First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.
I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.
I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.
Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.
And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.
Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.
On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.
But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.
And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.
This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)
And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.
Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.
And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.
But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.
And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!
Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.
October 11th 2019
Support me through PayPal. Hit this link here. It will be appreciated!
Back in January of 2018 I was visiting Tbilisi Georgia for the second time. I had stopped into visit my friends at the hand shadow theatre Budrugana Gagra. A few actors were there waiting for the rest to arrive when a young man named Irakli Toklikishvili walked in with some images on a sheet of paper. Suddenly Mariam Kapanadze and Elene Murjikneli lit up happily and went over to see what he had brought them. When I asked Elene what it was she said it was for Mariam’s animation project. I looked at the paper, a decayed landscape with a cabin on it. I thought it interesting. I looked for the drawings of the little characters who would be inhabiting the landscape. None ever materialized. Mariam said that the short animation film was about the landscape itself. I thought that was a beautiful idea and then didn’t think too much more about it.
While I was back in Alaska someone told me about an animation festival calling for submissions. I thought of Mariam’s film. I wrote to her. But she said it would be a long time before it was finished, maybe December 2019. I thought that there must be more to the story if it is taking so long. And so when I arrived back in Tbilisi back in December 2018 I asked Mariam what the story behind the short film really was. And then she explained it to me. And even in her imperfect English I suddenly caught my breath. I had never heard of such a simple yet complex idea.
In April I finally caught up with Mariam and Elene and asked them more about the project. The title of the project is მიტოვებული სოფელი (mitovebuli sopeli), in English The Abandoned Village. And essentially all it shows is the slow transition of a desolate village during the course of the day from night to morning to day to evening to night again. During the course of that day there are a few changes fog, wind, unseen clouds creating diffuse light, shadows changing during the course of a day. And with one exception that is pretty much it. There are no visible people, not even animals. Just the empty village during the course of a day in during the late autumn.
Now if that sounds like nothing happens you really don’t understand what Mariam is attempting here. In a way what Mariam is creating is something that has rarely been done. A living painting. Which is why for me to tell you what it is about is not to ‘spoil the plot’. What will matter in the end is simply you, stopping the insane business of your life for 13 minutes, watching the subtle transitions of a day in an abandoned village to ponder them. For Mariam has something up her sleeve much more complex than a mere picture.
She told me that “It’s a very important idea, it’s not only a village. The village is our world. Where we are living. What is an abandoned village? It’s when we have lost love, when we’ve lost important people. Life, this life, is very important. Because one day our spirit is abandoned. (Which is why the cemetery is an important image within the film.) The village is our world.”
Click on the Images to Expand
Is this village based on a real village that Mariam knows? Yes and no. As a young girl Mariam’s parents would take her to the family’s ancestral village in Imereti called Zodi. This is the village where her grandparents had lived in when she was a child. She remembers Zodi being full of life and people. But since then, while it is not quite the abandoned village of her story, some parts of it are not too different. This is actually a problem throughout Georgia as small villages wither as the youth leave to go to the cities. Of course similar problems have occurred throughout the world at one point or another as transportation and technology change the way we seen the world. But Mariam is very quick to point out that her film is not really a story about this particular village. For her the village in her short animation film is about the loss of love and joy. The abandonment of love, that the life of these old villages represented, the families, the songs, the communal feasts.
There are 21 paintings by Irakli Toklikishvili containing each cell of the animation for this piece. And then there are hundreds of small subtle effects that change slowly during the course of the film. Mariam says that her favorite filmmaker is the Greek Theo Angelopoulos. And another influence is Andrei Tarkovsky. And the slowness of the changes within the frame are certainly reflect their influences. Elene Murjikneli, her colleague at Budrugana Gagra, has been working with animation for twenty years, is both her assistant and at many points her instructor as they create this unique project. Other animators include Natia Pochkidze, Giorgi Chanturia, Nina Gvasalai. It is being produced by Tsotne Kalandadze for the “Kvali XXI” film studio. And when I asked where she got the idea for static frame without cuts she credits Gela Kandelaki, the Director of Budrugana Gagra, with the suggestion when she presented the idea to him.
Mariam Kapanadze originally conceived of the idea in response to a call for submissions by the Georgian National Film Center, when it called for its yearly submissions in 2017. She won the competition. They wanted a budget and a time frame. This was Mariam’s first attempt a complete film, and so she gave herself around two and a half years to complete it. She was awarded money, which by American standards would hardly pay for the electricity for the computers and lights. But Georgians have become quite adept at stretching budgets beyond what many further to the west would consider possible. In March of 2018 the project received a bit more funding. The money was important to keeping The Abandoned Village on track to a December 2019 completion date.
And yet this certainly isn’t a project with money as its central goal. Mariam told me that that even though the film has Georgian themes she considers it to be universal. The film while essentially being a silent film, has one character, an old man who can be heard mumbling inarticulately. He turns a light on in a rustic shack in the dark. And in Mariam’s eyes the entire film is a struggle between the life of light and the death of darkness. And this darkness is not an abstract thing for Mariam who is old enough to remember the times when the electricity failed regularly in Tbilisi. For Mariam the light brings the music of birds and the dark brings a muted muffled silence. And it remains for us to keep the light on in the dark. Mariam hopes people are reminded by this film to remember the goodness in life, the times of joy, and especially the love. If that sounds like a lot for a 13 minute animated painting then you should hear Mariam talk about it.
Better yet look for it sometime next year: მიტოვებული სოფელი The Abandoned Village.
June 25th 2019
Photos of Byrne & Mariam, Mariam in Zodi and all Production plates and art © Mariam Kapanadze
All other photos © 2019 Byrne Power
What’s happened to the documentary Gravity From Above? What happened to Byrne? We haven’t heard much about puppets or Georgia since the beginning of the year.
I’m wondering the same questions. The truth is that I guess I’m recovering from the double shock of losing whatever funding I had hoped to get for the documentary and then finding the work that I was supposed to do in Georgia not only endlessly bogged down in bureaucracy but also paying me far less than a living wage for the work that I am doing causing me to lose money every month.
Or to put it another way reality has set in.
Now to put a little more meat on the bone let me explain a bit. First of all I am quite hesitant to say much at all publicly. At this moment the details would be less than helpful. (Privately I can explain anything if interested.) And the situation has never been dire. But essentially I am only receiving about a third of what I need to live every month. Which is a drain on my personal economy, which can’t go on forever. Then there are expenses that I have to make to actually live here as opposed to being a transient. Things you need to buy simply to be a resident from frying pans to curtains. More catastrophically my computer has died twice on me. I now live in a strange twilight world of used MacBooks and external hard drives. (I’m waiting for a new hard drive to arrive through a tortuous path of mailing services.) And I have spent a fair sum just to keep myself running. And then there is the much larger question of how I will get my belongings shipped here. (Which had seemed quite possible when I left, but now more doubtful.)
The practical minded person would say something like this to themselves: “Well you’d better get back to Alaska where you can make money and forget about all of this. Admit you’ve been beat. It was an interesting dream, but it’s time to face the truth. Better get back while you still have the money to get there.” (I can hear the worried voice of my late mother here.)
Yet I know I haven’t made a mistake. Every time I have made a radical change in my life, from California to New York City, or from New York to Alaska, I have gone through exactly these moments of wall-smashing reality. In New York it took me multiple beds and floors for 4 long months to find an apartment. And that was beyond my means. I ended up leaving it after a year. Not to mention having one of the worst fevers I’ve ever had in my life during that first Christmas time. Narrowly escaping being beaten to a pulp by a street gang. And essentially finding that most of the folks I met during that period receded as friends. And then again in Alaska. I arrived without the job that supposedly was waiting for me, a container load of my library and other junk which then immediately sucked up all of my money on overweight freight charges, and I was renting a house for more than I could afford, especially without a job or money. The radio station work did eventually kick in. So did comments from certain members of the community about the music I was introducing to the airwaves. And I discovered the rather petty and vicious nature of otherwise friendly Alaskans during public board meetings, which I had to take part in as a part of my radio duties. Within six months I had to move everything again because the house I was renting was being sold out from under me. In both New York City and Alaska I knew I should be there. And eventually they became two of the most important places in my life.
So my thoughts now? What’s new? I expected the brick wall of reality. I look at these confrontations as the real test of my faith. If it’s worth it then it won’t be easy.
So I am very slowly learning kartuli, a language that has been very difficult to read and to pronounce. And I do not mean difficult to pronounce the way French and German are difficult to read or pronounce. We are talking a different order of experience here. And the besides the language there are the many cultural misunderstandings between the Georgian mentality and the Western European or American. The sense of time here is something I am still struggling to understand. It isn’t that it is loose as in many cultures, it’s erratic, inconsistent. Now slow, now fast. It has the irregular rhythms of its language.
But overall I haven’t felt let down, as much as puzzled. And hopeful. And cautious. Sometimes at home. Other times like an alien. Yet never in danger. I don’t feel that I’ll fall through the floor. It feels like there is a net somewhere below me. So apart from the drain on my economy and the moments of bewilderment, how are things really going?
Well I do feel at increasingly at home more than foreign. And I think what it comes down to is this… the conversations. Whenever I am feeling a little too distant from my own culture I end up having conversations that allow me to breathe in a way I normally can’t back in the USA. I find an openness to art and culture that is far more serious than I have found back in the states in a very long time. And that is why I am here.
Or I meet someone doing something creative that just takes my breath away. For instance seeing the animation that Mariam Kapanadze is working on for two years. Just to produce ten minutes of footage that hardly moves at all. Then she explains what she is trying to achieve and I am left speechless by the depth of it. (I’ve already interviewed her and will be sharing it very soon.) Or meeting Giorgi Apkhazava and the other members of the Tbilisi Chamber Theatre and realizing that they have the best perspective possible on why they are puppeteers. (Also coming soon!) Or the again being surprised at an intimate piano recital by the depth of music played by Eter Tskipurishvili. Words would fail me entirely here. And it is in moments like these and dozens more that I find myself more than feeling at home; it is something far more spiritual.
And it’s not that life here is in anyway convenient… for anyone. There is a sense of total chaos at times. I have been without electricity or water many times. I have lost the food in my freezer and then gotten sick on the food that wasn’t cold enough. I have found myself hunting endlessly for something as simple as thread or tape. The summer heat is not something I am looking forward to. Yet as I walk beneath endless grapevines on tree shaded lanes passing children who still play in the streets I find something human and humble here. And when I look around I see an intriguing future, both for the Georgians, and for myself.
And so that is where I am right now. I don’t need assurances that everything will work out. I just need to keep walking and see where this road goes and why I am here.
Well I’ve got three or four essays due to be written very soon. So no (!) I haven’t forgotten anything. I’m just looking around, catching my breath, taking stock, and uttering quiet words of gratitude.
And I haven’t forgotten about Gravity From Above, the documentary!
Thanks for your patience my friends.
June 3rd 2019
And thanks April Harding!
While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
And so my journey commences, Alaska is behind me as I sit at the Juneau Airport having just suffered the serious indignities of the TSA, while watching an elderly woman so infirm she could barely move her wheelchair get patted down for five minutes as a threat to national security. It’s strange that Juneau, a place I seriously doubt anyone is going to ever use as an entrance for international skullduggery, usually has the worst security checks. Much worse than JFK, Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle. And since September 11th 2001 it’s always been that way. The only thing I can think of is that being so far removed from any aspect of terrorism, being so completely unable to imagine real terrorism, having only experienced these things through television and the internet they have succumbed to a dread paranoia of whoever ‘they’ might be. My dear departed mother whose body had been regularly infused with replacement parts was usually detained for the same treatment that the woman in the wheelchair had been. Which must explain the severe irritation I feel at the guards invading the propriety of the aged or handicapped who couldn’t possibly have ill motives nor the wherewithal even use the restrooms, let alone carry out an attack. And if you point this out to them, you will be suspect yourself, and pulled over to the side. Thus we submit. This is life in 2018.
Okay. Sorry. I just had to get that off of my chest. What am I doing here? Oh yeah I’m waiting to board a plane to get to Europe to continue my Gravity From Above journey and to end up in my new life in Georgia. So I suppose what I need to do is let you know my itinerary. And if anyone wants to meet me along the way contact me.
So yes… though I am moving to Tbilisi Georgia, I won’t get there until December 15th. So what will I be doing in the meantime?
Here is my itinerary.
October 6th through October 20th staying with friends in Paris and doing more puppetry and cultural research.
October 21st through November 2nd L’Abri in Huémoz Switzerland
November 2nd through November 4th Back in Paris
November 5th through November 30th Residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France
December 1st and 2nd Luneberg Germany visiting friends
December 3rd through December 9th Prague Czechia (I liked the Czech Republic as name much much better. There just aren’t enough places you get to say ‘the’ before the name.)
December 10th through December 14th Paris one last time
December 15th Tbilisi Georgia to live.
And so I leave Alaska with too many mixed emotions to share here. Alaska will always be a part of me. Yet I know it is time to leave. The finger points east to Europe, even further east to Georgia. I will try to finish up this everlasting Gravity From Above documentary project as soon as I can. Editing will take time. Distribution longer. Yet Alaska will stay with me. Just as New York stays with me. California stays with me. The faces, the events, the ineffable.
I’ll be reporting more about my adventures through this Gravity From Above site, and of course I’ll keep writing my ideas over at The Anadromous Life. But eventually I’ll have to start a new site (I can’t bring myself to call what I do blogs. It is such a slobby sounding word.) about my Georgian life… but it’s certainly not going to be called My Georgian Life. I need to come up with a name.
Stick around. It’s sure to get interesting.
Feel like helping out? I can certainly use it. Contribute through PayPal today. Click here!
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.
One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
Svaneti is a province in Georgia in the Greater Caucasus Mountains with the highest permanently inhabited village in Europe; Ushguli at 2,100 meters (6,900 ft). It is buried in snow about six months of the year. Until recently the roads were so fierce and unpredictable that the village remained essentially in the Middle Ages culturally. The roads are still quite dangerous. And so Ushguli has preserved strange towers that make it look like something Tolkien forgot to describe in Middle Earth. Improved roads now take visitors up the mountain sides today, mountain roads festooned with crosses for the dead who drove off the path. But as recently as the 1990’s not only Ushguli but much of Svaneti was living in a tribal past. Soviet Communism never penetrated too far. Even the Georgian Orthodox Church found its beliefs with mingled with animal sacrifices of a not too distance pagan past.
Mariam Khatchvani’s film Dede (pronounced day-day), which opened in Tbilisi Georgia in February 2017, after being featured at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, among others, is set in the near feudal world of Svaneti in the 1990’s. And you’ll have to remind yourself of that when you watch it. Filmed in Ushguli and other Svaneti locations it has the feel of authenticity that comes from a filmmaker knowing exactly what she is seeing. Khatchvani in a Svan herself and tells a story partly based on the stories her own grandmother told her. And in case you were thinking that the tribal past sounded like a romantic place to visit Khatchvani is sure to make you rethink that notion. In an earlier short film, Dinola, also based on her grandmother’s stories, and some of the harsher Svan traditions, a woman who loses her husband must marry the first man who then proposes. And leave her child with her late husbands family. Dinola is almost told from the child’s perspective.
Dede is the full perspective of the mother. It is a slightly different setting but recognizably the same basic story. But now it is much more complex. With three men and one woman and their relationship to her. But again the issue of child loss through tradition comes to the fore. Without going too deeply into the subtle and intense plot twists, which need to be seen without any advance knowledge, we can say that the issues with the child eventually recreate a winter trek through the deep snow directly based upon Khatchvani’s grandmother’s story.
The film is beautifully shot in Svaneti by Konstantin Esadze, which gives it far more production value than any Hollywood special effects could possibly match. Everything is real, because Svaneti, though now more accessible, is still there. Khatchvani uses stillness. She is unafraid to study the faces, the behavior of her characters. Giorgi Babluani is the only professional actor in the film. For anyone who has ever seen the original French/Georgian film 13 Tsameti he is the central figure in that extremely dark film. All of the other actors in Dede, as in Dinola, were Svan amateurs. And that is hard to believe. Especially in the central performance of Dina by Natia Vibliani. Natia plays the role with such conviction and honesty that I was surprised to find that she was not an actor at all. In two moments of emotional connection she conveys beautifully the depth of human longing and tenderness.
Now this is the part of my story that would be hard to replicate anywhere but Georgia. And why I am reviewing this film for you. I was in Tbilisi. I also have many Georgian Facebook connections. So I was curious as to whether Natia had a Facebook page. Why yes. She did. And so I wrote to her. And lo and behold within a few weeks we were sitting down in a cafe in the Saburtalo area, not too far from my apartment, for an interview. One thing I have come to understand about Georgians is that there is almost a innate curiosity about people and things. And so after a bit of communication back and forth we eventually found time to meet. And the reason it took a while, apart from the fact that she had to come back from an Egyptian film festival, is because her job keeps her quite busy. Natia she is a policewoman! She had studied law at university and was now doing security duty at the airport. This really made me laugh. One minute I’m watching her on a screen. Then I’m getting in touch with her. And she’s with the police. Only in Georgia!
We had a friendly and natural discussion, she in no way has let her film experience affect her. One thing that was important for me was to clarify parts of the film I may have misunderstood since there were no subtitles. Yes the film was about a woman whose child was taken from her due to ancient tribal codes. One character dies in a mountain car crash off screen. She was taken to another village to live while her son had to be left behind. We then entered the meat of the interview. (Which can be viewed below.) Why she was chosen to play the role. How she portrayed her character. How she felt working with professional actor Giorgi Babluani. Eventually we simply talked about ideas and places. I shared a few Alaskan stories and images. Natia had very recently gotten married. She wanted to take on more serious policing responsibilities and yet the idea of being in another film was also intriguing to her. One thing that was clear to me was that no matter what else happens to her Natia would always look at this time of her life as a unique moment.
While Dede has been shown in a few festivals it has not arrived in any English speaking countries yet. But I know one day it will. Mariam Khatchvani has made a very special and personal film well worth seeking out on disc or download someday. I would not have sought out Natia had the film not been excellent. My only small criticism of the film was that I would have wished that the scene where Natia’s character Dina had to walk through the snow to get back to her child had been more developed. But this is really a minor flaw. It was an excellent and heartfelt first feature film.
In an earlier essay I lamented the lack of mature films in our times. I mentioned the glut of comic book heroes and science fiction fantasy culture that surrounds us today. And many of these symptoms of cultural sterility can be found in Georgia as well. But not being made by Georgians. Dede is the kind of film we need in such hollow times. A film of honesty and reality set in a specific time in a specific place.
More Georgian stories are coming!
Thanks to our PayPal supporters. Without you our journey would have collapsed. You too can help out with this documentary project. It’s easy and simple. Just follow this link:
Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.
‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.
Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.
Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.
So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.
And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…
One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.
I asked Gela about the spiritual content of his work. The Saint Matthew’s Passion, though abstract, is loaded with suggestions of pilgrimage, prayer, deep beauty amidst struggle. He confessed in my interview with him that though he also said he was not always the most Christian man, something does come indeed through… I think he was being modest. His work has a depth that is quite hard to ignore. And the more I have spent time watching his unique shadow theatre the more I am inspired to push the boundaries of what can be said and felt through this medium. Especially in the realm of shadows and light.
Budrugana Gagra has in many ways been like a creative home for me here. I feel that I can drop in at any time. And even if the puppeteers present don’t speak English very well I always feel welcomed and accepted. Gela, who is in his late 70s, looks at me as ‘young’ visitor. At one point he told me told call him Bidza Gela, Uncle Gela. An honor indeed. Gela actually stopped me at one point when I mentioned that it my home away from home. He said “No! It’s just your home.” I had told him of what had happened in Alaska. (Click this to read that.) I replied “Then it’s my Georgian home.” He laughed and agreed with that. I will continue to visit my friends at Budrugana Gagra. They play about once a month in the ‘small room’ at the Rustaveli Theatre. If you ever come to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend that you do, then you must seek them out. (Links below.) And then you will understand the beauty and meaning of shadows and light.
20 / 3 2018
And here is Budrugana Gagra’s website. Go visit them!
And you can read about my first visit with Budrugana Gagra here.
PS. If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above and our current journey then please feel free to give through PayPal. It is easy and safe. Several supporters have done so already. And their gifts have been truly timely beneficial. This kind of exploration is in no way a luxurious adventure. So yes do feel free to give.
I’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
Immediately after my time spent with the Brothers Quay (see my last essay) I was scheduled to meet a young British filmmaker, Matty Ross, who has made short films and was now filming a video for a well known musician in London. Matty had found one of my lectures on puppetry on YouTube and contacted me about helping him visualize a puppetry segment for a longer film he was developing. We had chatted through Skype but this was our first personal meeting. When I came down the stairs at the hotel I found him waiting for me inside the lobby. (Do not imagine anything grand here. It was a hole in the wall establishment near Saint Pancras Station.) We walked and talked and ended up at a cafe a few blocks away and began working on his project which involved puppets swimming and an episode in an ambulance. Matty was quite animated in his enthusiasm for the story. Obviously this was quite personal for him. And so I tailored my comments to help him bring out what he most wanted to say. He felt that I had helped to clarify a few things. Matty thanked me graciously. And we would be seeing each other again in the future.
I was free to explore London a bit more. Now I have a confession here. London isn’t exactly my favorite European big city. The pace of the people, the weather, the price of transportation, the naked tourism (on a different level from Paris) all tend to sour me slightly. Nevertheless I’ve been here before. I’ll most likely be here again. And there are things I like. And so I decided to visit something I’d never seen before: The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A). The next morning I took the Tube over to the V & A and entered.
The V & A is free, like other national museums, but one does pay a hefty price for special exhibits, as I did to see the Balenciaga exhibition. I had been following my interest in textures and had been quite inspired by the Christian Dior show over in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts. But this show left me a bit cold. And the reason was that Cristóbal Balenciaga did exactly what I have a problem with. He bowed to the Modernist aesthetic. He made clothes that cut against the form of the human body. And the show reveled in that fact. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find creativity, artistry, even wit, in the designs. And among the fashion conscious I’m sure I’ve been indulging in heresy. But I actually got more out the works of his postmodern ‘disciples’ than directly from him. Yet it was quite informative to see the the dresses and ponder the history of fashion. Though my texturally oriented mindset derived much more pleasure from the older clothes that were on the free menu as I strolled in.
The V & A is dedicated toward design and materials. And so as I continued my procession through the museum I found intriguing images everywhere. From statuary to theatre props, including old Punch and Judy puppets, my eyes were soon full. I wish I had had more of an interest in jewelry and crafts because this was really the motherlode for such things. If gold and silver intrigue you then come here!
I decided to go to Chinatown, near Soho, a place I have often found something interesting to eat. And sure enough I came upon an inexpensive dim sum restaurant that reminded me why I love Chinese food so much. Biting into the first shrimp dumpling I withered into a pool of bliss. This is what living in a small town Alaska, without a Chinese restaurant, will do to you.
After the meal I decided to save myself about $10 and walk to my hotel. I was running low on pound notes and didn’t want to go to the bank machine again. It was about a 45 minute walk passing bookstores on Charing Cross Road and passing the British Museum. Alas a proper English rain arose to make it perfect. It was raining so hard that a couple of girls stood near me stranded under an awning directly across from the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with large paper bags full of groceries completely soggy and coming apart in the rain. I told them to go back to a store and ask for plastic bags. But it was clear that they were tourists who didn’t speak English well. So eventually when the rain subsided slightly I left the awning and began to walk off. Then my conscience struck me. I turned, walked back to a bookstore, asked for a plastic bag, took it back to them and said ‘Here!’ They looked at me and sheepishly said ‘Thank you.’ and I walked off into the rain.
The next day I spent my pounds down to the pence on food for my train ride back to Paris. On the way I ended up sitting next to a girl with mixed French and English ancestry, and the English side was mixed further with a bit of black and white in South Africa, where she was born. We had an interesting discussion about law, which she was studying and troubling her up in Cambridge, news and the media, computers and would coding help her in the future, and reality, my answer to her question. For no matter what you learn in tech if the real world around you becomes too strange to deal with no one survives. Ultimately it always comes back to reality, to nature, to real face to face human interactions. It was a good meeting and I think we both learned something from it. And in the end both of us agreed Paris was in many ways much more human than London.
And I actually felt glad to be back in Paris. For me Paris is a more like home. Which is odd considering that English speaking London should be more familiar. And my French is hardly perfect. And believe me, Paris and France do have seriously problems. And yet I felt more at home with crowds and pace in Paris than London. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s the fact that London suffered so much in the war and its reconstruction over the years has left it feeling colder. Paris, even with all it’s immigrants, still feels French. London feels a bit less English than I originally remember it back in the late 70s.
Well the next week was essentially down time. Some of the puppet moments I had planned did not materialize. And I needed to unwind from my journey thus far. The Carons were perfectly enjoyable hosts. They even survived my one failed attempt to cook with a French oven. And I finally got over my cold only to run into another issue: An abscessed tooth. I went into Paris a few times. Once to see the latest Star Wars film, which I enjoyed on a dramatic level, but the more I weigh it the more I find wanting in the balance. I also found myself wading through the Noël crowds around Les Halles which were as crazy as any I’ve seen. My friends Nathan and Annika Birch dropped in for a nice brasserie meal on the Right Bank of the Seine. Nathan discovered the roasted bone marrow appetizer, which was a new for me. And we split a plate of escargot.
Paulette eventually came to visit and was whipped by circumstances from extreme joy to almost unendurable pain within a few days time. And yet it was quite meaningful to see her again. And I am hoping her health stays steady. She also helped me navigate the back door of the French health system to get antibiotics for my tooth. And then it was time to leave France for Tbilisi Georgia, where I will be spending a full three months. All bets are off on this one. But it’s sure to be worth coming back for.
But we’ll call this quits for now. And I hope you have a meaningful Christmas and brave New Year and face the future with the best resources you have.
As for me, I will have two Christmases, one New Year and have already had my heart enlarged by the music and people of Georgia since my arrival.
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 then it was time to give my ‘prèsentation‘ for the students of l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). It was the first time I was to actually meet the students. I went to the ‘new building’, which still had the feel of a remodeled unfinished structure… and definitely needed some added character. Designed as some lo-fi modernist piece several decades back it had such oddities of construction that I nearly smashed my head open trying to look through a window down to the street. A projector was given to me to connect with my laptop. And evidently there was some teensy pin difference between the chord and and the computer, turning my handcrafted movie clips into bleeding mud on the walls in the red tones. But it really didn’t matter. I could tell that les étudiants were finding my thoughts to be fairly substantive.
I spoke about puppetry possibly providing one answer to the realm of flat dead textures of plastic, glass, stainless steel and the endless distraction value of the screens we are enveloped by. I think something in what I said got to them. And unlike many students in this age who seem welded to their devices, belief structures never withstanding, these students, all of the Harry Potter age, seems to come alive at the notion that their craft might indeed be more than just an art or entertainment on the sidelines of culture. I could see their lights going on upstairs when I spoke of texture, materials, fabrics, wood, rusted iron, and the need for us to live in a world that had some of the features of the natural world: large vistas with details that never ceased in their fractal complexity: Old furniture, wooden walls, paintings often had this characteristic. But now we lived increasingly under the smooth surfaces of plastic, plate, glass, white enamel, and faux materials. Now the only thing of interest for vast swathes of humanity are screens on blank white walls, in theatres, on devices, and above all in our hands.
And yet the Puppet, I felt was in a unique position, with it’s emphasis on texture and tactility to provide some sort of possible answer to this terrifying dilemma. For we are certainly effected by the objects we surround ourselves with. And many of these marionnettistes immediately got the point. Rather than weakly accept the all surrounding force of commercial deadness and the pop cults of the day, these students were here to emphasize the tactile, real life movement, and the physical body. My message fell upon thirsty ears. I was telling them that there was indeed a purpose to their art in the 21st Century.
Now I don’t want give the impression that I had one glowing experience after another. It took several more days until I could actually talk with the students again. Meanwhile my fellow chercheurs Yanna Kor and old friend Paulette Caron had departed for other parts françaises. Estefania Urquijo had gone off for four days to look for puppets in Lyon. And so it was a long weekend. And I a bit isolated experiencing at last the dislocation of my transition from Alaska. As I walked through the Place Ducale I was nagged by an unresolved issue from my intense summer that was still weighing down upon me. Yet I was working on it. And I did indeed have some worthy news, that I’ll discuss in a moment. So I roved the town and waited thoughtfully for the last week to begin.
And it was indeed a memorable last week at the Institut International de la Marionnette. After my presentation Raphaèle Fleury, Manager of the Research Center, told me that the Institute was considering to help me finish the film and that included financially. Now I don’t want to go into all of the details, because this will take about a year to unravel and I want to see how things go. But one thing seems quite certain I will be back here in a year working on Gravity From Above again. And this is a big deal for me.
More importantly it was because of the effect of my presentation upon the students that Raphaèle was convinced that the istitute needed to help me get this documentary completed. And so there is justification for this journey. Yet as good as this news was it only felt like the appetizer for a main course that will come in time.
One student who immediately got what I was saying was Zoë Lizot. She spoke to me after the prèsentation and had many questions about the puppeteers role in art. Later I would see her performing a little puppet play with Valentin Arnoux and find that this serious young woman also had extremely funny voices waiting to be released into the world. Valentin himself was politely earnest and too was revealed to have a sly sense of timing as he played simply a head. (See photo.)
The student who most seriously understood the implications of my message was Coraline Charnet. Paulette had told me to talk with her. When I approached she was eager for further exploration of the ideas. We spent the good part of an afternoon sharing lunch and discussing the philosophy of texture, and our need for it. She said she had been thinking about these things for a while. Especially the flatness of contemporary society with all it’s screens and devices. She told me that I had articulated what had been disturbing her.
After weeks of waiting I was finally allowed in to see the students practice for an afternoon. A curious thing about the French training pedagogy is its emphasis on the physical body and movement. This comes from a long line of French theatrical theorists and includes traditions in theatre, mime, clowning, and of course puppetry. And so I watched Alexandra Vuillet conduct body work for an hour and a half. One of these exercises seemed almost related to some body preparation ritual prior to a burial. One student would lay on the floor as if dead and the other would massage/push/caress most of the unmoving clothed body.
But this seemed of a piece with the French casualness about the body in general as opposed to my more Anglo-American disregard bordering on squeamishness. And in my contacts with the French étudiants in general there was a physical closeness that seemed to develop quickly. Suddenly there were kisses on the cheek. Women touching me to make points. And even among the guys there was a casualness of body language quite foreign to my more northern sensibilities. I spent an evening with students Cassiel Bruder and Eve (pronounced ‘Ev’) Bigontina in which we were already like old friends with familiar gestures. Now this isn’t to imply that the French have achieved some sort of enlightened state concerning the flesh. I’m sure that issues arise often. They are just slightly different from those in more physically reserved countries.
In the afternoon they began to practice a variant of the Japanese bunraku technique, which involves one person in control of the head and right arm of a puppet, another the left arm and torso and a third the feet. And then they were broken up into smaller groups, there are only 13 students in the school, and allowed to create a small play based on photocopies of a short text. Now when I say text it’s not as if these étudiants are working with puppetry classics like Faust, Don Giovanni, Alice in Wonderland, for example. No they are working with more recent French texts, which always have a more philosophical message. One of them was about a man who had just committed suicide and whose ghost was over above his corpse in a flash of memory. And it was fascinating to watch how quickly they assembled little plays out of the material. One involved a puppet coming across Valentin’s head. Another with about a ghostly empty hoodie wandering around, while Iranian puppeteer Sayeh Sirvani played its feet. And the last contingent performed a play featuring several other students and the suicidal bunraku practice puppet.
One puppeteer stuck out for me. She was obviously moving differently, spoke English, but nearly no French, and was often seen alone. That was Latvian exchange student Māra Uzuliņa. When I had asked the students during my presentation about why they wanted to be puppeteers, she told a story about about being in a theatre program in Riga, Latvia, then going to medical school, then changing her thoughts again and choosing puppetry again. It was intriguing enough for me to ask her to be interviewed for the documentary. Like many of the students she had, what I would call, the right reasons for wanting to study puppetry. And the puppet students seemed like they understood intuitively the increasing abstraction from the physical world. Māra had that down cold. She had made a short video where she had made demonstrated her use of unusual objects to communicate deeply. We set a time to film our interview the Thursday night before I left for Brussels. When the time came I conducted the interview with a minimal amount of distraction in the Villa d’Aubilly.
This might have been the best interview I’ve ever done. Not that it had the historical significance of talking with Jan Švankmajer or Henryk Jurkowski. Not that Māra had great techniques and experience to share. Nevertheless she was open emotionally in a way that few other interviewees had been. And when we came to discussing puppetry in this media soaked 21st Century, she suddenly caught herself, honestly, passionately confronting the artificiality of this sad new world in a way that that even took her own breath away and left me affected as well. And that she was 24 years old was an important fact. I have interviews with older puppet folks discussing their discomfort with a world of increasing virtuality. In a time where younger folks will naturally defend the predigested big budget fantasy images on their ever present screens as being their own, here was one young soul who questioned it deeply. And she wasn’t alone either. I know many of the students of ESNAM would have said similar things. Though I doubt any of them would have said it with the emotional intensity that Māra had. And I was glad to meet as any of the students as I did. And I’m sure there’ll be more questioning of the spirit of the age when I return next year to interview several more. (And I will be back!) And so I’m glad to have my first Latvian friend as well whose name is Māra. Those who know me well might have seen this name show up in my creative endeavors before. And it will show up* again.
Oh and one other thing before I go to sleep here in Brussels. Raphaèle also approached me in the library to ask if I wanted to write an essay based on my presentation for their forthcoming book called Puppetry and Power. I said “Is it my name?” and of course was honored as I was by the whole experience at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. And I bid a fond adieu to Raphaèle, Brigitte, Eloi, Delphine, Aurelie and my fellow chercheur Estefania.
Thanks for following along with me on my journey. Next time we are back in Brussels for a Toone marionette version of Dracula.
OKAY now just stop what you are doing! And watch that five minute interview with Māra all the way till the end.
* (In Arca a film I made with Sasza Sandur.)
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)
I decided to go back to Europe in 2005. I had been working at our local radio station steadily for years and I decided I needed a three month leave of absence. And so I thought “Let’s go back to Europe with a purpose.” Just going from country to country and town to town seeing cathedrals and museums gets a bit alienating and repetitious. I wanted to learn. I had two possible modes of interest. One idea was to do serious research on puppetry. The other was to visit World War II sites. The more I looked at the logistics, the more I realized that I could only pursue one of these courses. I chose puppetry. And though a few WW2 locations survived my planning (Auschwitz, Berlin) it was puppetry that spoke the loudest. In 2000 the burgeoning internet was fairly helpful in planning my journey. In 2005 it was essential. But by today’s (2017) standards it was still quite primitive. So much so that although I could tell that some kind of performance was occurring at the French puppet school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) in Charleville-Mézières, I couldn’t quite interpret exactly what it was. Much of my journey was laid out before me. But I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found would alter the direction of my life in many ways. (You can read a more complete version of the tale starting here.)
I was constantly surprised by what I was finding. The Guignol show at Parc Des Buttes Chaumont was much better than the show I had seen at the Luxembourg Gardens in 1996. The student performances at the International Puppetry Institute completely altered my notion of both puppetry and what could be a puppet. The mysterious beauty of shadow puppetry in Germany could not be denied. The stories I heard of puppetry behind the old Iron Curtain countries in East Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Chrudim were inspiring. Seeing Czech culture through the eyes of puppet theatre was a window from which I did not need to be defenestrated. The Buchty a Loutky troupe in Prague gave me the idea that we could make an attempt at puppetry ourselves in Alaska. And the marionettes in Salzburg demonstrated the complexity of the art. I broke my wrist the week before I embarked upon this journey. By the time it was over I discovered I had lost my job in Alaska due to nefarious scheming while I was gone. I stood at a bridge in Salzburg and asked myself, if I had to do it all over again, including the broken wrist and the lost employment, would I do it again? Absolutely. Sign me up. It was that crucial.
What was it that I saw? Puppet shows obviously. And yet that isn’t what I saw. Having followed 20th Century music history quite intently I knew that the power of music had diminished by the year 2001. And what steamrolled over everyone now was the computer, the internet, and in 2005 the cascade of social media was just beginning. Yet it was already clear that the 21st Century needed an art that could challenge the digital hegemony. An art that could possibly break through to the real. And what I was convinced of was this. Puppetry was one art form that could do that. Whether in the real interactivity of a Guignol show in Paris, the illumination of objects like stone or grape branches in France, or the full grammar of puppetry in Prague, I knew that here was an art that could point one back to the tactile, the true senses. Even Švankmajer’s puppet films were soaked in the textures of materiality. Puppets could remind us of the world that existed beyond the screen.
Back in Alaska I started work on a small ad hoc puppet entity called the Lilliputian Puppet Sideshow based partially on what I had seen in Europe.. My chief issue was how to expose my recruits to the kinds of puppetry I had witnessed. I realized very quickly that there was no documentary on the subject worth it’s name. I used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I have collected over 70 puppetry related DVDs since then. I can speak with some authority. There is no good overview or introduction to the art. By 2006 I began to muse over the concept of a documentary and the title , Gravity From Above, had already come to me, inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic Era essay on the marionette theatre. Little did I know how much commitment Gravity From Above would take from me. Had I found the resources and the funds right away I would have put this behind me long ago. But that was much easier said than done. Funding has dogged me every step. I think people hear that I’m going to Europe and assume that I must be living the life of a well-heeled roué. Far from it. I’m always counting my pennies. Always completely drained of resources when I come back. (And I will be this time too unless you help.)
In 2007 I attracted the attention of a young producer from Switzerland. I met him in Los Angeles in late 2007. We discussed the project. Ideas were exchanged. Not much happened in the next year or two. In 2009 I was given an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska for my puppet work. I took that money and formed a new puppet troupe called Reckoning Motions and spent two months on the American road in October and November. My goal was to present this strange new/old puppetry to people who had never seen it before. Financially, we lost money. But in terms of reception? Everywhere we went we surprised and intrigued folks with our curious and difficult little entertainment It felt good. I had proved something to myself. Puppetry could indeed shoot past the virtual and hit the audience on a different level. And so with that under my belt I decided to start thinking about the documentary again.
In the summer of 2012 I made my first foray into crowdfunding. And with a bit of help from the Rasmuson Foundation and USAProjects I made it to $10,000, just enough to get me back to Europe and start the interviewing process. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That helped with transportation and lodging. But I didn’t have a good camera. I was essentially flying by faith on the seat of my pants. (How is that for mixed metaphors!) Re-enter the Swiss Producer. He had moved back to Switzerland and had some idea that the Swiss funding agencies might like my project. So he decided (along with his wife and producing partner) to help out a bit. They said they had a camera for me. And sound equipment. And that sounded right. And so in October of 2012 after a very long bout of transportation I arrived in Europe, Poland to be precise, again. Eventually they met me and passed me the camera. Alas! This was some archaic digital video camera that had pixels large enough to count. It would never work. But fortunately they sprung for a new Canon DSLR camera while I was visiting friends in Berlin, thus saving the trip.
Now I had another issue. I had to get up to speed on this device before I arrived in Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer. And I think I just barely got there. My footage was passable for a documentary as long as my skills kept improving and my final cut was poetic enough. The trip was both tiring (dragging heavy tripods and other unneeded equipment) and satisfying. By any stretch of the imagination this was work NOT a vacation. Finding myself several times doubling back on train trips to interview someone on their schedule rather than mine. (You can read about the whole journey in the early Gravity From Above posts.)
Upon arriving at home I lived on crumbs of hope coming from Switzerland: That soon they would submit the project. Fortunately I had made a good friend in puppeteer Paulette Caron who came to visit Alaska twice to help with Reckoning Motions puppet productions in 2013 & 2014. But the delays for continuing the project seemed endless. Finally I just decided to give up on waiting and get back to Europe on my own. In 2014 I made another campaign run through USA Projects, which had changed its name to Hatchfund in the meantime. I made several tactical errors, like starting in the autumn. Also their was no matching funds from any other source. And it was a lot of work and time (three months)and serious personal stress for just $5000. Not much, but enough to buy a new laptop and to get the Final Cut Pro X software to make my promotional images shine more. My mother passed away in 2015 and I was left with an insurance claim. I decided to to take that money and get back to Europe. And so I prepared to make the journey again. I knew this wouldn’t be the end. But I was determined to honor the faith put in me thus far by the people who had put in as little as $10 or as much as a $1000. It’s passion, yes. But more it’s about commitment. And just wanting to get this done.
Next time we finish our brief history of Gravity From Above with our 2016 trip bringing us up to the present moment. Come back. Better yet. Do you see yet that I’m really in need of your help to get this finished. Won’t you give today?
So if you’ve read this far please help us by giving before August 21st to help try to finish up Gravity From Above. Follow the link below.
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.
And so we come to another one of those moments where real life and reel life collide into a fine kettle of fish. So let’s get a few things out of the way. First of all one way or another I will be back in Europe come fall. I will be at the International Puppetry Institute in Charleville-Mézières for a three week residency, where I will be officially presenting my work on the documentary. And I am now trying to see how much of this project I can wrap up. But it’s not going to be easy and it’ll take all of the good will I can find.
Let’s get this announcement out of the way. I’m raising money again. This time I’m going through Indiegogo. And I’m trying a different method of approach. I think the all or nothing mode was too much stress for me. So I thought that I would see if I could try it, if not actually casually, then more so than in the past. Those who know me and have followed me for a while know that I’d pretty much sworn off crowdfunding for the foreseeable future.
So what has changed? Or rather what has happened?
Well as I mentioned the real and reel have coincided. Back on the home home front the Quonset Hut where I have contently lived for twenty years is being sold. And I know I shouldn’t even seriously think of buying it, for a host of reasons that would be outside the purview of this website to explain. I was getting a very good deal and this abode served myself and our community here in Haines, Alaska, very well. But, given the size of my library and price of my rent, I seriously doubt I will find something to match my needs right away. So I have come to another conclusion. I’ve decided I should put my huge library of books, records and films into storage for a while and I go knock on doors to get this and other projects finished.
I’m looking into spending a more time in Europe than I was originally planning. I need to find the resources that elude me way up here in Alaska. I’m not thinking of moving, but I am for a while open to new possibilities.
So the Indiegogo Gravity From Above campaign is live now. I’ve purposely kept the amount low at a $3,500 goal, not that I don’t actually need $25,000 to $50,000 to get the documentary finished. But once I crest that goal I should be able to stay on Indiegogo’s InDemand radar for quite a while longer to continue bringing in funds. And if I can get the lower goal met soon then I might get noticed by the folks looking for investments. We’ll see. I’ve decided to do this with a no worry approach, especially since I’m on the keep whatever I raise ‘Flexible’ program.
I also just had a 60th Birthday Feast (2 years late), because two years ago it was impossible for me to even consider it. I had a huge 25lb. (11.33 kg.) pork leg that turned out quite tastily and 60 people joined in. Bringing food and playing games. It was also a farewell to the Quonset Hut and a fundraiser as well. $290 in cash came in, which did not go into Indiegogo, since I’m NOT doing the all-or-nothing version, thus saving me the ten percent fees. (It also makes it easier to accept cash from the good folks in Haines. But the point is this. By the many means necessary I will be going back to Europe and trying to get Gravity From Above finished if I can. Maybe begin more serious research on Georgian music and dance. Following whatever trail I need to to find the money to get this done or a Producer who will understand this project.
This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.
So I’m asking for your help once again. Whether a few dollars or something more extravagant everything adds up. Check out my new maybe final (that’s up to you) Gravity From Above fundraiser. And especially check out the perks. (I’ll explain more about them soon, as well as give you a short history of the project up till now.)
Links abound on this page. Follow one and let’s get this done together! If I can get close to $10,000 I can probably finish up all of Europe footage.
Thanks for the subscriptions and the support. My life is obviously at turning point. Will you help turn the wheel with me?
And just in case you didn’t see all of the links to my Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Here’s the link…
Time for another update.
First the disappointing news. The grant I was hoping to receive, that I actually had an excellent chance of getting, did not materialize. And so while I am still planning to go to France for a three week residency in October as part of Gravity From Above, exactly how I am going to fund it, paying for the flight etc, is an unwritten book at this point. I might have to use a system like Indiegogo or GoFundMe, which will allow me to keep whatever I make, rather than threaten me with an all or nothing scheme. But we will see. At the moment a couple of thousand dollars would get me there and back and allow me to get a few more interviews. (Please note that PayPal button off to the upper right. Feel free to use it. Every donation, regardless of size, will help.) But one way or another I will get back to Europe this fall.
But now some enjoyable news. In the midst of a personally trying late April and early May our Reckoning Motions puppet troupe was able to perform a play I recently wrote entitled 21st Century Faust. The play is based on the old European puppet classic Faust, and based more on Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus than on Goethe’s Faust. But, as the title betrays, this was obviously a reworking of the material into a contemporary setting. Except that that Faust himself is from the late Middle Ages and it is a comedy. Faust receives all of the knowledge and power in the world. But it comes in the form of a smartphone, which he can only use in the 21st Century. Mephistopheles transports him hence.
This was also an experiment for me in that it was my first official puppetry class of five students. We started with puppetry theory and history back at the beginning of February. And many classes in improvisation, acting, and puppet manipulation. Then we mastered the play, built the props and constructed the set in the basement of the Chilkat Center for the Arts and performed three well received shows. (We even had ourselves featured on the front of the local paper.) And so while waiting for the next step in our Gravity From Above project we have not been idle.
More news to come as we prepare to get back to Europe to try to finish this project!
Oh! And allow me to share one of the scenes of 21st Century Faust with you…
(Anyone interested in performing this hour long play might wish to know I will be publishing a small book of this and two other similar puppet plays this summer.)
The Great Mind: So I’m glad you got in touch with me.
Faust: I too am very pleased to meet you. I have so many questions.
The Great Mind: What do you wish to know? This should be Fun.
Faust: There’s that word again. Where do I begin? What is this thing you call an IQ test?
The Great Mind: Oh that. It’s a standardized test for determining intelligence.
Faust: What do you mean ‘standardized’?
The Great Mind: It’s a test anyone can take to determine their intelligence level.
Faust: And what is your intelligence level?
The Great Mind: 220. Genius.
Faust: So you had a demon attending your birth?
The Great Mind: What? I said Genius. I’m excellent at pattern recognition.
Faust: Pattern recognition? Hmm. I could see where that could be important in determining the nature of substances in alchemical treatises?
The Great Mind: Excuse me?
Faust: Maybe you can answer this question for me.
The Great Mind: I’ll give it a try. Shoot.
Faust: This has been weighing on me. Is Jesus the Christ a demiurgos, a demiurge? And in the 365 levels is he above or below Lucifer? Is he more of an archon connecting the sarkic level to the next? Or does the logos signify some other state? Did he come in the flesh?
The Great Mind: (Puzzled for a moment. Thinking. Then suddenly a key is found.) Did you say 365 levels?
Faust: Yes! 365.
The Great Mind: Wait. It’s coming to me.
Faust: Take your time. It seems that much depends on this.
The Great Mind: For a moment I thought this might be a philosophical question, which is not something I find to have much validity. Everything can be understood by numbers after all.
Faust: Numbers? Oh yes they do have a mystical property.
The Great Mind: But then I realized what you were asking about.
Faust: Yes. Yes.
The Great Mind: What level have you achieved?
Faust: I’m still quite connected to the earthly plane. Maybe the second or third level of the hylic order.
The Great Mind: How are you motor skills?
Faust: My what?
The Great Mind: Are you using Playstation or Nintendo?
Faust: I’m confused by this language.
The Great Mind: Xbox? Which console do you use?
Faust: Console? Well I seek a great beauty to console me.
The Great Mind: Is that part of the quest?
Faust: Yes I suppose it is? Along with finding the knowledge?
The Great Mind: What’s the name of the game? Maybe I’ve played it before.
Faust: It has no name. But I fear I am quickly becoming Lucifer’s pawn.
The Great Mind: Is this a Lovecraftian world? Is it an m-m-o-r-p-g?
Faust: I really do not understand your language? Mmorpg? (Pronounced like a word.)
The Great Mind: First person shooter?
Faust: I’m trying to understand the nature of the world.
The Great Mind: But what rules did you set up for your character?
Faust: The devil comes for my soul. I don’t mean soul I mean my infinity.
The Great Mind: Infinity? I like that concept. No souls just infinities.
Faust: Oh! I am in hell! Mephistopheles! Hear me again!
The Great Mind: Who is Mephistopheles? Your nemesis?
Mephistopheles: (Entering the room.) Yes, of course I am his nemesis. What do you wish now Faust?
Faust: This world is insane. Please take me somewhere else.
The Great Mind: Ooh I like that! ‘An insane world’! What a cool idea for a build?
Faust: Do you see?
Mephistopheles: It is a little silly isn’t it?
Faust: I thought I would meet intelligent people. This man gives me his IQ score. Just numbers. This isn’t intelligence! And then he talks endlessly about some sort of game. And he doesn’t understand philosophy, history, language.
The Great Mind: Hey I’m a genius! And I’ve got the test scores to prove it.
Faust: And what does that mean. Where is the attendant spirit?
Mephistopheles: I know. I know. They’ve forgotten where their words come from. Now they think that they are us. As if they had horns and tails. Alright. Alright.
The Great Mind: Hey!
(Poof! Everything changes. They are in the dark again.)
March 2016 while in Huémoz Switzerland I had a chance to give a lecture with slides called A Brief History of Puppetry at L’Abri. Now I have met people involved with puppetry who know an awful lot about the subject. This lecture isn’t really for them, though I suspect they’d appreciate it. This is for the multitudes who only have a glimmer of an idea about puppetry. A couple of years ago I uploaded my Puppetry As Antidote Art, which was essentially my personal apologia for puppetry to be considered as a serious art form. And I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have watched it and in some manner contacted me as a result. And so I present to you a more detailed follow-up. Not a particularly scholarly history but nevertheless more involved and detailed than anything else to be found in video at this moment.
(It’s over an hour and a half long. The best way to watch it might be to download it and spend some time with it. I’ve added much more visual material than when I gave it live so that should help.)
If you find it worthwhile let me know. And if you want to correct my dates and facts also get in touch. Leave comments below or on the YouTube page.
And remember I must get back to Europe this year to continue and hopefully get closer to wrapping the interviews for Gravity From Above, our documentary on European puppetry. We do need financial help if you want to donate to the cause use the “Make A Donation” button above. It’s simple, painless, direct and absolutely needed. Plus I will put your name on the final film.
Stay tuned, more will be developing as we go. And thanks to all those who have already helped out or followed our progress in some manner.
April 9th 2017
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.
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
While I’m waiting to find a producer for Gravity From Above I suddenly remembered a little experiment I wanted to make. It ended up becoming a puppet film. Now you might follow the link and watch the 8 minute piece and they say to yourself “Where were the puppets?” I wouldn’t blame you. Most folks have an idea that a puppet has to have a humanoid or at least animal shape. Or perhaps if the puppet is a chair or a pot lid they expect anthropomorphic features; eyes, mouth, nose, hands, feet, etc. These extras tend to be funny to people. Yet I am influenced by folks like Jan Švankmajer. In A Game With Stones (Hra s kameny), his stones remain stones yet have a life. One of my discoveries in my European puppet journeys is that any object can become a puppet even without anthropomorphization. And so in that spirit I present my short little movie, Enamelia.
Without explaining too much let me just say this. There is a drama to these enamel objects. There are four principle actors. (Some folks are fooled into thinking that there is only one.) The first one is a bit of a comedian. The second is an old diva barely keeping it together. The third is more of a Shakespearean actor holding out for the last second. But the fourth, our prima ballerina, performs a basic pirouette, almost boring. But wait! She keeps going! How long can she keep spinning?
Enjoy. I’ll be back soon with more puppetry. Meanwhile you can ponder my little drama called Enamelia.
December 5th 2016
(Keep in mind if you are receiving this as an email subscriber you will need to visit the site for this and all visuals.)
Long Time Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the trip that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the final part. We stop in Salzburg Austria. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. (Follow the link below to read the whole essay.)