Film

The Prestige (2006)

This trick -- The Transported Man -- is at the center of the film's thematic concerns with replication, movement, and deception.


The Prestige

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis, Piper Perabo, David Bowie
Distributor: Buena Vista
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-10-20 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"Are you watching closely?" With this question, Christopher Nolan's new movie invites viewers to participate, or to be aware of your participation, in the storytelling. While the narrator, an "ingénieur," or magic trick designer, named Cutter (Michael Caine), goes on to describe the three parts of a trick, the film shows you his audience, a beautiful little girl whose face reflects the wonder, tension, and delight inspired by well managed tricks. In this case, a tiny bird disappears, then reappears suddenly, emerging from Cutter's hand in a delicate burst of feathery yellow-and-white.

The Prestige offers a series of similar pleasures, though if you are watching closely, these have less to do with twists of plot (derived in part from the source novel by Christopher Priest) than details of character and performance (such details being thematic). The most obvious point of departure is the competition between two obsessive men, initiated (rather tediously) over a woman's dead body. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are aspiring magicians in turn-of-the-20th-century London, initially working as audience plants/assistants to Milton (Ricky Jay).

The two men's differences are obvious and superficial: Alfred is blunt and focused only on his art, his Cockney accent hinting at his underclass roots and muscular approach to magic; Robert's a lesser magician but a more prodigious showman, with acute ambition and a lovely wife, Julia (Piper Perabo), who works as Milton's onstage assistant. One evening a trick goes terribly wrong, such that Julia is unable to make her routine escape from a water tank, having to do with a knot tied by Alfred. Her drowning becomes instant, awful spectacle, her face pale and puffy until at last the men manage to break the glass, dumping water and pale corpse onto the stage as audience members cry out.

In this moment, Robert and Alfred's entwined fate is sealed. They go on to compete over losses, tricks, and audiences, in a structure that has each reading the other's stolen journal at different points in time in order to decipher meanings and mechanics (in one case this is literal, as Alfred writes in a code based on a keyword). Each believes he gleans insight in the writings, as when Robert describes Alfred's "fickle and extraordinary nature" and Alfred sees in Robert a focus on revenge.

In fact, their desires duplicate one another. Within the overarching timeframe, one man is on trial for the murder of the other, their efforts to outdo one another knotted into such a puzzle that they're unable to maintain any measure of "professionalism." Indeed, Alfred describes their relationship as that of "two men devoted to an illusion," the precise dimensions of which remain elusive. They make no bones about their efforts to steal one another's tricks (it is apparently common practice to steal or purchase tricks). Robert goes so far as to name his version of "The Transported Man," Alfred's crowd-pleasing finale, "The New Transported Man" (Alfred then renames his show "The Original Transported Man").

This trick and its titling are at the center of the film's thematic concerns with replication, movement, and deception. As the mechanical possibilities for tricks expand and shift, indeed, as the Victorian Age gives way to the Machine Age, the men are increasingly hard-pressed to keep up. Their trick designs become more complicated and more expensive. It's no longer good enough to make birds disappear and reappear (the film shows the bloody means by which this is achieved in the trick's most primitive form), as audiences complain during performances that they've "seen it before." Death-defying tricks like the Drowning Escape and the Bullet Catch are most popular, because they are, as Cutter says, "cheap thrills, people hoping to see an accident."

The magicians seek to increase the apparent thrill and reduce the risk of accident. Or so it seems. As they seek out more elaborate and astounding illusions, the magicians also begin to imagine intersections between science and art, performance and truth. "The secret," instructs Alfred, "impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything." His very sweet wife Sarah (Rebecca Hall) wonders at his dedication, her measly paycheck supporting them as he ponders his future, increasingly removed from her and their young daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Her first attempts to keep his attention are playful and telling: she asks him on different days to say he loves her, each time parsing his capacity. "Today you mean it," she judges, though he doesn’t always. Sarah makes her tentative peace with his two selves: "I like being able to tell the difference," she says, because when he does mean it, she can feel thrilled by the comparison to when he doesn’t.

Thus Sarah is seemingly relegated to the role of longsuffering helpmeet (and mother), her frustrations eventually visible in her drinking and occasional outburst. When at last she tells Alfred, "I know what you are," the confrontation takes place as a scene partly overheard by Jess and her minder, who stand on the other side of a closed door. She may know, but it doesn't matter. Alfred's split self is turning toxic in front of her, even as it typifies the socio-industrial paradigm shift mapped out in The Prestige.

The split becomes even more pronounced when Alfred takes a lover, Robert's former assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), whom Cutter describes as a pretty girl whose inexperience matters less than the fact that "she knows how to present herself," that is, she provides an appropriate distraction on stage. She serves a similar function in the film, while also exposing the men's relationship as a series of splits that are also connections.

She also mirrors Sarah, much as the men mirror one another. During a dinner Alfred arranges, seating his mistress opposite his wife, Olivia calls him "Freddy." With this, the women share a moment. They both understand they're competing, predictably, for affection, security, and commitment from their man. But they also know they cannot "win."

The men, by contrast, continue to pursue victory, imagining that the costs won't outweigh whatever pleasure they find in besting their opponent. The contest turns increasingly aggressive, with each increasingly isolated and spiteful. Robert's efforts to reproduce Alfred's signature trick -- The Transported Man -- take him to Colorado Springs, where an inventor named Tesla (David Bowie) is conducting experiments involving wild displays of electrical charges and a faithful assistant (Andy Serkis, sans digital body-mapping), all locked up inside a spooky lab in the mountains that evokes Victor Frankenstein's.

The fact that Tesla also runs into trouble with a couple of shady types referred to as "Edison's men" raises the specter of commercial competition, yet another layer in the film's study of illusion and replication. The magicians chase after control of their illusions, performances that fool audiences who want to be fooled. They believe that their competition depends on knowing each other's secrets, on not being fooled. But they are ever fooled, as each believes he is the more original prestidigitator. Ironically, this makes them, as Olivia observes angrily, "perfect for each other."

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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