And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
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.
So I found myself on the northern French highways veering off into Belgium on my way to see a clown performance in the town of Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg. The magnanimous Brigitte Behr was driving Paulette Caron (who had just arrived from Paris) and I to “Festival Clowns In Progress” to witness the antics of Ludor Citrik, a theatrical clown, not to be confused with a circus clown. If you’ve ever seen a version of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, you have a small idea of what a theatrical clown might be.
Now even knowing Godot and having seen a couple of clown plays in past European journeys did not quite prepare me for the full reality of les clowns. These theatrical clowns tend to have mutated into an extraordinarily loud, strange, mentally deranged, existentialist buffoons, for whom there are no taboos in an absurdist parody of life and living. They did not wear the make up that Americans tend to associate with clowns, but rather the additional, usually red, nose was essentially all one needed to cross the line. Some sloppy face paint usually completed the picture, along with badly fitting clothes. But what a line to be crossed. Evidently a European clown school is nowhere you’d want to go if you were at all inhibited by moral strictures or notions of societal decency.
After experiencing some of the unashamed stupidity of the wandering clowns at the very small festival we were ushered into a theatrical space to watch a play featuring the well known clown who goes by the name Ludor Citrik, along with his dense confrere le Pollu. How can I even sum it up? After it was over I discussed the idea of clowns with Paulette. She had explained that this European theatrical clown was supposed to be like an artistic soul, almost ‘attardé mental‘, saying and doing whatever came into his mind. I explained the more current American concept of the evil demon clown and how much the image of the clown has changed in American culture since I was a wee lad. (Thank you John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King, Insane Clown Posse and many others.) And what’s truly strange is that the clown, the very image of fun, has mutated into a satanic creature exactly at the same moment historically when people live for having ‘Fun’. It’s no coincidence.
Well anyhoo, the shenanigans of Ludor Citrik and le Pollu would have probably struck most Americans as being horrifying as well, featuring inchoate screams, loud bellowing, crazed body language, death grips, drugs, as well as Modernist concepts like breaking the fourth wall (the barrier between performer and audience), Beckett like absurdity, and hundreds of empty egg cartons. My feelings after seeing the pair was to react without language, only high pitched vocal contortions.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I was settling into a regular routine of time spent in the Centre de documentation of the Institut International de la Marionnette (the French word for all puppets). I had become a chercheur, a researcher, in the library of books, videos, magazines and other media on puppetry and related arts. There were two other chercheurs in residence also. I couldn’t have asked for a more curiously disparate group, all united by an interest in puppetry.
One was Yanna Kor who grew up in Romania and Moldova only to move to Israel in her young teens with a story as elaborate as a Russian novel while speaking four and a half languages. “Russian, Hebrew, French, English and I don’t speak Romanian so well anymore.”) I have rarely seen anyone who could focus on research so intently, six or seven hours without a break, all the while specializing on French puppetry in 19th Century. She had also been a dramaturge for some of her own plays and had even been involved with puppetry. She was working on her PHD thesis on Alfred Jarry and his famous play Ubu Roi. And if I happened to mention a subject, she would eventually wander over to my table a leave a book on, say, medieval automata, for me to look at.
Quite different was Estefania Valls Urquijo from Guatemala of Catalan and Basque heritage. She had come to research her idea for a series of ceramic puppets she called Muñecas, dolls. She had been working with sculpture and ceramics but had gotten the idea to make puppets and this was actually her first serious attempt to do so. She eventually invited us over to see her puppets, which while needing more work and design, were nevertheless certainly already filled with character.
Later Paulette, Yanna, Estefania and I found ourselves sitting at an outdoor cafe. Estefania discussed life in Guatemala. Houses with bodyguards. Crime and poverty. Her work inside the jails. And here she was working on art. And it made sense. More than once in my conversations with all of these women I found myself considering new perspectives on ideas. And more than once I also realized how far away I was from the United States and Alaska. And that it was a real corrective to consider truly different viewpoints other than those I usually inhabited.
And then there was my own research into puppetry. And it was fascinating to consider the many things I didn’t know, as well as those issues related to puppetry that I did know that no one else seems to have considered yet. Soon I would be meeting the students at the school and giving my presentation.
(But I’ll save that for next time.)
Come back again…