"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
My interview with Christopher Nolan goes like this: He is somewhere on his cellphone, patched through a switchboard in Los Angeles and another one in New York. Sometimes I can hear him and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I mishear him. His laugh, transmitted across all that fiber-optic cable and atmosphere when I ask him a question he doesn’t want to answer, is scratchy and indistinct, more like static than the sound of human humor. A couple of times, we get cut off, and I ask a complicated question into the void and sit there, listening only to the feedback whine of all those Scotch-tape connections.
It’s a fitting encounter, I guess, with the guy who, even after just five feature films, looks like the premier cinematic sleight-of-hand artist of our time. Nolan may never quite outdo “Memento,” his reverse-narrative, memory-loss murder mystery that will be blowing minds in basement rec rooms deep into this century, but he’s certainly moved on. (Nolan tells me that he’s only met one journalist who has grasped his precise intentions in “Memento,” but adds that he now considers the film “open-ended,” and believes that other people’s interpretations are as valid as his own.) He reached the franchise-movie big leagues this year with “Batman Begins,” one of the summer’s biggest hits, and hard on its heels comes “The Prestige,” a slippery, deceptive magic trick of a film that Nolan and his screenwriter brother, Jonathan, have been developing for five or six years.
While “The Prestige” has a modest budget by Hollywood standards — less than one-third of the $150 million spent on “Batman Begins” — it’s an opulent period spectacle starring Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale (who was also Nolan’s Batman) as rival young magicians in late-Victorian London. Adapted by the Nolan brothers from the cult novel by British science-fiction legend Christopher Priest, “The Prestige” explores the murky terrain where stage magic, genuine science and (just maybe) the supernatural come together.
Mirroring the bitter rivalry between magicians Alfred Borden (Bale), a working-class Londoner, and Robert Angier (Jackman), apparently a moneyed American, the film shows us glimpses of the real-life competition between electricity pioneers Thomas Edison (not seen in the film) and Nikola Tesla (memorably played by David Bowie). It also offers yet another terrific role for Michael Caine (who plays Alfred in “Batman Begins”) as Cutter, the wizened Cockney “ingénieur” who makes the magicians’ tricks work and serves as commentator and mediator of their feud.
As Nolan explained to me, “The Prestige” is itself structured to be deliberately deceptive. Like Angier and Borden’s stage illusions, it has three distinct phases, or “acts.” I’m sorely tempted to give you hints, but I’ll make them as general as possible. Pay attention! In the film’s earliest scenes, Nolan gives you clues that might help you figure out most of the important plot secrets, but he is of course always diverting your attention to other things. Neither Angier nor Borden is exactly what he seems to be (of course), and the nature of their relationship may also be deceptive.
During the portions of our phone call when I can actually hear him, Nolan comes across as a pleasant and self-effacing guy, not at all the coldhearted engineer some critics discern in his work. Maybe that’s just the magician’s stage manner, because when I ask him whether he sees his own works as trickery, and film in general as an elaborate game played on the audience, he cheerfully agrees.
He asks me if I’ve seen “The Prestige.” Yes, I tell him, and it’s yet another work of mind-bending deceit from the devious mind of Christopher Nolan. He laughs, and then sounds a little concerned. “But did you enjoy it?”
I tell him, yeah, I did, and it’s true. As to whether I enjoyed it as I might enjoy a really good Sudoku session, or on some possibly more profound level, I’m not quite sure. But it will keep people guessing the whole way, I promise him that.
It isn’t easy to conduct an interview about a film like this one, and Nolan makes me promise to keep certain answers — about the exact nature of the illusion known as “The Transported Man,” say, or about one character’s slightly dubious accent — off the record. “It’s a bit of a challenge,” he says. “I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with journalists, and I almost don’t know what to say without chucking the whole game.”
One thing he can do is explain the peculiar title, a term that has a specific meaning in the realm of stage magic. “The ‘prestige’ refers to the final act of a magic trick,” he says. “The last of three acts. First comes the pledge, when the magician shows you something that appears to be ordinary: a bird in a cage, or a playing card, or a woman in a box. Of course it probably isn’t something ordinary after all. Next comes the turn, when something happens” — e.g., the bird is made to disappear, or the girl in the box is sawed in half.
“Last of all, you have the prestige, which is when the magician shows you something you’ve never seen before, something completely unexpected. It refers both to the last stage of the trick and to the object, or product of that stage.” When the vanished bird is made to reappear, 10 yards away, or the sawed-in-half girl is reconnected and emerges unharmed — that’s the prestige, and the bird and the girl are themselves also the prestige. (That’s a clue, people! As Cutter repeatedly and ominously asks in the film, “Are you watching closely?”)
Early in the story, Angier and Jackman are friends, but their relationship is already prickly. They work as assistants for a mediocre magician (played in fact by master magician Ricky Jay, a key advisor on the film) and know they can do better. When an escape trick involving slipknots and a tank full of water goes wrong, however, their relationship changes forever.
After some negotiation over phrasing, Nolan offers: “I think we can say that one of them does something, or may have done something, that hurts the other one grievously. When Jona [his brother Jonathan] and I were writing the script, we really tried to find a cinematic equivalent for the way Priest’s novel manipulates and directs the reader’s sympathy. Each of these guys engages our sympathy at different times. Each of them is wronged, and each of them does terrible things. We really want it to be a fluid, unstable situation for the viewer, and in terms of which one of them you wind up rooting for, I really hope that’s an open question.”
Nolan doesn’t much try to impress us with stage magic in “The Prestige”; that’s a fairly useless thing to do in a film. Instead, he shows us how certain well-known tricks are performed: The bird made to disappear has actually been crushed to death in a collapsing trick cage sent through a trapdoor into the table, and another bird in an identical cage is produced. Is this, I ask, a metaphorical version for what happens in the movie on a grander scale?
More of that evasive laughter. “I shouldn’t like to go too far with that analogy,” he responds. “But yes, I suppose so. Without getting specific about it, there’s a cruelty and a ruthlessness to the competition between these men, and on some level neither of them is overly concerned over who gets hurt. As long as the trick works, as long as the audience is entertained. Remember that when Angier approaches Nikola Tesla and asks him to build him a machine for his stage show, Tesla asks whether Angier has considered the true cost of the machine. He doesn’t mean the price, which is also very high. He means the cost.”
At one point, Michael Caine’s character, who seems to serve as an authorial voice, offers the observation that a magician makes the real world, which is actually simple and solid all the way through, seem full of mystery. When I ask Nolan whether that’s also what the movies do, he says, “Very much so. Movies can create a realm of magic and mystery, where anything and everything is possible. I think people look to them as an escape from the predictability of ordinary life. There’s nothing wrong or shameful in that. That’s why I love movies myself.”
But does he really think, then, that the real world is devoid of mystery? “There are times when I’m afraid that’s true, yes. But in movies, in storytelling, in imagination, so many other things are true. I suppose part of me believes that if we can imagine wonderful things, create them in art or fiction, then they’re actually real.”
Fans of Priest’s novel may have a mixed response to the Nolans’ adaptation, but Nolan says the novelist read an early draft of the screenplay and liked it. “It’s a sprawling novel, very literary, and we had to find a way to translate that into a movie while holding onto its essential spirit. I hope we’ve done that, but there’s a lot of material in the book that isn’t in the film. We’ve made substantial changes, but I hope the manipulative, deceptive, shape-shifting essence of the story is intact.”
One element of Priest’s book that has been retained is the small but crucial role played by Tesla, the pioneer of alternating-current electricity, an invention that he believed could have almost metaphysical possibilities. Both the novel and Nolan’s film pivot around the idea that to most people, and perhaps even to scientists, the boundary between magic and science is never entirely clear. “No, I don’t think we know where that line is at all,” Nolan says. “I’m not convinced there even is a line. And to do the things that Tesla and Edison could do, in the context of 100 years ago, that essentially was magic.”
Angier travels to Tesla’s secret laboratory, high in the Rockies above Colorado Springs, to help him emulate Borden’s signature illusion, a vanishing act known as the Transported Man. Nolan declines to describe this trick in any detail, saying, “Let’s just say that the question of that illusion, of exactly how it’s done, and exactly what the cost will be — as Tesla says — not so much the financial cost but the human and emotional cost, is at the center of our film.”
Audiences at a magic trick are alert to the presumed danger — and, occasionally, the real danger — of what they’re watching: a bound and shackled man escaping from a tank of water, or stopping a bullet with his teeth. But Nolan believes that magic audiences, and movie audiences, are not actually bloodthirsty or heartless. “The suspension of disbelief, and the audience’s desire to be fooled, lies at the heart of both stage magic and film. The audience at a magic show does not really want to see a woman sawed in half. That would be horrifying, and not entertaining in the least.
“And, you know, much the same principle applies in the movie theater. The audience are not fools. They all understand that it’s an illusion, a show. We can show people things in films that they would be outraged or shocked to see in real life. That’s what makes it entertainment, rather than something that would be profoundly disturbing and unpleasant.”
At just 36, with only five feature films on his résumé (and the first of those, “Following,” was seen by almost nobody), Nolan has been anointed much too early, perhaps, as the next Alfred Hitchcock. But more than any other Hitchcock acolyte of the past several decades, he seems to understand on a deeply intuitive level that thrillers require a particular relationship between filmmaker and audience. You might call it honest sadomasochism, or willful deception.
After the second interruption in our conversation, Nolan’s assistant, another disembodied voice somewhere in North America, tells me that the director is running late for a meeting. I coax Nolan back onto the line for a moment to ask him about Hitchcock. Some of Hitchcock’s critics, I say, have complained that he viewed movies as a kind of elaborate practical joke he was playing on his audience. Does that describe Hitchcock fairly, and does it describe Christopher Nolan?
“Yes, it’s a fair way of describing him and a fair way of describing me,” he says, “and of course I’m flattered by the comparison. But here’s the important thing: The trick that you play on the audience is played with the audience’s collaboration. You can’t do it without them. When I go to see a film, I want to have that experience too, to be taken into a world that’s going to surprise me, perhaps shock me, show me something I haven’t seen before. And you know, with all that said, what kept me interested in this film, and in all my films, was the emotional lives of the characters, the question of what’s at stake for them and where they’re ultimately going. When you’re able to work on both those levels, well, you’ve got a movie.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)