Sunday, November 18, 2012

I wanted pretzels, I got The Prestige.

We need a word for this elvish craft, but all the words that have been applied to it have been blurred and confused with other things. Magic is ready to hand, and I have used it above, but I should not have done so: Magic should be reserved for the operations of the Magician. Art is the human process that produces by the way (it is not its only or ultimate object) Secondary Belief. Art of the same sort, if more skilled and effortless, the elves can also use, or so the reports seem to show; but the more potent and specially elvish craft I will, for lack of a less debatable word, call Enchantment. Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practised, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.
 -J.R.R. Tolkien

The Prestige is Nolan's best/worst film. In it, Nolan is absolutely clear about his aims as a filmmaker and about his techniques for achieving these aims.

Nolan sees his art as the art of lying. Misdirection, reversals, gimmicks, whatever it takes. According to Nolan, the audience enjoys being lied to; that's why they come to the movies. They want to be dominated by a greater will. That's why he makes movies.

Nolan never successfully produces a Secondary World for the audience to enter. That would involve worldbuilding rooted in truth and flourishing in truth. Nolan doesn't believe that his audience wants truth (and I suppose they don't). Nolan's audience wants to be fooled, then let in on the trick so that they can feel oh so smart.

What about The Prestige? It's all technique. It's one big elaborate magic trick. Mechanical and lifeless. Do the fans of this movie really care about any of the deaths that occur? I didn't. There is no emotional truth in this film. There are shifting degrees of allegiance that the audience is asked to give to each magician character, but we're never dared to love either one, any more than these characters love anything else besides the great reveal. The audience is slowly prepared, throughout the film, to be properly stunned by each twist and turn, settling in to that happy "aha!" moment. It's as deterministic and boring as any roller coaster ride, which we've long ago established that I hate.

Not only is there no emotional truth, there is no further demand of any kind of truth. In a terrific sleight of hand trick, Nolan unfolds the story in a specific time and place, distracting us with set design and costumes. The appearance of a place and time does not necessarily make for a place and time. Instead of a rich background that seems alive of its own, we're given all of these tidbits as one more mechanistic piece in service to the trick, the lie. Like the magician who leaves out his makeup to disguise the fact that he's not using makeup, except for when he is.

Nolan lies to his audience with a broad wink. This is all good fun.

Well, it's all immensely clever, I concede.

As usual, though, Nolan shouts his cleverness as the chiefest of virtues. Doing so, he avoids wrestling with anything more substantial. He's content to exert his dominance over his audience, leading them by the nose. And his audience is pleased to be so led.

It should be obvious why I've included these Tolkien quotes. Tolkien is addressing Fairy stories specifically, but his descriptions of "sub-creation" and Secondary Worlds" is applicable to any fiction and not just Fairy Stories. The day before watching The Prestige, I had listened to a lecture on Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories" (which essay I've read many times). Yes, I'm harder on The Prestige than I probably would have been if I hadn't had these words fresh in my mind.

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires, and when it is successful of all forms of human art most nearly approaches. At the heart of many man-made stories of the elves lies, open or concealed, pure or alloyed, the desire for a living, realized sub-creative art, which (however much it may outwardly resemble it) is inwardly wholly different from the greed for self-centred power which is the mark of the mere Magician. Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are largely made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy—even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself. That creative desire is only cheated by counterfeits, whether the innocent but clumsy devices of the human dramatist, or the malevolent frauds of the magicians. In this world it is for men unsatisfiable, and so imperishable. Uncorrupted, it does not seek delusion nor bewitchment and domination; it seeks shared enrichment, partners in making and delight, not slaves.
-J.R.R. Tolkien

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