I’ve never been to film school, but I’m guessing that therein, they teach that if you’re making a magician themed movie, of necessity, you require a beautiful actress. Juxtapose that with fantasy movies like Lord of the Rings, whose cast is entirely peopled by actors who would frighten your common bridge troll.
The first magic movie of the year, The Illusionist (which I’ve not yet seen), stars Jessica Biel. The latest, The Prestige, features Scarlett Johansson, who is equally as easy on the eyes.
Overall, I thought The Prestige was entertaining, all except for the end. Fifteen minutes before closing, the big secret of the movie is alluded to. That allusion should have been sufficient. BUT THE MOVIE DOESN’T STOP THERE! It continues until explicitly showing that secret at the end. Very, very silly. Oh, and beware! You’ll see a hanging or two, some drownings, some shootings and chisel to the hand. English pop quiz: when referring to lynching in the past tense, which is correct: “we hanged him” or “we hung him?” What about when talking about a piece of clothing draped over a hook; do you say “I hanged it up” or “I hung it up?”
SPOILER ALERT! The movie shows a (fabled) Nikola Tesla machine that duplicates an item (living or not) to a nearby location via voltage sparks. The sight of all those artificial lightening bolts instantly transported me back to 9th grade American Fork Jr. High science class where I recall teacher Mr. Moon and his collection of Van de Graff generators, Jacob’s Ladders and Tesla coils. I remember the strange smell of ozone, the loud popping sound of breaking arcs and retrofitted, second-hand neon sign transformers.
The movie shows some of the real life battle between Mr. Thomas Alva Edison and Tesla. I’ll summarize. There are two competing forms of electricity: alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). As it turns out AC is much better for power distribution. It’s easier to make generators that make AC, it’s easier to step up the voltage for sending over a wire and AC can be sent further through a wire than a similar DC voltage. The problem was that famed inventor Edison preferred DC, while enigmatic inventor and engineer, Nikola Tesla, reveled in AC.
History records Edison* as more of a celebrity than an inventor. (Trying things 10,000 to find the right one, is not a lesson in persistence, it’s retarded. Instead of scouring the world for new things to light up, Edison should have gone to school, studied chemistry and electricity and then, based on an analysis, selected tungsten (initially carbonized thread) as the correct material.)
Edison threw his reputation and energies against defeating AC. Unfortunately for him, it was a battle he would ultimately lose. Still, Edison pushed for the first electrocution of a person (using AC) and caused all sorts of bad press for the harrowed Tesla (and his partner George Westinghouse). It was Edison’s hope that using AC to kill someone would cause consumers to fear. Who would want such dangerous power in their house, Edison thought.
Back to electrocution. Edison surreptitiously purchased an AC generator and then began to electrocute all manner of animals. He killed off scores of neighborhood stray cats and dogs, ultimately culminating with a circus elephant, before he proposed killing a person. That electrocution went poorly.
On August 6th, 1890, Harold Brown, an employee of Edison, brought an electric chair to New York’s Auburn Prison. William Kemmler (convicted of killing his wife with a hatchet) was strapped in and Edwin Davis, the state electrician threw the switch. But Kemmler did not die, he only struggled and smoked for a minute or so. The voltage was cut and the electrodes repositioned. Again, the power was applied to Kemmler. It took another minute before the prisoner finally died. Everyone agreed the sight was severely unpleasant to watch. Edison even coined the term “to Westinghouse” hoping that it would be used instead of “electrocution”. It never caught on, however.
There are many fascinating stories of invention. In particular, the next time we hang out, remind me to tell you about the invention of radar, microwave, Velcro, television, telephone and the telegraph. Did you know that the first fax was sent over telegraph wires by an Italian Monk in 1860?
* No, Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. In fact an Englishman (Swan) patented a carbon thread light bulb a full year before Edison “invented” it.