Are Movie Props Fine Art? For the Collectors in ‘Mad Props,’ Yes.

Liem Soeng

Are Movie Props Fine Art? For the Collectors in ‘Mad Props,’ Yes.

In his book “The Films in My Life,” director and enthusiast François Truffaut wrote, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema.” Juan Pablo Reinoso‘s new documentary “Mad Props” satisfies Truffaut’s criteria beautifully, expressing not only the joy of making cinema but also the joy of watching cinema, exploring both through the eyes of Tom Biolchini, an Oklahoma banker who obsessively collects movie props. Reinoso follows Biolchini as he travels the world meeting other collectors who lovingly display their acquisitions, everything from Indiana Jones’ whip to various title characters from Joe Dante‘s “Gremlins” to an entire house from “The Outsiders” purchased by House of Pain’s Danny Boy O’Connor and filled with artifacts from that Francis Coppola classic. As the film progresses, Reinoso broadens his scope to include interviews with actors and various prop and creature makers to ask the question: Are these props objects of art worthy of the same respect and preservation as the paintings and sculptures that populate the world’s great museums?

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A line of women and one man dressed in late-19th century finery; still from

For Reinoso, the answer is an obvious yes. “People who don’t necessarily appreciate movies as much as we do might say, ‘How is that art compared to Michelangelo’s David?’” Reinoso told IndieWire. “But these are artists who create these things, and people don’t understand the amount of love and care that goes into them.” As Reinoso interviewed Biolchini, O’Connor, and other collectors, he quickly learned that most of them simply wanted to own something that connected them to a film that had profoundly affected them. “It’s a subjective thing, what we connect with emotionally. So who’s to say that a gremlin doesn’t evoke the same emotion that a Van Gogh does, for whatever reason? We movie nerds and collectors are looked down on sometimes, so I wanted to make the movie less about the kitschiness of collecting than the true artistic value of these props.”

The economic value is also revealed throughout the film, as Reinoso shows Biolchini and other collectors buying pieces for staggering amounts of money at auctions (“Wilson,” the volleyball from “Cast Away,” goes for over $80,000). While some viewers might see these purchases as indicators of the collectors’ insanity, Reinoso feels that the high prices bolster his argument that props are significant works. “The way that these collectibles have become more and more valuable in the last 20 years is proof that they have artistic value,” he said. One of the pleasures of “Mad Props,” however, is the way it celebrates props that will never sell for big money — and, in some cases, aren’t even seen on screen. Actor Mickey Rourke tells a story about a wad of cash that he carried in his pocket and how that prop was the thing that made his character come to life, and Reinoso sees that anecdote as emblematic of the real importance of props. “That piece of minutiae drives a little moment that drives the scene, and that scene affects the whole movie as a result.”

Reinoso wanted his documentary to develop organically, so he went in without a script and built the film around the discoveries that emerged from his and Biolchini’s travels. One of the movie’s most delightful sequences comes when Reinoso documents actors Robert Englund and Lance Henriksen on a visit to Amalgamated Dynamics, a character effects studio that has created creatures for everything from “Godzilla: King of Monsters” to the “Santa Clause” movies. The passage perfectly illustrates both the passion and the discipline that goes into creating props and special effects and the intersection between those crafts and the actors’ work. “People talk about method actors who can’t feel connected to their character until they’re in the wardrobe,” Reinoso said. “Working with these pieces can also really affect a performance and help it evolve on a deeper level.”

While “Mad Props” will probably mean the most to movie fanatics who share its subjects’ intense devotion to film, Reinoso hopes that everyone can relate to the collectors’ enthusiasm on some level. “You don’t have to be obsessed with movies like we are to make that kind of connection,” he said. “Maybe it’s just one movie that you absolutely love — you don’t need to have seen it a million times, but it can be a movie you connected with that meant a lot to you. Everybody loves a good movie. So for me, this is a movie for everybody.”

Virgil Films releases “Mad Props” in select theaters February 23.

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