How Christopher Nolan Brilliantly Hides 'The Prestige' in Plain Sight
It's fitting that Christopher Nolan, a modern-day wizard of cinema, would make a film about magicians.
The Prestige, though a comparatively "minor" entry in Nolan's filmography (because it's not Inception?), is, according to the below video essay from The Nerdwriter, one of Nolan's most triumphant pieces of cinematic misdirection. It's one that demands —and rewards —multiple viewings.
The essay argues that one of Nolan's chief obsessions as a filmmaker has always been that "cinema, as a shared narrative, can be a hugely powerful cultural force." Many have pointed out that several of the director's films seem to have "meta" elements to them, but for someone who includes so many so-called "metacinematic" themes in his films, Nolan is careful to avoid the use of self-referential cinematic imagery. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the way Nolan tweaked the established Batman universe's continuity in Batman Begins: it is Batman gospel that the Waynes were killed after going to the movies and seeing The Mask of Zorro, but in Nolan's film, Bruce Wayne and his parents attend the opera instead. Nolan acknowledged this in an interview: "A character in a movie watching a movie is very different than a character in a comic book watching a movie. It created a deconstructionist thing we were trying to avoid."
But why were Nolan and Co. trying to avoid this? Because, this essay argues, the director understands that much of the power of cinema, or at least his brand of cinema, is very much like a magic trick; Nolan demands that the viewer be fully immersed in the film, "carried along by the narrative's momentum" so that he can perform his narrative magic without anyone noticing. Nolan doesn't want his audiences to think about the movies while they're at the movies; he wants them to experience.
"A character in a movie watching a movie is very different than a character in a comic book watching a movie. It created a deconstructionist thing we were trying to avoid."
All movies are "magic" (there's a reason those two words appear in such close proximity all the time), but Nolan is, perhaps more than any other modern Hollywood director, obsessed with misdirection and manipulation. In a way, his films are all multi-million dollar feats of sleight-of-hand of the same sort Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale perform in the film. Michael Caine's character sums it up nicely in the first moments of the film:
The Prestige is itself a magic trick because it tells you what it's going to do, and then does it, and succeeds at doing it because it's told you it was going to do it. Illusionists (and filmmakers, and conmen, and lots of other people) take advantage of the fact that human beings have two kinds of attention: there's the so-called "top-down" variety that allows us to focus on a chosen detail, and then there's the "bottom-up," or surprise, attention that we pay to things that disturb our concentration, like ringing phones and other distractions. While the first form is controlled by the comparatively modern and sophisticated pre-frontal cortex, the second is far more primitive and ancient (read: dumb). In addition, people are usually over-confident in their own cognitive abilities. We can only focus on one thing at a time seriously, so when a magician starts directing us to concentrate on this and then that, we have no choice but to pick one. And you better believe that if you tell me you're going to do something and you do it, I'm going to look everywhere else but where you want, so as to catch you in the act. But all it takes is a well-timed and skillful diversion to flummox even the most dedicated observer and render their efforts moot.
Psychologist David Strayer, who studies attention, says: "people often have the illusion that they're balancing all their tasks equally, and performing well at all of them." Fortunately for the magician, as well as the filmmaker, this isn't the case. Alfred Hitchcock was a master magician in his own right, influencing countless filmmakers with his puppeteer-like control of audience attention. And Hitchcock was not always the rotund silhouette of collective memory. Before film caught his eye, he started as a story writer, contributing tales with twist endings to small magazines. From the beginning of his career, the director was focused on misdirection (pardon the pun). Nolan, too, is obsessed with pursuing his ends without the audience catching on, and audiences flock to his movies because of this skill.
In an odd bit of synchronicity, an article about The Prestige at the A.V. Club has the same headline and was published just five days before the video essay was posted, though Nerd Writer claims this is a coincidence, and the two pieces are completely different, not only because the former is a video essay. The A.V. Club focuses on the ways in which Nolan uses the techniques outlined above to hide his film in plain sight. In retrospect, it's all so obvious. And why not? After all, all Nolan did was tell you what he was going to do, and then did it.
So, in conclusion, your card wasn't the three of clubs, was it? No? Of course it wasn't, because I never told you to pick a card. I don't even know you. You probably don't even keep a deck handy, do you? See? Magic.