Knit and a Flick: The Prestige

Spoilers ahead. If you plan on watching The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan, director), do not read this blog post. My advice if you haven’t already watched it (TL;DR): skip it.

The theoretically cozy brown chair that I choose on the rare occasion when my husband and I watch a movie on the TV by ourselves sits in a corner of the room we call the porch. Behind the chair is a gap where the two walls should meet, comfortable and confident in their right angled relationship. These two walls so not meet. The porch, not a part of the original foundation, seems to have settled awkwardly, sidewise into the earth. The whole room leans away from the kitchen next to it, as if it’s a little embarrassed to be associated with the original, older house or perhaps as if the main house has given it a slight nudge, an older sibling elbowing the younger out of its space. We hope that when we do our renovation, this problem will be remedied. In the meantime, this is why the coziness of the brown chair on the porch is only theoretical.

So it was that a late fall draft slithered into the room when my husband and I settled into watch The Prestige. Our 11 year old was going through a bit of a Christopher Nolan mini-fest. She had watched the movie earlier in the day and thus we still had our rental available. I tucked into the brown chair surrounded by my weapons of anti-draft: a blanket, a steaming cup of turmeric-ginger tea, and a project bag full of knitting with the paper print out of the pattern for the sweater I’m working on slipped into a protective plastic sleeve. I’m a traditionalist who prefers the comfort of a paper pattern over the ease of a digital one. Of course, all of these objects were mostly mental tricks I was playing on myself, trying to create for myself an image of cozy in the face of a drafty reality.

It was a fitting setting, perhaps, to watch The Prestige which is set in 1890s London, a time and place I imagine to be at least somewhat drafty. The movie centers around two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Boran (Christian Bale) and tells the story of their increasingly volatile competition, each attempting to out-magician the other. Early on, Michael Cane’s voice-over sets up the three acts of a magic trick (which, of course, will mirror the three acts of the narrative of the movie): the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. In the pledge or first act, the magician shows his audience something ordinary such as a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. In the second act or the turn he transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary, often by making it disappear. Lastly, in the prestige, he brings the object back. Dear movie viewer, humor me for a moment whilst I point out the obvious: the arc of the trick mirrors the arc of the narrative of The Prestige (and many other movies and stories).

* * * * * * an interlude * * * * *

I am really struggling to get this post written. The outline and the arc are there. The BIG IDEAS of what I want to say are all laid out, but it’s the sitting down and weaving them together where lies the struggle. Here is where I want to go with this: knitting is more magic than anything in this movie, The Prestige. Here’s how. In the prestige, the magicians aim to convince their audience that an object, an animal, a whole human has disappeared and then re-appeared elsewhere. In the end, one of the magicians is able to create this “illusion” through use of a machine (created by Nikola Tesla, who appears as a wacky inventor in the film) which materially recreates the object in question. The other magician has been able to create the illusion because he is a twin. In other words, there have always been two of him, or so Nolan would have us believe. Two of each person: one set created by a man’s machine and the other pair created in their mother’s body. Each. Is not without their problems. The one created by the machine must be killed at each performance lest, I suppose, the entire of London begin to fill up with Robert Angiers. For the pair created by nature, each must live what one refers to as a “half life”; in hiding or disguise half of the time and then living the life of one man, the magician Alfred Boran, the other half of the time. But they’re fine with that. That the narrative relies heavily on the trope that twins are inherently freakish or creepy or half creatures is only one way in which it is problematic.

But here’s the rub: knitting actually does recreate a second (sometimes nearly identical although one could argue that it’s the differences that make the second one truly special and magical) object. The choice of word the word in Psalm 139 is particularly interesting and, dare I say, intentional: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.” Initially, the prototype only exists in the pattern-makers mind until he or she creates the object. The pattern-maker then writes down how the object is made. I, the knitter, then follow the pattern to re-create the object. Boom. There. The a copy of the original object is re-created and we now have two of them.

But perhaps it is too dangerous to equate crafts, which are usually women’s work, with magic. History tells us that women who appear to dabble in magic are not always treated kindly.

And yet, in The Prestige, men freely mingle science (Tesla and his machine) with magic. Has so much changed since 2006 that blurring the boundaries between science and magic seems so much more dangerous now than it did then? I do not think so. Pandemic or no, it has always been dangerous to suggest that science involves the same sort of trickery as a magic show.

It is chilly again in my house today. The cold dampened by the rain outside. And the sweater I had been knitting in front of that movie many months ago is complete and set on my dresser for me to wear on just such a day as today. In the interval I’ve completed various other items: socks mostly but also hats and a cowl and I’ve started a few others. Each object started as an idea in another person’s mind and etched its way through hands and heads to emerge from my own needles. In each case, I’ve never met the original maker in real life and yet I’ve been given a glimpse into who they are through their work. And therein, perhaps, lies part of the magic of knitting.

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