Functions of Film Sound: The Prestige
October 18, 2015 2:44 AM   Subscribe

More subtly, offscreen sound is used to withhold the "Prestige," or the payoff, of each man's greatest trick. (Originally, the word prestige meant "illusion," especially one that dazzles the eyes.) Alfred's first, minimal version of the Transported Man is shown only in part. We see the setup with Robert watching avidly and Cutter elsewhere in the audience, skeptical. But we don't see the Prestige phase of the trick. Nolan keeps the camera on Cutter while we hear the second door open and the bouncing ball being caught by the duplicate Alfred. Nolan thereby makes the trick itself vague, to be revealed in full later. Conveying the illusion through offscreen sound also emphasizes the contrasting reactions of Cutter, who is unimpressed, and Robert, who considers it "the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen."

David Bordwell (previously: 1, 2, 3) on the use of sound in Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.
posted by smcg (31 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was great.

I take it this kind of writing is fairly common in film criticism, but frankly it makes me think that some people are enjoying things more than me if they're able to comprehend and vocalize all the amazing techniques and moments this clearly.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:06 AM on October 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Bordwell is just amazing. Even if you're not a fan of Nolan's film the essay is worth reading to see how thoroughly and incisively he can analyze a movie.
posted by octothorpe at 4:14 AM on October 18, 2015


I take it this kind of writing is fairly common in film criticism...

I'd like to tell you that's true, but Bordwell is in a class entirely of his own when it comes to taking a (neo-)formalist approach while writing with clarity and style.

...but frankly it makes me think that some people are enjoying things more than me if they're able to comprehend and vocalize all the amazing techniques and moments this clearly.

That's what study does, right? (Well, sometimes. When it's not making you far too angry at things that are slightly wrong.)
posted by thetortoise at 6:06 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


Michel Chion wrote a fantastic book called Audio-Vision about sound in film. Yes he's a French film theorist, but it's very clear and readable in translation. It is a little broader than this article --- he's trying to come up with a general theory of how sound changes the meaning and experience of the image on the screen. I really recommend it to anyone who found this essay interesting.
posted by vogon_poet at 7:19 AM on October 18, 2015 [7 favorites]


Rick Altman's work on the subject (Sound Theory Sound Practice, Silent Film Sound, among others) is worth a look too.
posted by thetortoise at 7:43 AM on October 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also (sorry to triple-post!) I don't know about the authorship of this particular chapter, but Kristin Thompson, Bordwell's collaborator on Film Art, should probably be credited here also.
posted by thetortoise at 7:51 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


This is a wonderful look at a magnificent film. The Prestige is one of the very few films that I believe actually manages to improve upon the book it's based on.
posted by Proofs and Refutations at 8:24 AM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's quite a spoiler to put on the front page...
posted by Going To Maine at 8:32 AM on October 18, 2015


Are you watching *listening* closely...
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:15 AM on October 18, 2015


Oops...might should read the article before posting...I don't like the author's use of "trick". The stages of a performance distinguish trick from illusion. I hadn't known the terms promise, turn, and prestige before the movie, but structured some rudimentary exercises for kids and make a point of saying, "A dog does a trick, but what I'll show you should be called an illusion." I had a few simple illusions (coins and pencils) that I'd perform and deconstruct and emphasize the term misdirection. It was a module, really, with a theme about the importance of imagination and the suspension of disbelief and how easily it comes to kids but is lost by many by adulthood. I wasn't as explicit about it as I've termed it for the post.

And then this wonderful movie came out and made me seem derivative.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 9:48 AM on October 18, 2015


I don't like the author's use of "trick". The stages of a performance distinguish trick from illusion.
A trick is something a whore does for money...or cocaine CANDY.
posted by pxe2000 at 10:59 AM on October 18, 2015 [5 favorites]


I hadn't known the terms promise, turn, and prestige before the movie

That's because, so far as I am aware, they were made up for the novel.
posted by Justinian at 1:46 PM on October 18, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, shit. A premise I gave was nearly word for word to the movie: Making something disappear is okay...but an illusion brings it back!

I know the movie's been given attention before on the Blue because any movie attempting to flesh Tesla, and using Bowie to do it, is supercool. Its release was alongside The Illusionist and served me to example a working theory that studios frequently spy on another, or producers "share", with a notion that competing films can generate greater returns-- Hollywood figures if you'll see one movie on X, you, or your friends, will see another. Not much of a theory really. But I had noticed a few "twin" releases concurrently in preproduction and production rather than serial, or simply capitalizing on the other's success. Anyway, both movies had fans for many different reasons I recall. The Illusionist, with its attention to some historical illusions was often reported as more authentic and I hated that interpretation.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 2:56 PM on October 18, 2015


Bordwell's (cautious) defense of Nolan is here.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:10 PM on October 18, 2015 [3 favorites]


I'm bewildered that The Prestige and The Illusionist inspire admiration. Personally, the notion that an artist of the stage, granted the power of Tesla's technology to perform true miracles, would instead murder nightly for the applause of an audience (as The Prestige obliges us to accept) is a nonsensical non-starter.

The Illusionist posits a 19th century magician who creates illusions (ghostly three-dimensional figures walking up and down the aisles of a packed theater) which would constitute a multibillion dollar technology if possible today. In order, we are to believe, to ruin a man not even guilty of the crime originally suspected, and after the magician has already escaped with his inamorata.
posted by 0rison at 5:33 PM on October 18, 2015


Personally, the notion that an artist of the stage, granted the power of Tesla's technology to perform true miracles, would instead murder nightly for the applause of an audience (as The Prestige obliges us to accept) is a nonsensical non-starter.

Personally, I found the conceit delightfully over-the-top and fittingly gothic and horrible. I mean, I can’t say that I’ve bothered to watch the movie more than the once, but it was a fine turn-off-your-brain entertainment. De gustibus, etc.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:30 PM on October 18, 2015


The idea that Tesla invented a teleportation/cloning machine that somehow violates Newton's laws (where does all that mass come from?) doesn't bother you but the way it's used does?
posted by octothorpe at 7:50 PM on October 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


...that somehow violates Newton's laws...

A contemporary was busy doing just that. Tesla: Is there any greater touchstone for our age? He made Brin cry as a boy while Musk staves off global disaster in his name. His earliest fruits stolen, the most ambitious application stalled, and his laboratories seized upon his death. I can compare George Washington Carver: Hey! I made leather from a pumpkin. Not so fast, nerd!
posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:55 PM on October 18, 2015


I'm bewildered that The Prestige and The Illusionist inspire admiration. Personally, the notion that an artist of the stage, granted the power of Tesla's technology to perform true miracles, would instead murder nightly for the applause of an audience (as The Prestige obliges us to accept) is a nonsensical non-starter.

I mean, you're not wrong that Angier's vision is incredibly limited, but does a plot problem really ruin a terrifically staged film for you? I agree with Going to Maine that it is the grandiose nature of this that makes it work, the sheer insanity that Angier has succumbed to to defeat his rival, and all along the answer he was searching for was in plain sight.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:47 AM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Personally, the notion that an artist of the stage, granted the power of Tesla's technology to perform true miracles, would instead murder nightly for the applause of an audience (as The Prestige obliges us to accept) is a nonsensical non-starter.

One of the points that the movie makes again and again is that miracles are terrifying and incomprehensible (movie Tesla says that our grasp exceeds our nerve), and that only something that's been properly domesticated (like an illusion) is useful. Considering that Robert is obsessed with showmanship, it's not hard to see how he would subvert a miracle to turn it into just an excellent presentation. It's not the competency (or moral dimensions) that are important to Robert but the effect on the audience.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:30 AM on October 19, 2015


I loved that bit of the movie, because of course it's mad, and of course that's how teletransportation actually works. (This is an old philosophical puzzle from when Star Trek first aired, made famous by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons: dematerialization and teletransportation just is suicide+cloning.)

It's totally incomprehensible that anyone would make that choice, and that's okay. He could just as easily have an army of clones and pulled off the same trick as the Borden twins did, but he doesn't even consider that. It's great story-telling and great movie-making that by the end the choice appears horrible by somehow still characteristic, inevitable for Angier.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:19 AM on October 19, 2015


anotherpanacea - as I'm a Nolan sucker, your post makes me feel obligated to defend the script.

In theory, doesn't he (Angier) have to voluntarily go in to the drowning cage? Any clone he generates has full knowledge of the process, and couldn't really be tricked in to the act. Using force would likely fail as well, so it only sort of works if there are 2 Angiers total - one sacrificing himself for the trick, and one coming in to life simultaneously.

Maybe I'm underthinking it, but I don't see how an army of clones accomplishes what he wants without fighting to the death.
posted by GreyboxHero at 1:43 PM on October 19, 2015


I enjoyed the movie, but it struck me having discovered this technology, Tesla's problems financing his projects would have been solved — just duplicate as many gold bars as needed.
posted by rochrobbb at 2:46 PM on October 19, 2015


This is my favorite film of all time. The essay was great. He covered so much, yet still there are loads of doublets he didn't even get into — the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, US and UK, the similarities of the women, or the ingeneurs, the opposition of magic versus science, the competing theaters across the street from each other, on an on. And I just love how meta every piece of dialogue is; it's made for multiple audiences, us very much included. Even the liberties taken with what is possible are steadily pitched to their respective viewers — there are the analog illusions involving contraptions and stage doors and sleight of hand, which make internal sense in the world the Nolan's have constructed and yet also there is also the fantastical and sinister illusions that can be achieved through the medium of film, the pledge for us to accept and then attempt to reconcile with all that we have seen.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:24 PM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


In theory, doesn't he (Angier) have to voluntarily go in to the drowning cage?

Err... why does there have to be a drowning cage? Why can't he just go in one door and come out the other, the way the Bordens do? Doesn't the actual drowning happen below the stage, anyway? That is: it's so far from being part of the act as to be unwatched by the audience, so why use it at all?
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:44 PM on October 19, 2015


It’s true that he could do something similar as the Bordens, living a double-life with a clone, but I think it’s better to interpret the repeated murders of himself through the lens of his mania rather than as the best possible choice when given access to a cloning machine. If you start going that way, you’re going to end up why he isn’t just counterfeiting piles of gold.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:04 PM on October 19, 2015


GreyboxHero: anotherpanacea - as I'm a Nolan sucker, your post makes me feel obligated to defend the script.

Going To Maine: I think it’s better to interpret the repeated murders of himself through the lens of his mania rather than as the best possible choice when given access to a cloning machine.

This conversation has gotten weird. I think I understand your position. What I don't understand is what I said that made you think I disagreed with your position.

Here's what I said: "It's great story-telling and great movie-making that by the end the choice appears horrible but somehow still characteristic, inevitable for Angier."

What about that made you think I disagreed with the interpretation you offer? Why does the script need to be defended against the claim that it is "great story-telling"? If the drowning cage weren't horrible and completely avoidable, it wouldn't be the result of mania and obsession.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:09 AM on October 20, 2015


For me, part of Angiers rationale for drowning the doubles immediately stems from his former experience with his drunk double practically ruining his life and career. He wants singular control, and is willing to pay the price. That is, he knows that he wants that, so he can't even trust himself with it. So he must eliminate the threat, lest the illusion go awry again. And drowning under the stage is a fitting sort of pain and punishment for what he'd endured on stage in previous acts, namely, his wife drowning. In this sense, he is sort of stuck in time and space, and compelled to repeat the tragedy night after night.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2015


Like the illusion is an allusion to reliving loss.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:01 PM on October 20, 2015


Nolan kills off wives/girlfriends a lot, doesn't he?
posted by octothorpe at 12:08 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


Pretty much every single film, yeah.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:19 PM on October 20, 2015


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