The Prestige: Onions

I was wondering how I was going to bring this column back. After such along hiatus where I’ve become pretty much’ presumed dead’, I needed to launch 2012 Film Critique Corner with something closer to heart. It is perfect then to have a Nolan film be the set-piece of the relaunch. A film which, when I first saw it, made me believe in Hugh Jackman; an actor far away from the high-calibre of Hollywood. Definitely bankable, but as an actor he did not land a punch until The Prestige. It also has David Bowie in it. As Nikola Tesla. Read that again please.

The Prestige is about Christopher Nolan. Inception is, loosely, about the process of filmmaking but I see The Prestige as utterly personal. By ‘personal’ I mean the way he exactly goes about filmmaking. How?

“Every great 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 if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. 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 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”.” actually tells this better than I do.

But, I want to go a step ahead of Batman theory. Nolan himself, a man stemming from his influences of Kubrick and Hitchcock and all the old great greats. He is out to make art, no doubt about it, and with Inception he made art and blockbuster the exact same thing. He did it with The Dark Knight too. Nolan is magical, and I make it no secret he is my favourite modern director. My favourite director ‘of all time’ being, of course, Stanley motherfucking Kubrick. Chris has that Kubrickian quality to him, that little twitch that stirs the psychological soup. Makes you pay attention.

And this is where he shines in his filmmaking. The Prestige is alike any of his films: an onion. The Dark Knight has political commentary on post-9/11 paranoias and fears, it has themes of power and corruption and humanity and anarchism, it has tragedy rhythms. All of his films extent themselves into onionisms. Yes, I’m inventing that. What I’m getting at is that he builds his films through layers. They deserve to be watched multiple times. He consistently creates Blade Runner. The Prestige blew me away the first time but, five viewings later, it’s even better. Why? Because I’ve peeled away.

The Dark Knight has done this with me, Insomnia too, Memento a greater example, Batman Begins I did not appreciate the first time around but now it’s better in some respects by its little brother. Inception, however, is new to the game and it’ll take a while for me to digest. It’s certainly Nolan’s best film on a technical level, but I need to watch it some more times to Onionize it. The Prestige then, I feel, is where he truly came into his own. Memento and Insomnia were definitely layered, but not in the same sense that The Prestige is.

What we have are themes ranging from: science versus religion, the nature of pursuing an obsession, obsession itself, mysticism, the paranormal, human nature, friendship and self-destruction, commentary on the nature of filmmaking, commentary on the three-act plot structure, the nature of memories, stories within stories within stories, the evolution of mankind and the nature of time itself. It’s an absolutely oniony onion. The best example of a ‘layered meaning’ film, once that crams its endless themes and comments into its mise-en-scène and runs it throughout. Delicately, thoughtfully put together layers that have to be unearthed.

That’s what I’ve got from the film so far and it’s one that demands rewatchings. It’s one that demands seeing from new perspectives and considering the littlest of details and the visual trickeries. Nolan is the type of director who clicks their fingers in his audience’s faces and points at the screen. If he caught you whispering in a cinema showing of Inception then he’d kick the fucking shit out of you. Michael Bay, on the other hand, shoves your money right up his art-mocking asshole. Right up his anus. Along with the rest of his millions. And Nolan is in the wrong.

On The Prestige, I mean. It is an incredible, incredible film but to the point where it’s kind of like overload. An overflow of information all piled into a film, and concentration levels peak up  to the point where I can’t really enjoy the movie like I’ve done before. Or I have to find new ways. It says too much and speaks too little, and it’s clearly condensing hours and hours of Nolan’s philosophies and brainfarts into the tiniest streams of dialogue and frames. Objects come and go, characters blend in and out, it’s sort of like as you watch the film more and more times your vision becomes sort of distorted; unfocused.

I still love The Prestige but it’s such a massive onion. Each of its outer layers are dense, but as you get into it, the liminal takes over. The thiniest, compact layers start unearthing themselves. And they’re mushy and not filling. There’s no core to this film, no main thread of an idea. There’s a core to its characters and plot but not to its ideas, not to its legacy. It’s like a fine wine that’s somehow spoiled after years of maturity. Maybe films like The Prestige aren’t meant to be enjoyed in the same way? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But when you’re dealing with a director like Nolan who explicitly makes sure all of his films follow a ‘Blade Runner‘ principle of the last time you watched it being better than the first… then it somewhat irks me.

Also, my whole ‘onion’ investigation of Nolan has made me want to start writing something… okay this is completely off-topic but I’m trying to get a grasp on script-writing. A sitcom to be precise. Soviet Onion being about Stalin and Trotsky, the two prominent figures following Lenin’s death in 1924, and the power struggle in which both men tried to grab the top seat. I’m taking it in a different direction. Think The IT Crowd with… Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky.

Yeah we’ll see how I get on with that.

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