Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Prestige and Mountain Top Removal/Coal Washing

Baudrillard writes, "Our fundamental destiny is not to exist and survive, as we think: it is to appear and disappear. That alone seduced and fascinates us. That alone is scene and ceremony [. . .] for something really to appear, surging up to the reign of appearances, there must be seduction. For something to really disappear, to resolve into its appearance, there must be a ceremony of metamorphosis" (213).

Essentially, Baudrillard seems to be describing the magic act. The Prestige also maintains that you must have both appearance and disappearance for a successful act: As John Cutter puts it in a voiceover, "but to make something disappear is not enough, you  have to bring it back." Ideally, as Baudrillard says, there will be a metamorphosis, but The Prestige shows in both magic and science, metamorphosis cannot take place without waste.

I am shocked at how The Prestige, a film I haven't thought about in years, has revealed itself to me to be intimately connected to my disaster. There are many points in the film that I would like to explicate in terms of sacrifice and symbolic exchange. If you have seen the film before, you can pick up on several symbolic resonances that ultimately anticipate the end. I wish to show how the film exemplifies the Restricted as opposed to the General Economy--involving a sacrifice of excess. When i first watched the film, I thought it was good, but I now find it a masterful piece of storytelling, acting, and writing.


I argue that one of the fundamental techniques of manipulation is blackmail. Baudrillard writes, that blackmail is only "a giant special effect" that uses the soft technology of violence to dissuade. It is based on a non-utterance that "puts an end to the scene of exchange" (64-65). We find many examples of the lack of the scene of exchange--rather than exchanging, violence and obsession escalades into a tragic ending (despite the illusion of a happy one--we will come back to this). Angier tells Borden that if he doesn't tell him his secret, his daughter will be sent to a boardinghouse, implying she will not be taken care of. If he does tell him the secret, she will be provided for. However, Angier puts an end to the scene of exchange when, even though he agrees to tell him his secret, Angier takes it, tears it up and say "whatever you're secret was--mine is better." He decides that he has "won."

Before this blackmail, but after it is represented on screen we find that Angier himself was blackmailed by  his "double," who, again, just wants more and more from Angier until he betrays him to Borden--he held all of the power. The blackmailer never intends to allow the exchange to be completed--the blackmailer desires more and more power as well as resources. 


Characters constantly repeat a few important lines. One of them is "sacrifice is the price of a good trick." This aphorism is illustrated throughout the entire film as it anticipates the final 'revealing' of the secret that was not really a secret. When Cutter sees Borden's trick he tells him outright he uses a double--thus revealing the real 'secret' in the open, but we are not looking for that secret--we, the audience, is looking in the mode of Angier--for the truth, for the real secret, for the more complex trick, so we don't realize that we should already know the ending. As Cutter says,

"Now you're looking for the secret but you won't find it, because you weren't really looking, you do want to find it out, you want to be fooled."

This is another important aspect of the film because it complements the other: the really good trick, the one that is not illusion, involves sacrifice. The characters also discuss how it is impossible to pull off a good trick without "getting your hands dirty if you want to do the impossible"

1st mention of sacrifice: Angier and Borden go to see an old man who has a trick with disappearing a bird cage. This is a bet that they make with Cutter, since he cannot find it out. Borden finds it out because he does the same thing. As he watches the old man hobble like a cripple toward his carriage he watches and says to Angier that "This is the trick. He lives a lie--self-sacrifice is the only way out of this." Thus, no one can discover his methods because he refuses to believe the man can do any significant physical movements--its brilliant really!

2nd mention: Another magician disappears a bird in a cage by slamming his hand down on the handkerchief. A little boy in the audience begins to cry (the character's eventual love interest) and say "He killed it. He killed it" even though the woman reassures he hadn't. Just then, the magician 'brings the bird back', but the boy is unconvinced. Borden shows him that the bird is OK, but the boy says: "Yes, but where's his brother"

Here, the boy has already gained insight into Borden's own secret double/twin who lives half of his life. If you have seen the film before, this is a really creepy moment as you realize that this is a 'doubling' within the film of the 'secret' that Angier (and the audience, mind you) seeks. Furthermore, it is an anticipation of the 'sacrifice' that Angier must make to perform his trick (more on that in a minute).

The boy is correct--the bird really is killed as the cage is smashed into its skull. This scene will also "double"/repeat.

3rd sacrifice: Blinded by his own hubris and confidence, Borden decides that he will tie a different knot for a dangerous 'drowning woman' trick. Later in the film, Angier will ask him which knot he tied and Borden will respond "I don't know"--which is actually the truth because he wasn't the one who actually tied the knot (it was his twin brother). Anyway, the result of this is that Angier's wife, the assistant, dies by drowning.

This event sets up the next two instances of sacrifice. When Borden decides that he wants to try the 'catching bullet trick' because it is risky, he asks someone in the audience to shoot him, knowing the bullet is 'not' in the gun. However, that man is Angier, who puts in a different ball (another instance of doubling) and puts it into the gun. He shoots him in the hand, taking off two of his fingers. We learn later that the twin brother, in order to do the 'transporting man' trick will also have to remove  2 of his fingers so they look the same--these must be sacrificed for the trick to work.

Borden takes revenge when, once Cutter and Angier have worked through a way to not kill the bird in the cage trick, disguises himself as an innocent audience member. He comes up and before Angier can pull the string (attached to a complicated mechanism) Borden crushes the dove in the cage, killing it and scaring the hell out of the other volunteer and the rest of the audience. These moments--when the trick goes wrong--are OBSCENE--the scene, the illusion is gone and the true mechanism comes out.

However, we learn that people are fascinated by the obscene magic show (or think they are). When  the owner of a theater, hearing of the new dove trick, asks Cutter and Angier why he does not do the water-escape trick or the bullet catch, Cutter says:

"Cheap thrills, somebody looking for an accident"

And thus, we have the 'trick' as both the successful smooth operation that usually occurs and the possiblity of an accident. A magic trick can always go horribly horribly wrong, as Borden actually points out before he attempts the gun trick: "The trick is still dangerous because you never know if a crazy audience member will put in a button or even a bullet into the chamber"--this is, of course, precisely what happens (the movie operates fatally in this sense--each instance of sacrifice must be repeated in order for it to have meaning--see Zizek on 9/11.).

The scene of the trick/possiblity of the accident is also presented in Nikolai Tesla's presentation of Alternating Current. As Angier enters the room he sees these giant balls with lightning flying back and forth from each other. Just as Baudrillard writes that "if things have a greater tendency to disappear and collapse, perhaps the principle source of future energy will be accident and catastrophe," Telsa's 'AC' is framed as an accident waiting to happen by the audience and everyone essentially runs out of the room. This is something like the heralding of electracy in the industrial revolution.

Angier also sacrifices everything--money as well as the woman who loved him--in order to get the secret (that is not really secret)--he fails to realize that the exchange is not possible-- the secret is worth nothing --the trick becomes ordinary, the sacrifice becomes ridiculous.

Transporting Man--Sacrifice of Excess

Led astray by Borden, who gives him the key word "Tesla" to his diary (which he fabricates and gives to Angier's ex-assistant--who Angier has sacrificed for the secret. Angier has also sacrificed the memory of his dead wife--the person one thinks he is out to get revenge for--he says "I don't care about my wife I care about his secret"--he sacrifices her memory), Angier goes to America to talk to Nikolai Tesla and asks him to build a machine that will transport him from one place to another. But Tesla's machine doesn't quite work the way its supposed to--seemingly not doing anything to a hat they try it out on.

The hat should signal to the viewer something they had seen before. The very opening of the film is a shot of multiple black hats on a hillside, with a voiceover that says "are you watching closely." If we are watching closely, or at the very least, if we have already seen the film, we DO know where these hats go every time. Thus, the opening of the film is addressed to the viewer (or reader) in the same manner that both Angier's diary (that Borden reads in jail after he is framed for his murder) and Borden's diary (the diary that puts him over the edge and kill Borden) are addressed to the other person.

The problem with the machine is that it does not TRANSPORT a man with no remainder--but actually DUPLICATES him. We find out that for Angier's trick to work, he must kill every double of himself in a tank (symbolically repeating his wife's death over and over again--Nolan films the scene in exactly the same as the initial drowning. Clearly, this is no longer about his wife's death--or at least, in some sense, it seems he is responsible for the death).

Thus, the machine--the scientific machine that ends all illusion, appearance, and trickery is actually responsible for several murders. The EXCESS created by the machine (or the duplication of Borden and his twin) cannot be maintained in Angier's current mode of living. . .we have to get rid of the excess, hide the excess, which is also the secret because the secret would ultimately terrify us. . .

The original excess--the two Borden's--are also too much for this world. The Borden in jail really does die and hang, despite his last word being "abracadabra." At the same time, Cutter has led Angier to the basement to dispose of the machine (reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe story), knowing that the other Borden will come and kill him.

One Borden1 and the Angiers have been killed--the film ends with a typical happy scene of Cutter, Borden2, and his daughter--once all the external (accidental) elements have been eliminated, life can go on as normal and all is well. . .

Connection to Mountain Top Removal

In a recent article in Scientific American, there is an article on a photographer who has taken strangely beautiful pictures of "landscapes of Extraction: Industrial Impacts Mar the Planet." Here is one of the photos that discusses Mountain Top Removal:


This article mentions the idea of "overburden":

OVERBURDEN: That is the industry jargon for the rest of the mountain that lies over the precious coal—hence all that needs to be removed. Here at Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, bulldozers scrape away the residue of the mountaintop. This last stand of trees disappeared in less than a day, turned into "valley fill"—more industry jargon—that buries streams and levels hollers.

Thus, the "mountain" becomes excess, 'overburden' that must be controlled and disposed with. Not only the Mountain, but the coal cannot be sold in its pure extracted state, as I mentioned in my post on coal slurry. The coal requires cleaning, that ultimately creates more excess stored in various places unsafe for human beings. Excess will not be tolerated. . .or at least hidden. . .it is the SECRET of our standard of living--it is the SACRIFICE to our standard of living.

If we are looking at this from the perspective of the gift-economy, it won't do to just ignore/hid/dispose/murder this excess that is essential to the "trick". . .we must find a way to address it. . .this surely must be part of my fatal strategy.

The question is how to escape the utilitarian, clean logic that the pop culture film endorses?

"No one cares about the man who disappears (the man in the box) only the one that comes out the other side"


  1. Hi, i enjoyed reading this essay, what Baudrillard text are you citing from?

  2. Aaron,

    Thanks for the comment!

    The Baudrillard text I am citing from is Fatal Strategies.