One thing that now stands out as I travel Europe investigating puppetry is that popular culture is now nearly synonymous with geek culture, Geekdom. Trying to find a film genuinely made for adults is getting harder than five year aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Somehow Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk slipped through the maw into the light of summer, of all times. But these days we are inveigled, assaulted and seduced by a digital overload from the Marvel or DC Universes, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pixar, etc. and a host of lesser lights in the firmament. In Charleville-Mézières, home of the International Institute of Puppetry, all I could find media-wise on the streets was a video game store. I’m old enough to remember when genuinely mature fare was a ready part of the diet of normal college students. I remember walking into films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Rohmer, and Tarkovsky, with audiences expectant to see the latest work from a master filmmaker. Even in the 90’s one could walk into a film like The Piano or Silence of Lambs and expect to be intellectually, as well as emotionally, challenged by the proceedings. Later in the 21st Century films by Scorsese or especially a masterpiece like Polanski’s The Pianist seemed like the final hours of dying art, remnants of an age now departed. Except of course among film geeks!
But I know what you are thinking. Cranky older guy misses his youth. Not really. I don’t mind living now at all. The Seventies were dark as pitch. The Eighties as plastic as a Fischer-Price toy. Each age has its splendors and agonies. But Geekdom is something that truly worries me. This neotenic refusal to mature. This vice of cynical cuteness. The smirking cultic know-it-all attitude about what truly amounts to nothing at all. And please don’t assume that I have stayed above the fray, never dived into the deep end of the nerd pool, oh I have. But not once in my life would I ever consider myself a geek. And no one has ever dared accuse me of such a thing. You see I know the actual etymology of the word geek. It was a word I used freely as it crawled up that last step from the sludge heap to arrive on the steps of pop culture in the 80’s. Back when the geek was the carny who would swallow anything for a buck. I knew this word inside out before its current usage. And how do they relate? I believe it is this. Today’s geek will quite literally swallow anything related to her specialized fan province. And most pop culture today, nitro-charged by the internet, has taken on the gustatory perceptions of the geek, the real one.
Now one of the fascinating things about my explorations into puppetry is that generally puppeteers are not geeks at all. There is no model for what constitutes a puppeteer, at least in Europe. In America there is one kind of puppet that inspires complete geeky dedication. And that is the Muppet. With their soft bodies and loopy childish features they act like clever nursery rhymes come to life. (We can thank Sesame Street for that.) But they are a rare case. Most puppets do not inspire the sectarian devotion that anime or video games do.
Well this actually is a complex question. On the surface the puppet has many of the same features that attract the geek: They sometimes have big eyes. They are often associated with children. They wear odd clothes and can talk strangely. Yet even among the most durable of European puppets, Guignol, Spejbl, and Punch, no large fandom has ever manifested itself. Yet one could easily imagine such a thing developing. Well not with Punch… he kills children after all! And though the Lyon city government has tried, Guignol remains a childhood friend more than another geek speciality. And Spejbl, being Czech, is much too eccentric for most people and has only really spread into Germany, an old story.
And that’s the ironic thing… puppets are genuinely obscure culturally. And the geek would rather be ahead of the curve by liking some game or film that most people haven’t really heard of yet… but not too far ahead. Or behind. Most animation geeks love film styles like Anime. (Yet most have never heard of Alakazam the Great.) And they love Pixar or Claymation. (Yet would look at you quizzically if you mentioned Emil Cohl or Charley Bowers. And then say ‘Ooh but that’s old.’) And what does that make me for being able to pull these historical roots out at every juncture. King Geek? Oh man just hand me that chicken and let me bite its head off now!
But age is exactly the problem here. The vast majority of geeks (except again film geeks) are stuck in a time loop between here and Star Wars, to affix an obvious marker. The geek needs the prefabricated structure of the commercial product, or the thing they are betting on to become the next big thing. The geek thinks about costumes, learning the languages (I forgive you Tolkien for every hack who thought they could cook up a fantasy language. Anthony Burgess and Russell Hoban excepted.), and postulated what would happen if…. (In a geeky badly drawn online comic I would have a dark black scribble in my thought balloon right now.) In Geekdom the commercial image system, including fan art, is everything. It is an extreme fetishization of the some of most commercial and technological products ever made. It also breeds a sad intolerance for the real, the unique, the profound.
Nabokov somewhere said that mediocre readers identify with the characters, great ones look for the author’s intentions. C.S. Lewis, currently spinning in his grave over the rising of Christian Geekdom (someone actually has a site called Thy Geekdom Come which I’d better not discuss since I might jump off the train I’m riding in a fit of nausea… Everything can be justified by the clever.), made similar points in his crucial book, an Experiment In Criticism, where he said that the reading of the many was often a means to construct egoistic sandcastles for themselves, where the reader is “the hero and everything is seen through his eyes. It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women.” Whereas the reading of a few was different, something else was happening. Geek culture too often demonstrates Lewis’ sandcastle building par excellance.
And this brings us back to puppets. Most puppets are resistant to Geekdom for a very good reason. Each one is a physical object. Each one is made individually. Each one shows signs of aging. They are not endlessly repeatable commodities. They remind us that to be human is to have weight and mass. And most importantly they have a mystery to them, which becomes very evident if you stand in a puppet museum with dim light. Geeks have a real problem with mystery. The unresolved kind. The thing that won’t leave you alone and keeps you up at night. The thing that reminds you that you too are created. The thing it’s hard to be cynical about. Geeks want to explore every possibility with their prefab characters. Including the dorky and the sexual. Have you ever heard of ‘shipping’?
When I entered the room to give my presentation to a few students in Charleville-Mézières at the International Institute of Puppetry. Many of them immediately got what I was trying to say. Fantastic creatures though they are, puppets are resistant to flattening deadness of this age and nowhere is the more evident than in Geekdom, for whom the physical surfaces of the world are so contaminated, in Gnostic sense, that they have retreated up the ladder to escape from it into the virtual world, only to discover that rather than ascending into a new form of consciousness, they have found the slide that whisks you down past the level of the clowns. (But that’s another story isn’t it.)
Meanwhile I continue to explore the tangible and tactile and pray that others do as well. In the end nothing virtual will save us.
On a train to Geneva Switzerland
Besides revisiting Nicolas Géal I also had made a friend in Dimitri Jageneau along with his mother Biserka at Théâtre Royal du Peruchet and so I decided to take a bus out to see them as they performed a play based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child from The Jungle Book.
So I say I decided to take a bus. But finding out how to get there was really a work of serious deduction. Brussels’ bus and tram lines have baffled me before and in both of my trips out to Peruchet this time I was completely stymied. I wasn’t taking the method I had last year, because I couldn’t find a record of how I did it looking over my online records. The problem the first day was that the train for the second part of the trip was not due for 45 minutes after I arrived. And that spoiled my attempt to get there early. It also occurred to me that I might need another ticket for the train, that the one ticket for all might not include the train lines. (This is the problem with Google directions.) Fortunately no one asked nor were they likely to. So having figured out a way to make things work the first day you’d think I’d breeze through it again. Except for one big problem. It was November 1st, All Saints Day, or All Hallows, a date that means very little in America, (but the night before it does!) but in de-Christianized Europe it still survives as a major break on the calendar, much like Ascension Day. And I have been caught by this one before. And so the bus and train schedules were radically different from the day before. Eventually, with a great deal of exasperation, I managed to arrive in good enough time on both days, having allowed myself the grace to leave earlier than I needed for just this reason. Planned disarray?
Dimitri Jageneau feels like an old friend already. He has helped me with my crowdfunding and has taken me out in Brussels in early 2016 to a pub with puppets hanging from wall to wall. I enjoyed the time I spent here last year. So when we met it seems that we simply resumed our discussions about puppetry, in which I am very much the student still. He explained that theatre Peruchet is one of the few children’s puppet theatres still featuring marionettes, as opposed to glove/hand puppets. And they occupy a unique situation within the puppetry world, one he is keen to keep. But the problem is one of getting the help. His mother Biserka is his number one puppeteer, and she is getting older. Yet given the income of the theatre it is hard to train another puppeteer to take over the slot. He had a few younger people helping him, including Fernando and Velina. But neither were really puppeteers in waiting and they worked the door. Yet I did have good discussions with them.
I had a fascinating experience at one point I decided to take a few photos of their fantastic puppet museum again. This time I decided to leave the lights off and capture the puppets in the shadows. And this changed everything. I wished I could do that in every warehouse or museum featuring puppets. Dimitri kept coming in and asking if I needed light. But I didn’t. The way the darkness enveloped the puppets gave them even more of a sense of life than normal, which in turn gives me more ideas for possible ways of presenting puppets.
Eventually it was time for the show. Biserka came out to greet the children and to introduce the show which was going to explain once and for all how the elephant got his trunk. The marionettes were all flat made out of board, except for the elephant who seemed like a plush toy fallen on hard times. The story takes place on the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” And all manner of animals come round to discuss the insatiable curiosity of the manic little elephant. Finally shortly before the intermission the elephant child is caught in a struggle between the crocodile and the python when the curtain comes down. I’ve noticed in Belgium it is standard to have an intermission for selling refreshments and showing of a museum in even a short puppet show. Following the break Biserka rings the bell and then has a bit of a raffle and finally introduces part two for les enfants. And naturally, voila the elephant’s nose is now the long lovable hose we now know. Yet the young elephant doesn’t believe it looks oaky. The Peruchet puppet shows are certainly there to teach the children little lessons. And the Belgian children certainly like it. These shows have some give and take with the children, including singing songs mid-performance, but the Belgian style does not push the kids over the edge as the Parisian Guignol shows do. Though there is plenty of physical action.
When the children left the second show I showed Dimitri, Biserka and the others a sample of my trailer for Gravity From Above. They laughed when they saw themselves and were glad that it looked like I would be getting financial assistance from the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières. A visit to Peruchet in Belgium is to visit friends in puppetry. When in Belgium go find them and enjoy the show for yourself.
PS. Now we’ve had a crashed hard drive! Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
To continue with my accounting of my Gravity From Above journey thus far we come to 2015, the first half of which was consumed with the declining health and finally the death of my mother. And that concluded with my building her coffin (our laws here in Alaska are probably different than yours) and holding a service for her after selling her furniture and belongings. It was as you might expect an emotionally draining period of my life. I didn’t think about anything else for about seven months. And I had a chance to see death up close and personal. And that has an effect upon a person. You either shrink back or gain wisdom while simultaneously understanding the impermanence of everything that surrounds you. And yet in the timing of this I could feel the presence of God. Not in a romantic spiritual way. But with a certainty I can’t or won’t explain in such a public forum.
And when it was over I found myself with a modest insurance claim and enough money to get back to Europe. And I was faced with a choice. I could take that insurance money and invest in my life in Alaska, to seek security and comfort. But I decided against that for several reasons. First: I had promised myself several years ago that when my mother died, I would go to Georgia. And I needed to go there to started something new. And second: I knew that I needed to get back out into the world. To begin working again to try to get Gravity From Above finished, to see my puppeteer friends, my friends in Switzerland and to meet people I didn’t know yet. And so I chose a three month journey.
In January of 2016 I embarked on this next Gravity From Above journey. I met new people like Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, met guignolistes in Lyon, spent more time with the Quays and Buchty a Loutky. I was often accompanied by my good friend Paulette Caron. And then I ended up in Georgia, which had an incredibly strong effect upon me, being both completely outside of the realms of my experience and yet somehow deeply touching in an almost dreamlike and familiar way. And that has effected my life to this day. (You can scroll through the older entries on the right to follow the actually journey.)
And yet I still didn’t obtain the performance videos I needed to begin to assemble the my material into something like a documentary. I have dozens of hours of footage. I don’t yet have the images to bring it all together yet. But I think I know where most of these images are now. And enough time has gone by where I think I might be able to capture these images myself. Though I really would like a small film crew. (But I’m getting itchy to finish this and get it out in some manner.)
And then at the end of 2014 came another period of intense wrestling and self reflection leading up to my home of 20 years being sold by my landlords. This was something I wasn’t simply going to get around. And even if I had had that insurance money still it wouldn’t have helped. And as I thought about it I realized I could use this to get back to Europe by minimizing my expenses and putting everything into storage rather than paying more rent. And so once again I’m putting everything down on this project. And I’ll be spending 3 months in Georgia this time, which wouldn’t have happened had I not gone in 2016. All in all I’ll be in Europe for six months. And this both exciting and filled with unknowns that I’ll just have to deal with when I get there.
Someone talked with me recently having read about my journey in the local paper. They were happy for me of course. But then I realized that they thought I was essentially taking an extended vacation. It sounds so romantic! And yet for me there is much that is quite fraught with uncertainty. I explained that this is work. And it really is. More than once in 2012 I had to double back to meet an important puppeteer, who wasn’t available when I was. That meant returnihttps://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/ng from one city to another by train, carry about 50 pounds (25 kg) on my back. Racing the clock all the way. Reading schedules in French or better yet Czech. That is not a pleasant restful holiday outing. And I’m not staying in four or even three or even two star hotels. Yes there is much of joy and wonder. But that comes from the satisfaction of having made the immense effort. And financially. I’m always counting euros, kroner and lari to make sure I get home.
And this trip is no different. I’m spending three months in Tbilisi again because I really want to, but also because that’s the only place in Europe where my money will stretch far enough to make my budget workable. And since most of my finances will come in during my last month here I only bought a one way ticket to Paris three weeks ago (under $600 from Juneau to Paris!), because I can’t yet afford the return ticket. And that’s why I’m doing this fundraiser and that’s why every $10, $50, $100, $1,000 matters. Right now I can’t even finalize my plans for three weeks in the middle of the journey until I see if I get enough money to even travel any further. (It’s iffy if the fundraiser doesn’t get the my minimum goal.)
So why do I do this? I can tell you that money has absolutely nothing to do with it. A truly prudent person would have saved as much money as possible. They would have prepared for inclement weather ahead. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I held my mother’s hand alone in her bedroom as the last breath escaped her body and her hands went ice cold. I’ve looked death in the face. And I’ll tell you what I know. Getting to the end of your life with a nice safe life and healthy bank account has nothing to do with meaning of life. Life is about trying to give something back to others. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said:
“The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.”
What does puppetry and a documentary about it got to do with this? Well you know what? You won’t know until you see the finished film. That’s why I need your support. This Indiegogo fundraiser may end soon. But you want to know something? While you are rest comfortably in your beds at home I will, in a very real sense, be in exile, all my possessions locked away, no home, trying to finish something that is very important, not so much for me, I already know the message I’m trying to communicate, but for you. If you read this after August 21st 2017 remember I’ll be out there until April 1st and would react with incredible gratitude for any PayPal contributions you might choose to make. (See button above on the right.) BUT UNTIL AUGUST 21st PLEASE HELP DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE ON INDIEGOGO. (CLICK HERE.)
You have my deep thanks for actually reading this and for anything else you might choose to give.
(Loading up my storage room)
Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.
So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.
In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)
A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.
(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)
Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.
Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)
I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.
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
On my last day in Brussels I had been invited to visit the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet by Dimitri Jageneau. I must confess I didn’t quite follow his directions and so explored a little more of Brussels than I had expected to both on foot and by tram. Fortunately I had given myself plenty of time to get lost (a good stratagem for finding new places by public transportation) and so arrived just in time to set up for the children’s show of the Three Little Pigs. It was a rather cozy old theatre with wooden seats in an old farm house surrounded by industrial apartment buildings. As the performance was about to begin an older French woman came out ringing a bell and introduced the play, this would turn out to be Biserka Assenova, Dimitri’s mother, once upon a time Bulgarian, a theatre student in Prague in the 60s, a puppeteer in her own right and working several of the characters in this play.
The story began with a little parable about the rain, the wind and the sun that worked together to become a rainbow and then shifted into a marionette version of the classic little piggies. Now the winsome star of this fable was the rather louche wolf. He would enter the stage with a strange monotone song with lyrics that went something like this: ’Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La Youp-La-La-la Youp-La-La’. And so bizarrely infectious was this that I heard several kids afterwards chanting, ‘Youp-La-La-La Youp-La-La’. And of course the wolf tries to blow the houses down, the straw, the wood and the brick. But he does it by turning around and around and becoming a mini-hurricane. By the end I was caught up in the story myself and was almost rooting for the unsavory canine.
Apres la spectacle, I met Madame Assenova who was a sweet charming lady with much insight into the art of puppetry. She consented to be interviewed. I also met the two others members of the cast, a couple of younger women just beginning their life of puppetry. I was shown the adjoining museum which was chock full of puppet upon puppet with many from Asia, evidently Dimitri’s father, Franz Jageneau, had become passionate about Indian puppetry in particular and other countries puppets as well. Also gracing this collection were many unusual European puppets as well, including a few by famous Russian puppeteers Nina Efimova and Sergei Obraztsov. I was quite astonished by the depth of the collection. Dimitri demonstrated several of the older puppets from the Péruchet theatre.
Finally I sat with Biserka (a strange name given to her in World War 2 as a tribute to a woman who helped her mother deliver her and died shortly thereafter) for an interview. We spoke for about 40 minutes about her time in Prague, her discovery of puppets and mostly, a common theme for many puppet folks, the unleashing of the imagination. And she was quite eloquent about how the current tendency toward all encompassing storytelling and media, actually stripped away the imagination rather than feeding it. The puppet leaves room for the spectator to create their own version of the story and characters. Again something similar to the Quays’ concept of reading the mask/puppet face which is incomplete. The incompleteness invites completion through an act of imagination.
And then Dimitri sat down for around 50 minutes and spoke again about many subjects related to puppetry. He had inherited the theatre from his father. He had never intended to go into puppetry. And in fact he had a degree in European political studies. But during the course of his father’s decline and death due to cancer he had assumed the mantle of puppeteer. And had done a fine job in continuing the profession and researching puppet history. I’ll save much of what he said for Gravity From Above, but in the end, when it came down to it the point of puppetry in the 21st Century, it was ultimately about simplicity. Another theme that had recurred in my various interviews. We live in a time when things are so abstract that only the simplicity of a handmade creature made of a wooden or some other tangible substance could help us rediscover the value and mystery of the material world.
In the end I left Dimitri, Biserka and Péruchet feeling I had made friends. As I returned through the rain soaked streets of Brussels I felt I had understood more than when I had started. The two main puppet theatres of Brussels Toone and Péruchet were traditional in many ways, though also in their own ways remaining contemporary. They were friendly contemporains on a field without many players. Yet neither of them could claim to be hip or cool. And that connection to the past is what gave them a rich life. Each were multigenerational dynasties and in Toone’s case with a very long history as well. And yet they seemed to be on a battlefront, maintaining the classic style of European puppet art into the heart of the 21st Century. (Even as I write Toone’s future is hanging by a thread. To support them sign a petition. You don’t to be from Belgium or speak French. Just run this link through translation tool.)
The Journey to Brussels did not start auspiciously. I was about discover a well known aspect of France that I have, in eight trips to Europe over many years, managed to avoid. I had been informed by Paulette’s father, Gilles, that the TER rail line I was about to take to get from L’Haÿ-les-Roses to Gare Du Nord was on a slow down strike. And so I was taken to the station in a rather wonderful, if supremely funky, 60s era Peugeot somewhat apprehensively. As I stood on the platform swarms of darkly clad commuters slowly filled the platform. The good news was that the next train was due to arrive in four minutes. The bad news is that every stop prior to ours was experiencing the same swarming hordes. The train was jam packed. Especially if you were carrying bags to travel. And so was the next train to come down the tracks twenty long minutes later. I realized that I had to barge my way in onto the next train or I might actually miss my Thalys train to Bruxelles, which had seemed like an impossibility at first. Fortunately the next train was only one minute behind this one, with just enough room to insert myself into the proceedings. It was a delicate ungainly balancing act, since there was nothing to hold onto to steady oneself. After about two stops some guys pushed their way in such a manner as to remind me of the stories of crowds squashed to death at sporting events and rock concerts. One curious thing about this French crowd though: If you could actually get near the seats further in there was open space. Everyone was congregated near the doors. This was not the New York subway. Good news though. At a university stop piles of students fell out of the car. I squeezed my lithe frame through the crush towards the seats. And soon after another stop I was actually seated. And so I survived my first French strike.
Arriving in Brussels had the welcome familiarity of slight repetition. I had done this before back 2012. I made the needed adjustments. And with a basic minimum of travel stress I took the ‘free’ train from Bruxelles-Midi to Bruxelles-Central and emerged near my hotel. I wandered the streets near the Grand Place/ Gross Markt (everything here has two names… at least) surveyed at least a hundred chocolate shops and prepared myself to see the Toone and Peruchet Theatres. I was back in Brussels.
At 5PM I stood in the rainy Grand Place watching tourists befuddled by the rain as I awaited Dimitri Jageneau, the Director at Théâtre Royal du Péruchet. Dimitri had been a loyal supporter of my concept since he discovered the project almost two years ago. He contributed through the crowdfunding effort. And was mystified that more puppeteers weren’t contributing. When we met it was nearly like meeting an old friend. He took me over to Poechenelle Kelder a pub that had once been an old puppet theatre and was now festooned with myriads of old gloriously creepy puppets. (Highly recommended if in Brussels.) (Do I get something for this recommendation?) Dimitri turned out to be an excellent and opinionated puppet historian in his own right. He spoke of Indian puppetry origins, the various styles of Italian puppetry, he questioned the vogue for Object Theatre, while not fully rejecting it. He took Jurkowski’s point of view on the importance of puppetry qua puppetry, and hoped it wouldn’t be lost in the surfeit of new modernist and postmodernist tropes and he was critical of some of the politics of puppetry, not meaning political puppetry, rather the sense that the historical puppetry was being left behind in contemporary European theatre. All of this and I hadn’t even recorded a word yet.
After we finished our delightful Kwak beer, (Kwak means ‘trouble’) complete with strange double-decker class, Dimitri took me to a traditional Brussels restaurant, where I almost had the muscles, but settled on a hearty wintertime la Carbonade Flamande. More conversation ensued, upon which I finally brought out my digital sound recorder. It was an excellent introduction. And Dimitri also phoned Nicolas Géal from Toone to make sure he knew I was coming the next day. And so all of my introductions to Brussels had been made. Now if I could just sneak by the chocolate stores without too much undue consumption I knew that the portion of the trip bode well.
(Next a return to the Toone Marionnette Theatre to see Nicolas Géal and his Musketeers)