And so I have been working to discover what other puppeteers think of this subject. One person I truly wanted to meet was Jan Švankmajer, whose work inspired Gravity From Above, my exploration of puppetry in Europe. His work is filled with textures, purposely distressed surfaces, rough fabrics, objects rendered impenetrable by his tampering with them. During the period when the Czech communists refused to allow him to make films he began to experiment with tactility, going as far as to make boxes that one put one’s hands into as portraits of individuals. His wife Eva never was able to put her hand into the box he made for her. These were not safe textures. Yet it shows his commitment to the tangible and tactile which informs all of his work.º
Likewise the films of the Brothers Quay are filled with physical features that impede the rapid consummation of their art. And this emphasis on texture comes from their immersion into puppets and their connections with older puppet traditions like the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels and the early puppet films of Ladislas Starewitch. They also understand the importance of textures in life whether it be lacemaking or furniture. That somehow in ways we don’t fully understand we are fed by textures in a way that flat sterile surfaces cannot do.
My interviews for Gravity From Above have led me to conclude that often puppeteers are more sensitive to these tactile worlds. They raise questions about the nature of digital representations versus the tangible realms of the puppet theatre. In discussing these things in Warsaw in 2012 with the late Polish puppet historian Henryk Jurkowski he told me that: “I think that this, what is on the screen, I mean on TV and on film also, it is not real: Puppetry is real. It’s a reality. And I believe that the puppet with this ambiguity of its existence and non-existence, belongs to my reality, to my world. I can invest some belief in it. I can play with it. I can admire it, but it’s something real. I can touch it. I can even touch it. I think that puppets, and some kinds of sculpture, are real. They are speaking to us. And we can, vice versa, answer.”*
Think of that reaction to puppetry as opposed to the kind of endless fanatical devotion that the products of big budget science-fiction films and video games engender. The puppet leads us into physical reality, the tactile four dimensional universe where things are affected by the passing of time. The puppet is completely mixed up with tactile reality. As Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppets wrote some years ago: “Puppet theater is does not only consist of things – it is overwhelmed by things and lives in this obsession. In its practices it knows the typical otherworldly qualities of things and in its productions it remains indebted to them. And indeed the soul of things does not reveal itself so easily. What speaks out of a puppet’s gesture is mostly uncontrollable and in any case not suited for the specific targeting with which modern audiences get bombarded.”§
Thus the puppet as a material object contains in its essence a contradiction to this world of endless digital imagery, of the flatness of the new commercial world to which we seemingly have little redress. That is why I have often said that puppetry is an antidote art, and antidote to the fixations of this strangely empty 21st Century. In a time when human communications have been reduced to ‘memes’, or to social media, what Jacques Ellul called horizontal propaganda, to multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, to computer games where, as Alexis Blanchet wrote, “the player is only a puppet manipulating an avatar.”• The tactile, tangible, multidimensional puppet made of textures performed in real time offers a humble resistance to the epic spectacle of our age.
A younger French puppeteer, Paulette Caron, in discussing the issues related to this new virtual age: “But live performance is different! And you can go and see the same show twice, and it won’t be the same. You can feel the objects breathing. Actually seeing the tension inside of someone, between someone and the object, whether it be a puppet officially or not. What happens between the two? What happens inside the puppeteer? It’s something that you don’t really see on film, I think. Because you have a certain point of view that’s given to you. And your eyes aren’t free to focus on what the puppeteer will tell you to be focused upon.”*
And that ultimately is the question for today’s puppeteers. What will you focus upon? And what will the puppet mean in the 21st Century? Will it end up as one more digital obsession? Will it simply add to the arsenal of various propagandas? Or will the puppet point, as it naturally does, to the meaning of being an embodied creature in a world of real things?
When I gave this lecture Puppetry and Texture was already on my mind.
Thanks for reading along… Do let me know what you think.
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art by Jan Švankmajer © 2014 International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art
§ -The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order by Peter Schumann ©1993 Bread + Puppet Theater
• – La vie filmique des marionnettes Ed. Laurence Schifano ©2008 Presses Universitaires de Paris 10 (L’avatar vidéoludique, nouvelle forme de marionnette numérique? by Alexis Blanchet)
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
And so we come to another crossroads in our our efforts to complete Gravity From Above. Maybe it’s time to give you folks a summary of the origin and history of this project thus far. And why I’m determined to try to get this done… in my lifetime.
I did not grow up around puppetry. The most exposure I had to puppets was in watching the occasional Davey And Goliath children’s show, the odd early pre-Sesame Street performances of the Muppets on the Ed Sullivan show and other variety acts seen on television during the 60’s and, of course, televised reruns of the 1933 King Kong. As a child I never once watched a live puppet performance. Music grabbed my attention much more fully.
And recently as I began to wonder when I actually saw my first puppet show, I realized that it wasn’t until I was 32 years old in Paris at Sacre Coeur in 1987 where I watched an unusual street performer who brought various sculpted heads out from under a large red velour curtain of sorts on the steps of that cathedral. They interacted with each other in pairs. All the while a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played from a boom box. It was a moving performance, but I did NOT even recognize until only a couple of years ago that what I had been watching was indeed puppetry. What an astonishing first performance!
Near the end of the 1980’s I ran into my first Jan Švankmajer films and then the Brothers Quay at the Film Forum while I lived in New York City. But even then I was more attracted to the curious animation techniques of the films than I was to the puppets they used. By the mid-Nineties I had been working in the New York art world for a while and I was puzzling over the defects of much of the contemporary art scene. I was writing a few notes down for some kind of new art that would use forgotten elements from the past in a different configuration. I wrote ‘puppets’ down. I had been thinking about the Brothers Quay and Švankmajer’s use of puppetry more. I made it through most of the first half of the Nineties without a television set or VHS player. But I did decide that I needed a couple of VHS tapes. The first I videos I bought were by Švankmajer and the Quays. And I was just beginning to suspect that it was Eastern European puppetry that was a key to apprehending their unique qualities.
By 1996, my last year in New York City, I had begun to articulate a serious interest in puppets. I visited a Guignol show in Paris early in the year. I watched Vietnamese water puppets at Lincoln Center. I sat through a boring student performance in NYU that was more noteworthy for the anticipation of the show than in the loopy postmodern politically correct posturings of the actual show/diatribe. And I was accumulating more animation videos in anticipation of my move to Alaska.
In the year 2000 I took my first true steps to find puppet theatres in Europe as I spent two months visiting friends and traveling by train. I did not get to see the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which was on tour, but I did run across a seasonal Christmas marionette entertainment in Vienna. In Romania I came across puppetry that mixed jovial full sized actors with various hand and rod puppets . And then I arrived in Prague…
Prague was a revelation. I came seeking to encounter some kind of puppetry. After checking into what would be last cheap hotel I could ever frequent in Prague, I wandered into the night and quickly discovered why it was called the ‘Golden City of a Thousand Spires’. As I walked into the Staré Město I turned around catching the towers of the Tyn church and other structures. My mouth was agape. With abrupt understatement I realized I was in PRAGUE! And I was there to look for puppets and other odds and ends of theatrical culture. I saw my first Don Giovanni show at the National Marionette Theatre. I visited Lanterna Magika. I took in a black light show. I saw a strange play that also featured puppets and masks. I was also obscurely aware that I was only scratching the touristic surface of Czech puppetry. I would need to come back someday.
Now I didn’t go home and start a puppet theatre. Nor did I even become particularly obsessed with puppets. And frankly to this day I’m not overwhelmed by puppets qua puppets. Just because something is a puppet I don’t immediately go gaga. Cute puppets, Muppets, many children’s puppets, ill conceived and textureless puppets don’t grab my attention is all. (Which largely explains why so many features of American puppetry don’t interest me.) But I saw just enough to know that there was much more to see and to know. And so I began reading more about puppetry, began my library on the subject, puppet books were hard to find for me at that point. Found DVDs and online interviews with the Quays and Švankmajer. Picked up more animation videos. Names like Starewicz, Trnka, Barta became second nature. In late 2003 and I performed a shadow play with a student of mine for a few friends: A version of The Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman. (A small figure was the normal size, a full human in silhouette was the giantess.) But I wasn’t rushing to get back to Europe to see more puppet theatres. I hadn’t really seen enough to convince me yet. I hadn’t seen enough of the right kinds of performances yet. But all of that would change in 2005.
Next week we’ll discuss how that happened. Come back soon! Meanwhile click this and do help out.
And while you’re here seriously if you have been following this journey at all do help us get back to Europe. It’s quite possible that we’ll get enough footage to finally wrap up the journeys for a while and start editing everything together. Wouldn’t you LIKE to see what this is going to look like? (If so watch the video directly below this.) Any amount would be appreciated. Help us to avoid being stranded overseas! And thanks to all of the supportive folks along the way!
This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.
Interview with Kevin Titzer
Kevin: A couple of years ago an artist named Kevin Titzer contacted me. An American living in Quebec in a small town called Saguenay, he mentioned influences from Švankmajer and the Quays and that was enough to pique my curiosity. This is an interview about his art and his newfound experiments in puppetry that might find eager interest here.
Byrne Power: When did you start making these figures?
Kevin: I first started making figures when I was in University. I had a woodworking class and a clay class. I wanted to save time, or I was just lazy, and decided to start a project that I would cover an assignment for both courses. So I made these sort of puppet figures with wooden bodies and clay heads. I really enjoyed making them, so I kept exploring what else I could do with them and just never stopped. That was around 1995.
On a side note, people often think the heads of my figures are still made out of clay. They haven’t been clay since I left school and lost my access to a kiln. Since then they have all been carved from wood. Although I surface them with many layers of paint and varnish which gives them a very smooth look.
Byrne: Why figures? Why not paintings?
Kevin: I do a little painting every once in a while, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been very good at it. I always feel like there’s a barrier between me and the work. The same feeling when I have to create something in a computer. It’s like I’m a scientist working behind glass controlling mechanical arms to do a task. I feel really detached when I can’t manipulate a material more directly.
As far as why figures in particular, I’ve found it’s much harder for me to make art that doesn’t have a face or at least eyes. I have some pieces I’ve been working on currently that are prosthetic arms. I really enjoy making them but there still feels like something missing.
Byrne: The puppeteer in me sees a relationship with puppetry. Is there a conscious connection there? Did it start off consciously?
Kevin: Since I was a little kid I’ve had a fascination with puppets. Yes, I think there’s a definite influence on all of my work.
Byrne: I notice that you are inspired both by music and stories. I find that fascinating in a time where quantities of art reek of a suspicion of narrative. Where does that come from? Does puppetry come into play in this aspect at all?
Kevin: There’s always a thread of narrative in my work. I feel that I’m presenting a show or performing with my work. Or at least showing a sliver of a show. I think I’ve always been a frustrated performer and I express that part of me within the presentation my art. I’m not always in a situation where I can dictate the atmosphere of a venue or gallery space, but when I can try to incorporate the space into the viewing experience of the show. Kind of setting the stage as it were I suppose. I think this is going to become more prevalent in my exhibitions now that I’ve started doing more work for the theatre recently.
Byrne: What puppet influences are you drawn to?
Kevin: I love the Eastern European style and aesthetic of puppetry. I would really love to travel to that part of the world.
The French puppet group Royal de Luxe does just mind boggling stuff. I just had the opportunity to see them for the first time in Montreal and it was amazing. I also love the company that split off from them Les Machine. They will be coming to Ontario soon and I hope to make the drive over to see them as well. That would just make my year.
I had an opportunity to visit the Bread and Puppet property in Vermont a couple of years ago. They have a big barn full of old puppets they’ve made going back to the 60’s. It was a breath taking collection of work.
Byrne: If you are ever Vermont again you must visit the Sandglass Theatre. Ask to visit the older puppets. I think you’d find some real inspiration there.
Also if you ever get to Europe there are so many places I could recommend. But research this site more for that.
Are you familiar with Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay? Any other puppet filmmakers?
Kevin: I really enjoy the films of Jan Svankmajer. He’s such an inspiring man. I find it so bitter sweet that he is currently working on his last film. I so respect that he’s leaving fully on his own terms. The looseness, chaotic quality, the bluntness are all aspects of his work I connect with wish I could be more like in my own work.
I enjoy the Quay Brothers also but for different reasons. The Quays have been more about atmosphere for me. They are much more moody and ambiguous. Both have been influences on my work. If an artist works with rusty dusty found materials, it’s a safe bet they’ve seen “Streets Of Crocodiles” at least once .
That movie is the gateway drug for that whole aesthetic for loads of people.
I love the movie “The Mascot” (1933) by Ladislas Starevich.
I think Robert Morgan is doing some of the most interesting and adventurous work right now. I walked into a screening of one of his shorts a few years ago titled “Bobby Yeah”
I saw it totally cold with no idea of what I was about to sit though. I felt punch-drunk when I walked out. I can’t recall the last time a film had that kind of effect on me. It was wonderfully disturbing.
Byrne: Your faces are often quite perplexed, bewildered even a bit glum. Comments?
Kevin: Yeah, they’re kind of bummers. My guys never get invited to cocktail parties.
Byrne: What’s with things growing, popping, from holes in the head?
Kevin: Hmm, I don’t know. What’s your interpretation?
Byrne: Something’s happening in the brain evidently, probably something trying to get out. Hopefully not the physical gray matter itself. Then again it could be somehow related to trepanation, an antique medical practice involving cutting a hole in the skull to relieve the pressure.
I also love the materials and texture of your work. What kind of materials do you prefer? What is your approach to texture?
Kevin: I use a lot of recycled materials. Wood, cloth, whatever. I like to use old hardware, screws and washers as well. I buy up whole boxes of that kind of stuff any time I can. I can’t make them look as good as they already do.
Byrne: I’ve often found hardware stores a source of fascination, not to mention Salvation Army stores, junkyards, etc.
Kevin: I’ve always been drawn to objects with a history or a timeless feel. I’m from Southern Indiana originally and there was always lot’s of things that feel like that around. I guess I’m also just naturally nostalgic.
Byrne: I’ve often found that in the art world one is often given a stark white wall as a context. I find that this objectifies the work. Abstracts it into a kind of thing it may not have meant to be. In my own puppet work I find we have to totally colonize the space to communicate. Putting our puppetry onto a modern stage turns it too much into ‘theater’, thus rendering it only theatrically communicative. I worked for years in New York City moving art from artist studios to galleries and office buildings. I was always sad to see the work in dead white space, usually the artist’s own studio was a much more human and unsanitized space. What does your studio look like? What is the best environment for your figures?
Kevin: My studio is pretty much a packrat nest. As far as presentation of artwork, it all depends on the context and the intent of the artist. I’ve taken many different approaches in different kinds of venues in the past. Some times white walled galleries are very good to focus the viewer in on detail. If the intent is to construct a little world in a box, that is a good presentation. There have been other times where I wanted the world to be the whole space. To set a mood for the viewer as soon as they walk into the room. I’d actually like to do more installation work where the room is the art. It’s interesting to extend the world of the art like that sometimes.
Byrne: What do hope people see in your work when all is said and done? Obviously everyone will see something different. But what’s the minimum you hope they take away from your figures?
Kevin: I hope they take away anything. I don’t expect everyone to like what I do, but the worst reaction there is, is indifference. I’d rather someone hated my work than to have no reaction at all.
Byrne: You seem to have a storytelling aesthetic. How far are you willing to take your work in that regard? Have you ever thought of collaborating with a puppet troupe to make your figures move? Or to make them with armatures for puppet films?
Kevin: My newest work has been for a new stage production called “Mémoires d’un Sablier”. It’s a cross cultural collaboration between two puppet theatre companies. La Torture Noir from here in Quebec and Luna Morena from Mexico. I did an art exhibition at a puppet festival two years ago and they saw my work there and later brought me on to the project. My sculpture work often references puppetry, but this is the first time I have actually worked in the theatre and made functioning puppets to be used night after night on stage. It was a very different experience for me. There are many different things to consider in construction and it was very technically challenging. I built props and two puppets for the show. One was life size and probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made.
Byrne: What part of it was so challenging. Was it the translation of your puppet art into functioning puppets.
Kevin: Yes, it’s very technically different. In my own work I only have to worry about the aesthetic. It’s much easier designing improbable things when they don’t actually have to work for real. So I kind of had to work in reverse for this project and focus on the function first. If the puppets and props don’t work on stage it doesn’t matter one bit how good the look. All told it took a year to finish the production and I’ve also never worked in that kind of time frame before. Theatre is a much longer process than I’m used to and that took some adjustment. It’s very easy to frustrated that everything is not moving faster but that has more to do with me being use to only working alone for the last twenty years. Coordinating a whole company of people takes time and much more work. I just had no experience with that. Being a part of a whole took some getting use to, but in the end I learned so much more and created work that I never would have thought to make or technically could have made working by myself. I even had the opportunity to travel down to Mexico and work in the Luna Moreno studio where I learned more about traditional puppet construction.
Byrne: Well Kevin thanks for your time and work. It certainly does provoke a reaction in me. Continue!
Well 2016 is nearly over. Just a mark on the calendar and yet these dates matter when it comes to taking stock of one’s progress in life. Or in making documentaries. It helps to keep me pushing forward. Or is it to feel mired in delays? Or perhaps to help figure out ways to move Gravity From Above to the next square.
2016 was in many ways a fruitful year, particularly the first part of it. I took another journey through Europe spending three months on the road. I made new contacts, renewed old ones, got a bit closer to winding this project up, and was able to define what exactly needs to happen to finish this documentary. Then there were roadblocks. Most notably the money pretty much ran out and the sometime producers seemed to come to an end of their commitment. Which left me back in Alaska and beginning to search for help with getting this produced. And yes there is a frustration with that. But I didn’t feel it so much. I didn’t wallow in it. I have had interesting options that haven’t materialized. And there is some possibility of having film students help me get a professional looking edit.
More importantly a recent development: When I was in Charleville-Mézières France I stopped in at the International Puppetry Institute and puppet school (ESNAM). There was some talk of a residency grant to help me with research. I weighed the possibility and didn’t really pursue it. A puppet friend, Kevin Tizer, sent me a notice about it on his own, thinking, correctly, that I might be interested in such a thing. But again I put that aside. Until the day the application was due. In fact, until literally the last hour of the day. And then I remembered and thought, ‘Why not?’ I quickly filled out a form and got it in just before midnight Alaska time. I received a message a few days later saying that I didn’t understand a certain part of the requirement. So I did my best to try to rectify it. And that was that.
A few days ago I received word that I had been accepted to spend three weeks there in October with a place to stay and a small stipend. Well I’m not sure where the money is coming from to get there, but I am going. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up. And I’ve got nine months to work on it. And so I will be back in Europe working on Gravity From Above in 2017. Now if I can get the small film crew and extra funds to finish up the filming…. That would be perfect. Let’s just see where it leads.
Meanwhile back in Alaska I’ve decided to start serious puppetry classes for locals to get a few others immersed in puppets. I’ve said I will do it if I get three students. So far I have two. And it will be fairly comprehensive with puppet theory, history, materials, practice and a performance of some sort in May. The cost will be quite fair. (If anyone wants to come up to Alaska to join in I have a couple of rooms and we might be able to work something out.)
Meanwhile I’ve been editing my other project called Arca: A strange film about an alchemist, a box and a dark angel. We shot this back in 2014 but it’s only close to being assembled now. I’ll let you know when there is a way you folks can see it.
Thanks you to all of you who have followed my journey this year. I actually had more visits to the site this year than any other. And that’s heartening.
Meanwhile as 2017 knocks on our door may you find the inspiration to create something real in the midst of overwhelming artificiality. More importantly may you know the intelligence to produce something a lasting value and not mere propaganda based on the fears on the times. And mostly I wish you courage to pursue truth in your art no matter how much you have to face your failings. (S. are you there?)
December 29th 2016
Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.
What happened? Well I heard from the Swiss folks that the Swiss funding sources liked the idea of a puppet documentary but would rather have it focused on one person or troupe trying to accomplish “something”. Now this is precisely what I haven’t wanted to do. The whole point of Gravity From Above has been to introduce people to puppetry by showing what it is through a cornucopia of European sources. There is no way a documentary about one person, group, stop motion animator, etc. can show the spectrum. And it is the spectrum of puppetry that most folks need to see. Now I’ve let the Swiss producers know that I will certainly help get this smaller idea accomplished as per our agreement. But I’ve also let them know that this isn’t Gravity From Above, which remains as a title and a concept fully in my control. So we’ll see.
The way I look at it, a documentary about one puppet troupe, while certainly a noble idea in the abstract, is like a documentary about Field Marshall Rommel, when nobody knows anything about World War II. I’m sure it would be fascinating, but what’s this larger war they keep alluding to? What’s that about? That sounds even more intriguing. Well there is no World At War for puppetry? There is no serious introduction to the breadth and depth of the subject. And THAT has always been my goal. Europe was my focus because it was compact. A documentary on Švankmajer, Toone Marionette Theatre, Buchty a Loutky, the Brothers Quay, Josef Krofta, etc are all quite worthy subjects. But I’m interested in what holds all of their work together. So I’m left with no choice but to go back a couple of paces and try to find another source of financing. I’m now looking at whatever I might do in relationship to my Swiss contract as a gun for hire. But I need to make Gravity From Above.
So what needs to happen next? First of all I need to find either a producer or financial backer who gets what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years. Someone who will either comprehend the project enough to go to bat for me, or someone who will invest enough money to allow me hire the film crew to shoot the performances, to edit, to pay for film rights and commission the music. That’s still a sizable chunk. And I’m not releasing anything until I can get this done as it should be.
The problem with the film industry at any moment is that they get stuck on one model of how things should be done and won’t consider other ways. At the moment the only way to make a documentary is to focus on “someone” trying to accomplish “something”. With the drama being squeezed out of whether they succeed or not. Now good documentaries have been done in this mode. But to say that’s the only way to do a documentary is purest unrefined bullshit. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of documentaries made in other ways. Some are pure research (Children Underground about Romanian street kids), or biographies (the list is endless here) or about a subject (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Les Blanc’s film about garlic) or about genres (only think of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about film) or historical eras (does the name Ken Burns ring a bell).
Well Gravity From About is a documentary about European puppetry. Too big a subject? That’s what I’m told. Well it’s an introduction to the meaning of puppetry with enough examples from European puppetry and interviews to make the point. It’s exactly the documentary that I want to see. And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s what my readers here and fellow puppeteers want to see. That’s what people have been supporting.
So I’m asking you folks, whether puppeteers, filmmakers or interested readers, to see if you know anyone who can help get Gravity From Above finished. The interviews are pretty much done. Now I need a very small film crew and backing. Do you know producer who can help finish this thing? If you do get in touch. If you have any ideas get write me. Though I started this on my own, and 99% of the financing thus far has come from my own shallow pockets, I can’t finish it on my own. The two things I need right now are a producer who will believe in this project and backing or a backer or two. (Crowdfunding isn’t going to be an option again for quite a few years. See my older posts on that.)
Well I had an amazing journey last winter and spring. And I know that I will finish this, hopefully soon. Thanks to all of you have followed me on my journeys. And especially those who have dug a little deeper in one way or another. I do have a PayPal button here. Think about that. But more than anything help me to find the people I need to bring Gravity From Above to fruition.
From a pleasant sunny autumn day in Alaska
With gratitude and courage
Upon returning from a very full three days in Brussels I met my friend Paulette, who had been working behind the scenes to set up time with Leona-Beatrice Starewitch Martin, the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch (also spelled Vladislav Starevich, in Russian: Владисла́в Старе́вич, in Polish: Władysław Starewicz). (Always pronounced Star-a-vich.) Because we are in France we will stay with the French version of the family name, which is also helpful in trying to buy is DVDs (region free playable anywhere). After a meal in a French café, wherein I almost lost the multicolored checkered scarf I’d had since the 70s (!), we took off by train to the Val-de-Marne area where Beatrice and her husband François Martin were waiting for us.
Ladislas Starewitch, for those not aware, whom I must consider to be most folks conscious at present in the world today, is considered to be the first person to make and show publicly stop-motion animation films in 1910 in Lithuania. There are whispers of another, a Russian named Aleksander Shiryayev, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, made a few animated puppet ballets in 1906. He only showed his work privately and they were completely forgotten until their rediscovery in 1995. Nevertheless Starewitch is the man who discovered animation independently and became a master of the art.
We were taken by car over to Le Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne where they were currently showing an exhibition called ‘La fabrique du cinéma’, a look at the history of movie studios in the Val-de-Marne region from the early silent era till 1970. Walking through the many photos and memorabilia from the active area of film production one is suddenly arrested by the encased puppets of Ladislas Starewitch for Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). These are the actual figures made by Starewitch, including the Lion Queen, the singing cat and other strange creatures. (Unfortunately the lighting and the glare of the glass made good photography difficult, but I did manage to locate a couple of worthy angles.
Also in the museum were several of notebooks and animated beetles that indicated Starewitch’s abiding commitment to entomology. In the early 20th Century Starewitch had been the Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he sought a way to demonstrate a couple of stag beetles in action. He had been making live action films of other insects for pedagogical reasons. But putting any light on the beetles effectively killed them. And so, inspired by French pioneer Emile Côhl he came up with idea of animating the carcasses of dead insects. And then he began to focus more exclusively on animation to tell stories. So successful and unusual were these strange little films, including gems like the Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), that even the Tsar took notice.
After our time in the museum we were taken back to Madame Starewitch’s home where we spent more than an hour discussing her grandfather as well as looking at curious books (like the one from the Metamorphosis exhibition from Barcelona that featured Starewitch, Jan Švankmajer and the Quays that I must find for myself) and sipping on tea and eating madeleines. I recorded audio of the conversation, which Paulette translated, but it was decided not to film until later in the year or the spring of 2017.
After the generous time and hospitality from the land of Starewitch it was now time to move on to Lyon to discover Guignol on his home turf. Meanwhile if you haven’t seen any of the films of Ladislas Starewitch… what are you waiting for? I mean it. Go look you can find them. Start with Mascot (Fetische) or the Cameraman’s Revenge. Look for The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) and discover a truly enchanted world.
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
This week in Barcelona, Spain (perhaps one day Catalunia) there is a remarkable museum exhibition opening at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona aka the CCCB. It is entitled Metamorphosis: Fantasy Visions in Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers.
I entitled this little essay the ‘ultimate’ puppet animation exhibition. I suppose a stickler could imagine a much more complete museum show than this. A show that features the works of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jiří Barta, Jiří Trnka, George Pal, etc etc. Nevertheless a show that features Jan Švankmajer, The Brothers Quay and Ladislas Starewitch (I’m using the French spelling) is pretty gosh darned ultimate in my book. Especially since Švankmajer, the Quays, and Starewitch’s granddaughter and estate caretaker Leona Martin-Starewitch will all be there to discuss their work. I know from personal experience that none of them make the regular promotional rounds. Essentially this is pretty much going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
And I’m stuck in Alaska! It was my dearest hope to get myself to Barcelona in time for the opening to use the footage for Gravity From Above. I was even invited to come by curator Carolina López, who had heard of this project. But alas the finances did not come through in time.
But if you find yourself taking a European tour sometime before September 7th, make sure to schedule a trip to Barcelona to see this singular exhibit.
Meanwhile April is a month of waiting for Gravity From Above, as I am due to hear about two serious sources of funding for the rest of the expedition by the end of the month.
Thanks for continuing to follow this story.
For more information about the Metamorphosis show:
CCCB – Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona
Montalegre, 5 – 08001 Barcelona
Tel. 93 306 41 00 – Fax 93 306 41 01
(With a Detour into Alaska)
I recently edited together the lecture with slides which I gave while traveling through Europe in 2012 interviewing puppet people. The lecture was entitled Puppetry As Antidote Art. It was given to the students at the L’Abri Fellowship in Huémoz Switzerland.
This lecture is an in depth introduction to serious puppetry focusing mostly on Europe. It is both a general survey of puppet history and styles in Europe and it is also gives an account of my personal journey into puppetry. The discoveries described in the lecture under-gird the structure of Gravity From Above.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to include the students questions with the video. The presentation itself lasted nearly an hour and a half. Obviously it contains great quantities of information on the subject of puppetry and is not suited to the casual YouTube surfer. My suggestion, download it and watch it in the best available format. (And by the way it is my experience that you can download it easier by going to the actual YouTube page rather than viewing it here.)
If you have any questions about puppetry or the forthcoming documentary Gravity From Above please get in touch here or through the YouTube page. (I hope to know something from Switzerland by the end of April this year.) (I still need more support for the documentary so don’t feel shy about that either.)
Meanwhile stay warm and stay creative…
While I’m waiting for the gears to turn in Switzerland, and I’m assured that they are. I have an update related to one of the puppet people I plan to interview for the Gravity From Above. And that’s Madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch.
Wladyslaw Starewicz or Ladislas Starewitch as he spelled it in France created some of the earliest and most magical puppet animation films in existence back in in first half of the 20th Century in both Russia and France. For a long time it has been difficult to see Starewitch’s work. Milestone released one DVD several years back. But one look at Starewitch’s filmography has tended to leave one gasping for much more. Fortunately Madame Martin-Starewitch has been quietly working on this issue in France. At this moment there are officially five Starewicz DVDs that she has released. Including the subject of this little review, simply entitled Nina Star.
This 2013 release by his granddaughter in Paris contains a few serious new revelations. The four titles each featuring Nina Star (Jeanne Starewitch) are L’Epouventail (The Scarecrow), La Marriage de Babylas (The Midnight Wedding), Le Voix du Roissignol (The Voice of the Nightingale) and finally, la pièce de résistance, La Reine des Papillons (The Queen of the butterflies).
These films were all made silent in the 20s and have a new score and a voice narrating the intertitles, which will help French kids and others rediscover them. And they are all obviously made for children. But they certainly go far beyond any contemporary family films in their artistry.
The Scarecrow is a curious little tale, marvelously politically incorrect (I won’t give away how) and features Starewitch himself as a comic actor. But the best part for stop-motion fans are the animated devils and the scarecrow. The Marriage of Babylas is wonderfully weird in the best sense filled with plenty of strange animated puppets. The Voice of the Nightingale has been available recently on the somewhat bootleg edition done by Milestone (they never paid for the rights), but this one is better and I noticed a little bit of extra material.
But the real reason to buy this collection is the final 25 minute opus The Queen of the Butterflies. This one gives Fetiche (The Mascot) a run for best Starewitch of all time… and that is really saying something! The film starts with a story bracketing the central dreamscape (or is it real?) featuring Nina as a street and carnival performer. The scenes in Paris are quite nostalgic. As she sleeps she is transformed into the Butterfly Queen. I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say we are treated to an astounding assortment of Starewitch’s famed insect puppets, including my new all time favorite the Spider King. This film is by turns pastoral, creepy, feudal, hallucinogenic and pure enchantment. I had to feel around for my jaw on the floor. And finally I just said to myself “This is why I’m into puppets!”
And besides all of this you get Nina Star, Starewicz’s daughter, growing up from film to film and she is a sassy, jaunty, precious treasure. And there is also a three minute 30s era documentary on how Starewitch made and animated his puppets. `Thus it is officially the only footage of Starewitch at work. So essentially this is the goods.
And the good news: It is subtitled in English too. And it is region free thus you can play it in North America. (But really getting an all zone player is a necessity isn’t it?) If you are interested in either puppetry or stop-motion animation this is a serious discovery. It can be found easily enough by looking in the usual sources.
For more information on Ladislas Starewitch please look at this website, which is the official one run by Martin-Starewitch.
More Gravity From Above news coming…
In booking the Eurostar, the Chunnel train, I discovered that the United Kingdom starts with customs in Brussels at the Midi/Zuid train station. I wasn’t quite ready for the grilling and heavy security to take the train. I had gotten so used to life in the Schengen Zone that I was a bit taken aback by the sudden emergence of fences again. And it seemed to have gotten stricter since my last journey in 2005. And then there is the strange fact that the U.K. IS in the European Community but NOT in the Schengen Group, while Switzerland IS NOT in the European Community but IS in the Schengen Zone, which creates the odd situation that you don’t need a passport check to get into Switzerland anymore BUT you do need to show your passport to get into the U.K., and to show that you have a ticket out of the country, and that your luggage will have to pass through a similar degree of airport styled security to board the train. Nevertheless after a hair-raising set of circumstances I did make it into the U.K. In one piece.
At St. Pancras Station in London my old friend Nathan met me and took me back to his place in the Elephant and Castle area near Southwark (which should be pronounced Suth-uhk by the same unwritten English code which turns Greenwich into Grenich and Leicester into Lester). We dismounted a double-decker bus and strolled passed a large apartment tower, with non-working propeller blades on the top, back to his apartment to meet Annika and to put me up in his spare room, for which I was deeply grateful. And almost the minute I arrived in rainy old England a little tickle in the back of my throat became a full fledged cold with coughing symptoms. Fortunately my hosts had already been attacked by this very same creature. And also it was not the kind of thing which saps ones strength. Nevertheless I was determined not to go off into London simply to see things. I’ve been to London before, and, while I find it worthy of my time, I’ve never been as fascinated by it as I am by Paris, Prague, Lyon and other cities. And besides I had friendship to catch up with, which included a well cooked dinner by Nathan.
Nathan and Annika took me through the extensive Borough Market. Where I resisted the urge to buy Ostrich meat and large wheels of cheddar cheese and even the Stinking Bishop. Though I was in a mood to mostly rest, recover from my cold and get my strength back, there were two things I had to do while in London. One was more of an introduction to another puppet theater and the other was to find a couple of brothers quite high on my list of people to interview for my documentary.
We journeyed out to Islington to the Little Angel Theatre. While I couldn’t find anyone I could really talk to about the theatre they were performing an unusual version of Pinocchio. In their version Geppetto and most of the other characters were played by humans in paper masks on a stripped down stage, while Pinocchio was performed in a modified bunraku style by three different players in brown floor length coats. The puppet was a naked collection of raw wood, sans clothing, sans strings. This was not the Disney version but much closer in spirit to Carlo Collodi’s original. Yet still with a deconstructed essence. There were quite a few children present. And I was struck by how different, how quiet, they were compared to the French, Polish and Czech children’s shows I had seen. Ah the English.
On Monday I had one appointment. I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. It was with the Brothers Quay at their studio not far from my hosts’ apartment. Along with Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay were by far the most influential in getting me to explore the world of European puppetry. The Quays are twin American brothers who have been thoroughly europeanized and, having lived in London for about thirty years, speak with a bit of an anglicized inflection. And while they are not puppeteers themselves, their consistent and mysterious use of puppetry down through the years had raised a lot of questions about the nature of the puppet as an object. It was through hints gleaned in interviews found on DVD’s that I first heard of the Toone Marionnette Theatre, Richard Teschner, and generally realized that there must be a larger world of puppetry behind the former Iron Curtain. I also knew enough to dispel several misconceptions, that they had embarked on their course prior to discovering Švankmajer, that Starewich had had a greater influence upon them, along with Polish animation from the Sixties. I had contacted them by email after communicating with their longtime producer. We had exchanged several emails, which ranged between cordial welcome to questioning caution to finally being told that I must arrive with a bottle of chilled white wine “for provocation”. So I wasn’t at all sure how this would go. But I had a notion that there might be connections.
I arrived on a rainy London Monday at the place at the appropriate time. I was welcomed into their crammed darkened studio. Books, vinyl record albums (CDs were in the WC) weird puppets and old European Christian iconography was practically falling off the walls in in their labyrinthine wunderkammer. I immediately greeted each by name and produced my clammy bottle of Grange Volet from Ollon in Switzerland. (Swiss wine rarely escapes the country.) I also passed on Madame Starewitch’s card with personal greeting, along with Cognac chocolate from Switzerland. We all sat down at their crowded table and poured the wine as I gave them updates on the Toone theatre and Švankmajer in Prague as well as the fact that Teschner’s Nativity was being performed by a Teschner expert at the theater museum in Vienna. I also filled them in on Buchty a Loutky, whom they had never heard about, ESNAM in France, Polish puppetry and a host of other subjects. Our conversation took us through their most recent projects* and their show at MOMA in New York. Before careening off into new territory.
We discussed Georgia, the country, which they had also had some music from. I pointed them towards the Gori Women’s Choir. We had all discovered the fantastic book, The Empire of Death, about the ossuaries of Europe and beyond. To my surprise they hadn’t heard of Merhige’s Begotten, nor did they know that Peter Delpeut had released the mesmerizing Diva Dolorosa. We unraveled puppetry a bit more and I filled them in on my experiments in Alaska. They showed me books on Teschner and other related subjects. We shared an antipathy towards the virtual, wireless, digital contemporary world. And at one point they showed me their old film camera that they sadly needed to sell. (The camera they had made all of their classic pre-digital films on.) We were all being dragged into this present evil age. They also gave me a little tour through the narrow crowded corners of their atelier. At one point they showed me a pile of sand on a small table. “We just finished shooting that.” They told me. Coming from the guys who animated metal shavings with a magnet I had no doubt that the results would be gripping.
At a certain point, somewhere around the three hour point I told them that we had had such a profoundly good conversation that it would be a shame to spoil it by filming an interview. They agreed completely. But we can do it when I come back next year. “By all means!” They concurred. They were fully on board with the project now. They understood what it meant. And in a way more than I hoped. While the interview was certainly a high priority for me, meeting and connecting with them was of greater consequence, of more import. In a way I felt that my whole study of puppetry had been to get me to the point where I could have an intelligent discussion with these guys. And I couldn’t help but be grateful for the time and the hospitality.
London was time well spent. It was time to journey to my last official destination further north in England.
*Animation aficionados will be glad to know that there are several newer Quay related things to look for. Firstly there is a great book for their show in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The show is over in January.
Secondly a DVD exists from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia of Through The Weeping Glass, their examination of the museum. It is well worth buying.
Thirdly a DVD exists for Maska their version of Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask (It could be region 2) Get this! I own a copy now. But it is tough to find. Good luck!
Charleville-Mézières is in France on the Belgian border. My next stop was Brussels to find the Toone Marionnette Theatre, perhaps the oldest continuing puppetry organization in Europe. Yet I was on a train, then bus, then train again (don’t ask) on my way back to Paris with my back stressing load of belongings for another meeting. One of the people I had most wanted to connect with was madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch, the granddaughter of the first animated puppet (in fact dead bugs!) filmmaker Ladislas Starewitch, a Russian of Polish extraction, whose parents were from Lithuania. (Variously spelled Ladislaw Starevitch or Starewich, or Władysław Starewicz his birth name in Polish and even Владислав Старевич depending on the country. Since we are in France we’ll stay with the French orthography.) After the Russian Revolution Starewitch moved to Paris, less from political convictions than from the simple fact that Bolsheviks did not have the temperament to appreciate or support his sort of puppet films. Starewitch found success within a few years of his arrival in Paris and his home became a magnet for White Russian emigrés. Most of his great films were made in France: La Voix du Rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale), Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox), Le Lion Devenu Vieux (The Old Lion) and especially the miraculous Fetiche Mascotte (The Mascot) from 1933.
Starewitch is a big influence on the Brothers Quay. When I mentioned him to Švankmajer, he immediately corrected my translator who was fumbling with the name a bit. Terry Gilliam also owes him a real debt and considers The Mascot as one of the ten greatest animated films made. Tim Burton’s animated work screams Starewitch. And Fetiche Mascotte seems like a direct ancestor of Toy Story. And if Wes Anderson did not make a careful study of Starewitch before making the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’d be really surprised. Starewitch, like George Méliès, is one of those seminal figures, an original, an inventor, whose work is still literally marvelous!
I made my way to a small café near the Bois de Vincennes to meet Madame Martin-Starewitch. I had tried several times to get in touch with her while in Paris, but alas schedules would not permit. And when she asked top meet me here two days after I had already left Paris I couldn’t turn her down. Fortunately the place was not overly crowded. I had just taken over a small booth with my three traveling packs and ordered a meal when she arrived, a bit early but that was fine with me. I still had to get to Brussels that evening.
We immediately began to talk. Her English was good enough to understand me thoroughly when I explained the nature of the project. The Brothers Quay had wondered if she remembered meeting them back in the 80’s at a conference in Annecy. She did indeed, and fondly. She was glad to know that their work owed such a debt to her grandfather. One of the first things she had told me was that they had recently found a longer version of Fetiche Mascotte that superseded all of the other versions. To puppet folk and animation fans this was good news indeed!
Also she told me that in addition to the four DVDs of Starewicz work currently available in France (with English subtitles, etc) there would be another four due to hit in the near future including one with the longest version of The Mascot. While she was the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy Starewitch is still hardly a household name. The one American DVD issued a while ago and now out of print was essentially a bootleg made without any funds ever returning to the estate. We both agreed that what was needed was a film like Hugo that made prominent use of Starewitch the way Scorsese had used Méliès. And she had stories of her grandfather that were certainly film worthy in themselves. All in all it was an excellent meeting with Madame Martin-Starewitch and she too was game for an interview and to use her grandfather’s work in Gravity From Above.
Now it was time to move on to get to Brussels. After passing through the Metro again, while sitting next to a hip young girl in a real fur coat (something you’d never see in America), listening to an entire string ensemble playing Baroque music at the busy Châtelet stop and paying an extra hundred dollars to get a train to Brussels, thanks again to the disconnect between the rail passes and life on the ground, I arrived, my back demanding rest in a rather industrial hotel near the old center of Brussels at around 21h00. Unfortunately my current information on the Toone had said that they had performed that day but were not to play again for a few more days. Had I come straight from Charleville without the extra stop I would have made it! But that Parisian meeting was very important.
I then strolled Bruxelles in the dark, passing the central cathedral bathed in purple light, and locating Le Théâtre Royal de Toone all the while slowly savoring a couple of Belgian chocolates. The next day, after sleeping in to give my aching muscles a rest, I wandered through the old town under a light rain. I stopped into to see if I could glean anything from restaurant that was also a part of the Toone theatre and it turned out that they were indeed playing that night! So much for relying on websites as some sort of final word…
I drifted around the town, found some old record stores, though sadly left the wares in their bins by command of my spine. That evening I entered the Toone restaurant again to wait for the theatre upstairs to open. The show for the evening was Romeo and Juliet á la Toone. Eventually the Royal Toone VIII himself, Nicolas Géal arrived in buoyant spirits to open the door to the stairs for us. Géal is the son of Toone José Géal, an important puppeteer in his own right who bequeathed the theatre to Nicolas back in 2003 in a coronation ceremony by the town Burgomaster. (Toone is pronounced ‘tone’ and a Belgian nickname for the original Toone I, Antoine Genty, who started the theatre a few years back in 1830.)
An eager throng ascended, passing old Toone posters, including the Passion play of the legendary modern playwright and puppet enthusiast Michel de Ghelderode. In the theatre itself we sat beneath over a hundred figures, each about one third human scale, that were hanging from the rafters high above us: such figures as Nazis with skulls for heads, Napoleon, knights in armor, many princesses and scores of variations on the classic Toone hero Woltje, a jaunty figure in checkered clothes and cap.
Eventually maximum density for the evening had been achieved and Toone VIII emerged to greet us to the evenings production of Romeo and Juliet. He then vanished behind a side curtain and the farce began in an outrageous nasal quacking French/Dutch dialect. Woltje plays Romeo. Juliet has the face of a doll. Mercutio is played by another classic Toone figure with a nose long enough to be sold by a hotdog vendor. In the middle of one scene, Romeo is distracted by a cellphone call. Obviously it’s not exactly word for word Shakespeare. But it certainly is amusing.
During the intermission Nicolas Géal invites us all down to the ‘museum’, which does have quite a few battered antique characters on the wall, but really this is a chance to down a bit of another Belgian specialty, beer, which I must confess is an excellent way to spend the halftime. After about twenty minutes we then watched the rest of the show, which being a comedy does not exactly have the same ending as the Shakespearean tragedy. Death comes for Romeo and Juliet, but seconds before he can take the dead puppets is unceremoniously booted off stage my the monk.
After the show I spent a while talking with Géal about Toone history. I reminded him of a strange story of one of the Toone marionettists who was found dead hanging among his puppets. To confirm the fact, he showed me a book that his mother wrote back in the 70’s about the history of the Toone theatre, complete with oodles of illustrations. It’s a book I determined to track down some day. He also explained something about the weird Brussels accent that used to be Dutch with some French but over the years had become French with some Dutch. Géal was delighted to have Toone performances captured when I returned for part two of this journey next year. And I was pleased to have another solid contact for the future.
And I can also gladly say when in Belgium do not miss Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Tell Toone VIII that you heard about it from me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. You’re in Brussels, a place where language is so polyglot that your original tongue doesn’t matter to anyone. (Still, at least try to learn a few French greetings.)
Next we cross La Manche to enter Angleterre.
December 22, 2012
For more information on Starewitch go here:
And to discover Le Théâtre Royal de Toone try this: