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All Movie Talk

Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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The Joy of Process

In the podcast, we've mentioned the attraction of movies that illustrate some kind of process or craft. For some reason, movies that delve into the details of showing someone engaged in some kind of meticulous process is interesting. I'm not entirely sure why.

I think if I were to watch a photographer developing his work in a dark room, it would not be nearly so interesting as watching this same thing in the movie Blowup (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni. But in the movie, there are a couple long stretches where the main character develops prints, blows them up, examines them carefully, and it is absolutely fascinating.

Francis Ford Coppola's great film The Conversation (1974) has a similar allure. In that film, Gene Hackman is an expert with wiretaps and bugging devices and manipulating sound information. That film is slightly more reliant on the compelling character and the intrigue in the plot to hold the viewer's interest (which it does admirably); nevertheless, there is a fascination purely in observing the character engaged in his craft.

It is so fascinating, in fact, that Brian De Palma's rip-off movie, Blow Out (1981), a shameless composite of both Blowup and The Conversation, is still engaging in this same way. In Blow Out, a sound engineer played by John Travolta attempts to reconstruct a fuzzy sound recording that may hold the solution to a mystery. It's not a great film, but it's more engaging than it should be, simply because it is interesting to watch Travolta at work.

Recently I saw another movie with a similar kind of appeal, though an entirely different sort of story from these three. It's called Incognito (1997), and I was astonished to read, after watching it, that the reviews are mixed. No, it's not a classic, but it's an entertaining thriller based on a fresh idea and is meticulous in documenting all the details involved with creating a forgery of a Rembrandt painting.

If you had asked me going into the movie what forging a Rembrandt would entail, I'd have probably said that you'd need a good painter. After a moment's thought, I might have realized you'd need to have the materials Rembrandt would have used, as surely modern paints and canvas would be different.

Yes, but there is a lot more to it, especially since the Rembrandt forgery in question isn't a copy of an existing painting, but a new painting done in Rembrandt's style. Not only does the painting need to be created, but there is the reality of history to contend with. There is also the matter of art scholars, some of whom have written theses that call into question the authenticity of works that have always been presumed to be that of the masters. You can't just show up out of nowhere and say you've got a Rembrandt. There's a game to play first.

The film is divided down the middle into two halves, the first dealing with the creation of the forgery and the execution of the plan. I found it riveting, simply seeing a master craftsman at work in his unusual trade. The second half of the film shifts into the more familiar territory of the thriller genre, and as it's more familiar, it's also less effective. Nevertheless, it is entertaining in its own right and does justice to the first half. In particular, I liked the moral ambiguity of the character. We're not sure whether our hero is really a hero or an anti-hero, and so we don't necessarily see how things will wind up.

Incognito is available as a "Watch Now" movie on Netflix, which is how I saw it. It can also be rented or purchased on DVD.

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