When I was first given the task of reviewing Derek DelGaudio's In & Of Itself, I wasn't quite sure how to approach it. This new documentary from Frank Oz is for the most part a recording of storyteller and magician DelGaudio's titular stage show, specifically the version which ran for 552 performances in New York City between May 2016 and August 2018. It's basically Frank Oz's Stop Making Sense. But how to approach it? It's disingenuous to approach this as a review of a stage show, because by its very nature, that isn't what this In & Of Itself is. However, it's difficult to approach this solely as a film, because the most important facet the movie uses to its thematic advantage is that it IS a recording of a stage show.

Luckily, I happen to have at my disposal a talented magician named Ben Altman, and because he is my boyfriend he couldn't just say no when I suggested I present this review as a conversation between the two of us, with him representing the theatrical sphere and myself representing the cinematic. So without further ado, here is our breakdown of In & Of Itself!

In & Of Itself
Brennan: So the first thing everyone should know about In & Of Itself is that they're not going to be witnessing a Criss Angel spectacle>. In & Of Itself is a magic show that has storytelling as its primary objective rather than razzle dazzle. DelGaudio is interested in parsing out the meaning of identity and how a person is defined differently by every observer, including themselves. Is this type of show at all common in the magic world, and if it is, how is DelGaudio approaching it differently?

Ben: There are very few magicians who have attempted, let alone been successful in mounting a show with this kind of style and thematic aim. The biggest name that comes to mind is Derren Brown, the British mentalist and illusionist. Anyone who has seen Brown live or even on TV will likely recognize what a compliment this is. These two are similar because not only are their methods sophisticated, but they have a unique ability to bring deeply emotional content to center stage, allowing magic to be the medium rather than the subject.

Brennan: DelGaudio arranges his exploration of this theme around six chambers that are built into the stage wall behind him, meant to mimic the chambers of a gun during Russian roulette. Each chamber represents a different story, which are all loosely unified through his underlying idea of identity. Now, as a filmgoer, I would say that this is more of a fantasia on a theme than a satisfying narrative. The stories themselves are fascinating and well told, but they don't flow particularly smoothly into one another, and his attempt to tie them up with a bow falls a little flat. But there is more going on here than just the story. Do you think the magic in the show helped create a more coherent whole? Or is that even something we should be looking for in this particular film?

Ben: It’s true that DelGaudio’s attempt to tie the thematic sections of the show together with a bow is less than perfect. But honestly, who can blame him for trying? It not be the ironclad tying of loose ends you might demand out of a well-crafted dramatic film, but I genuinely believe it gives many viewers the surface-level sense of closure they need to start taking in the experience as a whole. I would also like to mention that DelGaudio clearly started with themes and stories that he wanted to be featured in the show, and then designed fantastic illusions, often from the ground up, to aid visually and emotionally in this storytelling. This in my mind is a big part of what allows the show to thrive as more than “just a magic show” or “just a storytelling show.”

In & Of Itself
Brennan: I think one of the unique elements of DelGaudio's performance style is his subtlety. He is a profoundly quiet performer, delivering his monologue in a self-possessed deadpan that makes even the smallest illusion he performs feel like a cannon blast. How do you feel about him as a performer? And what other elements of the staging of this show draw you in the most?

Ben: I couldn’t agree with you more. There is a famous Houdini quote that goes “a magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” DelGaudio embodies this aspiration and I think it helps him to blur the line between his magic and his storytelling greatly. One element of the staging of the show I found smart and reassuring was the promise that the 6 chambers on the back wall made to the audience. They promised more magic to come for those who are most interested in this part of the show, while also staying out of the way and allowing DelGaudio’s story telling to remain the focus. The second element was the very creative and dramatically compelling use of a special book. All I will say about it is that it fills in some of the gaps for those wanting more of a tied-together thesis in the show. And the fact that we get to see multiple nights of the show play out at once in the film gives us a broader insight into the book than any single audience could have gotten.

Brennan: You’re definitely right that there are certain elements of the movie that audience members couldn't have experienced while attending the stage show. Aside from the obvious (the show is interspersed with home video footage of DelGaudio, stylized animated sequences, and some supremely clunky voiceover that needlessly underlines key elements of the show's theme during the show's quieter moments), cinema is a medium that forces the eye to look at specific images - the performer's face here, an audience member's reaction there - while theater presents all options at once, strongly suggesting places to focus but allowing the observer to make their own decision about where to look.

And where I'm sitting, what Frank Oz has accomplished with the camera eye is nothing short of a miracle. I couldn't be sure how this movie would have played if it came out in a time before COVID-19. But the thing is, it didn't. What In & Of Itself provides is a heart-wrenching study of a performer connecting with an audience on a deep level. It's a terrific thing rendered sublime by the sense of deep loss surrounding the fact that this kind of connection has been impossible for the past year. The way Oz chooses to frame the reactions to DelGaudio's performance elevates them into the centerpiece of the film, witnessing their emotional journey as he confuses them, startles them, shakes them up, makes them feel seen and recognized on an impossibly deep level, then allows them to leave, completely rattled and changed. That is the magic of In & Of Itself, more than any card tricks or vanishings. It is a raw, intimate exploration of how identity can provide human connection. All you need to do is look at it the right way.<

So, did you feel anything similar about In & Of Itself as a film object, or do you think I'm just talking out of my ass?

Ben: So, as much as I regret giving up the opportunity to publicly say my boyfriend is talking out of his ass, I am thrilled at how articulately you expressed so many of the things I have been feeling about this film. Here are some thoughts from the magic side of things. The finale of the show is a wonderfully done illusion centering on the audience feeling seen for who they are deep down.

The true magic of this moment isn’t necessarily in the method. The audience knows he is performing an illusion. They might not know exactly how he’s doing it, but they understand there is a method. The electricity of this moment lies in the one-on-one connection he builds with each audience member. They know exactly what’s coming, but that gives them a chance to emotionally prepare, so they can be present to have that moment with him. They are participating in this show in a way that few audience members in traditional magic shows ever get to, and they know as well as we do what a special privilege that is.

Brennan: Well, there you have it, folks! Whatever you’re seeing in it, whether it’s a stage show, a movie, or something in between, it looks like In & Of Itself is worth seeing. And my relationship hasn’t ended over this editing process, so that’s an extra treat for me!

Brennan's Rating: 8/10
Ben's Rating: 9/10

Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.

You can find Ben Altman's art, including stop motion and card sculptures, on Instagram.