige. If you, like me, are one of the last people on Earth to see this movie and don't want spoilers, please do not read ahead.

The other day, I decided to take a nice, relaxing break from convention prep by watching The Prestige -- a good old-fashioned tale of love and revenge. Right up until David Bowie walks out of his lightning machine and turns it all into sci-fi, anyway.

The Prestige was one of two historical fiction pieces about magicians that came out in 2006 -- this was the Armageddon to The Illusionist's Deep Impact. That is to say, it was The Good One. It also features Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale destroying each other's lives and Michael Caine doing his best Michael Caine impression. But all silliness aside, it was a dark and enjoyable piece of work that really allowed Christopher Nolan to let his grim flag fly.

Whenever I walk into anything involving rivals, especially if the core story is the heated rivalry -- ding. Shadow story. Considering the film's entire story has an underlying current of doubles, it looked especially ripe for this sort of analysis.

Then, as with all good magic tricks, it threw me for a loop. This wasn't a traditional Shadow story -- this was two Shadow stories. One succeeding, one failing.


Where's His Brother?


Your typical Shadow metaphor flick makes use of two characters, opposites in many ways but similar in key ones. See my recent addition to the Sartorial Geek blog where I discuss coming of age in the MCU's Black Panther. The earmark of a Shadow metaphor is those two opposing but inherently linked characters, placed in a situation where one has to kill the other (see most fantasy/action) or where they have to resolve themselves to each other (see most buddy cop films -- Lethal Weapon is textbook).

The immediate invocation of pairs of birds, one having to die for the other to be "the prestige" (a beautifully double-bladed term in this movie), and our protagonists being tested to see if they're willing to kill off that first bird? It's like someone placed a road map to a character development story.

And on the surface, it's fairly straightforward. Two magicians. One down-to-earth and one well-to-do. One local, one foreign. One driven by the craft, one driven by emotion. One willing to shed blood, one looking for a way not to. Theoretically, one would be tempted to see Christian Bale's Borden and Hugh Jackman's Angier as each other's Shadow. Especially since their aim is overall the same: the perfection of the Transported Man trick.

But the movie pulls one over on us: for once, this isn't a straight Shadow metaphor. Rather, it's two dueling Shadow metaphors -- each man coping in their own way, and the upshot of those techniques. What they do, and how they choose to do it, is reflected in everything they do onstage: from birds in cages to the Transported Man trick itself.


Of Birds and Clones


Before we talk about the characters, let's talk about the birds and the use thereof. Because how each of them handles that one rather nasty trick will inform what each man's internal struggle is.

As explained early in the film, the ever-present bird trick -- bird in a cage, cover the cage, smash the cage, reveal the unharmed bird -- works only because there are two birds. In order to achieve the Prestige, one bird must be smashed in the cage. It is simply the way of it. 

Borden is willing to do anything for the perfect trick. But Angier demands no blood on his hands, and works to engineer a trick that will not kill any birds. Now, from a 21st century standpoint that's pretty admirable... and sort of what we'd want a magician to do simply based on the modern ethics of magic. But that aside, we'll be looking at all these things from a storytelling standpoint. In other words, don't @ me about believing we should actually be killing people and animals for entertainment, because we're addressing the elements as metaphors, not as real stage presences. Anyway.

To get a sense of the movie, we have to break down the bird and Transported Man trick into what it really is in the Victorian sense: a sacrifice of one half of something in order for the other to be successful. For the bird, it's a literal sacrifice of a life. In the case of the Transported Man, it's one of a pair sacrificing the applause, the ability to be the Prestige.

But bear in mind that the two bodies serve as one in both tricks. As far as the audience knows, there is only one. Frame the tricks like that, and we see the message: we are watching two men cope with the knowledge that they must be willing to sacrifice a part of themselves to gain enlightenment -- "prestige."


Borden: Hiding the Truth


Borden's secret to the Transported Man trick is a simple one: he's actually a pair of twins carrying out a lifelong ruse so their perfect trick remains safe. Both men are present at all times, however -- one in heavy disguise, speaking little and acting as a silent second, one as the "real" Borden.

Having both Bordens present at all important times is a key move: this really drives home the sense that your Shadow is not truly a detachable part of yourself. It is always there, following behind, even if you have your best face forward toward the world.

Which Borden is the Shadow? In the end, funnily enough, both were each other's. One was devoted to family; the other was devoted to magic. And in a world where magic had no ethics and there was a deadly rivalry at play, only one could exist. Both were a danger to the other's way of life, and both kept the other from living fully.

Even so, Borden (because it is fair to speak of him as one entity in this analysis) opted not to resolve his two halves. Why? Well... why do any of us? Because it's hard. Because it means we have to make a sacrifice. Because it means looking at ourselves critically.

In the end, Borden's choice isn't really his own, but the choice is made. Only one side of himself can happily survive. He can have the magic, the rivalry, the deadly thrill -- or he can have a life and a family. Unsurprisingly, it is his magician side that dies (with a final magic word, "Abracadabra," in case you lost track of which Borden is which), and his caring side that goes to retrieve his daughter.



Angier: Finding Another Way


Angier's desire not to shed blood in the birdcage trick is, to our 21st century mindset, an admirable one. And so in many ways -- and largely because we follow him and because it was his wife's death that set off the rivalry -- we see him as our hero.

Throughout the movie, he is innovating: trying to find a way to perform a trick in which sacrifice is a necessity without the sacrifice. He nearly succeeds with the bird trick. But -- and this is wildly on the nose from a psychological standpoint -- the complicated cage he's required to build to make this happen ends up hurting others. And that, just with a little prod from an outside source.

Then comes the Transported Man. He can do the trick and do it beautifully, but only if he is willing to not receive credit for the illusion at the end of it. Not only that, but it puts him in a position of high vulnerability. The scenes in which Angier and his double do the New Transported Man use one of my favorite pieces of imagery: lower levels of buildings to depict the subconscious. When Angier is below the stage, when he is moved backward and the arrogant showman doppelganger is front and center, he has no control.

There is no Transported Man without sacrifice. But instead of acknowledging this, he creates an even worse scenario, with the help of David Bowie as Nikola Tesla. Every night, he copies himself off -- both the bird in the cage and the bird in the hand -- both the sacrifice and the Prestige.

But this, quite obviously, is not a solution. In the end, contrary to one of two Bordens surviving, we have zero of dozens of Angiers surviving. Because his fix is not a fix at all. He simply drowns himself below-stage (or in the subconscious), over and over, completely unaware of how many times he's killing himself under the table simply because he's so focused on revenge and prestige.


How to Win


So here we have two men, each fighting internal battles. One believes he can simply coexist with his problems while digging a deeper and deeper hole for himself. The other looks for any alternative but the obvious one, forcing others into making his solutions for him, harming others and quietly suffocating himself all the while.

The illusion of the Transported Man is the sticking point for both: a double-sided trick that, in its performance, obligates sacrifice and self-examination. And when (or if) the illusionist finds themselves in a place where they have come through their internal strife? They no longer perform it.

Another read could see Borden and Angier as each other's Shadows: one willing to make sacrifices, the other shooting himself in the foot as he tries not to. But it's so much more appealing to see them as two people fighting the same battle at the same time in their own ways, and providing an insight into two common routes taken by people who want to do anything but change.

In the end, neither Borden nor Angier has a choice anymore when it comes to their end result. And that happens, too; in the real world, people who refuse to grow and change, or look for alternatives, will often find themselves with their back against the wall. Then they have only two choices remaining: adapt... or drown.

Metaphorically, of course.


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