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What a shot. It brings to mind the beautiful interior scene near the beginning of Inception (2010) or the mountain training centre in Batman Begins (2005).
In a fit of enthusiasm for Christopher Nolan’s work, I recently watched his 2006 film The Prestige, from which the still above comes. The story of a rivalry between two magicians is told with an elusiveness typical of the director: extensive fragmentary flashbacks are intertwined with elements of trickery that the subject matter allows. (‘I think he’s dead.’ ‘No, wait, he’s not.’ ‘What?’) The film invites comparison with Inception, though its narrative arrangement feels closer, for me, to that in Memento (2000).
It’s interesting to note that Neil Burger’s The Illusionist also came out in 2006. I don’t know the details of the two releases, though it’s funny to think about the timing. (Was it a similar case, for example, to the production of Antz and A Bug’s Life, both of which were released in 1998?) I’ve not seen The Illusionist recently enough to make any comparisons between the two pictures, though the similarity of subject matter is enough to think themes and images may echo between the two.
When I was trying to place The Prestige in a context, The Illusionist was the first film that came to mind. Inception, Memento and others directed by Nolan were also floating around. The parallels that formed quickest were both those drawn with a broad thematic brush and those from within the director’s own body of work. That’s probably normal. As I was watching the picture, I also found a number of weaker echoes – in the sense of those less well formed – coming to mind from other films. They feel all the more enticing because they are fleeting and difficult to explain. I mean brief similarities both formal (for example, the construction of a particular frame, the camera movement or the lighting) and narrative based (a section of dialogue, an actor’s movement or a series of events). Such comparisons that are not restricted by chronology or genre but instead centre on thematic and visual parallels are, for me, often the most vivid and the most exciting. (That’s not to say, of course, that chronological or generic study is useless. It isn’t.)
So, for example, when Angier (Hugh Jackman) luxuriates in the applauds of the audience, achieving a moment of success and adoration tinged with an (at the time) ambiguous sadness, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) standing on top of a turnbuckle for his (possibly) final finisher in The Wrestler (2008) comes briefly to mind.
I felt a similarity between Spike Jonze’s Being John Malcovich (1999) and the moment when Angier reveals that, each time he performs his greatest trick, his machine produces an identical copy of himself and that, to combat this oddity, he must endure a process of suicide and rebirth.
As Borden (Christian Bale) walks out of Angier’s storage facility, surrounded by flames as the building burns down, I was reminded of a similar shot from Barton Fink (1991).
It’s also quite fun to imagine who would win in a battle between Wolverine and Batman, though that’s a different sort of connection.
It seems Christopher Nolan does not agree with Mercutio. Quite early on in Romeo and Juliet (1594- 5), we learn what the latter thinks of dreams:
Romeo ‘Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.’
Mercutio ‘True. I talk of dreams’ (1.4).
Nolan clearly places, however, a lot of structural importance on the dreams in Inception (2010): each one provides a different narrative thread, all of which are tied together by someone asleep in the film’s real life. Indeed, some go so far as to say that dreams, rather than nothing, are everything in the film.
While this suggestion seems to tie up some apparent loose ends (such as Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s) children that do not age), it is, in a sense, too neat a reading for a film that revels in oneiric ambiguity. Part of the enjoyment of watching the picture derives from the tensions between dreamscape and (the possibility of) reality: we’re invited to ask how these two states affect one another. Romeo also wrestles with such questions: ‘If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, / My dreams presage some joyful news at hand.’ (5.1) The question that lingers behind the first line (‘can we trust what we see in dreams?’) is a warning, of sorts, to those who wish to draw thick lines between dream and reality and to expound confidently how they relate: Romeo evidently can’t trust the ‘flattering truth’, as, in the end, he and Juliet lie, not married, but dead.
My favourite shot from Inception also has a parallel in Romeo and Juliet, though this time I mean the 1996 film version by Baz Luhrmann. Despite the whizz-bangs of folding cities and paradoxical staircases, it is a (relatively) simple interior near the beginning of the film that stays with me: it is when Cobb meets Saito (Ken Watanabe) in a room decorated with gold and in which innumerable hanging lanterns are doubled in a large reflective table. The shot reminds me of the closing of Romeo and Juliet, when the camera moves slowly upwards, revealing the two corpses surrounded by countless small candles.
Whether or not multiple light sources are actually Nolan’s signature remains to be seen, but the shot is a beautiful way to open a provocative film. It’s exciting to see a picture cause so much discussion and debate. Nonetheless, before a viewer tries to suggest too forcefully that she has worked out what’s definitely going on, she could bear in mind Bottom’s words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595): ‘Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream.’ (4.1)