In the wake of the Dark Knight Rises shootings I've been feeling the need to revisit director Christopher Nolan's back catalog. Nolan is the director of the current Batman trilogy in addition to several other acclaimed and highly profitable films such as the art house sensation Memento and the 'high concept' summer blockbuster Inception. Truth be told, none of these films (aside from Memento to some extent) has ever really grabbed me. There's just something about Nolan's work that feels inhumanly cold and mechanical. Regardless of how fantastical the plot lines of Nolan's films come off as he has uncanny knack for reducing to the level of humdrum and even dull. Filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg have made millions making the mundane world seem magical. Mr. Nolan has made considerable coin in recent years by doing the opposite: making magical worlds seem mundane.
|Caine in The Prestige (top) and Caine and Bale in The Dark Knight Rises (bottom)|
The film revolves around an increasingly bloody feud between two magicians, a working class Brit named Borden (Bale) and an American named Angier (Hugh Jackman) against the backdrop of Victorian England. The film also briefly relocates to my old stomping grounds, Colorado Springs, at the turn of century where the American West is rapidly being taken over by industrialization.
|Angier (top) and Borden (bottom), played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale respectively|
Like all Nolan films, the themes of The Prestige are most grim. A blatant instance of this is the conflict between art and capital that runs throughout The Prestige. Of course many filmmakers have tackled this theme before, but few have made it seem as hopeless as Nolan. In the world of The Prestige, the true artist is a long-suffering individual being driven slowly mad by obsession. Several of the magicians presented in the film are forced to live lives of total fraud for the sake of their art. The Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo, whom Borden and Angier observer early in the film, can only perform his signature trick convincingly by pretending to be an old, enfeebled man whenever he appears in public. His entire public life is essentially nothing but an act.
This becomes true of the Borden character as the film progresses. His signature trick is a performance he dubs 'The Traveling Man,' where he seemingly enters a door on one side of the stage and exists a door on the other side of stage a split second later. This trick is made possible due the fact that Borden has an identical twin called Fallon, who only appears around Borden when wearing a fake beard and wig, stage makeup, and padding. Borden and Fallon also pretend to be one and other frequently, leaving both Borden's wife and mistress more than a little confused.
Borden's rival, the American Robert Angier, is not actually an American or named Angier. He is in fact British nobleman named Lord Caldlow who took on the persona of Angier so that he could pursue his interests in magic without embarrassing his artistocratical family. As such, one is left with the impression that Angier never would have become so involved in magic in the first place if not for his rivalry with Borden. Angier's wife, Julia, dies during a magic trick he and Borden are involved in, leading Angier to blame Borden for her fate. However, evening the score is not merely enough --Angier becomes increasingly obsessed with also becoming a better magician that Borden.
Borden and Angier are thus at the forefront of The Prestige's art-vs-capital conflict. But their struggle is more broadly symbolized by the real-life conflict between rogue inventor Nikola Tesla (played in the film by none other than David Bowie) and Thomas Edison (who does not actually appear in the film as a character, but who is mentioned throughout), which is used as a backdrop in the film. Tesla is a most apt choice --he has obsessed conspiracy researchers for decades.
"Many... regarded Tesla as virtually superhuman, and yet he was s naive in practical matters that he was cheated again and again by the businessmen to whom he sold his inventions. Tesla's major goal in life was to make abundant energy so cheap that all the world would live in affluence; he came so close to this in his later work that the corporations which had funded him withdrew their support, fearing he would undermine the monopolies which made them rich...
"Tesla's greatest discovery was the mechanism by which alternating current can be electrically generated and used; far more than Edison's direct-current machines, Tesla's A.C. generators unleashed the modern technological revolution. This illumination came to Tesla in a series of quasi-mystical visions during his adolescence. The key events were:
"1. The visions themselves, in some of which Tesla literally went into trance and talked to entities nobody else could see.
"2. A series of mysterious illnesses between the visions. In some of these, Tesla became acutely sensitive and felt all perceptions as painful (colors were too bright, noises too loud, etc.) Several times, Tesla nearly died of an apparent draining away of life energy which his doctors simply couldn't explain.
"3. After the final vision... Tesla was transformed into a kind of secular seer. He developed a most peculiar inner vision. He could literally 'see' in perfect detail any machine he thought about, right down to microscopic measurements and dimensions, as if h was using actual tools to measure an actual machine. He patented dozens of these devices and became a millionaire before he was 30."
(The Cosmic Trigger Volume I, Robert Anton Wilson, pgs. 137-138)
|Bowie as Tesla|
Naturally the viewer will not pickup on any of these curious facts surrounding the life and times of Nikola Tesla from watching Nolan's film. Sure, Tesla was only meant to be a minor character in The Prestige, but he has generally been described as a very vibrant and honorable, if incredibly naive, man in many accounts I've read. Here Tesla comes off as being every bit as drab, world-weary, and morally ambiguous as every other character Nolan crafts. Tesla frets about the consequences surrounding the machine he ultimately builds for Angier, but this does not stop him from building it anyway (nor from accepting a considerable amount of money, given under false pretenses none the less, from Angier). The film's one saving grace, as far as Tesla is concerned, is that he's played by David Bowie. Bowie is a man likely every bit as eccentric as Tesla was reported to be.
"Bowie's occult dabbling had become an obsession, resulting in paranoid delusions. He kept his urine and other bodily fluids in jars... and was convinced a coven of witches were planning to kidnap him and force him to impregnate them. Everywhere he traveled he dragged around a massive library of occult texts which he read and reread constantly. And yet his stamina and creative powers remained nearly superhuman. Glasses of milk and orange juice were the sum total of his diet, along with the occasional raw egg."Bowie's natural mojo is able to cut through and provide Nolan's Tesla with some much needed mystic. It's a good thing as Tesla is highly important to the film thematically even if his appearances are brief. Both Borden and Tesla are true creators, pushing forward innovation in their respective fields. By contrast, Angier and Edison are great technicians that produce more financially-lucrative products, but both are ultimately dependent upon the innovations of others. Essentially, the latter pair are stand-ins for multinational corporations that swallow up the genius of common peoples in order to maximize profits. Borden and Tesla are dreamers working to bring a little magic into the world, even as the world is increasingly turning toward the consumerism that is the lifeblood of multinational corporations. This state of affairs is perfectly captured by Tesla when he wearily intones "The truly extraordinary is not permitted in science or industry."
(The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, Christopher Knowles, pgs. 157-158)
Thus, the film presents the viewer with a kind of warped duality: ravenous corporatism, or the suffering artist who will eventually end up mad, financially destitute, or both. And this is just the surface theme. The real occult stuff that we shall now examine is every bit as thematically morose.
As the film opens, Borden is in prison awaiting execution for the murder of Angier, whom he apparently drowned in a tank in the midst of one of Angier's performances. The film puts us on notice that things aren't as they seem via the number displayed prominently on Borden's prison jumpsuit: 23. Veteran synch-watchers will immediately recall Robert Anton Wilson's 23 enigma. For those uninitiated, Wilson described the 23 enigma as something like this:
"I first heard of the 23 enigma from William S Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, Nova Express, etc. According to Burroughs, he had known a certain Captain Clark, around 1960 in Tangier, who once bragged that he had been sailing 23 years without an accident. That very day, Clark’s ship had an accident that killed him and everybody else aboard. Furthermore, while Burroughs was thinking about this crude example of the irony of the gods that evening, a bulletin on the radio announced the crash of an airliner in Florida, USA. The pilot was another captain Clark and the flight was Flight 23.
"Burroughs began collecting odd 23s after this gruesome synchronicity, and after 1965 I also began collecting them. Many of my weird 23s were incorporated into the trilogy Illuminatus! which I wrote in collaboration with Robert J Shea in 1969–1971. I will mention only a few of them here, to give a flavour to those benighted souls who haven’t read Illuminatus! yet:
"In conception, Mom and Dad each contribute 23 chromosomes to the fœtus. DNA, the carrier of the genetic information, has bonding irregularities every 23rd Angstrom. Aleister Crowley, in his Cabalistic Dictionary, defines 23 as the number of 'life' or 'a thread', hauntingly suggestive of the DNA life-script. On the other hand, 23 has many links with termination: in telegraphers’ code, 23 means 'bust' or 'break the line', and Hexagram 23 in I Ching means 'breaking apart'. Sidney Carton is the 23rd man guillotined in the old stage productions of A Tale of Two Cities. (A few lexicographers believe this is the origin of the mysterious slang expression '23 Skiddoo!'.)"
The number 23 is also important to the Sirius tradition, of which I've written much more on here and here. As for 23's connection to Sirius, Wilson writes:
"...July 23.... is the day when, according to Egyptian tradition, the occult link... is most powerful between Earth and Sirius...
"Celebrations of the Dog Star, Sirius, beginning only July 23, are the origin of the expression 'dog days,' meaning the days from July 23 to September 8, when the last rituals to Sirius were performed."The inclusion of 23 and its ties to Sirius are one of the film's few direct links to the Aurora shootings. I wrote much more on the Sirius/Dog Days synchronicity surrounding the shootings here. An obvious link to Aurora and The Prestige is the use of the theater as a site of terrorism by Borden and Angier, though in this case the terror is directed at one another rather than the audience. Thus, Angier attempts to murder Borden via pistol on the stage (though not in a theater per se), but misfires and blows off two of his fingers instead. Later, Borden (with the aid of stage makeup) ruins one of Angier's tricks and badly wounds a patron in the process before a sellout crowd and smearing Angier's reputation. Borden later moves padding beneath a trapped door during one of Angier's tricks, which Angier falls through and badly damages his leg. Angier fakes his murder during a performance, leading to Borden's arrest at the theater.
(The Cosmic Trigger Volume I, pg. 87)
|Angier preparing to shoot Borden on the stage|
Another link is the location of Colorado Springs, which plays a pivotal role in the film. Colorado Springs is just a little over an hour from the Denver area where Aurora resides. In The Prestige Colorado comes off as an alien place in stark contrast to the comfortable location of Victorian London, with it's mad scientist and curious inventions. It is an area of possibility quickly being swallowed up by industry, here appearing in the form of Thomas Edison's men. More broadly speaking, Colorado is a stand in for the American West and its untapped individuality that is slowly giving way to the refinement of corporatism. The American West was a refuge for the common man to explore his vast potential, as Tesla personifies. And now it is dying, as the arrival of Edison's men indicates. Nolan presents Colorado as a thematic place of death and now his films have brought literal death there. But I digress.
For now I will focus on a major reoccurring theme throughout The Prestige: Twins. Obviously there's Borden and his twin Fallon, the secret behind the Transporting Man trick. When Angier first sets out to replicate the Transporting Man trick his assistant, Cutter (Caine), is convinced Borden is using a double. Unconvinced, Angier continues his pathological search for Borden's secrets. It eventually leads him to Colorado Springs where Angier commissions Tesla to build him a machine that will transport him. Tesla agrees, and manages to build a wondrous machine shortly before being run out of Colorado by Edison's men. The only problem is that the machine does not transport Angier --it creates a double, or twin of him. Thus, Angier comes full circle to Borden's methods, after considerable cost and suffering.
The twin is a most curious symbol.
"All cultures and mythologies display a special interest in the phenomenon of twin births. In whatever shape they may be conceived, as completely identical, or as one dark and the other bright, or one tending heavenwards and the other earthwards, or one black the other white, or one red the other blue, or one with bull's and the other with a scorpion's head, they are expressions simultaneously of interference from the Beyond and of the twofold nature of all beings and the dualism of their physical and spiritual, diurnal and nocturnal tendencies. This dualism is light and darkness, the heavenly and earthly aspects of the cosmos and of the individual. When they symbolize in this way the individual's internal contradictions and the struggle which needs to be waged to overcome them, they acquire the character of sacrifice, the need for self-denial, destruction or submission, the surrender of one part of the self so that the other may come through victorious."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pgs. 1047-1048)
|Castor and Pollux, one of many mythological twins|
"The Father receiving praise... cannot be identified either with the God of the Old Testament or with the Father of the New. The best analogy is with Ahura Mazda of the Persian myth. Yahweh or Elohim is then approximately the counterpart of Angra Mainyu, the creator of the world of the Lie, in which we live and from which the savior is to set us free."Both Angra Mainyu and the Demiurge are at times described as copycats. While their rivals are always depicted as creative forces, the heads of darkness can do little more than copy the works of their betters. As noted above, this is a reoccurring theme throughout The Prestige as far as the pairs of Borden/Tesla and Angier/Edison are concerned: the former create, the latter can only copy them.
(The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Joseph Campbell, pg. 373)
|Angra Mainyu (top) and the Demiurge (bottom)|
But back to the twins. The concept of twins also has an interesting Jungian meaning in the context of the Winnebago Twin myths:
"Though the Twins are said to be sons of the Sun, they are essentially human and together constitute a single person. Originally united in the mother's womb, they were forced apart at birth. Yet they belong together, and it is necessary --though exceedingly difficult --to reunite them. In these two children we see the two sides of man's nature. One of them, Flesh, is acquiescent, mild, and without initiative; the other, Stump, is dynamic and rebellious. In some of the stories of the Twin Heroes these attitudes are refined to the point where one figure represents the introvert, whose main strength lies in his powers of reflection, and the other is an extravert, a man of action who can accomplish great deeds."This is apt description of Fallon, the introvert, and Borden, the extrovert. In a way, its almost inevitable that Fallon and Borden would have to pretend to be the same person, for they cannot otherwise project a full personality separate from one another. A few page late Henderson makes another fitting remark for our purposes here:
(Man and His Symbols, "Ancient Myths and Modern Man," pg. 106. Joseph L. Henderson)
"We saw in the myth of the Twins how their hybris, expressing excessive ego-Self separation was corrected by their own fear of the consequences, which forced them back into a harmonious ego-Self relation.
"In tribal societies it is the initiation rite that most effectively solves this problem. The ritual takes the novice back to the deepest level of original mother-child identity or ego-Self identity, thus forcing him to experience a symbolic death. In other words, his identity is temporarily dismembered or dissolved in the collective unconscious. From this state he is then ceremonially rescued by the rite of new birth. This is the first act of true consolidation of the ego with the larger group, expressed as totem, clan, or tribe, or all three combined."Nolan tries to apply the concept of a mystical death-and-rebirth to the twins found in The Prestige. Just before Borden is to be executed, he tells Fallon: "So... we go alone now. Both of us. Only I don't have as far to go as you... You go and live your life in full now, all right? You live for both of us." Borden then goes onto be hanged, which is symbolically associated with illumination, the goal of initiation.
(ibid, pgs. 121-123)
"Esoterically, the Hanged Man is the human spirit which is suspended from heaven by a single thread. Wisdom, not death, is the reward for this voluntary sacrifice during which the human soul, suspended above the world of illusion, and mediating upon its unreality, is rewarded by the achievement of self-realization."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 91)
|Borden about to be hanged|
When next we see Fallon, he is dressed and speaking like Borden, as though the latter had risen from the dead. I suppose this is meant to represent a kind of rebirth, implying that the souls of Borden and Fallon have now finally formed a whole personality. But in Nolan's world, the first thing the new, enlightened Borden opts for is revenge: He murders Angier/Lord Caldlow before retrieving his daughter, who had been in the care of Caldlow. This killing is supposedly a just one as Caldlow, by faking his own death, brought about the execution of Borden, who was blamed for the former's murder. Yet Caldlow's killing comes off as yet another act of petty cruelty in a film short on likable characters.
The original Borden contributed to the death of Angier's wife, continued to escalate the rivalry with Angier after he was ready to move on, and drove his own wife to suicide (or possibly even murdered her) due to the double life he was leading with Fallon. I suppose Fallon is meant as a sympathetic character, but he does little more than bare witness to his brother's destructive behavior over the course of the film and ends as a murderer in hiding with his young daughter. Fallon is ultimately little more than a coward, right down to the fashion in which he slays Angier. Angier at least showed a little grit in the film's third act, most especially in the manner he framed Borden for his murder. If Fallon is meant to be the 'new man' of initiation, then one must conclude that Nolan has grossly misunderstood the symbolism he employs.
Borden's counterpart, Angier/Lord Caldlow, does not fair any better. Symbols of initiation follow Angier throughout the film, most notably water, which serves as a kind of bookend: Angier's wife dies via drowning, which leads him on his quest. Drowning also weighs heavily on the end of Angier's journey. Death is thus closely associated with water throughout The Prestige in stark contrast to the typical associations of life commonly used.
"The symbolic meanings of water may be reduced to three main areas. It is a source of life, a vehicle of cleansing and a center of regeneration. These three themes are to be found in the most ancient traditions and they provide not only the most varied, but at the same time the most coherent series of combinations of images.
"The undifferentiated mass of waters stand for the infinite nature of the possible, containing all that is potential, unshaped, the seed of seeds and all promises of evolution, as well as threats of reabsorption. To immense oneself in the waters and to re-emerge without having been utterly dissolved in them, except by dying a symbolic death, is to return to the well-springs and regain fresh strength from the vast reservoir of the potential. It is passing phase of regression and disintegration which brings with it a progressive phase of reintegration and regeneration..."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 1081)
|Angier's wife drowning (top) and Angier (or one of his twins) drowning (bottom)|
Clearly Angier did not make it past the regression and disintegration parts. After his wife dies as a result of Borden, Angier's entire life is seemingly dedicated to besting Borden at his one love, magic. To this end Angier destroys all his close relationships, spends a fortune, and ultimately ends up dying night after night to accomplish this goal. The machine that Tesla built for Angier's to replicate Borden's 'Transporting Man' trick is not a teleporting devise, but one that creates an exact replica of the individual using it --an identical twin, in other words. In order to copy Borden's trick, Angier enters the machine every night during his performance. As it goes into effect, a trap door opens beneath the stage leading one Angier to fall into a padlocked tank of water where he drowns while the other walks out from the back of the theater to energetic applause. It is implied that the 'original' Angier is sometimes transported to the back of the theater, but sometimes also ends up in the tank. Thus, Angier's undergoes his own brand of death and rebirth night after night, and it leaves him with about as much illumination as Fallon.
Before Fallon finally puts Angier's out of his misery, he pathetically proclaims: "You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth: the world is simple. It's miserable, solid all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second, then you can make them wonder, and then you... then you get to see something really special... You really don't know?.. It was... It was the look on their faces..."
And yet the world is not simple and void of mystery... Tesla and his machine are ample proof of this. Angier, in his quest to best Borden, discovered actual magic, and preceded to reduce it to a truly grotesque parlor trick for bored aristocrats attending the theater. And in a way, this is as apt a symbol of Nolan's films as one is likely to find.
Whether Nolan deals in magicians, superheroes or dreams themselves, it is always with a lack of wonder. Indeed, Nolan seems to subtly indicate that such things are a threat to social order itself. The bulk of The Prestige unfolds against the back drop of Victorian England, a society rigidly organized around class. While it's never mentioned, there's a lingering fear that figures such as Borden and Tesla are a profound threat to this order. They are plebs endowed with incredible visions who routinely upstage their betters, and this is a state of affairs that cannot be allowed to stand. Thus Borden is dead by film's end while Tesla is clearly a broken man. Both men were undone by their dreams and the assault on the social order that their dreams represented.
Nolan seems to take the view that this is the natural, if not just, order of things. While men such as Angier and Edison may not be particularly innovative, skilled or honorable, they have the means to guide progress in an acceptable way, one that largely hides true wonder from the plebs. Against such men, why would anyone wish to rock the boat? Such a path can only lead to obsession and destruction, as Borden and Tesla are a testament too. Just settle in and enjoy the show --Be thankful for what you have, and whatever you do, do not try and rise above it.
|the tank's containing the bodies of Angier's twins, the final result of his aristocratical ambitions|