Movie Magic: Now you see it...
As someone points out in the course of Christopher Nolan's terrific new film The Prestige, it's not enough for a magician to make something disappear. You have to bring it back to get the applause.
Think about that for a second.
Does the magic itself disturb us too much? In making a vanished object re-materialise, the entertainer is tipping us the wink that everything is as it should be… his performance is only an illusion, not truly supernatural. Relieved, we signal our approval.
Film is itself the art of the illusion, '24 lies a second,' as a famous French director put it. The movies' first great star attraction - even before 'cinema' had escaped from the slot machines - was the magican/filmmaker Georges Melies, who discovered the delights of trick photography more than a century ago. Melies directed, photographed and edited his own films, produced them in the studios he built and designed (painting his own backdrops). He paid for them, and he starred in them.
Melies was a scientist too. An inventor, he built his own motion picture camera from scratch. Sometimes the machine would jam with interesting results. Which is how he hit on stop motion and double exposure effects. He was enough of a showman to recognise the potential: so much easier to pull a rabbit out of a hat if you are able to stop the camera, put the bunny inside, then start rolling again. Hey presto!
As the father of modern magic, Robert Houdin, pointed out: 'A magician is just an actor playing the role of a magician.' We don't call them magic 'tricks' for nothing.
Audiences didn't just forgive Melies his fraud they clamoured for more. In 1902 he made the first sci-fi film, Voyage to the Moon (even if you haven't seen it, you've probably seen the iconic image of a rocket stuck in the moon's eye). The special effects were all hand-drawn and couldn't have fooled anyone, but the spectacle was enough to let the imagination do the rest.
A hundred years on, fantasy directors from Peter Jackson to the Wachowski brothers can trace their lineage back to Melies… yet these men almost all practice their magic off-camera. On screen, his descendents are few and far between; Orson Welles is certainly the most important - you can see him doing his stuff in the 1960s version of Casino Royale or in his own F For Fake. But Welles the magician was always a throwback to an earlier age - he had seen Houdin perform when he was just five years old, and had come away enchanted. Somehow contemporary movies have an easier time accommodating con-artists: Matchstick Men, House of Games, Nine Queens. Is a con-man the same as a magician? I guess you would have to be inside the magic circle to know for sure.
If movies didn't kill off the magic trade as such they wiped out the vaudeville circuit that was the lifeblood of the profession. Seeing isn't believing - the movies inoculate us against that mistake - even if we still like to pretend that it might be. In 1895 the first film audiences were terrified watching the Lumiere brothers' shot of a train pulling into a station - but they lived to tell the tale, and doubtless never experienced quite the same thrill again.
One of the fascinations of The Prestige is the way it pulls back the curtain to reveal the great and powerful Oz furiously working his levers… There's a beautifully directed scene in which a little boy bursts into tears after watching Christian Bale's Bowden make a canary disappear. Even after the bird is brought back, he senses - rightly - the magician has blood on his hands.
This emphasis on the nuts-and-bolts of the profession offers rare insights into perhaps the most secretive corner of showbiz. In an age when we know everything there is to know about the way movies are made, it's still a revelation to see just how an escapologist slips his chains or an illusionist can make a vase vanish seemingly before our eyes.
Chris Nolan may let the cat out of the bag when it comes to some antiquated parlour tricks, but of course The Prestige also has something special up its sleeve - something you've never seen before. After all, that is the very definition of 'the prestige': Nolan's movie says so. So it must be true.