In & of Itself (2020)
January 23, 2021 6:17 PM - Subscribe

A powerful and magical exploration of identity. Directed by Frank Oz and produced by Steven Colbert. It defies brief explanation. It is a film of an extraordinary stage performance by Derek DelGaudio about how we think about our selves, how others think about us, and how to resolve that difference.
posted by Stanczyk (29 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
I just finished watching this! At first I was a bit tetchy about how no one who'd recommended it to me had given me much idea of what to expect, but having watched it, I think that was the right call. What a remarkable piece of theater!

Also I very much agree with Linda Holmes' review that I don't really want to know how the show achieves its audience participation segments: the mystery of it enhances the wonder and emotional effect.

I'm sorry I never got the chance to see this as a live performance, but I think this recorded version introduces some neat meta-narrative moments, along with moments that enhance the show's meaning, with the famous audience member cameos. I also kind of enjoyed playing spot the famous audience member in the crowd shots; there aren't many, but it's fun when you do spot them.
posted by yasaman at 6:31 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]


Just watched this, and was very glad to have not known much about it beforehand. I found it very powerful. I didn't know there would be famous faces in the audience so my mind wasn't bothered by looking for them (though I found it interesting when the guy who looks like Bill Gates was a Leader)! I'm struck with how difficult this will be to recommend without spoiling anything. It's "a one-man show about identity" sounds pretty lame, after all.
posted by chowflap at 8:44 PM on January 23


When the idea of Performance Art first started to be talked about, or when I first heard of it, it was ill-defined. My initial reaction was to think of it derisively. In Martin Scorsese's segment of New York Stories, there's a show performed by Steve Buscemi's character that embodies this notion of it. I tend to think of Performance Art as, like, mixed media, with audience participation, maybe something stunt-y, portentous themes, half-baked philosophical underpinnings.

If I attempted to describe this show to someone who hadn't seen it, they might come to the conclusion that it was just exactly that kind of Performance Art. But seeing it reveals that to be just one label that loosely applies to it. It could call itself that and some people would agree, but there is so much more to it. I think it may transcend all attempts at definition, by the very nature of the story it tells.

I wish I could have seen it live, but I'm grateful to have seen it at all, and this film seems to me to have adapted it the best and only way it could be. It's brilliant.
posted by wabbittwax at 9:59 PM on January 23


Along with performance art, I think conceptual magic is also a great term for this performance. I love that it takes a variation of the bog-standard magic trick opening of "pick a card, any card," and builds something new and moving out of it.
posted by yasaman at 10:08 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]


This was stunning; I was also made aware of it by Linda Holmes via her Twitter, and I'm glad I knew as little as possible on the way in. It's an excellent piece of theatre; I've seen a lot of solo shows from terrible to wonderful, and this was as good as I've seen, plus also literally magical.
posted by Superilla at 11:09 PM on January 23


Haven’t watched this yet but from the trailer it appears to be pure manipulative con-artist bullshittery couched in new age pop-psychology trappings. Can anyone disabuse me of this notion, or is it something I’ll have to see for myself to decide?
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:27 AM on January 24 [1 favorite]


Atom Eyes, there are superficial resemblances if the trailer is what you’re going on, but no, it’s really more about storytelling and generating a sense of wonder and connectedness. There’s nothing like “you there in the audience- my psychic powers tell me you had a complicated relationship with your father.”

I think you should watch it- if you dislike it I’d actually be interested why.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 7:13 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Probably the latter. I did not feel bullshitted or pop psyched watching it, but that is my opinion. He basically mentions stuff from his life, but the overall frame is how do we define ourselves.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:13 AM on January 24


Also there is magic. And I think here the card-manipulation segment probably benefited from the filming because you got a closer look at it than you would have from the audience; but even though he tells you what he's doing -- dealing from the bottom or the middle of the pack -- you still can't see it.

Also I very much agree with Linda Holmes' review that I don't really want to know how the show achieves its audience participation segments: the mystery of it enhances the wonder and emotional effect.

I ... kind of do want to know though, right? And I think I mostly do; but as with the cards , knowing it's a trick doesn't diminish the effect.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:52 AM on January 24


Atom Eyes, he is using con-artist bullshittery, but a segment of the show is him related how he went about learning how to do it; he's not remotely hiding from the audience the fact that he's performing tricks. And also I think it's safe to say that he's not a new age charlatan; it's an artistic performance, not a cult ritual.
posted by Ipsifendus at 11:31 AM on January 24 [2 favorites]


Can anyone ID any celebrities in this? I am pretty sure that was Bill Gates as "leader" and I think I saw Tim Gunn in the front row, but he was covering his face?

Anyway, I am very impressed at the brick trick and how he somehow got nice handwritten letters for whoever ended upon the stage. I don't care on card tricks, THAT was impressive.

I was honestly expecting him to say that when he was six and going into the kitchen, that his mom was suddenly dead. Turns out she's just a lesbian instead and I burst out laughing. It's a good thing I wasn't there in person because the bit after that was Very Downer Intense.

The whole "I am whatever" roll call was surprisingly deep and impressive, as was the "rouletist" thing.

I also liked that he pointed out what I was thinking on the blind-guys-and-the-elephant story. That has to be one very tolerant elephant....
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:09 PM on January 24


The celebs I spotted, for certain values of celebrity: W Kamau Bell, Jon Lovett, Ronan Farrow, Cillian Murphy, the aforementioned Bill Gates and Tim Gunn, Deray McKesson, and Marina Abramovic (one of my favorite moments! what a lovely meta-moment). There were a couple others where I thought "you look familiar", but for all I know, they'd played, like, suspects of the week on Law & Order or whatever.
posted by yasaman at 5:29 PM on January 24


(Streaming on Hulu currently)
Since i'm the type of person who wants to go beyond the mystery and figure out how magic tricks are done, I've have some thoughts (which could be completely wrong) on the audience participation tricks:

• The naming of the cards chosen by the standing audience members:
They didn't show how the cards are collected, but somehow the cards have to be matched to the audience members. If Derek DelGaudio is collecting them himself, maybe he just has a very good memory. If he isn't collecting them himself, it certainly possible everything is recorded on video and his crew could do the matching of cards to people and there could be plants in the audience giving subtle signals identifying each person's card (with the plants getting their info over radio earpieces). And given this is a film, if there were times he was wrong, did they just not include that happening?

• The letters from friends or families:
Given the letters had to be written and mailed in advance, research needed to be done on who would be in the audience that night and how to contact their family and friends. Since tickets are bought online, they know who is coming to the show in advance. And with audience members' social media presence, it wouldn't be too hard to find relatives and friends to contact to ask them to send a letter. There's probably dozens of audience members they can do that for each performance. So, for each performance there's a group of people they have a stack of letters for. The woman brought up on stage is a "reflection" (I don't recall how they chose that card over any other). Given that they have to keep track of which audience members choose which card, he just needs to chose the card for someone who he knows has a collection of letters for. However, regardless of how the letters get sent, what's important is the audience member's emotional reaction to the letter - that's why makes it so moving and effective.
(And after typing this in, internet searching finds plenty of similar speculation on these tricks).
posted by ShooBoo at 12:33 AM on January 25


I enjoyed the show quite a bit! I'm not sure how to nudge friends to watch it.

Derek DelGaudio posted a thread on Twitter about working with Frank Oz, director, as they struggled to make this show. Here's the thread, on Threader.
posted by Pronoiac at 3:43 AM on January 25 [2 favorites]


My guesses were that the naming-the-audience bit is pure memorization; the letter bit is pre-prepared; and either there's one real letter and the choice is forced ("pick a card") or they're all real.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:56 AM on January 25


The bit about the brick is the one I think is so hilarious- it seems so trivial to have an intern run a brick to a location that's named at the beginning of the show, but the videos at the end showed people in awe.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:19 AM on January 25 [3 favorites]


The naming of the cards chosen by the standing audience members:
If Derek DelGaudio is collecting them himself, maybe he just has a very good memory.


I remember going to an "Illusionist" show years back in the Bay Area where part of the show was the performer meeting everyone outside first and trying to (and mostly succeeding in) memorizing 100+ names. I think chunking together 3 people who came together in your memory probably helps.

As far as letters go, my two best guesses are they knew who some of the people would be in advance and contacted loved ones; or they searched social media for the first hour of the show to put together something plausible for whoever they would pull up. They only need to research one person for that hour, and maybe a backup.

In any case, however the rouletista survives the night, doesn't matter a whole lot to me; the end result is still entertaining and moving.
posted by mistersix at 11:55 AM on January 25


They didn't show how the cards are collected, but somehow the cards have to be matched to the audience members.

This was shown; a woman dressed as an usher or tech was at the door, ripping each person's ticket as they enter (presumably in random order), giving them the I AM part back and placing the name on the top of the pile. She's then shown stacking the pile up, squaring it up and putting it on the table, where a spotlight illuminates it, and it's there when DelGaudio comes out on stage.

The bit about the brick is the one I think is so hilarious- it seems so trivial to have an intern run a brick to a location that's named at the beginning of the show, but the videos at the end showed people in awe.

I don't know a ton about magic, but what I do know is that some stuff is done by the magician just doing thousands of hours of practice, and some stuff just involves an assistant doing some ridiculous grunt work, or some other type of overpreparation -- I vaguely half-remember some bit from someone that involved picking a card, and rather than forcing a specific card, there were just 52 payoffs already setup in the theatre so they just triggered the right one for the selected card.

The weird thing about magic to me in a way is the focus on figuring out how something is being done. The nature of the performance sort of suggests that focus, and it's always a discussion, but in a way it's kind of silly. Like, Simone Biles does a flip by building up momentum, pushing off with her legs, and using her abs to twist and rotate. But even though it's evident how it's being done, it's still amazing to watch. A virtuoso musician is just playing notes, but the joy of the performance is in the soul, and the skill and the effortlessness.

In a way, DelGaudio sort of addresses at least part of this with his card routine; when he's dealing the cards it's clear that he's dealing the kings off the top and the other cards off the middle or bottom, and some of the joy is in how smoothly he's doing that.
posted by Superilla at 1:06 PM on January 25


I went live and can confirm he did not collect the cards himself, if I remember correctly we either handed them to an usher as we walked in or were directed to place them ourselves on a stack on the black table. And everyone shuffled into the theater at their own pace. We definitely didn't come into contact with him before the show.

I hope it translated well for people on TV because like Linda Holmes, I just wanted everyone to see it and to talk about it with EVERYONE but they were like "ew a magic show, no thanks nerd". The chilling and emotional feeling in the theater as it dawned on all of us, collectively, "holy SHIT this guy is going to guess every single persons card, isn't he?" was captured well enough on film for me as someone who is biased and fondly remembers the show, and I hope it gave other people the same goosebumps and wasn't just a "you had to be there" thing.
posted by windbox at 1:20 PM on January 25 [12 favorites]


That stunt of naming "every single person's card" is kind of fascinating, for a few reasons. First off, interesting because he's not just naming their card; he's naming what they aspire to be, or already feel themselves to be. He sort of gets the people who'd be interested in that experience to self-select, by telling those who picked out a card with a joking answer not to stand up. Secondly, the emotional impact of the scene obscures what an old trick it is. Cold reading has been done for a hundred years at least. But in this case, he's not telling you he's has a message from your dead relatives; instead, he's offering the experience of being recognized, by a stranger. As if the inward version of yourself, the truest image, was right on the surface. And hence the emotional punch; how rare must it be, to be recognized as what one feels oneself to be? Tim Gunn is a relatively famous person, and by all appearances the experience, for him, at least, was profound. I think Del Gaudio must have had a pretty good sense for which "cards" corresponded to powerful self-images, as well as an ability to read, from non-verbal cues, which people were really invested in the process. There were definitely cases where he slowed down, and focused more intensely, to heighten the intensity of the naming.
posted by Ipsifendus at 3:49 PM on January 26


I definitely would've missed this, thanks for posting about it!

I am a cringing beast of the underside and cannot imagine choosing a card that revealed anything deep or personal even if I had no expectation anyone but me would ever see it, I'm not sure what I took from the whole thing about identity, BUT it was super impressive on screen and I can imagine the audience participation being immensely powerful in person.

I have like 70% of a guess on how they COULD have pulled the letter thing off but I'm delighted I can't get the rest of the way there. The cold reading was very cool, and for me the one that stood out the most was the woman whose card he whispered to her. Like who knows, it could've been for effect, maybe she picked "I am a pediatrician", but it was one of a few moments that came off as authentically empathetic.

(The sheer delight of people finding the bricks after was very cute, and I think telling of how much the experience touched attendees, since they seemed in awe at what was in all likelihood, yeah, an intern running out and leaving a spray-painted brick on a street corner. A nice touch all the same.)
posted by jameaterblues at 4:13 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


I'll also add, I don't remember what card I picked but I do remember that it was not particularly reflective of me, and also not necessarily a silly jokey card like "ninja" or "rockstar" or whatever...more like, "sure, this one works I guess".

I also remember mulling over whether to stand or not because my card didn't "feel like" my identity, but ultimately deciding eh what the hell let's participate and see what happens. So I believe it was entirely through some extreme memorization trick more so than any cold reading, but I agree he asked people to stand "only if they were serious" to make it more emotionally impactful for those who did, and it worked great. People were crying!
posted by windbox at 4:24 PM on January 26 [1 favorite]


Secondly, the emotional impact of the scene obscures what an old trick it is. Cold reading has been done for a hundred years at least. But in this case, he's not telling you he's has a message from your dead relatives; instead, he's offering the experience of being recognized, by a stranger.

I disagree that it's really a cold reading trick in any way, mechanically at least. Classic cold reading involves shotgunning vague and often forgettable statements while closely observing a person to hone in on something with resonance. ("I sense something causing you anxiety... is there someone in your life with the initial B.. or D.. or T...")

This seemed pretty nearly the opposite of that; each person he called by a single word or phrase, which (it seems) was the specific one on the card the person selected out of several hundred. (And while a good cold reader could tell someone who is fun and extroverted; I don't think they could tell that they'd picked "Life of the Party" versus "A Good Time" -- especially since they could also have picked a relationship, occupation, etc.)

Functionally, I think it could have been a shuffled deck people picked from and he said "three of clubs"; he could have had the complete 2002 Topps baseball card set out there and had people pick their favourite player, and been all "Barry Zito... Greg Maddux... Tim Salmon".

I think it's a particularly clever version, of course; by having potentially everyone in the audience select, there's the dawning realization that he's going to do this dozens of times for everybody, not just a few people; and the impressiveness of doing it for everybody. There's also that everyone present knows from their perspective that he got their card at least. And by it tying to the person's identity, it becomes more profound, as well as tying into the overarching themes of the show.

The cold reading was very cool, and for me the one that stood out the most was the woman whose card he whispered to her. Like who knows, it could've been for effect, maybe she picked "I am a pediatrician", but it was one of a few moments that came off as authentically empathetic.

That woman was landmark performance artist Marina Abramović, whose body of work has a few resonances with this show, most notably engaging with empathy with individual audience members, as well as a proposed performance of Russian roulette.
posted by Superilla at 11:02 PM on January 26 [2 favorites]


I also saw it live. I still have my I AM card half from the show.

When I heard it was on Hulu I was hesitant- so much of the performance for me was the emotion you could feel through the whole theater. I love magic, but it was exciting to see it performed not in the standard way but as part of telling a story or having a conversation about a sense of self. I watched it last night and was so happy to find they didn't water it down. I also very much enjoyed getting to see pages of the book.

One of my favorite memories of the live show was when a few friends met us outside the theater, and we got out and yelled at them to follow us as we ran to find the brick. It was either not there or we somehow missed it, but the thrill and fun of doing it, and of the friends who had not even seen the show being willing to rush with us to a random street to look for a brick, made me feel that I'd surrounded myself with the best group of people.
posted by haplesschild at 10:18 AM on January 27 [3 favorites]


One of my favorite elements of this show was the dog and wolf piece. At first it seemed contrived to me, like an apology for being a magician, but the more I thought about it, the more I honed in on the practical difference between a dog and a wolf. Both can read humans like a book. Both can easily smell our age, our strength and health status, our emotional state, instantly discerning our advantages and weaknesses. But a wolf will use that against you, and a dog will use that to empathize with you, to bond. It's the same kind of empathy the room fills with when DelGaudio "sees" the people in the audience. I don't care how that was done, I was just delighted to see it. To see the power of people being seen.
posted by Stanczyk at 4:19 PM on January 27 [3 favorites]


Just watched this, and found it very moving. You kind of have to relax into his slow pace of storytelling, I think. I saw a headline comparing this to "Nanette" and thought that was apt in some ways--his everyman persona, his dry and self-conscious delivery & deadpan humor, his sometimes random-seeming stories building into something cohesive and very serious.

I appreciated hearing from the folks here who saw the show in person. One question about this...
for each performance there's a group of people they have a stack of letters for.
...I agree that this is the only plausible explanation I can think of, but it seems like this would have to rely on an AWFUL lot of friends and family being willing not to spoil the trick not only (in advance) for the participant, but also to the general public as the show went on. Also I'd feel a tiny bit sad and cheated, myself, if I'd opened a letter like that, cried on stage, and then found out a bunch of my acquaintances had written letters in advance! I wonder if there is another explanation that wouldn't involve a wider and wider circle of people in the general public who had seen behind the curtain, as the show went on. I guess maybe that's what NDAs are for?

I attributed the audience identifications to DelGaudio's possibly having an eidetic memory that was used in some way. However it was done, he really acted the hell out of that segment, naming people with a huge amount of empathy.
posted by torticat at 2:48 AM on January 30


OK so after my upthread naysaying I finally watched this and have to say I really enjoyed it. DelGaudio is a great storyteller and I’m always a sucker for simple card magic performed with fluidity.

As for the letter reading segment, one possible explanation I haven’t yet seen mentioned is that the letter readers were confederates—hired actors planted in the audience who’d each been given the text of their letter in advance in order to rehearse a maximally effective dramatic reading. This would align with something Derek says early in the show about how some of what he was going to say in the next hour would be lies. (Similar to the trick pulled by Orson Welles in F is for Fake.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:53 AM on January 31 [1 favorite]


I'm so glad I came to this without really knowing what it was. Watching him deal cards close up and still not being able to see what he's doing is amazing. Delgaudio is really an excellent host and storyteller. The combination of doing "tricks" and knowing that we all know they're tricks and still being able to bring genuine emotion and empathy to the performance is somehow actual magic.

The log book is really lovely, and I'm sure I could spend hours looking through it. I sort of want to watch it again to be a little like Mr./Ms. Yesterday. And also because I want to gawk at the famous faces in the audience.
posted by gladly at 7:10 AM on February 1


I think I would have loved this show if I had seen it live. I enjoy magic and I have no doubt I would have easily been caught up in the collective emotion of the audience if I was at a live performance. But, honestly, on film it felt manipulative and pretentious. Still, the guy has impressive magic skills!
posted by pjsky at 9:10 AM on February 3


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