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March 2003
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Charles de Lint
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James Sallis
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
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Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by Kathi Maio

The Magic of Lost Loves and Crushed Canaries

WE LIVE IN a time when deception and illusion are everywhere. Dad touches up the family digital snapshots; Junior downloads his on-demand/for-a-fee term paper; Sis uses FX software to lighten her hair and increase her cup size and then posts her latest autobiographical video to YouTube; and Mom gets herself a "LifeStyle Lift" on her morning off.

Then there are the politicians, whose marketing consultants have taken "spin" and double-speak to unimagined new heights. (Give a legislative product a spiffy new slogan-friendly name—like "No Child Left Behind" or "Clear Skies Initiative" and no one will notice if it's actually going to do the opposite of what the name indicates.)

Forget about sleight of hand. We have sleight of everything. And although human trickery is certainly not a twenty-first-century invention, the cumulative effect in recent years has left us almost numb to the barrage of artifice and illusion (not to mention delusion) in modern life. But being a sucker every minute makes us wary, too. It is hard for any of us to give ourselves over to "magic" wholly. We want to be the one who can spot every scam. We want to be above the manipulation. We want to deconstruct the fantasy.

It's crazy somehow that one of the most popular magician acts of the day is a duo, Penn and Teller, who expose the secrets of half of their own stunts. They deconstruct on the spot. And they have a cable show, Bullshit, which is dedicated to debunking all manner of modern real-life deceptions from past-life regressions to the pure deliciousness of bottled water.

I applaud their showmanship and their pro-science truth telling. And yet, I can't help but think that what they're offering us is some sort of strange postmodern anti-entertainment. It may be the perfect diversion for a generation of cynical dupes, but is it really open-hearted fun? Sadly, I think not.

Once upon a time, of course, audiences were a tad less cynical about prestidigitation. Oh, they knew that the stage magician's art consisted of trickery. And in the back of their heads they were saying "How'd he do that?" But in those days, suspension of disbelief was a bit easier to pull off. At the very least, the crowds who thronged to see the great conjurers of their day took great delight in being "fooled."

It is no wonder, then, that two recent and relatively successful films about stage magicians are both from another time and place, namely fin de siècle Europe. They both tell a good old-fashioned story. And it might be argued that both, as the trite phrase goes, "hearken back to a simpler time" when audiences still wondered whether sleight of hand and genuine sorcery might co-exist in the stage wizardry of entertainers who weren't afraid to put the word "Great" in front of their names.

The first of the two released is the better film, by far. And despite the fact that it had no first-tier stars, nor any major studio behind it, and had only a smallish budget for production and promotion, the movie showed the kind of box-office legs that indicate strong word-of-mouth support from viewers. Which just goes to show that movie audiences are smarter than they are generally given credit for.

That film is The Illusionist, which was written and directed by Neil Burger (Interview with the Assassin), from a short story by Steven Millhauser. "Eisenheim the Illusionist," which appeared in Millhauser's 1990 collection, The Barnum Museum, is a well-crafted tale of a Slovakian magician who comes to great stage power in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The story is mysterious yet surprisingly spare and direct. Burger, in adapting it, felt the need to elaborate upon the short story a good deal. No surprise there.

What did shock and awe me is that Mr. Burger managed to embellish the original narrative without ruining it! He does this by injecting a love story into the mix, believe it or not. And although love-triangle embellishments are usually a kiss of death for a movie, in this case, it actually does enhance the plot.

In Burger's version, young Eisenheim (Aaron Johnson), a cabinet-maker's son, is torn from his first love, a pubescent noblewoman named Sophie (Eleanor Tomlinson). He then runs away and travels the globe studying the magical arts and the performance thereof. When he returns to Vienna, it is as a conjurer (Edward Norton) of considerable skill and renown.

Eisenheim's tricks appear to be much more than mechanical misdirection. They seem to be tapping into some secret realm, where orange trees fast-forward to fruition under a master's prodding, and where vaporous doubles and ghostly materializations appear long enough to transfix an audience.

As Eisenheim's fame widens, he prompts at first the curiosity of the waning Hapsburg court, and later the enmity of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell), who quickly realizes that Eisenheim not only holds the nobility in contempt, but is also the rival for the affection of Leopold's noble sweetheart. For the Prince's lady love is none other than Eisenheim's long-lost childhood inamorata, Sophie von Teschen (now, the curvaceous Jessica Biel).

It all sounds rather sappy and quaint, but works surprisingly well. After all, romantic drama elements tend to complement the Late Victorian setting and story. (Though they would have been nigh on impossible to pull off in a present-day plotline.) And while the amorous conflict gets a bit overwrought eventually, who's to say that the passionate entanglements aren't all part of a greater illusion?

Things are not as they seem on a magician's stage. Neither are the relations between our three leads exactly as they might appear. And one must add to the mix an astute police chief inspector named Uhl (played by character actor extraordinaire, Paul Giamatti), who is torn between the politics of his court-sponsored position and his obvious admiration for Eisenheim's considerable trickster talents.

The performances here are all terrific. Norton in particular has the kind of intensity that is pitch-perfect for a character who appears to summon the dead to a public stage. This guy may be a true sorcerer, and Norton's furrowed brow and brooding eyes lend credence to likelihood. The real revelation is how well the actor pulls off the romantic lead aspect of his role, however. Edward Norton is a forceful and intelligent actor, but he has never struck me as matinee idol material. He still doesn't. But he is an actor who can convince you that he loves deeply and passionately—and that's all it takes to sell a movie romance.

The Illusionist is certainly a throwback movie. The plot will remind you of something from the golden days of Hollywood. And the movie's visual presence—shot, of course, in color—is also gorgeously vintage. Filmed in Prague, the locales look impressive. But the color palette and photographic techniques used by Burger and Director of Photography Dick Pope are even more of a knockout.

Like the magicians of yore, The Illusionist knows that its first job is to entertain. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other turn-of-the-twentieth-century magician's drama of this past fall, The Prestige.

Director Christopher Nolan and his writing partner and brother, Jonathan, admittedly took on a much more daunting undertaking. They needed to adapt Christopher Priest's award-winning and very involved 400-page novel into a standard feature-length movie. (They didn't make it, by the way. The film clocks in at over two hours—and feels painfully overlong at times.)

Nevertheless, they clearly tried to streamline Priest's epic of two rival magicians whose competition and antagonism knows no bounds. And many of the brothers' edits make perfect sense. First, they jettisoned the modern day framing device. (No loss there.) They also simplified the rather complicated domestic and romantic lives of the two protagonists. The only expunged subplot I missed was the one involving spiritualism, because I think it really said something about the two men and the way they each viewed a magician's art (versus out-and-out charlatanism).

My real issue with the movie comes from the conceit the director and writers use. It is obvious that they see their own film as a magic act, consisting of (as the movie's repetitious voiceover makes clear) a trick's three acts: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. However, because the brothers are so thrilled by their own cleverness, they become more concerned with toying with their puzzle (and the audience trying to figure it out) than in telling a cogent and involving story.

The characters in the movie therefore seem more like puppets than real human beings, even though both leads—Hugh Jackman as the aristocratic rebel, Angier, and Christian Bale as the craft-obsessed cockney Borden—really seem to be giving their performances their all.

The fact is that neither man can garner much sympathy, even when an early tragedy involving Angier's wife causes the two apprentice pals to become enemies. And as they start sabotaging and attacking one another, again and again, on and off the stage, the film gets darker, but the two men become even less interesting (except, of course, as the parts of a rather elaborate brainteaser).

The women in the men's lives (played by Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, and the way-overexposed Scarlett Johansson) also come off more as plot devices and puzzle clues than as real flesh-and-blood females.

Only Michael Caine, as the wise old magical device "ingénieur," Cutter, displays (as he always does) the kind of easy charm and sage presence that strikes just the right natural note. A worried mentor to both younger men, he alone seems both believable and sympathetic.

In the end, the Nolans get lost in their own devices and end up with an ever more confusing and incomprehensible final act. Those who have read the Priest novel, and who were paying very close attention, might understand the significance of the science-fictional device built by the great engineering genius, Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) and they may therefore fathom the full significance of the final house-of-horrors confrontation between "Angier" and "Borden." But having seen the movie with those who had neither read the book nor taken elaborate notes in the dark, I can testify that some people leave The Prestige completely confused about what the heck the movie was even about.

I know that some people went to see Christopher Nolan's breakthrough indie hit, Memento (2000), numerous times, just so they could figure out what the backwards plot was actually saying. But you shouldn't need to do the same thing to make sense of a story like The Prestige.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so unforgiving toward the Nolans. Their task was not an easy one. And even if they made a movie that ended up a little too much like Memento meets Batman Begins by way of Charles Dickens, at least they tried to make a film that challenged their audience to actually think about what they were seeing. That doesn't happen very often with a major motion picture these days.

Still, The Prestige does not impress as a magic act. It is an elaborate contraption that leaves the viewer confounded and confused, but never feeling particularly entertained or delighted by the performance. There is showmanship in the film, but it is the kind that is arrogant and self-involved; and sometimes repellent, to boot. (I could have happily lived my entire life without knowing—or seeing—that the disappearing canary is actually crushed by the magician's collapsing cage.)

The conjurer is supposed to draw their audience into a shared sense of wonder. The Nolans never do this. To my mind, they don't even try.

The legerdemain of The Illusionist is done with more finesse. At the end of the film, Chief Inspector Uhl realizes that he has been seriously duped but cannot help but be elated by Eisenheim's artistry. The movie's audience will likely feel the same.

It is that feeling of elation that makes it magic.

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