Name this movie: In non-linear fashion, we learn how two friends slowly come to hate one another as they jealously compete for professional acclaim and the love of two women (one man is married, the other has a lover). Their rivalry plays out in the real world, but in a milieu dominated by technical wizardry, deceptive illusions, and sensory deprivation. Finally, [and here I insert a spoiler warning], though at first they seem to live in our world, they turn out to live in one whose laws of physics differ from ours in a single, crucially important way. Ultimately, both main characters are revealed to be multiple persons, the one being two persons who act as if they are one, the other being several persons each of whom cares nothing for the rest.
I’ll give you a moment to think about it.
Did you guess The Prestige, the 2006 film directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale? If so, well done! Anecdotal evidence has led me to think this is one of Nolan’s least well known movies, but I think it might actually be his best. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it.
Did you guess Primer, the 2003 film written, directed, and starred in by Shane Carruth? If so, even better done! Hardly anyone has ever heard of Primer, which according to Wikipedia “was completed on a budget of $7,000,” or of Carruth, whose degree is in mathematics and who worked as an engineer before writing/directing/starring in Primer. But those who have know that it’s an amazing movie, despite the low budget and lack of professional actors. It’s the best time travel movie I’ve seen. (Carruth’s second movie, Upstream Color, opens in the US in April. Finally.)
So two movies answer to the same description–an amusing fact, given that both movies are in a way about doppelgangers. What does it mean? What are these movies about?
Another way to put it is–both have fantastical elements; what purpose do those fantastical elements serve? Primer, as mentioned, is “about” time travel; The Prestige, meanwhile, is about teleportation. But for these movies, “time travel” and “teleportation” both mean “duplication.” It turns out that when you go back in time, or teleport to a new location, all you really do it create a new “you”: the “you” who didn’t time-travel, who didn’t teleport, remains. With time travel, you’re left with a you that hasn’t yet reached the point in time where they time travel; with teleportation, you’re left with a you who just not tried to teleport, but didn’t. The only solution: to take old-you’s place or to become homeless (Primer); to kill unmoved-you or to be killed (The Prestige).
Doppelganger stories are usually about envy, so it’s no surprise that both of these are too. What strikes me is how both use duplication as the twist, rather than the set-up. Unlike, say, Dostoevsky’s The Double, these stories begin as tales of rivalry between two men, and only late in the game are we shown the hidden conflicts, those between different versions of the same man. This has the ingenious effect of making neither main character “the other”–neither is the “false double,” rather both are really themselves. This prepares us for the revelation of the actual doppelgangers, prepares us to recognize that no copy has a claim of priority over the other, and that to say so is ethically untenable. Both movies seem well aware of the dangers of what Rene Girard calls mimetic violence.
Both movies are also about different kinds of personal connections. Each centers around a friendship; each also involves a marriage, and an unmarried romantic entanglement; and each of these relationships casts light on each other. Ultimately, however, each is about how to relate to yourself. The Prestige: do you murder yourself to achieve your goals? Do you split yourself in two, devoting half to one life, half to another? Primer: Do you stand guardian over yourself to ensure your safety? Do you abandon yourself to fate in single-minded pursuit of your goal? And how does what you choose affect your relations with other persons? Both movies appear to side with the character who stays with himself, rather than abandoning himself; we favor Borden over Angier, and Abe over Aaron, though Borden and Abe’s lives are ruined all the same.
Yet these movies aren’t just Freudian or Girardean parables about the need for a unified self or the danger of competition. They’re also about artistic creation as a technical skill; hence the focus in The Prestige on the practice of performing illusions, in Primer on the practice of engineering. Both movies are named with a term from their craft–the prestige being an illusion’s big reveal, a primer being an introduction to a technical subject–that also call to mind rank–who has the prestige? Who is in first place? A competition cannot be separated from the basis for its score, namely, technical accomplishment. Both movies are skeptical of the desire for social status–for the audience’s applause, for the money that can be made with a time travel machine–but both embrace the technical accomplishment itself, the joy that comes from doing something well. In doing so, incidentally, they offer anecdotal proof for the inadequacy of straight Girardian theory, which claims that because we cannot seek anything of value without competing for it, therefore we value it only because others will compete with us for it.
This is also a major difference between these movies and the more recent film Looper (2012), which also deals with the themes of competition, violence, duplication, and technical practice; and these films are the better for it. Another difference, and it seems to me related, is the motif running through these films (and not through Looper) of sensory deprivation. But I’m not sure what to say about it. I admit I cheated somewhat; in Primer the characters speak of the serenity they feel while within the unanchored space of “the box,” but in The Prestige the point is the lack of serenity. Angier justifies his murder of his duplicates by telling himself that drowning is a peaceful death, a falling asleep. Near the end of the movie, however, we learn that he has been lied to, that drowning is the most terrible of fates. So The Prestige spends more of its time on the horrific sacrifice than on the transcendence–but I still have a sense that the transcendence is there.
I don’t think we need to rule on which is the better movie; what I find fascinating is the mere fact that these movies have so much in common. They seem to share a myth, and now I find myself wondering what other movies attempt to retell it. None come immediately to mind, but then, the Primer–The Prestige connection only announced itself to me years and years after I first saw the movies.