A/N: Second year term paper for literary theory, also The Prestige was way better than The Illusionist. Fight me. Word cap: 1200 Mark: Somewhere in the A range.
Are You Watching Closely? – Illusion, Identity and The Real in The Prestige
In The Prestige (2006) Christopher Nolan uses a blood feud between the magicians Alfred Borden and Robert Angier at the turn of the century to illustrate the semantic vagueness of magic and illusion as power over others. One particular illusion called the transported man becomes the focal point of obsession between the magicians. The film explains that each magic trick consists of three parts: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge introduces the audience to something seemingly ordinary such as a bird, some cards or even a man. In the turn the magician takes the ordinary object and makes it do the extraordinary by making it disappear, but the illusion is not complete without the prestige. It's not enough for the object to just disappear, the magician must make it reappear somewhere else along the symbolic chain. The audience will want to look for the secret, but ultimately they want to be consumed by the illusion because the illusion obscures a more horrible reality: there is no truth. Through bifurcated identities and fragmented narratives, The Prestige explores the relationship between illusion, identity and a traumatic real in stage magic and film.
Stage magic depends on a balance of power between the magician's ability to appear only as an object of the audience's gaze while simultaneously also controlling it (Backe). This power struggle repeats itself on many different levels throughout the film, if this equilibrium is disrupted by a gaze he (the magician) cannot control then his identity breaks apart. One instance of this power struggle of perception occurs when Angier first attempts to duplicate Borden's transported man. He hires the drunk out of work actor Gerald Root to become his double in the prestige portion of the trick. This man who effectively 'becomes' Angier is able to completely mimic his mannerisms but is unable to speak as his speech would give away the illusion. Angier is initially impressed by his performance, to which Root replies: "Did you think you were unique? I've been Caesar, I've played Faust. How difficult could it possibly be to be the Great Danton?" Caesar and Faust are tragic characters concerned with honour, truth, idealism or an obsession with hidden knowledge. As Root bows and exists off the stage he quotes Hotspur from Shakespeare's Henry IV: "my liege I did deny no prisoners." Angier is ultimately not only a prisoner to the gaze of the audience but to Root whom he has given up control.
The Lacanian real and its remainder, the unattainable object of desire object a illuminates the invisible core of the magic trick – trauma. "The spectator is unconsciously unwilling to see the truth in illusion and the visible in the invisible" (Joseph). The relationship between the real and the reproduced is traumatic and the magic trick mirrors the traumatic aspect of performance: an unbearable reality and a missed event. Early in the film Angier and Borden are challenged to figure out the method of a travelling Chinese magician. After watching his trick, Borden explains to a bewildered Angier that this is the trick: his life is a total devotion to the illusion. Self sacrifice is the only way to escape the unbearable misery of the real.
Angier doesn't accept this explanation and continues to resist it for the majority of the film because it requires the acceptance of a traumatic real. It's the fundamental reality that human life is spent constructing a narrative and pretending to be someone else. He seems to believe in a noble or transcendental illusion to save us from the terrible real. Angier's illusions give others a sense of wonder in a world that seems mundane but is actually horrific: "If people actually believed the things I did on stage they wouldn't clap, they'd scream. I mean think of sawing a woman in half."
The concept of the stage magician is a representation of literary author and filmmaker as they are both narrators that use power, misdirection and invisibility. Both magicians are attempting to grasp some sort of real through the medium of theatre. Theatre and stage magic by proxy confront the real through the concept of an "unreproducable event." According to Peggy Phelan when a performance disappears it does not reappear. Stage magic alludes to a kind of essential nature that the audience can never entirely experience again. Such an event escapes the gaze and thus cannot be isolated. Performance is a rehearsal for an object that never returns. The object that disappears and then suddenly reappears is an elaborate fantasy of an eternal return. The trick stages an illusion of return wherein invisible excess conceals that which will never reappear (Joseph).
As Jean Baudrillard explains in Simulations and Simulacra, the transition from signs that conceal an object to signs that conceal that there is nothing is the turning point. This initiates a transition from transcendental truth, one that still allows for ideology, to a simulation that does not require a god to distinguish the real from its simulated reappearance. Angier's ability to somehow authentically copy himself with Tesla's machine reflects this. The simulacrum (duplicate) or the illusion has the ability to become its own reality but must remove the excess, often traumatically.
The art of a magician is not just simple illusion, but what surrounds it: the construction of a reality to support the illusion. Harry Cutter, the designer of such illusions reveals this early on when he tells a frustrated Angier that Borden's transported man trick (like the Chinese magician) isn't a trick; it's real. Of course, Angier doesn't believe him. The traumatic nature of the trick both onstage and onscreen points to the limits of vision, what is seen and what is selectively repressed. The trick overwhelms vision and the invisible becomes a respite from a traumatic real. Magic is a representation of semantic vagueness. All things exist inside a system of languages to which there is no absolute real, knowledge or truth.
Backe, Hans-Joachim. "Disappearing Acts: Stage Magic and the Illusion of the Body." Comparative Critical Studies,10. 2013. 91-105. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Baudrillard, Jean, and Mark Poster. " Simulacra and Simulations." Selected Writings. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2001. Print.
Joseph, Rachel. "Disappearing in Plain Sight: The Magic Trick and the Missed Event." Octopus: A Visual Studies Journal, 5. 2011. 1-14. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Phelan, Peggy. "The Ontology of Performance: Representation Without Reproduction." Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. 1993. 146. Web. 30 Nov. 2016.
Nolan, Christopher and Jonathan. The Prestige. Warner Home Video, 2006. DVD.