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Niceties: how classical filmmaking can be at once simple and precise

Sunday | March 22, 2009   open printable version open printable version

DB here:

A film academic once complained that I was too preoccupied with “formalistic niceties.” So here I go again. But read no further if you haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

Dueling magicians: The film’s premise might be considered high-concept. In turn-of-the-century London, two young conjurers launch their careers with different attitudes toward their craft. Robert Angier favors audacious showmanship, while Alfred Borden is committed to finding a trick that will baffle the experts. Their rivalry is ignited when Alfred accidentally kills Angier’s wife during a dangerous underwater stunt. Their struggle peaks around each one’s supreme trick: transporting himself from one point to another instantaneously.

The item that attracts my attention today is established in the film’s opening sequence. As the voice of Cutter (Michael Caine) explains a magic trick’s three acts, we see a climactic confrontation between the competitors. Hoping to discover Robert’s secret, Alfred watches the Real Transported Man performance from the audience.

As Cutter’s narration mentions “a man,” the camera picks out Alfred in the crowd. Cut to Robert onstage, a shift that establishes the two as our protagonists.

What interests me is the view of the bearded Alfred: a medium-shot framing him nearly in profile facing right. This framing will be repeated, but varied, when Alfred’s voice-over diary entry introduces both him and Robert as apprentices, working as audience shills for another magician:

We were two young men at the start of a great career—two young men devoted to an illusion, who never intended to hurt anyone.

The new shot parallels the introduction of Alfred in the first scene, but varies it. Again we see Alfred in the audience, but now without a beard, and the camera tracks rightward to show Robert in another row.

In this sequence, our protagonists are connected by a camera movement rather than the cut employed in the opening. The two men’s reactions—Robert grinning (his wife is onstage), Alfred more pensive—add to the characterizations that we will see played out.

This simple camera motif gets varied further in the course of the film. The disastrous immersion illusion that drowns Robert’s wife is initiated by another tracking shot of the two men in the audience, a variation of the earlier shot.

The new combination starts with Robert and ends on Alfred. At this point, not only are the two men linked but they replace one another. If you want to push your luck, you could say that this variant quietly affirms the film’s overall dynamic of substitution (doubles, twins, clones).

Earlier, a contrasting way of showing the men in an audience is given us when they attend a performance of the wizard Chung Ling Soo. Cutter provides a dialogue hook, warning Robert that “the blokes at the ends of row three and four” can see him kissing his wife’s leg.

Cut to our protagonists, sitting at the end of a row watching the Chinese magician.

A nicety: Now the men are sitting side by side and facing left rather than right. Just through camera placement and character position, we know we’re in a different performance, one in which our apprentices play no role.

As they study the trick, Nolan gives us another characterizing shot: Robert is amazed, but Alfred grins: He’s worked out Chung’s secret.

What would have happened if Nolan had framed the men sitting apart and/or facing to the right? For an instant we might have thought we were back in the act they shill for. Simple but reiterated differences assure immediate comprehension: medium shot/ long shot, looking rightward/ looking leftward, men in different rows/ men in the same row. Just as the repeated framings of their own act clarify the situation, so do these little polarities. Call it redundancy, if you like, but it’s also precision and economy.

With Julia’s death, the men become enemies. But each will still slip into the audience of the other’s performances. From now on, the magician is always on the right, the onlooker on the left. Nolan and company could have handled their rivalry in camera setups that exactly mimic the early ones. Instead, a new pattern of parallels comes into play, building on the earlier ones but different enough to heighten the symmetries.

The new pattern is set up by restricting our range of knowledge. First, we are attached to Alfred when he performs his bullet catch in a barroom theatre. Robert, seeking vengeance for Julia’s drowning, steps up to spoil the trick, but we don’t know he’s there until Alfred does, and then it’s too late.

Similarly, we’re restricted to Robert’s range of knowledge when he tries to execute his disappearing dove trick. Only when Alfred is about to trigger the collapsing cage—killing the dove and wounding a lady from the audience—does Robert realize that his adversary has struck back.

Another nicety: The two shots of each man in similar disguises, seen in 3/4 view, reset the stylistic parameters. But the image of the bearded Alfred is given extra punch through a tilt up from his missing fingers–the result of the parallel, bullet-catch scene before.

The whole pattern shifts yet again when Robert sneaks in to watch Alfred’s Transported Man illusion. We get a shot of him (in a beard again) that fuses two of the cues from the earlier scenes: He’s in the audience, as in the early sequences, but he’s shown from an angle congruent with that of the earlier beard shots.

And perhaps we can take the shot of Robert at home, telling of his amazement at Alfred’s illusion, as an echo of the initial prototype: A magician staring intently rightward at a dazzling trick played out offscreen, but now in memory.

Robert returns from Colorado with the Tesla-designed “Real Transported Man,” and Alfred’s visit to watch the stunt reworks the givens of this pattern yet again. Alfred is seated, minimally disguised, in the standard audience spot looking right, but he is not in profile and the camera position is much closer than before. The answering shot of Robert onstage recalls the gesture we saw at the film’s outset and anticipates what we will see when that opening scene is replayed, with the wicked Alfred climbing onstage.

At the close of the trick, yet one more variant: Robert appears in the rear balcony and the crowd all turns to watch him off left.

After a glance back, Alfred turns away, looking right–the first time any character has flinched from the performance. His puzzlement is mixed with anger (at last a trick he can’t see through), a less charitable response than we saw in Robert’s stunned fireside recollection of Alfred’s Transported Man.

The things held constant, such as camera placement and position in the locale, set off the differences in characters’ disguises and reactions, while this shot carries faint echoes of our very first view of Alfred during Cutter’s voice-over monologue. That view, and its answering shot of Robert in the spotlight, will recur when Robert’s pseudo-death is replayed.

Nolan’s audacious film is built out of more marked parallels than these, but I wanted merely to highlight the ups and downs of one small pattern. Many films work varied repetitions like these into their shot-by-shot texture. Back in the 1930s, Eisenstein saw this possibility clearly, as I try to show in my book on his work. In the 1960s and 1970s, Raymond Bellour called our attention to such patterns in films by Hitchcock, Hawks, and Minnelli. His collection of essays The Analysis of Film includes pioneering studies of how fine-grained such things can become.

I wouldn’t go as far as Bellour does in seeing varied repetition as the motor force of classical filmmaking, but it surely plays an important role. What he takes as a manifestation of pure textual difference I’m inclined to psychologize: these differences help the audience understand, usually without awareness, the ongoing narrative dynamic and have the extra payoff of creating tacit narrative parallels. But from either perspective, object-centered or response-centered, studying such microforms is enlightening. It’s a way to understand films as wholes, dynamic constructions that shift their shapes across the time of their unfolding. Moreover, by examining things this closely, we can try to understand not only how this or that film works, but how this or that film relies on principles distinctive of a filmmaking tradition. Consider this another plug for poetics.

I’d add that such principles neatly fuse two pressures: toward narrative coherence and comprehension on the one hand, and toward production efficiency on the other. It’s cheaper and easier to repeat camera setups if you can. Artistic economy and financial economy can work together, nicely.

Speaking of repetitions….

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