Science, The Prestige and Intertextual References
October 23rd 2008 @ 12:03 am Uncategorized

As part-time physicist (who would have thunk it … a second post combining my disciplines) I feel I must set the record straight. I know nobody wants to hear it, but poor Tesla was not a wizard. He was just a physicist who basically invented radio, failed the electricity race and had a unit of magnetic flux named after him. The scene at the fair demonstrating wireless electricity transmission is pretty accurate. Edison went with wires, while Tesla was convinced that electricity could be transmitted to homes through the air by several hubs like the one shown. The only issue is, the voltage required to transmit electricity through the air is roughly that of lightning. In order for the scene with Tesla creating a “human” conduit supplying the bulb with power, he’d have to be dead. Like most things, electricity will travel the path of least resistance, so it would take to the air before going through a human or solid ground.

But don’t lose hope. The magical field of light bulbs is not so impossible these days. HP has patented a method of wireless charging that is not fatal to those humans nearby. Within five or ten years, we should be able to set all our enabled appliances on a special countertop and they will be supplied with power. No wires required. See this article if you’re interested.

On the film front, the magic transporting act sure looks a lot like the preview for the film adaptation of Watchmen, particularly the bit where Jon Osterman is disintegrated and becomes Dr. Manhattan. On a side note, if you’re into graphic novels, or even if you just like morally ambiguous narratives like The Prestige, I highly recommend taking a look at the book. But to the point: the nearly identical blue-electric disappearance of Osterman in the first frame of the trailer got me to thinking. Like the Cahier’s filmmakers, Hollywood has too much readily available film history to be able to make films blind. Such intertextual moments as this one must be purposeful, but to what end, really?

The Illusionist, a similarly themed film, was released concurrently with The Prestige. Same time period, same rivalry over women, opened in theaters a month apart. We can all name several times where this has happened (Antz and A Bug’s Life come to mind) and on a certain level I understand Hollywood’s desire to preemptively imitate a prospective hit. But I’ll be blunt. I don’t like it. Anyway, I’ve realized I can rail against the apparent lack of creativity, or I can try to understand the effects of such narrative strategies. 

Intertextual moments seem to me to work on two levels. On the first, they piggy-back on the distinctive positive qualities of the referenced moment by evoking it in the mind of the viewer. On another level, they “wink” at the informed watcher for being smart enough to make that connection in the first place. We all feel good and everybody goes home happy.

But I watched The Prestige after The Illusionist, which turned out the most unfortunate intertextual references. In The Illusionist, the reveal is that it’s been real all along. So in The Prestige, I felt myself applying the generalized narrative schmata of The Illusionist while I watched, waiting to see if the fabula matched up. Let me be the first to say that this somewhat lessened the impact of my first experience of a fabulous film. Accepting the reveal that it has been magic was a difficult for me as it was for the characters, when I kept expecting the ‘secret’ to be one bound by the laws of physics.

One last side note, and I’m done for the night. Magic is an interesting topic for a film. In a sense, the cinema is magic. The reason we see magicians on stage is that on film, nearly anything can be done to alter the image, which, of course, negates the impact of the trick. Most ‘magic’ films have to make the magic incredible to justify the use of a medium where stage magic is pedestrian. We expect to have the incredible baffle us, and to have the stage magic explained. Both The Illusionist and The Prestige seem to fit into this category.

Not sure what conclusions I can draw out of all this, but there you have it. First thoughts on a first viewing. 

-Leslie Stonebraker
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