So as I find myself mid-ride on this strange crowdfunding roller coaster I ponder things. If I get the funds to continue. If I don’t. And then there is the deeper question: Why am I doing this? Why go through the obstacle course I have been treading for years to try to make this documentary? Does the world need another documentary? Does anyone need a serious documentary on puppetry in Europe? And given the shape of today’s technological entertainment and culture does anyone actually care? And to make a movie of puppets? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Aren’t I trying to communicate something to help us get out of the virtual chaos of the present? And then there folks who are going to use puppetry for exactly the wrong purposes: To indiscriminately make more cuddly cute things. To make purely visual spectacles. Or worse to add to the shrill scream of propaganda that is choking real dialogue and human contact. Why bother? Why make a documentary about puppetry? Why make Gravity From Above?
I wish I could tell you I’m just throwing these questions out there as straw men to blow over with a few optimistic clichés. I am not. Each of these questions has serious ramifications. And once the film is made I certainly can’t control how it is interpreted. I can try to include as much sanity and intelligence as is imaginable into the film. But given how things are grabbed by social networks, the media, politics, the taste makers, the trolls, commercial industry, other Procrustean forces and interpreted willy nilly, trying to throw anything against the wall of human culture these days is a potentially perilous, pointless, quite possibly ridiculous affair.
And yet if we give into the regnant dominions of our day we sign up for our place on that fun slide into the Brave New World that does indeed have such people in it. So maybe there is something in the effort. Although an awful lot of effort has been made by many no doubt sincere (and insincere) people since, say, World War 2: People wanting to change the world, make a difference, revolt against the masses, épater le bourgeois, liberate desire, do their own things, follow their dreams, the list is endless. I’m not interested in any of it.
For me what I saw in puppetry originally was something humbler. And it was small. It was also something tangible, something with complex texture, something with deep historical roots, with deep wellsprings of creative possibility. If you want to really understand puppetry go to some little dark theatre. Maybe someplace below ground level. Someplace with about 20 to 50 seats. Not a big theatrical space with all of the theatrical tropes. Something intimate. Then it really speaks.
Now I want to try to impart something of that experience through a film. Can it even be done? Maybe. If I’m good. A shard of it. But then again the ultimate point of the documentary is to get you to really start ferreting a pathway out of the infestations of screenal existence that have so derailed us in this age.
Music in the 20th Century was a pivotal art that led many into questioning their times, yet music is also quite strongly implicated in leading us exactly into the virtual mess of the 21st Century. Puppetry certainly has dark potentials as well. But at the moment it is still open with good possibilities. I know from personal experimentation and experience that puppetry can be used even across the media soaked landscape of North America to raise questions that need to be asked. To encourage thinking rather than the anti-intellectual mush that passes for discourse in our times. There was something about a certain kind of puppetry that struck a nerve. One girl came up to me after a Reckoning Motions show in North Carolina and said “That kind of disturbed me.” “Why?” I replied, a bit concerned. “Because I could tell you were trying to get us to think, but you weren’t telling us how.” “Exactly.” I said. She did indeed get the point. We weren’t trying to get them to nod in approval with a certain kind of message. We were indeed saying. “Wake up. You have a brain. This is what it feels like to use it again.”
And that’s one thing, among many, that serious puppetry can do. (When I say ‘serious puppetry’ I include comic and children’s performances, but not all of them by a long shot, especially in the USA.) Even the animated puppet films of people like Jan Švankmajer, Ladislas Starewich or the Brothers Quay are so important for their textures in the face of a flattened graphic landscape.
So then what can a documentary about puppetry do?
Well first of all it can’t be the puppet show itself?
If you watch Gravity From Above you won’t be able to say you’ve seen any puppet shows. But it is a finger pointing to this fascinating world that hides in plain sight.
Next it can be an introduction with some historical insight and respect for what is actually a separate and complete art in itself.
For puppeteers I hope the documentary will be something very different. Inspiration. Something to encourage more education and investigation. Something intellectual in the best sense of the word.
For my North American friends I hope to change much of our entire image of puppetry, if that’s at all possible. Instead of seeing only Muppets, children’s entertainment, or goofy postmodernism that appropriates images of bygone children’s television shows. To rouse at least a few curious folks to the more unlimited potentials of an art that still has room to grow.
And for the viewers of this film the ultimate point is to encourage them to turn off their screens for a while and to look for puppets. And if they can’t find any make some! To get back into a tangible reality with complex textures and to question the fictitious panorama that passes for 20th Century life.
November 9th 2014
The Czechs. I’ve learned some very interesting things about them this time around. Prime lesson number one: Nothing is ever quite straight forward. You approach them and you ask what seems to be a simple question: Can I interview you for a documentary about puppetry? And if so when? I don’t know, maybe my American brain is too fixated on results. Yes or no? Next week, Monday at three? Too hard? Not for me. But for the Czechs?
One thing I noticed is that every one of my meetings with Czechs in Prague had little delays. Maybe not now? Why don’t you just drop by? Maybe next week? How long are you in Prague? Fortunately I was quite well prepared emotionally for this obfuscation and non-committal hemming and hawing. First of all I had read the book by Terje B. Englund, The Czechs in a Nutshell. This is a book I highly recommend to anyone who is doing more than a package tour of Prague. Secondly my friend Blair, who had married a Czech girl and really needed a copy of Mr. Englund’s book, had warned me that in his dealings with the Czechs everything seems to get delayed, and if you really want to get things done you kind of have to lean on them a bit, which he said he hated doing.
So true to form after some slight delays my interview with Nina Malíková finally happened, a bit later in the process than I imagined. I could tell Marek of Buchty a Loutky had become a bit hesitant about my interview and finally gave me a brief one, when I was beginning to doubt it would happen at all. Tomas was generous with his time. But I never knew when the interview might occur until it did. And I sent multiple emails all around just trying to get their attention. And finally there was the question of Jan Švankmajer.
So the way this worked was like this, my friend Silvie communicated with me on the internet that she knew a guy who was involved in Jan Švankmajer’s Surrealist group. Great. She then communicated with him, let’s call him Guy With Italian First Name (Gwifn for short) . So Gwifn writes back saying it depends on when your friend is coming to the Czech Republic. So I sweat blood and raise $10,000 or so for a trip to go interview Švankmajer. Silvie writes Gwifn again. What about October or November? Gwifn says it sounds good, Švankmajer is preparing a major retrospective of his art and films in Prague. It shouldn’t be a problem go ahead and come. Swell! I book the entire trip around this interview. It’s the linchpin of the entire film really. So I come to Europe, get a camera, start interviewing. Everyone has great things to say about Švankmajer. I meet Silvie. But she’s a little worried. She hasn’t heard back from Gwifn. Then his last email note sounded somewhat terse. Hmmm. Okay, I think, it’s the Czech Republic, let it roll. I’m booked at the hotel for twelve days. Then I must go to a nearby town to interview Josef Krofta. The interview with Nina is excellent. The time with Buchty a Loutky is wonderful. Prague has been quite interesting. I’m leaving Monday morning to go to Hradec Králové. The last week no word from Gwifn. I can tell Silvie is really feeling bad about this. She’s frantically sending emails. Gwifn says it will happen when it happens… I’m getting closer to leaving. Silvie is getting close to despair. Finally I hear from Silvie Saturday morning on my way to see the last Buchty show that Švankmajer will see me Monday morning at the gallery at center of town. We both breathe a sigh of relief. Silvie is also desperately looking for a translator, since Švankmajer’s English is as solid as my Czech, and since the delays have made finding someone a real pain. A guy named Daniel volunteers. Okay, I’m sure it’s going to happen.
We arrive Monday morning, yes I’ve delayed my trip till the afternoon, at the old town square in front of the building. We enter the building with some trepidation. Several workers stop us. The gallery in the Dům U kamenného zvonu (House of the Stone Bell) is a hive of workmen installing Švankmajer’s years of art, films and other odds and ends. But no sign of the man himself. I let Silvie do the talking. One guy says he isn’t due in till this afternoon. Basically no one knows anything.
Now… Mr. Švankmajer doesn’t do email, he doesn’t give out his phone number, he is notoriously hard to reach… on purpose. (I admire that!) We are given the phone number of I believe his wife, must be second wife. Silvie calls her. As Daniel is telling me not to trust Czechs with Italian first names, Silvie jumps up and down! ‘He’s on his way down now!’ We turn around and walk back to the gallery. We run into a small bald man with a serious white beard. It’s Jan Švankmajer! We pass our dobry dens to him. He smiles and let’s us follow him. He seems to know what’s going on. We walk passed shelves and displays of his creatures from his films, posters of same. Statues made of bones and feathers. A bust of Stalin painted like the Czech flag. And even the Punch/Kašpárek character from Rakvickarna. It’s about to happen, he says give him some time.
Then Silvie comes back crestfallen. Gwifn, remember him, didn’t mention to him that that this was a documentary interview! Švankmajer simply thought this puppeteer from Alaska had come to meet him. As a matter of fact Silvie said when she told him he let loose a few choice Czech curse words. She was pretty nervous actually. But she just stood there, pretty and forlorn. He smiled and said that he couldn’t do it today. I’d have to come back tomorrow.
I grab the train to Hradec Králové. Get there in two hours. Get to sleep. And, oh yeah, I’ve got another interview with Jakub’s father the legendary Josef Krofta. This is the man who essentially changed Czech puppetry in the 70’s. Krofta was a crucial figure. I dropped into his office at the Magistraat where he had become a cultural figure in local politics. He drove me over to the DRAK theatre building, which I had visited back in 2005, where I bumped into Milan and Filip, who had been there then. Mr. Krofta, had busted a blood vessel in his eye, giving him a sort of wounded quality. He like Švankmajer was an aging lion. Our interview was all I could hope for. And again another place I wished I’d scheduled for a day or two longer.
But now I really had to leave. Josef drove me to the station where I hopped back on the two hour train to Prague, meeting Silvie and a new interpreter, Nina, at 2:30. We entered the building… with a bit of anticipation. I was fully ready to cancel the Vienna portion of my trip to come back if I had to. By this point I wasn’t surprised by anything. Maybe I was becoming somewhat Czech. But Švankmajer smiled when he saw us and the interview was on.
And, with Nina providing thorough translation needs, the interview was a complete success. He even gave me what might be the final lines of the film. For my part I felt like all of that time reading puppet history and watching his films had finally paid off. I looked over at Silvie, she was beaming. It was a huge moment for her as well. This retrospective on Švankmajer was a serious artistic triumph for the man. Both Silvie and Nina felt a certain awe at being in the presence of such a national artistic figure. I was walking back through the exhibition once last time to get a few photos when I saw Švankmajer. He smiled at me in a friendly way and then continued walking ahead of me and turned the corner. I kept going to the end of the hall but he was gone. And that was the last I saw of him. I won’t spoil the contents of the interview for you. But I will say this, the ride back to my tiny room in Hradec Králové was very peaceful, even satisfying. The documentary now had a center. I felt a deep gratitude.
Now it was back to Poland once again… this time to interview perhaps a more formidable figure… puppet historian and philosopher Henryk Jurkowski.
(All photography ©2012 Byrne Power)
So I arrived back in Prague staying at a cheap hotel, that confusingly goes by two names, in the Smíchov district. I received a couple of separate messages from two erstwhile Haines folks who wanted to get together with me that evening. One, Blair, was only a river guide for one season back in 2005. He’s now married to a Czech girl and has been in town a little while. The other, Shawn, has been circulating in the guide world in Haines since at least the time I moved there in 1996. Most recently he’s been working in heliskiing, those trips into the jagged mountains to drop well-heeled skiers down the untouched vertical slopes of the Chilkat Valley. Shawn has more than a touch of the jaded about him by his own reckoning. Prague, with its millions of tourists, reminded him a bit of Skagway on a five ship day. He’d already had his big Euro-experience in Munich having his wallet, laptop and soul gobbled up by Oktoberfest. But in fact flying under the radar as he does, he was none too worse for wear.
Blair met us at the Jan Hus statue and knew of a place to go for beer and food, a real Czech hospoda called LoKal. The place was jammed with over a hundred Czechs in a smokey cacophony of conversation and laughter. Blair bought us a round of their unfiltered beer on tap as we waited for a table. An affable Canadian girl, Carmen, sitting alone, gave without to much difficulty to Blair’s pleading. And soon the four of us were talking and sampling things from the menu, including the infamous Moravian cheese, which I should warn all cheese fans has the weirdest aftertaste of any dairy product I’ve ever tried. It is cured evidently on rotten beef, or something like that. I would say you get the picture, but you probably don’t. I ate more of the headcheese. Finally I bid them all adieu as I wandered back to my hotel to get some rest after my first day in Prague. How odd to come back to Prague to meet people you know from Alaska.
The next few days were for getting reacquainted with Prague as I waited to find out about my interviews. There was the endless parade of tourists to just get around, in more ways than one. And the endless means of bilking them out of their euros, pounds, dollars, pesos, yuan, rubles, francs and yen. Yes the endless trinkets, the shiny glass baubles, the bad authentic Czech art, the ripoff money exchanges and, of course, the truly inferior puppets made in the Balkans to sell to the euro-rubes.
But what really struck me this time was the shopping malls. In Krakow, Berlin and now Prague I found huge, sleek, 21st Century malls feeding a hunger for all of the same crap you can find in any American shopping Mecca. There are food courts, cinemas and franchises that certainly are replicated around the world now. All the big American movies were here. The most frightening aspect of traveling now is that you can feel that you haven’t actually gone anyplace at all. And these malls are not for the tourists.
I was getting antsy to find the real Prague away from all of this bling and glitz. I knew it was here but I just had to search it out.
I’ve been to Prague a couple of times before. I know my way around. This time I bought a month pass and just hopped aboard anything that moved my direction. Mostly I was using the trams. Speaking of shopping, I did have some things to look for while I was here. There were a couple of musicians I wanted to seek out on CD, some visual material on DVD. I am loath to download things if I can get a physical copy. So I found a CD by Radůza, an accordion playing Czech singer I’ve listened to for years. Then I looked Jana Vebrová, also an accordion playing wench, but much more abstract and intense. I lost out on that. But I would continue to hunt around. Sadly it seemed not much of the kind of Czech puppet animation I was looking for on DVD was to be found. Trnka, Barta, all seemed unrepresented, though they had recently re-released Švankmajer’s feature films.
I met my previously online only friend Silvie. She is a multi-talented Czech who sings and paints and we finally bridged the virtual barrier by hanging out at a café for a while talking into the late evening. She’s been quite helpful in trying to get me an interview with Jan Švankmajer. (But there are some kinks there! More on that in the future.) I also met Eliska, a guide to an alchemy museum. An interesting discussion about reality in the 21st century was forthcoming. (Hint: Being an Alaskan is a real plus over just being from America for starting conversations.)
Which reminds me… there are the sites and exhibits and other things. And what about the puppets? Yes there was an alchemy museum and a museum of haunted Prague. These were just little tourist traps. But the kind I like: Weird mannikins and homunculi, strange dioramas, odd facts, the past faked with dummies and puppets.
Then there is for me one of the most interesting places in Prague, the Strahov Monastery Library, which besides having a fascinating book collection also has some truly peculiar curiosities in their old cabinets and shelves. And if you really look at the unlabeled items on display, if you get down on your knees and survey the ground level, if you pay attention to what is in front of you you you might see a dried baby dodo bird, books made of wood, a portrait made entirely with seeds, if Švankmajer hasn’t investigated this place carefully I’d be really surprised, and objects that defy any obvious classification. This is indeed the Prague I come to find.
I finally found one DVD featuring the strange animated art of Karel Zeman at a small hole in the wall establishment connected to Kino Světozor, the art film theatre. An intelligent Czech girl named Lucie, helped me navigate around the riches of Czech Cinema, giving me more than a couple worthy opinions, and restoring my faith in the small specialist store of over mega monsters. (But still no Jana Vebrová.)
Finally I went to see a puppet show over at Říše Loutek, which is also the National Marionette Theatre where they show the classic Czech puppet version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni every week. (There is another inferior Balkan version in town, watch out!) The title of the children’s show was Kašpárek in Hell. For me that’s a promising title. And it was enjoyable. But alas Kašpárek as seen better days. He was now just a little rascally hero. Not the sarcastic truth telling fool of the past. Nevertheless the devils in the piece were worth a watch. And who better to start my Czech puppet shows with than with Kašpárek, the quintessential Czech figure.
But ironically the real puppetry display was over at the Czech Museum of Music. They had a serious exhibition of mechanical musical instruments and automata. Many of these creations from the last three hundred years were marvels of ingenuity. There were player pianos, barrel and pin band organs and various humanoid puppets and animals… including cousins to the puppets that Švankmajer used in the opening scenes of Rakvickarna (Punch and Judy or The Coffin factory). Engrossing.
More and more I was seeing Prague through the tourists. I didn’t mind them anymore. Let ’em wander. Maybe some of them will actually begin to see the statues on the Charles Bridge or be tempted to stroll off down a forgotten corner or a twisting alley, and there are more corners here than there are tourists. I felt at home in this haunted city.
Oh yeah… I almost forgot. After going to one CD store after another, no one had the Jana Vebrová album. Finally I saw one more place off the tram out of way. I found it again later. I looked through the racks and didn’t see it. Finally I asked. There was a pause… Yes! They had it. What can I say… A moment of victory and worth the effort to find.
Prague, Czech Republic