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Summer Film Club: Steven Millhauser

20 Jul

In this biweekly series, Editorial Assistant Alyssa reviews popular short stories and their film adaptations. We’ll explore what works in each medium and what doesn’t, and how exactly the allure of literature can translate to film. Alyssa (who has no formal training in film) would like to issue one big standing Spoiler Alert now.

A neat poster for THE ILLUSIONISTHoo boy. What can I say? The best thing about The Illusionist is that it’s not too long. Well, it is “too long” in the sense that I checked my watch toward the end. It’s not too long, in the sense that it’s under two hours.

It’s an OK movie. My opinion (that it’s a waste of time) falls in the minority; most critics reviewed it favorably, and some lauded it as a parable for film itself. (I prefer to think of it as a parable of the dangers of tone-deaf adaptation.) This was my second time seeing it, which I don’t recommend. See it once if you’re really into magic or Edward Norton. (What do you see in him? I just think you could do better, is all.) You might want to skip it altogether if you’re into Steven Millhauser.

I have limited patience for didactic, Borgesian magical realism, but I do enjoy Millhauser. This story works for me because of its frank prose and its reluctance to state facts. The narrator tells us the story of Eisenheim, a turn-of-the-century Viennese magician who confounds his audiences by apparently raising the dead. (To those who cringe at period pieces, I say, “Necromancy never goes out of style.”)

“Eisenheim, the Illusionist” has an almost academic tone to it, as its narrator refers to old eyewitness accounts of Eisenheim and his performances (from critics, audience members, neighbors, et al.). The narrator’s acknowledgment of his uncertainty lets us trust him more: aren’t we more inclined to believe a person who appears to present us with the facts, rather than a clod declaiming his own interpretations as fact? But Millhauser’s direct language also lends credence to the most farfetched ideas:

“Some said that Eisenheim had created an illusory Eisenheim from the first day of the new century; others said that the Master had gradually grown illusory from trafficking with illusions.”

Now, we know (or do we?) that Eisenheim’s phantoms are just illusions (right?), because ghosts and the afterlife and the devil don’t exist ([nervous laughter]). But in the end, thanks to the narrator’s unbiased presentation of facts, we can’t say whether Eisenheim was living or dead, an illusionist or a magician. Mystery and subtlety are the crux of the story.

But all mystery and subtlety fly out the window in The Illusionist. I have a lot of issues with the film, so let’s begin at the beginning (unlike writer/director Neil Burger, whose screenplay starts in media res, during an attempt to arrest Eisenheim on stage).


THE ILLUSIONIST (2006), dir. Neil Burger. Starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel.

The film stars Edward Norton as Eisenheim, your titular illusionist; my beloved Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl, Eisenheim’s reluctant rival; Jessica Biel as a two-by-four Eisenheim’s star-crossed lover, Sophie; and Rufus Sewell as Sophie’s buzzkill of a fiancé, the Crown Prince Leopold. Sophie and Leopold don’t exist in Millhauser’s story; Uhl’s part, meanwhile, is expanded in the film. (Note to Hollywood: Not every story needs a romance, especially a romance as shallow and predictable as this one. You can’t force love, H-wood.) And it takes place almost entirely within what must have been the most exhausting and dramatic briefing of Inspector Uhl’s career, directly after his aforementioned attempt to arrest Eisenheim (start around 5:52 and watch until you get the idea/bored):

If someone referred to a childhood romance and the time I met a writer as “almost everything about my life,” I’d be annoyed, at least. And Uhl elides about fifteen years with the line, “What happens next remains a mystery.” (He should have added, “The only mystery in the entire film,” but more on that later.)

I’m in danger of nitpicking here, so I would like to say that I support suspension of disbelief. Whenever my scientifically-inclined boyfriend criticizes a film or TV show’s dubious grasp of science, we have to pause it so that I can pick up my eyeballs, which by the end of his sentence have rolled out of my head and across the floor. (One exception: I delight in Law and Order: SVU’s, um, imaginative depictions of technology.)

But one thing I will not abide, sir, is sloppy exposition. Look, The Illusionist, just show me the story. I don’t care who’s telling it. I’m not going to watch Edward Norton Eisenheim make people materialize out of thin air and think, “That’s all good and well, but who am I to assume is narrating this to me?” Uhl’s frame story is a cheap gimmick that tells me the rest of the story probably can’t hold my attention on its own, that its blandness or predictability necessitates a veil of suspense.

And speaking of gimmicks—the ending. It’s like writer/director Neil Burger read “Eisenheim, the Illusionist” and said, “This story is pretty good, but I think it would be better if we left nothing up to the imagination.”

And imagination is a key word here: I am mainly criticizing the film for its straightforwardness, for its refusal to let a mystery be. But do we go to films looking for mystery? A story takes place in our imagination; that is, we see it in our mind and fill in the blank spaces between words ourselves. But a film is placed in front of us, and what we see is what there is, presumably. Films don’t have blank spaces for us to fill in. But maybe, sometimes, they should.

Next time: “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” by Alice Munro and Away From Her (2006). As always, please leave suggestions in the comments below!

4 Responses to “Summer Film Club: Steven Millhauser”

  1. Sarah Wambold 27. Jul, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    The only other review of this film I recall hearing was from my first embalming manager, who was also engaged in a ten year legal battle because of a fight he got into at a Blue Oyster Cult concert in Milwaukee. He absolutely LOVED this film. I always suspected it was more like how you described. Good post

  2. Alyssa [editorial assistant] 31. Jul, 2012 at 4:44 pm #

    Ha! Now I’m picturing the Venn diagram of extreme Blue Oyster Cult fans and Illusionist fans. Thanks for reading, Sarah!

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