11 December 2006

The transported man.

The Question Nobody's Asking: Is this blog dead or what?

A: As I originally conceived it, pretty much yes. The idea was that this would be a space for me to occasionally blather about subjects other than movies, but it turns out that I don't often have much to say. Or at least that I rarely feel motivated enough to sit down and churn out prose. Starting in January, however, I intend to repurpose The Enchanted Mitten as a repository for bullet-point notes on old and new films alike. Hopefully, this structure, which I ripped off wholesale from the late and much-lamented Charles François (still very much alive, but apparently a cinéaste no more), will free me from time-consuming anxiety about sentence structure, segues, coming up with an arresting "lede" (as we misspell it in the biz), etc. You can see an example of what it might look like here. (Holy crap was that a long time ago. Also, kindly ignore the gushing at the top about my then-girlfriend, who turned out to be kind of nuts and was last seen star-fucking Harry Knowles, which has to be the saddest combination of compound verb and proper noun known to man.)

The Question Everybody's Asking:: What the hell happened with The Prestige?

I've received more e-mail queries from strangers about this upgrade—for those tuning in late, it jumped on second viewing from 63/100 (a high B-) to my #2 film of the year—than about everything else over the past couple of years put together. Trouble is, there's no satisfying response, unless you're partial to "I watched it again and liked it a whole lot more the second time." It's not as if I somehow neglected to carry the five the first time and came up with the wrong answer. Nor was it a question, as some might assume, of certain climactic revelations subtly "recoding" the film, since I guessed the Big Secret before the movie was even half over. I just got it this time. The narrative structure, which had seemed to me unduly complicated, now struck me as elegant and purposeful; individual scenes and performances (Michael Caine is especially strong) crackled and popped in a way they hadn't previously. Most of all, it suddenly became clear to me what The Prestige, as reconceived by the Brothers Nolan, is actually about. In a discussion that took place in the Movie Nerd Discussion Group, I complained that the film "cheated" by introducing a supernatural element into the world of stage magic, thereby violating an unwritten rule or contract or something. (A.O. Scott raised roughly the same objection in the penultimate paragraph of his generally favorable review.) Screengrab's Bilge Ebiri argued, or rather asserted, that this disjunction is the film's whole point, and he was right, although the film's theme burrows much deeper than that. Here's how I phrased it in the top ten list I submitted to the Las Vegas Weekly:

"Deviating from Christopher Priest's source novel in small but crucial ways, their adaptation suggests that only extreme self-sacrifice can rescue us from our dawning certitude that science has eliminated all mystery from the world.

Nolan & Nolan actually manage to work the above into the dialogue (arguably a mistake), but it still somehow escaped me, perhaps because I was too busy being irritated by what I perceived as a literal deus ex machina, plus what seemed like a pale retread of what Shane Carruth had explored with Primer. I was out to lunch. Like Memento, The Prestige employs blatantly artificial means to reveal heady philosophical truths, and C. Nolan, who is clearly one of the smartest filmmakers working in English, pulls the trick off with a surfeit of wit, daring, flamboyance and precision. What's more, Tesla and his steampunk invention are crucial components of that achievement. The more I rewatch The Prestige—my screener DVD keeps finding its way into the machine whenever I have a spare half hour—the more coherent and visionary it seems, to the point where I suspect that complete viewing #3 may well shove it into my otherwise barren A bracket. Just now I took another look at the prologue and realized that Caine's closing narration, which I'd thought misjudged and misleading even the second time, doesn't simply repeat what he'd said at the outset—that my mistake was paying attention to what Cutter says, rather than noting what he doesn't say. (Consider the final image as juxtaposed with the absence of that text and see if you don't shiver.) Granted, Nolan must be some kind of quixotic madman to believe that anyone was going to grasp much of what he was doing on a single viewing. But then, the first words spoken in The Prestige give fair warning: "Are you watching closely?"


Anonymous said...

Hooray! All hail the returning wondrous wordsmithy.

Adam Villani said...

Ouch. Star-fucking Harry Knowles? I hereby grant you a dispensation for any excessive bitterness toward women, relationships, and the world in general. Mike D'Angelo, you're a survivor.

Anonymous said...

Wow! THE PRESTIGE is up to 90 now - rarified air indeed. I liked it well enough when I saw it the first time, and thought I would probably revisit it at some point, but now I'm incredibly anxious to do so. Someday, you'll have to explain what "only extreme self-sacrifice can rescue us from our dawning certitude that science has eliminated all mystery from the world" means. I've been playing the movie over in my head, but still feel I must be missing something.

Sean said...

For those of us without the benefit of DVD screeners: How do Caine's two monologues differ?

md'a said...

I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn't seen it; suffice it to say that of the three acts described in the opening monologue, only two are mentioned in the closing monologue.

Since making this post, I've also realized why the closing monologue ends with the words it does: "Now you're looking for the secret...but you won't find it, because you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled." The first time, I assumed those words alluded to some plot twist I wasn't getting. In fact, they are deeply, grandly metaphorical—the culmination of what I now recognize is the film's exploration of the battle between materialism and spirituality.

Anonymous said...

md'a, you owe your faithful reader(s) a detailed, spoiler-filled exegesis of The Prestige in my opinion. I mean come on bud, you can't just tease us with nuggets about the battle between materialism and spirituality etc.

Anonymous said...

Actually the question everyone is asking is WHAT ABOUT "SKY HIGH" THE YEAR BEFORE THAT, THEN?

Never forget.

Nictate said...

I finally saw The Prestige and while too distracted by little flaws to be swept away, I did appreciate its philosophical muscle.

"Now you're looking for the secret...but you won't find it, because you're not really looking. You don't really want to work it out. You want to be fooled."

Sums up the Bush administration's sleight of hand "successes" eerily well.