Friday, July 16, 2010

Christopher Nolan Blogothon Day 5: The Prestige

I reviewed The Prestige last year as one of my ten best of the decade. And everything I had to say about it, still stands. So instead I decided to focus on the film's remarkable opening sequence which I consider a personal all time favorite. There's so much information packed into it, I see something new each time I watch it.

The opening line of The Prestige is as much a challenge as a question. "Are You Watching Closely?" So much of modern cinema is an almost aggressively passive experience, dedicated to going down as smoothly as possible. This is not Nolan's cinema, he wants you out of your default mode. Are you watching closely? You had better...

Because here comes the detail. Even in a shot as simple as this there are many layers. Look at the way it echoes the final shot. Particularly given the fact that we later learn that all these birds are being kept for death. The more times you watch The Prestige the more you find that Nolan was really being upfront about what was going on all along. The themes of doubles, is present from the beginning and echoed in about every story line in the film. Which of these birds will be "The one in the box." and which will be the one on the stage.

In his review of Inception, Ebert mentioned that Michael Caine now appears wiser then everybody else in a film just by appearing on screen. He's the perfect man to anchor such a tricky film.

If I may once again borrow from Ebert, "The Law Of economy of characters" here's the first clue you really miss. The law of economy of characters states that since actors are expensive, if an actor is featured in a shot they must be important. Therefore this little girl must be important. And yet by the time the implications of Caine sharing a scene with her should sink in. Say an hour into the film, you've completely forgotten about her. Its a neat sleight of hand, introducing the key to the whole thing, and then moving it out of sight knowing you're about to be distracted.

Our first look at Angiers. In a cruciform from the beginning. More symbols more coding. If there's a more obvious symbol for self sacrifice it doesn't come immediatly to mind. And you miss it. Again.

Our first look of the stars sharing the space. I just think that's a hell of a shot.

Our first disguise which becomes one of the main motifs of the film. Once again, a prime example of Nolan playing fair. We know Borden is a master of disguise from the beginning, and yet we just miss it.

This too is just one hell of a image.

Once again you've got to give it Nolan. I don't think anyone sees anything except precisely what Nolan wants you to see here. But when you watch the scene with context later, the same actors and the exact same reactions produce a hugely different effect. There's no cheating here.

(So now we're leaving the opening proper, but I would like to peek a head just a few minutes to marvel at the economy of The Prestige).

Seriously, that's the sequence of shots. I mean that's just down right brazen. And people STILL miss the implications of Caine with the girl.

Nolan does have true grace as a storyteller. I mean here we are in a flashback contained in a journal being read in a flashforward, and not for a second are you ever lost in that labyrinth.

And the last piece of the puzzle, the double life. Borden basically comes out and explains what he's doing. And you don't see "The Prestige" until Nolan wants you too. And I mean just look at that shot, just look at it. There's so much detail so much information. There's a wealth of detail in Nolan's shots that would make Gilliam jealous.


Neil Fulwood said...

Kudos and congratulations: this is one of the best write-ups you've ever put on Things That Don't Suck. If I may be so bold, you've aped Nolan's cinematical legerdemain by handing out so many clues and pointers without ever dropping a plot spoiler. Beautifully done!

Bryce Wilson said...

Hey thanks Neil. That means a lot.

Jake said...

Great piece, Bryce. This movie has been getting particular attention this week around the web, and I'm really interested to watch it again. I saw it twice in fairly quick succession back when it came out, but I was only about 16 or 17 and didn't pay attention to anything but the plot, and even then certainly not closely enough to follow any nuance.

I think I'll try my hand at reviewing this soon, though I don't think I'll do it as deftly as you. As Neil said, it's impressive how you danced around any reveals without getting out of the start (and therefore pointing out how layered the film is; now I really know I better be on my game when I rewatch it).

Bryce Wilson said...

Many thanks Jake. I look forward to your take!