‘The Prestige’ – Religion as Illusion [2]

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Religion as Illusion [ 1 ]

In yesterday’s post I suggested that one of the problems within Christianity is that people believe too much. What people tend to do is suspend their rational belief in the natural, physical world for a few hours and enter into a place where they apparently believe in the supernatural (even though that belief may not last into the office on Monday morning).

In the realm of magic something different happens. We don’t suspend our belief in the natural, we suspend our disbelief in the supernatural. We enter into the universe of the ‘trick’, of the illusion, in order to run with it and allow its gifts to come to us.

The film that perhaps explores this best is The Prestige – which has been hailed as one of the films of the decade. Christopher Nolan went on from here to direct Inception, but I think this is an equally rich film in terms of ideas.

The title comes from the explanation at the beginning of the film of what a magician does in a trick:

Part one is the pledge, where the magician shows you something ordinary, like a bird.

Part two is the turn, where he does something extraordinary, like make the bird disappear.

But this isn’t enough. There always has to be a third act, the prestige, where you have a twist, and bring the bird back. Only then will the audience applaud.

The priest or preacher often performs in the same way. Take the central ‘trick’ within Christianity: the service of communion. The priest begins with base materials, ‘something ordinary,’ like a piece of bread, and a cup of wine. They then speak some words and perform something extraordinary: the bread and wine are ‘transubstantiated’ – effectively taken out of the natural realm and ‘disappeared’ into the supernatural. But that’s not enough…and here comes the prestige… the third act is the invitation to come and eat and drink of this holy food – and this is what draws ‘the applause’ – or the surge of good feeling: the audience are drawn back in as what was disappeared is returned to us. It is one thing to make a bird disappear…but the prestige, the moment of empathy, is to bring it back to life.

[ Spoiler alert ]

In the film, two young magicians – Angier and Borden – fall out and become terrible rivals because of a trick that goes wrong. They both go on to become celebrated illusionists, but it is Borden who truly captivates people with his ‘Transported Man’ trick: he enters a box on one side of the stage, and in a flash appears in a box on the other.

Angier becomes obsessed with this trick, and determines to find out how Borden does it. But here’s the problem: Angier believes in magic too much. Magicians should be the ones who believe in magic the least of everyone, but rather than thinking as a magician – who knows that this is just an illusion – Angier goes deeper and deeper into occult science with Nicolas Tesla in order to replicate the trick. He eventually performs the ‘New Transported Man’ trick to huge acclaim… but the means he uses are horrific: Tesla’s machine creates a perfect double of Angier every time he uses it… a double who falls through a trapdoor to be drowned in a huge water tank beneath the stage each time the trick is performed.

At the close of the film Angier realises that Borden’s secret was simple: he had a twin brother, with whom he sustained a number of illusions.

Angier is thus the model of the Christian who is desperate to believe too much, and see the supernatural in everything. Obsessing about this ‘magic’ god, they end up tearing their own soul to pieces, trying to square the circles in order to sustain the illusion of their transfiguration into a ‘new transported man.’ For Borden, nothing leaves the realm of the physical. He has come to terms with his multiple selves, and the illusion that they can sustain.

Angier and Borden are both magicians. Both of them are working within the triptych of ‘the prestige’ – a three-part move which takes something from the physical, transports it to another plane, and then returns it as gift. The difference is that one believes in magic too much, and ends up being destroyed by it.

To put it another way, he loses sight of the illusion. In a very good blog post about the film, one writer explores how the ‘twist’ in the film is actually revealed right at the beginning, but – as a self-referential nod to its own material and the journey Angier goes on – the audience are simply not wanting to see it:

[Michael Caine’s character] tells those listening to him, within the film and without, that we subconsciously do not attempt to figure out the trick until after it’s completed because we “don’t really want to see it.”

And that chosen blindness, without much further explanation, is one of the fundamental problems within Christianity today, which I’ll expand a bit on in the next (and perhaps last) post.


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  1. Mark H

    This is the killer line for me: “see the supernatural in everything. Obsessing about this ‘magic’ god, they end up tearing their own soul to pieces, trying to square the circles”

    Interesting series. Thanks.