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
We stood in front of the Mairie (Town Hall) of Old Lyon in the rain, where we were told to go, then to call Jean Paul Tabey, who would then appear somehow to show us into the chambers of Les Amis de Lyon et de Guignol (the Friends of Lyon and Guignol). Paulette Caron called on her cellphone to receive no answer. The rain continued and shelter near the Mairie was thin. We waited a few minutes and tried again. Voilà! Monsieur Tabey answered, then descended from within the Mairie to escort us to the small room of special historical documents related to the Canut (silk weaver) of Lyon. Tabey was an affable man who was proud to relate his own interest in Guignol which stretched back more than 40 years. M. Tabey was also largely responsible for providing much of the impetus and input for the show at the Gadagne Museum, Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre.
We filmed a discussion about the history of Guignol for over an hour. Several things emerged from the conversation, including Tabey’s concern that Guignol had been turned into a mascot of the tourist department of Lyon. There was a store that Paulette and I had walked into chock-full of Guignol tchotchkes: cups, posters, cards, games, etc. The concern was quite real. Not only that, the depiction of Guignol as a cute little figure was likewise troubling. As well as the fact that Guignol was becoming a universal character, more like a French Mickey Mouse than in his lyonnais original rascality. Guignol originally started as distraction from the howls of tooth pulling dentistry. If you get folks laughing hysterically they don’t tend to care so much about the screams on the other side of the canvas. And the shows were never intended for children to begin with. One of the differences between the Parisian and Lyonnais versions is that Lyon style can still be for adults sometimes and in Paris its pretty much exclusively for children.
Jean Paul Tabey said much more, but this gives you a flavor of his thinking. Like Daniel Streble he was convinced that Guignol was first and foremost a local personage of Lyon and should be speaking with lyonnais slang. But that wasn’t the only view to be had and we were about to meet a group of guignolistes with a very different perspective.
Le Collectif ZonZons began in 1994 and immediately staked out the territory of tradition mixed with modernity. In two different sessions we interviewed five different members of the troupe. Interestingly enough they were the same building as the Mairie. Stéphanie Lefort greeted us. Unfortunately their theatre was being renovated so we could not see one of their shows. (A quick visit to YouTube will unearth reduced versions of some of their work however.) Nevertheless we were taken into their atelier and had a chance to see their many marionnettes à gaines (glove puppets). They do children’s theatre, but also more serious dramas and farces. And the subject matter goes as far as having characters with burqas, and getting inside that loaded figure of recent French fear and mythology. In short they do indeed take the Guignol show and push the boundaries. And they have no problem with making Guignol universal.
Stéphanie Lefort, the Directrice of ZonZons not only agreed to be interviewed but set us up with five interviewees altogether. In my conversation with them it soon became clear that they wanted their puppets to speak to contemporary times, as Guignol often has done before. Julie Doyelle picked up the Muslim burqa woman puppet and began to voice her gentleness and voicelessness. A very still presence, overturning the many images of bomb smuggling Middle Eastern women that have permeated the news over the years. Alexandre Chetail came to life with a crazy looking puppet. Filip Auchère, one of the founders of Collectif ZonZons was thoughtful, philosophical and obviously ready for absolute Guignol craziness at the drop of a hat as well. Stéphanie saw puppetry as a means of real communication, but… there was a darker shadow. Filip pointed out the Spanish puppeteers who were arrested for doing an edgy show featuring Don Cristobal, the Spanish Punch. And in today’s nervous times, real political dialogue could lead to dangerous terrain.
All through this I surprised myself by understanding more than I thought I could, but Paulette was there to get me out of trouble and to clarify many points of confusion. Eventually we would separate so that I could continue on into Europe and she could get back to her regular life. But we would meet up again later in Prague. We ate one last meal in Lyon together, which I let her pick out, since French restaurants still slightly intimidate me. The large ferris wheel spun around in the square near the restaurant. Lyon and our many hosts had been quite good to us. I look forward to returning again someday. Hopefully to film Collectif ZonZons and the Gadagne Museum and to visit with the guignolistes once again.
For more on our visits to Lyon and on Guignol:
Arriving in Lyon off of a six hour bus ride from Paris was a new experience for me. I am used to trains. But I haven’t spent much time on European buses before. They do not ooze seediness like Greyhounds do back in the old USA. Rather they are quiet efficient, rides. Uneventful, though the mandatory roadside stop halfway certainly reminded me of an American rest stop, complete with fast food and restrooms. But that parking lot was so much cleaner. But enough about European bus travel, which will remain a cheaper oddity for me, it was time now to look for Guignol in the city of his birth, Lyon.
I was accompanied again by friend and French language translator Paulette Caron. After settling into the hotel we had to scurry uphill on the a special train to go find Daniel Streble, whom Pascal Pruvost back in Paris had recommended highly, as did the folks at the Gadagne museum. Streble worked out of small theatre called Guignol Un Gone de Lyon. This was to be a children’s show and yet it was more. Streble turned out to be a voluble man with reams of data to unspool regrading this very French, nay practically the soul of Lyon, vrais lyonnais, character. We watched the show – La Fille Guignol a Disparu (Guignol’s daughter is lost). It was an enjoyable lark seeking to find and free Guignol’s daughter. Near the end the evil man was rather brutally beaten by our rascally hero. In fine French style the children present entered into the proceedings with many vocalizations and cheers.
After the show Daniel Streble graciously showed us many original handwritten Guignol plays dating from as far back as the early 19th Centuryincluding versions of Romeo and Juliet and Faust. These were truly museum pieces that were still living. Streble even accidentally torn one of the pages. But his position was that these artifacts were still alive, not ready to be embalmed in a museum. And one had the feeling that for Streble that they would never be ready for a pleasant burial. Streble then spoke with enthusiasm and eloquence about the meaning of Guignol as a character, a presence in Lyon. For him turning Guignol into a universal French character was impossible, Guignol was first and always a representative of the culture of Lyon.
I discovered Lyon for the first time back in 2012 when I came searching for more information about Guignol. I roamed the old town and discovered hidden traboules (dark passageways connecting the old buildings to protect the silk produced here from the elements). Paulette had been here before but never entered one, so she was properly introduced to the dark labyrynths. We also had a few truly representative French meals, which always seemed to include the tastiest imaginable versions of meats Americans usually did not even touch, cow lips, tripe, kidneys, etc. There was also the possibility of going to a French performance one evening, but when we found out that it featured only nude actors, even Franco-American Paulette had to bow out of that one.
But there was indeed more Guignolism to uncover. On the second day we had an appointment with Clair Deglise the new Directrice of the Musée Gadagne. We did wonder if she would be amenable to the project. We had received questions from her office about whether we had insurance or not before filming anything at the museum. Evidently someone thought this was a big production. The museum was winding up an exhibition entitled Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre (Guignol 1914-1918 Mobilize for World War I and survive). It was a fascinating exhibition featuring much material on the use of Guignol as a propaganda character in puppet shows and illustrations to foster local support for the Great War. Interestingly Guignol was often enlisted in the service of nationalism. Guignolistes performed at the trenches. And evil Germans were added to Guignol’s repertoire of figures to smack around. Although at other times Guignol was also hijacked by the Left as well.
Clair Deglise proved to be quite sympathetic to Gravity From Above and encouraged us to return later with the crew to film puppets. With hope, and Swiss money, I plan to return either in the fall or in Spring of 2017 to capture some of the puppets at the Gadagne Museum, for this is indeed the national repository of French puppetry. Meanwhile since this show was coming down at the end of February I was given permission to photograph a bit. The glass cases and bright lighting discouraged filming.
However I would soon being meeting one of the historians who helped to put this show together. As well as members of the more postmodern troupe of guignolistes, Le Collectif ZonZons. But more about them in the next installment of our journey.