Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Top Ten Films Of The Decade: Number 4: The Prestige

As much as I love it. The Dark Knight is not on my top ten of the decade list. I know. I feel like a fraud. I love The Dark Knight the way fat people love chocolate. And it more or less epitomizes the type of movie I started this blog to write about, and the type of movie I’m desperate for Hollywood to continue to make. Of all the films that failed to make the cut it was only The Dark Knight, Ghost World and No Country For Old Men that really broke my heart to keep off.

But in The Dark Knight’s case the fault lies squarely with this movie. Because there was no fucking way it wasn’t making the list.

Christopher Nolan has one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood right now. There’s no one I can even compare him to.

I think with his first three American movies it was fair to term him an above average Hollywood stylist, a Ridley Scott type (though I don’t know if Scott ever made a movie quite as wounded and soulful as Memento). I certainly liked Nolan a whole lot with those three films (I plan to write about what makes Insomnia such an underrated film sometime in January) but I didn’t really love him. This movie changed that.

The thing about Nolan is there’s no one else LIKE him. David Fincher maybe, but Fincher’s more mannered, more dedicatedly a stylist. The Wackowski’s share his penachet for blending heady idea’s with genre entertainment, but the Wackowski’s are at their core fanboys and will always play by the strict rules of genre even when they're breaking them down (They never for example would have had the stroke of genius to turn The Dark Knight into an epic CRIME film rather then a superhero movie). The only filmmaker that comes close to him in his ability to mix ideas, genres, and artistry is Coppala in his prime. And so far anyway Nolan seems to have missed Coppola’s self destructive “crazy as a shit house rat” gene which caused him to go ape shit in the jungle, and spend an unprecedented fuck ton of money on what basically amounted to allowing himself to edit on a VCR. And now that he can officially do whatever the fuck he wants Nolan is just fascinating.

And it all began with this dark little fable. An example of someone stepping up their game an unprecedented degree.

The Prestige’s opening, is possibly my favorite of The Decade. What makes Nolan’s film so rewarding to return to is to see just how carefully Nolan has woven the central mystery of his film into its fabric.

Its all right there in that opening ten minutes. Nolan even has Michael Caine (I love the bizarre but perfect latter day partnership that Caine and Nolan have apparently formed, its resulted in some of Caine’s best work) tell you its alright there in the opening ten minutes. But you don’t see it, not yet, because as Caine also informs us, “You don’t really want to.” The bracing non linear opening of the film, is the equivalent of a great magician’s warm up, everything is in plain view but its all misdirection (By the way how much would Orson Welles have fucking loved this movie?) Inter cutting seemingly random bits of information, with a wondrously staged magic act, it’s the work of a master craftsman in full command of his art.

Let’s take a moment to talk about Nolan’s strength’s as a visual artist. Since he’s not especially showy about it he’s not often talked in such terms, But Nolan has one of my favorite looks of a director working today. The entire film is deep and rich looking, caked in beautiful shadow, illuminated with stark flashes of blue white light. From the opening images of those top hats blowing in the Autumn leaves, and the lightning reflecting off the cataracted eyes of the stagehands, The Prestige establishes a hypnotic, slightly surreal look and feel to it.

But its Nolan’s ability to marry this elegance to a moving story that truly makes the film great. Telling the tale of two magician’s who make it there lives work to destroy each other (and telling it in a bold non linear fashion) the story is so captivating, that you nearly forget that there’s a stiletto waiting at the end for you as promised. Another of Nolan’s great gifts is an impeccable eye for casting. His choice of Hugh Jackman (A better actor then he is usually given credit for. Or opportunity to show for that matter) was a perfect one. Allowing the actor’s natural callowness to curdle gradually into obsession and mania. By the time we (and he) realize he’s gone too far its too late. Christian Bale is often accused of just doing Christian Bale, but that ignores that what Christian Bale does is pretty damn good. He might have his tricks, but few actors dedicate themselves to a role the way he does. And he makes some brave choices as Jackman’s foil, never allowing the audience to warm up to him even as he becomes the nominal hero. Even David Bowie, Michael Caine, and Andy Serkis three enjoyable actors known to showboat, restrain themselves turning in tight controlled performances that turn the psychological screws perfectly.

But in away, this deliriously well crafted and enjoyable story that Nolan has laid out for us is also misdirection. While we’re not watching he turns The Prestige into a startling meditation on art in general, and film in the specific.

If Ratatouille was about the joy of creation, The Prestige is about its darkside. The mania and tunnel vision that can come as a result of allowing yourself to be gripped by what you do. The genius thing about it is the way Jackman gradually loses sight of even his desire for revenge, it becomes about the act, the pride of being the best, the prestige. And though Bale might be the better magician, he’s too analytic to understand just what makes his skills worth while.

And this is where it really comes together. Its been their all along, the themes of staging and illusion. Half the film is set in Vaudeville houses, the precursor to the movie theater, even Film’s Inventor, Edison himself, hangs over the movie like a dark specter just off screen. Even the name of the highly contested illusion, what does it promise to do but “transport” you. Its all there in that last monoluge by Jackman. Which I find to be one of the most moving defenses of cinema since the climax of Sullivan’s Travels.

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 the look on their faces...

I don’t know about you but I that’s what I find moving about the cinema, about all art really. It sounds melodramatic but isn’t it nice every once in a while to turn our backs on the yawning specter of death?

And that’s when I really started to pay attention to Nolan, in this he promised (and in The Dark Knight he payed off) that he was a man, who oxymoron that it might be, takes entertainment seriously. Someone who will never condescend, check his swing, or sign up just for a paycheck. Because while most would argue that the show isn’t an important thing, Nolan knows the truth. It’s the only important thing.


Mark Davidson said...

I'm a HUGE Christopher Nolan fan, but actually think this is his weakest film. Simply because I don't feel it features anything as ground-breaking as his others. The story is incredibly tight, and well-made, but I do feel there are other directors who could do it just as well. His other movies I feel, could only be made my Nolan.
Then again, I am slightly bias since I have a thing against "twist" movies.

mitchell said...

I love that quote from angier. shows at the very last minute that everything he did, all those terrible things, he did with reason behind it. Plus, he never really got ever his wifes death (ala him loving to drown himself).

Borden did this terrible, life-destroying trick just so he could be the innovative magician. very selfish.

It's really not all about the twist, Mark, that's just gravy. The meat and potatoes of the movie is the rivalry. Who is the better person? Who is the better magician? Who "won?"

For me this movie is #1 of the decade.