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Stage, film, magic

OK, a quick question for those of my Gentle Readers who have seen both The Illusionist and The Prestige. For those who haven’t, the rest of this is chock full o’spoilers. On the other hand, it’s just about possible that people who have no interest in seeing either will be interested in the general topic of which my quick question is the specific.


Both movies are about nineteenth-century stage magicians (this is false; The Prestige straddles the century’s edge and The Illusionist could be after the turn, if only just), and both depict dramatic moments on-stage. In The Prestige, the filmmakers chose to present the stage magic more-or-less realistically; in The Illusionist the filmmakers chose not to. That is, we in the film audience (with our sensibilities) watching the film of the performance of The Illusionist can tell that post-production trickery was used. In fact, they make rather a big deal out of the fact that there was simply no way that a performer of that time could have done those tricks.

The main trick in The Illusionist is the projection of three-dimensional insubstantial moving images onto the stage and into the aisles. I rather doubt this could be done effectively now (at a profit, that is), but certainly at the time it would not have been possible. In addition, the orange tree trick, which could have been done mechanically, was clearly and obviously done with CGI. The other trick I remember is with the Crown Prince’s sword, which would have been easy to do if he could have got to the building in advance with his stuff, but the plot would seem to prevent that. Anyway, that’s not the important one; the important one is the projection.

By contrast, in The Prestige, every trick is presented as if they were done by skillful stage magicians. There is only one trick that is clearly done with editing, and that’s the central trick of the movie, the Transported Man, and once we discover the trick to the trick, it becomes obvious how the magicians can do on stage what requires editing in the film. Borden can do it because there are two of him, and Danton can do it because he has Tesla’s duplicator. In both cases, film is making up for the shortcomings of real life as compared with the fictional world of the movie: there is only one Christian Bale, and Nicola Tesla never made a duplicator. The presentation of the tricks, though, is consistent with the world, even though there is some trickery involved; we see what the audience would see.

In the world of The Illusionist, there is no magic. Yes, it’s a fictional world in that the historical figures of the Duchess and the Crown Prince didn’t exist, but there are no inventions or supernatural powers. Except that part of the intent of the filmmakers (I think) is that the audience is supposed to be in suspense as to whether Eisenheim really does have some sort of supernatural power. And then at the end we discover he doesn’t, that it was all a trick.

Just as a side note specific to the movie, the plot involves Eisenheim palming jewels off the hilt of the Crown Prince’s sword at a point well before any of the rest of the plan could have been arranged. Was he stealing jewels on spec? Did he have a plan for what to do if the Crown Prince noticed that the jewels were missing? That’s the sort of thing that I complain about as working backwards, as an explanation for why the jewels were found where they were, but not forwards. But that’s not what I’m on about here.

What I’m on about is the question of showing the stage illusions as plausible stage illusions or as obvious film trickery. I was very put off by the film trickery, as I assumed that there would be an explanation for it, and there never was. But it has been suggested to me that the idea might have been to make the film audience be as wonder-struck as the stage audience of its time would have been, which you can’t do with the tricks of the time. Imagine that you were transported in time to a magic show in 1900; you know enough about stage magic that you wonder how the trick is done, not if it is a trick. You are impressed, perhaps, with the slight of hand, the technical expertise (particularly given the limitations of materials), and the stagecraft, but you won’t be seeing the same things the audience of the time sees. You have been changed by movies and television and technical advances in stagecraft. So showing you (in your twentieth century movie-watching audience capacity) what a stage audience in 1900 would have seen is not going to cut it.

I find that a really interesting idea, but I don’t buy it. Maybe because I didn’t think of it myself. But I’m wondering if any Gentle Reader saw the movie and is willing to comment. Should we see what the audience saw? Or what the audience thought they saw?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm pretty much with you on this. Maybe if "The Illusionist" had anything else going for it, I'd be willing to forgive it, but still: a real show of cinematic artistry would have been in a judicious choice of trick that doesn't require the stink of CGI.

Or to put it another way: CGI as itself (and other visual trickery, but especially CGI) can strike no wonder; we audiences know exactly what it is.

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