Ah, what to look for when you watch a film?
Usually I scour around, pick up this or that, piece it together, and end up with a design that is worthwhile. Even ‘The Bow’ which I found trivial had a few things around which to invent a magical reality. There was a fortune-telling device which involved near-death from a swing hanging above moving water. The weapon used were arrows. Later, that same bow would play music, and this music reflected the magic of the location. What a sweet cosmology I thought, something of dreams.
Other times, with luck, you can have something like this here. Something clever, engaging, structured but not dull, concerned with new ways of telling story, ways that amaze.
Nolan gave us ‘Memento’, that movie about a man manipulated by his environment into becoming a serial murderer. Okay, that premise was simple enough, but most premises are; it is in how they’re hooked into the telling that ingenuity takes place. Memento had intelligent, engaging hooks, all of them with a nature that related to ideas of narrative.
In Memento, the hero had a memory affliction which forced him to tag the world around him and then use these tags to reconstruct his reality. These ‘tags’ were photographs…images. Since the character was constantly re-fabricating reality, he also saw himself as a kind of detective, always looking for clues, to remap a mystery into lucid insight. That made for something deep, engaging, with many creases. But it wasn’t enough for Nolan, who while he fickled with details in the story, decided to adopt a similar stance ‘outside’ of the story, and shuffled time. The audience saw the movie ‘backwards’ and was forced to piece it back chronologically. This device, of course, reflected the ideas of fabrication inherent in the story.
Now on to this. It has an outside stance in the form of a twist at the end. That has its tradition in the modern con movie, where a character is conned but that con is also perpetrated on the audience, usually on a much deeper level. So far so good. But this has very good ‘deeper’ levels. The most interesting for me being the journals that both magicians read. They are both fake, and yet both initially presented as the story we watch. (fabricated realities, shifting in levels, new narrative aesthetics, you say?)
Here’s a spoiler so don’t read what follows if you want to enjoy it.
The twist involves duplicity. Invariably, so does the story. Scarlet Johansson’s character doublecrosses the magicians. So does Caine’s character. Tesla’s machine produces clones. A dissapearing bird always returns. The ‘rivarly’ central to the story is echoed through the rivalry between Tesla and Edison. The magicians rival on that one trick which is about being at two different places at once. The narrative stance is ‘outside’ and ‘inside’.
This is rich, intelligent, storytelling. A step above Memento.
Cinema is about magicians fighting over the best illusions. Narrative is where the skills should be the sharpest. The ones who can stand inside and outside simultaneously amaze the most.