Top Hats Without Aura
When the hoopla about Christopher Nolan’s overwrought, trite, and overrated Batman trilogy subsides, it will become clear that the director’s masterpiece is The Prestige, a 2006 film based on Christopher Priest’s 1995 eponymous novel. The plot concerns a rivalry between two late 19th century magicians, the upper class Robert Angier (played by Hugh Jackman) and the working class Alfred Borden (played by Christian Bale). The film is built around ever increasingly sophisticated versions of the film’s opening trick in which a bird mysteriously disappears from a cage, only to reappear out of nowhere in the magician’s hand. The trick is cruel: the bird is crushed but secretly replaced with a double, to the unknowing delight of the confounded spectator.
Angier and Borden convert the bird trick, one-upping each other to create more astonishing versions transporting their own bodies. The success of Borden’s “The Transported Man” infuriates Angier, who develops the even more popular “The New Transported Man” in response. The film climaxes with Angier’s ultimate achievement, “The Real Transported Man,” in which he disappears from the stage, appearing an instant later at the back of the theatre.
The secret to how the trick is accomplished is not only the central mystery of The Prestige, but also the film’s elegant thematic link to critical and cultural history. In the most compelling sequence, Angier seeks out Borden’s secrets by following a clue to visionary scientist Nikola Tesla’s laboratory in Colorado Springs. Played by David Bowie, the film establishes Tesla’s importance to the 20th century. In real life dreaming of communicating through the ether, and thus inventing the cell phone almost a century before its actualization, Tesla in the movie invents a matter transporter straight out of Star Trek.
When Angier visits Tesla’s lab, the scientist shows him his souped up Van de Graaff generator, which is intended to make objects disappear. As Angier leaves the grounds, thinking the machine a failure because it has no effect on the top hats Tesla uses as samples, he stumbles upon a huge number of top hats out in the woods, thus indicating that the machine in fact creates clones of the original objects, which only appear to not be affected by the electrical machine inside the lab. In short, the device mechanically reproduces matter. The film thus exemplifies the central obsession of the one of the most important acts of criticism of the 20th century, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936).
In that essay, Benjamin equivocates as to the meaning of modernity, arguing that traditional artworks lose their aura when they can be so easily reproduced, not by human hands, but instead by machines. What do we make of the fact that the once precious Mona Lisa can be purchased as a photograph postcard anywhere in the world for ten cents? The world of photography and cinema comes to transcend that of painting and sculpture.
Benjamin predicts the obsessions of The Prestige:
Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web…. For contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. (233-4)
Benjamin’s study of the transition between the traditional world of the painter and the magician to the modern era of surgeons and cameramen is enacted by the images of The Prestige. Indeed, Nolan’s film is a kind of adaptation of Benjamin’s essay. As the film’s narrator, John Cutter (played by Michael Caine) describes the bird trick in the opening scene, he argues that “every magic trick consists of three parts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige,” essentially re-stating Hollywood three-act structure: the exposition, the development, and the climax. The mechanisms of 19th century magic become the plot structures of 21st century films.
The late 19th century, the moment when the era of the stage magician gave way to the filmmaker, most famously embodied in one man, Georges Melies, becomes the historical ground on which The Prestige explores the implications of Benjamin’s argument. The science of Nikola Tesla—electricity used to transport matter—replaces the slight of hand of magicians thrilling audiences with misdirection.
Like Benjamin, Nolan’s film equivocates about the implications of this development. On the one hand, the loss of traditional magic at the hands of ever increasingly scientific gadgetry on the stage leads to horrific death and destruction. “The New Transported Man” requires one of Angier’s clones to be murdered each time the act is performed. The film ends with Borden’s twin, Fallow shooting Angier’s clone, Lord Caldlow, a reproduction of murder without human intervention, an aura-free society in a different sense. On the other hand, The Prestige is an exquisite example of technological wizardry, using all of the techniques of 21st century filmmaking (lighting, sound reproduction, and the like) to tell its story.
Benjamin celebrated the democratization of mechanically reproduced art in the guise of Charlie Chaplin comedies while at the same time expressing his outrage at Nazi Germany’s use of mass art to aestheticize politics. For Benjamin, the Nuremberg rallies wherein masses of people are reduced to geometric arrays is related to the cinema’s construction of passive spectators overwhelmed by easily reproducible images. The Prestige encourages us to ask Benjamin’s questions from 70 years before. Does mechanically reproduced art render us more human because it is democratically available to all, or does it strip away our humanity in denying us access to the unique accomplishments of the artisan’s hands? The Prestige is caught in the crosshairs of Benjamin’s essay, a populist film that laments the death of magic, and yet a masterful achievement of mechanical reproduction, a film whose aura-less top hats would have fascinated the German critic.
– Walter Metz