The Prestige Distinguishes Magic From Illusion. Can You?” width=”560″/>
I spent a season working as a stage magician’s assistant. I wasn’t doing much magic, mind you, but it was enough to make me absolutely fascinated. One of the things he taught me was that If you know how it’s done, it’s a trick. If you don’t, it’s magic. I’ve been thinking about that lately in the context of fantasy movies, and how the rules of these different magical worlds tend to intermingle. Often we know what the rules are governing the use of magic, but we never really know how it is done. What happens when stage magic and fantasy meet? How do you draw the line between sorcery and sleight of hand?
I’ll start with Woody Allen’s Scoop (2006). The movie opens with the funeral of Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), an investigative journalist. One of the mourners comments that Strombel would pursue a story from beyond the grave if he had to. The scene cuts to the Grim Reaper leading Strombel on a barge through a dark ocean. Allen lets the audience know right away that the supernatural exists in his story. This is particularly important because Strombel goes from the land of the dead to a magic act in London, where he turns a charlatan’s illusion into honest-to-goodness magic. Because we know that he’s a real ghost, there’s no confusion.
Lesson One: Always set the stage between the worlds of magic and illusion.
Turning to The Prestige (2006), we have two stage magicians — Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) — with a fierce rivalry. The movie begins with a clearly-defined set of rules for stage magic. You understand how each illusion works because you spend time backstage as the magicians prepare for shows. The rivalry comes to a head when Borden develops a seemingly impossible trick: The Transported Man. He bounces a ball across the stage, steps into a booth and then instantly steps out of another booth on the opposite side of the stage. Because the rules of stage magic have been explained, the audience understands why the trick seems impossible. Up to this point, we’re given no hint that anything supernatural is possible. All of that changes when Angier visits Nikola Tesla, who builds him an actual teleporting machine. Though this is magic in the guise of science, it is no less supernatural — and again the rules are carefully demonstrated. Because the rules for both the magic and the illusion are so clear, there’s always a distinction between the two, and each remains internally consistent with the world.
Lesson Two: Always explain the rules — and stick to them.
In Next (2007) Nicolas Cage plays Cris Johnson, a stage magician in Las Vegas who just so happens to have a supernatural talent. The movie begins with a voiceover in which Cris explains his power and the precise rules are that govern it: He can see two minutes into his future, and by seeing the future he can change it. Each time he makes a poor choice, the screen strobes and jumps back to the moment before the choice, allowing him to try a different tactic. By contrast, the stage magic he performs consists largely of sleight of hand, which is stylistically so dissimilar from the supernatural that there’s never any confusion about when we are seeing tricks and when we are seeing real magic.
Lesson Three: Make the two magics and their roles in the story distinct.
Rough Magic (1995) does pretty much everything wrong. In it Bridget Fonda plays a magician’s assistant who travels to Mexico due to a promise she made to her mentor as he lay dying. Once there, she drinks a wise woman’s potion that allows her to perform supernatural magic. The only distinction between real magic and stage magic here is that stage magic involves lots of brightly colored silk scarves and real magic involves pan pipe soundtracks and wild animal closeups — and even then it’s wildly muddy and inconsistent. The real magic is never explained and has no defined set of strictures, which make it into a deus ex machina half the time. The only truly redeeming factor in the movie is the talking dog, who’s pretty funny even if nonsensical.
Lesson Four: Be consistent.
Can you think of any other movies that help make the distinction between magic and illusion clear?
Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel Shades of Milk and Honey is being published by Tor in 2010.Read More