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The Prestige Quote

Magic meets transcription

So, about the quote from The Prestige that inspired the week’s Disquiet Junto project. In brief: transcribing it is complicated. I love the description that opens the movie, which was directed by Christopher Nolan. I’d listen to Michael Caine read the phone book. Better yet for him to intone sagaciously on the trappings of magic. Listen here in this clip of the film’s first few minutes:


The thing is, the quote is widely mis-transcribed. A lot of transcriptions insert the word “great” early on. I hear it quite clearly as “Every magic trick consists of three parts.” But there are numerous instances in which it’s presented as “Every great magic trick consists of three parts.” Most of these seem copied and pasted.

Weirder still, a large number of these appearances online of the quote attribute the overall statement not to the 2006 movie, but to Christopher Priest, who wrote the novel, published in 1995, that inspired the movie. The text spoken by Michael Caine does not appear in the book. There is a sequence like it in the book, but it is worded quite differently.

Here is the movie version of the “Prestige quote” on Goodreads, which is a website of books, not of movies, nonetheless attributed to Priest: goodreads.com. (While not as egregious, the mistake feels a bit like Costanza’s failed end run around actually reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) And here’s an explanation about TED Talks that uses The Prestige as a model, and attributes the quote to Priest: medium.com. I suppose the tweet thread where this post originated was my TED Talk. :)

So, Priest didn’t write the text, and “great” doesn’t even appear in the movie where the text is spoken aloud.

It’s very Christopher Nolan that there would be an error within an error in plain sight around the world.

Again, I’d listen to Michael Caine read anything, and listening to him speak this text is a masterclass (as distinct from a TED Talk) in making someone else’s text one’s own (in this case: someone else’s text based on someone else’s text). When I re-transcribed it for this week’s Disquiet Junto project, using the widely re-posted “Goodreads version” as my template, I paid attention to each pause, each transition. Some of the pauses signaled em-dashes, one an ellipsis. Distinctions needed to be made for how Caine speaks, versus how Nolan breaks up the speech with brief snippets of imagery. Some are pauses of utterance, while others are more akin to hitting pause.

And sometimes I really couldn’t quite tell what was said. That’s the thing about speaking. It’s like a trick, like magic. You can say two words at once. You can say a word in a way that suggests another word, layers them. You can hint at a word, and then change direction. You can say a familiar word, but mean it different from how it appears on the page. You and I might do these things by instinct as much as by mistake. When Michael Caine does it, it’s … well, it’s just amazing, right? It’s a mastery of phrasing. The way he pauses before “or a man” is mastery. Had Caine done nothing else in his career, I think that pause would have earned him his knighthood. (Not that I’m into knighthoods or regal pageantry, which is why I haven’t called him Sir here.)

So, do listen through the audio. Listen to the micro-utterances, the granular nuances. While doing so 20 or 30 times over the course of a day and a half, I thought a lot about Ethan Hein’s writing about the tuning of voices in rap, the expressiveness of tiny shifts and pauses.

You may hear the text different from how I do. You might transcribe the opening speech of The Prestige differently to match what you hear. For example, I’m not sure Caine says “unaltered.” He may say “not altered.” I’m pretty sure it’s “unaltered.” It’s sort of both. That’s the art of it. In other words, that’s the magic of it.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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