After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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So I took the Ouibus to Lyon. Buses are the cheapest way to travel in France, though I much prefer the train. But in the interest of economy I booked with an official SNCF spin off called Ouibus (Yes-Bus). Entering or leaving a big French city like Paris or Lyon is a start stop affair that continues for several kilometers before or after the actual city. Don’t plan on getting anything done during this period. And I do mean simple things like using the bus’ toilet. I nearly cracked my skull open as we entered Lyon on the highway to the beginnings of the start stop scenario. But I was greeted by the friendly face of Paulette Caron who would be my host for five days in a small apartment not too far from the old town and the Guignol theatre where Paulette performs.
Now interestingly the fact that Paulette lives in Lyon now and performs with Compagnie Coulisses at the Théâtre Le Guignol De Lyon is indirectly related to our last visit to Lyon and the help she gave me as a translator for my interviews for Gravity From Above. So now that she is performing for a small contemporary troupe of guignolistes in Lyon has something to do with our friendship, which goes back to my 2012 journey.
But before what I could see what she was doing I was asked to help document a more traditional Guignol show by a related troupe, who works out of the same théâtre, Compagnie MA (pronounced like the name Emma). And so the second day I was there I went down to the theatre to take photos and shoot footage backstage as the show was happening. Which involved moving like a dancer to stay out of the way. But they trusted me to do it so I did. Now as the show continued I noticed something different. The middle school aged kids in the audience weren’t reacting the way French kids normally do. No shouting, no talking back to Guignol. Only one outbreak of laughter. To me the show seemed ridiculously funny at times. And yet…
But it turns out that they were German students on a field trip to understand French culture. And the only time they laughed was when one of the puppets said ‘Ja wohl!’ once. Nevertheless they were very appreciative at the end and eagerly went backstage, a Lyon Guignol tradition, to look at the puppets.
Then I was allowed to watch Compagnie Coulisses practice their show Monsieur Choufleuri, an Offenbach Operetta farce done with both live actors and and opera singers. The opera singers weren’t their for the rehearsals. There is a pecking order here and puppeteers aren’t on top. But the puppets were mirroring the opera singers and so could practice without them. I would watch a full show the next day.
While I was staying at Paulette’s apartment I soon discovered it was like waiting at a bus stop with people getting off and on visiting often. I stayed in the living room on a couch that opened up and I claim about a meter’s worth of space for myself. The view from that room was antique cliff face and ancient stairs going to who knows where. The view from toilette was one of the nest I’ve ever had. Though predictably the actual mechanics of throne was as funky as I’ve ever encountered in France. My theory, the French care about food on the way in but don’t make a big deal about it on the way out. We Americans are just the opposite.
While there I spent more time enjoying the company Paulette’s friend Simon. Then there was Alexandre-David, who’s occupation remains a mystery. Then came the girl they kept calling Mary, but who was clearly Marie. She came as I was sitting alone writing in the living room. I heard the door opened. And I knew that she was due to arrive. Paulette said that I would like her. And indeed I did, from nearly the first moment when I emerged from the living room we started a conversation by turns and funny and meaningful, which is decidedly not finished. Then there were the people at the theatre, Paulette and Simon’s family members. And one things struck me again was how physical the French were. Than touching each other and talking was as natural as breathing. And it was curious to me that while there was the presence of the usual technological suspects, at least among these people you rarely saw it interfere with real life. (And if you are one of those folks who say things like “But what is real life?” you probably don’t have one.)
I finally got to watch the entire Monsieur Choufleuri complete with opera singers. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would take the light operetta. But surprisingly I was thoroughly engaged. And somehow transported back to the 19th Century when this was a real night’s entertainment for the bourgeois. The music was far catchier than I had expected it to be. Offenbach is known mostly for the Can-Can in Gaiety Parisienne. And so except for one problem it was an immensely enjoyable evening.
And that one thing was this: Somewhere, most likely back on Paris Metro on a stainless steel pole that I was forced to hold for far too long, I had contracted a bug. It’s first manifestation was as a very occasional dry cough. But by the night of Monsieur Choufleuri, it had become a full blown fever. So weak was I by the time the play was over that I simply begged out of the post show gathering and walked home. I trudged up the stairs. My joints ached. My head throbbed. I was bone tired. And when I arrived near the top of the dark twisty stairway I discovered that the key was not not under the mat. But I was too drained to walk back. To sick to even concentrate on typing Paulette a message on my dumbphone. And so I sat there for 15 minutes before Alexandre-David and a friend arrived to let me in. I would have stayed there hours if needed.
The night was feverish and then sweaty. But curiously the next morning Marie, who knew that I was ill, chose to kiss me on the cheeks rather than worry about contracting the grippe. And I thought the French are so entwined with each other that no wonder so many died in the Black Death. Seriously though I was moved by that.
I spent the day exhausted and slept. I didn’t eat anything until around 6pm and the it was just a couple of eggs. I did trudge off in the morning briefly because I needed to go the bank and also get plenty of liquids. And cold peach tea was the thing my body was most grateful for. Looking back I think it had something to do with the loss of electrolytes in my system. But whatever it was, nothing has ever tasted as good as cold bottled peach tea did.
Eventually it was time to leave. I enjoyed my stay in Lyon. And as always it was deeply meaningful to spend time with my good friend Paulette Caron again. And to make new friends through her. Even with a fever. (Sadly the photos I took of these new friends were accidentally erased.)
I felt well enough to travel to Switzerland and so I left early in the morning towards the Swiss phase of my journey.
Written on board La Superba in the Mediterranean on the way to Palermo.
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Long Time Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the trip that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the first part. The rest will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005 Part 1- The Little Buffoons It was a pleasant Parisian Sunday afternoon in March 2005. After watching several men tightrope-walking high up in the trees of the Buttes Chaumont Park as part of the French Arbor day celebrations we strolled over to the small Theatre Guignol Anatole. I […]
Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.
What happened? Well I heard from the Swiss folks that the Swiss funding sources liked the idea of a puppet documentary but would rather have it focused on one person or troupe trying to accomplish “something”. Now this is precisely what I haven’t wanted to do. The whole point of Gravity From Above has been to introduce people to puppetry by showing what it is through a cornucopia of European sources. There is no way a documentary about one person, group, stop motion animator, etc. can show the spectrum. And it is the spectrum of puppetry that most folks need to see. Now I’ve let the Swiss producers know that I will certainly help get this smaller idea accomplished as per our agreement. But I’ve also let them know that this isn’t Gravity From Above, which remains as a title and a concept fully in my control. So we’ll see.
The way I look at it, a documentary about one puppet troupe, while certainly a noble idea in the abstract, is like a documentary about Field Marshall Rommel, when nobody knows anything about World War II. I’m sure it would be fascinating, but what’s this larger war they keep alluding to? What’s that about? That sounds even more intriguing. Well there is no World At War for puppetry? There is no serious introduction to the breadth and depth of the subject. And THAT has always been my goal. Europe was my focus because it was compact. A documentary on Švankmajer, Toone Marionette Theatre, Buchty a Loutky, the Brothers Quay, Josef Krofta, etc are all quite worthy subjects. But I’m interested in what holds all of their work together. So I’m left with no choice but to go back a couple of paces and try to find another source of financing. I’m now looking at whatever I might do in relationship to my Swiss contract as a gun for hire. But I need to make Gravity From Above.
So what needs to happen next? First of all I need to find either a producer or financial backer who gets what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years. Someone who will either comprehend the project enough to go to bat for me, or someone who will invest enough money to allow me hire the film crew to shoot the performances, to edit, to pay for film rights and commission the music. That’s still a sizable chunk. And I’m not releasing anything until I can get this done as it should be.
The problem with the film industry at any moment is that they get stuck on one model of how things should be done and won’t consider other ways. At the moment the only way to make a documentary is to focus on “someone” trying to accomplish “something”. With the drama being squeezed out of whether they succeed or not. Now good documentaries have been done in this mode. But to say that’s the only way to do a documentary is purest unrefined bullshit. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of documentaries made in other ways. Some are pure research (Children Underground about Romanian street kids), or biographies (the list is endless here) or about a subject (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Les Blanc’s film about garlic) or about genres (only think of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about film) or historical eras (does the name Ken Burns ring a bell).
Well Gravity From About is a documentary about European puppetry. Too big a subject? That’s what I’m told. Well it’s an introduction to the meaning of puppetry with enough examples from European puppetry and interviews to make the point. It’s exactly the documentary that I want to see. And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s what my readers here and fellow puppeteers want to see. That’s what people have been supporting.
So I’m asking you folks, whether puppeteers, filmmakers or interested readers, to see if you know anyone who can help get Gravity From Above finished. The interviews are pretty much done. Now I need a very small film crew and backing. Do you know producer who can help finish this thing? If you do get in touch. If you have any ideas get write me. Though I started this on my own, and 99% of the financing thus far has come from my own shallow pockets, I can’t finish it on my own. The two things I need right now are a producer who will believe in this project and backing or a backer or two. (Crowdfunding isn’t going to be an option again for quite a few years. See my older posts on that.)
Well I had an amazing journey last winter and spring. And I know that I will finish this, hopefully soon. Thanks to all of you have followed me on my journeys. And especially those who have dug a little deeper in one way or another. I do have a PayPal button here. Think about that. But more than anything help me to find the people I need to bring Gravity From Above to fruition.
From a pleasant sunny autumn day in Alaska
With gratitude and courage
We stood in front of the Mairie (Town Hall) of Old Lyon in the rain, where we were told to go, then to call Jean Paul Tabey, who would then appear somehow to show us into the chambers of Les Amis de Lyon et de Guignol (the Friends of Lyon and Guignol). Paulette Caron called on her cellphone to receive no answer. The rain continued and shelter near the Mairie was thin. We waited a few minutes and tried again. Voilà! Monsieur Tabey answered, then descended from within the Mairie to escort us to the small room of special historical documents related to the Canut (silk weaver) of Lyon. Tabey was an affable man who was proud to relate his own interest in Guignol which stretched back more than 40 years. M. Tabey was also largely responsible for providing much of the impetus and input for the show at the Gadagne Museum, Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre.
We filmed a discussion about the history of Guignol for over an hour. Several things emerged from the conversation, including Tabey’s concern that Guignol had been turned into a mascot of the tourist department of Lyon. There was a store that Paulette and I had walked into chock-full of Guignol tchotchkes: cups, posters, cards, games, etc. The concern was quite real. Not only that, the depiction of Guignol as a cute little figure was likewise troubling. As well as the fact that Guignol was becoming a universal character, more like a French Mickey Mouse than in his lyonnais original rascality. Guignol originally started as distraction from the howls of tooth pulling dentistry. If you get folks laughing hysterically they don’t tend to care so much about the screams on the other side of the canvas. And the shows were never intended for children to begin with. One of the differences between the Parisian and Lyonnais versions is that Lyon style can still be for adults sometimes and in Paris its pretty much exclusively for children.
Jean Paul Tabey said much more, but this gives you a flavor of his thinking. Like Daniel Streble he was convinced that Guignol was first and foremost a local personage of Lyon and should be speaking with lyonnais slang. But that wasn’t the only view to be had and we were about to meet a group of guignolistes with a very different perspective.
Le Collectif ZonZons began in 1994 and immediately staked out the territory of tradition mixed with modernity. In two different sessions we interviewed five different members of the troupe. Interestingly enough they were the same building as the Mairie. Stéphanie Lefort greeted us. Unfortunately their theatre was being renovated so we could not see one of their shows. (A quick visit to YouTube will unearth reduced versions of some of their work however.) Nevertheless we were taken into their atelier and had a chance to see their many marionnettes à gaines (glove puppets). They do children’s theatre, but also more serious dramas and farces. And the subject matter goes as far as having characters with burqas, and getting inside that loaded figure of recent French fear and mythology. In short they do indeed take the Guignol show and push the boundaries. And they have no problem with making Guignol universal.
Stéphanie Lefort, the Directrice of ZonZons not only agreed to be interviewed but set us up with five interviewees altogether. In my conversation with them it soon became clear that they wanted their puppets to speak to contemporary times, as Guignol often has done before. Julie Doyelle picked up the Muslim burqa woman puppet and began to voice her gentleness and voicelessness. A very still presence, overturning the many images of bomb smuggling Middle Eastern women that have permeated the news over the years. Alexandre Chetail came to life with a crazy looking puppet. Filip Auchère, one of the founders of Collectif ZonZons was thoughtful, philosophical and obviously ready for absolute Guignol craziness at the drop of a hat as well. Stéphanie saw puppetry as a means of real communication, but… there was a darker shadow. Filip pointed out the Spanish puppeteers who were arrested for doing an edgy show featuring Don Cristobal, the Spanish Punch. And in today’s nervous times, real political dialogue could lead to dangerous terrain.
All through this I surprised myself by understanding more than I thought I could, but Paulette was there to get me out of trouble and to clarify many points of confusion. Eventually we would separate so that I could continue on into Europe and she could get back to her regular life. But we would meet up again later in Prague. We ate one last meal in Lyon together, which I let her pick out, since French restaurants still slightly intimidate me. The large ferris wheel spun around in the square near the restaurant. Lyon and our many hosts had been quite good to us. I look forward to returning again someday. Hopefully to film Collectif ZonZons and the Gadagne Museum and to visit with the guignolistes once again.
For more on our visits to Lyon and on Guignol:
Upon returning from a very full three days in Brussels I met my friend Paulette, who had been working behind the scenes to set up time with Leona-Beatrice Starewitch Martin, the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch (also spelled Vladislav Starevich, in Russian: Владисла́в Старе́вич, in Polish: Władysław Starewicz). (Always pronounced Star-a-vich.) Because we are in France we will stay with the French version of the family name, which is also helpful in trying to buy is DVDs (region free playable anywhere). After a meal in a French café, wherein I almost lost the multicolored checkered scarf I’d had since the 70s (!), we took off by train to the Val-de-Marne area where Beatrice and her husband François Martin were waiting for us.
Ladislas Starewitch, for those not aware, whom I must consider to be most folks conscious at present in the world today, is considered to be the first person to make and show publicly stop-motion animation films in 1910 in Lithuania. There are whispers of another, a Russian named Aleksander Shiryayev, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, made a few animated puppet ballets in 1906. He only showed his work privately and they were completely forgotten until their rediscovery in 1995. Nevertheless Starewitch is the man who discovered animation independently and became a master of the art.
We were taken by car over to Le Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne where they were currently showing an exhibition called ‘La fabrique du cinéma’, a look at the history of movie studios in the Val-de-Marne region from the early silent era till 1970. Walking through the many photos and memorabilia from the active area of film production one is suddenly arrested by the encased puppets of Ladislas Starewitch for Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). These are the actual figures made by Starewitch, including the Lion Queen, the singing cat and other strange creatures. (Unfortunately the lighting and the glare of the glass made good photography difficult, but I did manage to locate a couple of worthy angles.
Also in the museum were several of notebooks and animated beetles that indicated Starewitch’s abiding commitment to entomology. In the early 20th Century Starewitch had been the Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he sought a way to demonstrate a couple of stag beetles in action. He had been making live action films of other insects for pedagogical reasons. But putting any light on the beetles effectively killed them. And so, inspired by French pioneer Emile Côhl he came up with idea of animating the carcasses of dead insects. And then he began to focus more exclusively on animation to tell stories. So successful and unusual were these strange little films, including gems like the Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), that even the Tsar took notice.
After our time in the museum we were taken back to Madame Starewitch’s home where we spent more than an hour discussing her grandfather as well as looking at curious books (like the one from the Metamorphosis exhibition from Barcelona that featured Starewitch, Jan Švankmajer and the Quays that I must find for myself) and sipping on tea and eating madeleines. I recorded audio of the conversation, which Paulette translated, but it was decided not to film until later in the year or the spring of 2017.
After the generous time and hospitality from the land of Starewitch it was now time to move on to Lyon to discover Guignol on his home turf. Meanwhile if you haven’t seen any of the films of Ladislas Starewitch… what are you waiting for? I mean it. Go look you can find them. Start with Mascot (Fetische) or the Cameraman’s Revenge. Look for The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) and discover a truly enchanted world.
Okay I have a confession. I’m stuck. I need help. I did this crowdfunding dance two years ago and it was so hard I swore I’d never do it again, but I made it. This time it’s much harder.
On the evidence of 75 percent of the people who contributed to my last attempt to raise funds, the world is in a global recession deeper than anything since the great depression. I thought the recession was supposed to be bad back in 2009 and 2010. But this time, with a few happy exceptions, the majority of folks who seemed so supportive back in 2012 are in some kind of financial straights so bad that all I’m getting is exactly the kind of ‘I-wish-I-could-help-but’ notes that make one look a little too long into the dark water down at the dock at midnight. Or in a more pleasant variation, ‘this-is-all-we-can-afford-now’, and I graciously receive about a quarter of what I might have been given before. And it’s not one or two people. And it’s not one kind of person or just Americans.
Now I believe my friends and begrudge no one a dime. This must be a weird time for quite a few people. And I wonder about my timing. But then again by all reckoning the autumn is the best time to fund raise. But actually in Alaska summer is usually better. But many of these people don’t live in Alaska. Or maybe this whole crowdfunding thing is just getting overplayed and people are just giving too much to too many people.
Or, and here’s another theory, maybe it’s just me. Maybe some people are saying something like ‘Well we gave you money a couple of years ago, why aren’t you done yet?’ (I hope someone remembers how much it costs to make films?) Or maybe people are thinking ‘How can my little contribution help to make a film?’ (It can! It can!)
Or maybe it’s the lack of me? (How’s this for a convoluted theory that might actually be closer to the truth.) I mean, actually all this social networking doesn’t make you closer to people. And the occasional ‘Like’ doesn’t mean anyone is all that involved in anything you do. And so you think maybe people will understand why puppets might be helpful in this weird world. But then I think how can they? They haven’t read any books or essays on the subject. They probably have never seen a decent puppet show. And they certainly haven’t seen my film, because I’m having trouble finding the resources to make it. So it’s probably not me personally, it’s the ‘not me’ which makes me just another cluster of digital pixels.
Now I’m not down and out on this project yet. I pushed the deadline back to December 18th. And I’m right on the edge of 15% of my total. (And if it gets really desperate I have one last January fallback position.) But I must say my plan to raise my money has been largely scuttled by these odd collective financial difficulties. I had planned to raise a certain amount through my friends and supporters from last time. Then to use that momentum to keep the ball rolling. There are also some other differences between then and now that I won’t burden you with, but they are differences that add up. But it’s also clear that I have to change my strategy. And I need help with ideas of how to do that.
One thing that I do have this time, that I didn’t have last time, is that more puppeteers and folks in general know about the project. Since I started doing this over 100 people have joined my Facebook page for Gravity From Above. Yet while I have received some very enthusiastic thumbs up, except for a few generous people, that hasn’t yet translated into anything financial. Maybe it’s because puppeteers are a fairly low rent breed and are also just scraping by. And yet I know also most anyone could make a 5 dollar, 5 Pound, 5 Peso, 5 Euro contribution and believe it or not little contributions add up and eventually inspire more money. So if each of those people gave $5 dollars I’d be up $500. Now that’s not likely to happen for the same reason that statistically most people will not give to anything. But wouldn’t it be great to buck the statistics! And this is a case where it should happen. (For the reasons I gave in my last essay.) Really.
But here’s a thought for my friends who truly are strapped for cash and can’t afford anything at all. Help me in other ways. Sharing on Facebook etc is an obvious way. But in the end that produces the same low return. It’s just the numbers. But here’s where it counts. I’ve got a temporarily tax deductible project that is wildly unique and visually arresting. Gravity From Above is the very opposite of dumbing down and adding to the chaos of the present. This isn’t more noise. This film is a bid for people to try to find a way through the virtual gunk that clogs us up at every turn. It’s about reality, and how to connect people to it. Surely somebody must know somebody who can help with financing?
This is where you can help. You have a friend here (me) and someone trying to get something done that needs to get done. It quite literally won’t get made if you don’t help. If you are a puppeteer you should really be starting to understand what this project is about. So think with me. Work with me. Whoever you are? Even if you’re broke as I am. Look around. Who do you know who does have money that can help? Do you know an organization that can help? Does anyone know anyone who is willing to take very little risk, since it’s tax deductible, to help get this made? I don’t need people who say things like, “Hey have you looked into the Henson organization or the NEA or ARTE etc etc.” Helpful, but ultimately obvious. I need people who will look into those things themselves on behalf of this project. (If anyone brings in a live fish they will get some kind of Producer credit.) Who are your relatives? Friends? Employers? Associations?
These are short samples edited on iMovie. Give a listen. (We do need pro editing tools.)
Or let me ask another question: I’ve been working on this project in varying degrees for something like eight years. I’ve got a start, but nowhere near where I need to be. Am I the only one who sees the need for this? (I might be, because few people, even in Europe, have seen what I have and put the larger picture together.) Does anyone else want to see this film besides me? Seriously? (If you’ve given this time or in 2012 you are excused and have proved yourself.) I believe there are people reading this who do? So even if you really and truly don’t even have a couple of dollars to help out, get creative and think with me. How can I seriously raise this money before December 18th?
I realize I’ve probably violated some rule for fundraising here. The rule that says you are always supposed to remain confident. Well I am confident. I am also realistic. I’d rather seek your help now than wait until five minutes to midnight. I can recognize that my own resources are starting to get thin. But I’m fully confident that someone out there has a piece of the puzzle that I need.
If you have ideas? Connections? Encouragement? Etc?
Write to me at reckoningmotions (at) yahoo (d ot) com or at my Facebook account or below in the comments section. Or heck! Just get your helpful soul over to Hatchfund and throw a few coins in the hat.
This is not surrender. This is a fight to preserve the meaning of this project.
By the way if anyone wants a kit with photos and narrative of the project to use let me know.
Since I have decided to try with all of my energy to get back to Europa next spring to continue the filming of Gravity From Above it occurs to me that this would be a good moment to share with you folks what I actually need to accomplish. At least what I am hoping to get done.
What have I done so far…
First, and most important of all, has been the research. I have been reading puppet history in copious quantities. And more important than how much has been the quality of that understanding. I am nowhere near considering myself an expert on the subject, though I must say I have passed muster with Nina Malíková, editor of Loutkář Magazine, which has been in existence for over one hundred years, with Henryk Jurkowski, the foremost authority on European puppet history living today, and crucially, for my money, the Brothers Quay, with whom I spent a lively afternoon in discussion back in November of 2012. So I’ve learned enough about the homunculi by now to at least ask intelligent questions. And I understand enough to know that no really good and comprehensive documentary on European puppetry exists. So the research is there.
Secondly, I’ve been visiting European puppet theatres since 1996. (Has it really been that long ago?) In 2000 I began my discovery of Czech puppet theatres. 2005 was the first time I spent serious time, several months, investigating puppet theatres in France, Poland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. It was like a visionary experience that really shook up my conceptions of the possibilities of art in the 21st Century. I met puppeteers and other related folks who have remained friends to this day. And it was out of that journey that this project was eventually born, as well as three puppet troupes in Haines, Alaska.
And then in 2012 I raised a few dollars for a preliminary run through Europe with a camera to try to record a few interviews with various puppet folks, especially the aging ones. That is the journey that this site has born witness to. Looking back I am quite astounded by the interviews and the new connections I have made. I even interviewed the elusive Jan Švankmajer, who, along with the Brothers Quay, was in many ways the inspiration and impetus for much of my own explorations into the world of puppetry.
And yet there is so much I could not possibly accomplish in the 2012 trip. First of all my camera skills, which have improved since, were not good enough to film the actual performances. There are two interviews I feel I need to redo. (Fortunately Švankmajer’s was good enough.) And eventually I will need to go back with an actual cinematographer to capture the puppets in motion. But I feel confident enough of my skills now to go back to get more interviews, to redo the faulty ones, and to get more candid behind the scenes footage.
So what am I hoping to accomplish this spring?
Here is a grocery list: Go back to Wrocław, Poland and spend more with Jakub Krofta. Go back to Prague, of course, where there is much to do. Get to Brussels, record and interview Nicolas Géal and attempt to shoot performance footage of the Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Go back to ESNAM to spend some serious time following the puppet students. Return to Lyon for interviews with guignolistes and Guignol historians and to finally capture a Lyonnaise Guignol show. Of course, more time Paris. Switzerland needs a bit of investigating. And crucially get back to London for a serious interview the Brothers Quay. And finally to get myself to the edge of Europe in Georgia to investigate their puppetry, particularly the work of Rezo Gabriadze in Tbilisi. Getting to Georgia is essential to me on several levels, and Gravity From Above will give me a good excuse to get there.
Now beyond that and seriously needing more funds I must get to Italy, Sicily in particular; Moscow, with hope the political situation doesn’t disintegrate; Spain, Catalonia calls out; Austria again to find the Teschner expert, Punch is smashing me over the head in England to get recorded and much more. And I need a film crew. But I can go on at least one more journey by myself if I have to. (I actually like traveling solo. It pops any cultural bubbles that often develop in groups.)
As I mentioned in my last update I have decided to kick off a campaign on the Hatchfund site to raise the funds to get back to Europe for more interviews and investigations. I thought about attaching a “Donate” button here for my PayPal page. But then I realized that it would actually interfere with the coming campaign. A few wonderfully generous souls would probably immediately donate to the cause, which is mighty swell. Except that I do need any contributions to Gravity From Above to be concentrated at the appropriate time and on the Hatchfund.org site specifically between October 15th and November 26th – the day before the American Thanksgiving holiday. (I’d like to be very grateful on that day.) So keep thinking about how you will help out THEN. And after that I will add the PayPal “Donate” button for any stragglers and further supporters.
But whatever I do, wherever I go, I will report in again as I have been doing to include any and all who have an interest in this strangely meaningful world of European puppets.
Come back soon for another update before the campaign.
I woke up early, packed my fifty pounds plus (over 20 kilos) for the last time and extricated myself from Hôtel Saint André des Arts before I had a chance to eat the miniscule bread and tea breakfast one more time. Fred wasn’t working that morning and I had already paid so I simply turned in the key then disappeared into the RER station to pop up later at Aéroport Charles De Gaulle. It was a fairly uneventful trip back through London, Seattle and finally to arrive in Juneau at about 9:30PM Alaska Time.
Although come to think of it I did set a new personal record for baggage checks in one day. Four! The first in Paris. They took a small blunt pair of scissors that I originally bought in France in 2005 and had grown quite attached to. Yet the Americans and Brits had let me through with it! The second was at London Heathrow, which is now resting securely at the top of my list of worst airports in Europe. And in 2005 they didn’t make me go through that? At that point they assumed that you were in the system thus were already scanned. No longer. You know the paranoia isn’t going away. Example number three… I get random searched by US customs officials for answering the following questions in a cheerful manner. ‘Is that all of you luggage?’ ‘Yes it is.’ ‘Did you check anything?’ ‘Nope, this is it.’ ‘Please go to aisle 6 for a random search.’ Nothing found. Five minutes sucked away forever. Finally, about twenty feet away, the TSA folks made me go through yet one more X-ray machine death march, computer inquisition and shoe removal seminar. Beautiful.
But at last I stepped out into the brisk fresh Alaskan night air in a snow covered Juneau where the Best Western van was waiting to take me to the most expensive hotel on my entire trip. But the chill in the air, the homey, sometimes homely, Alaskans, the familiar Tlingit guy who drove the van at 5:30 the next morning, the waiting ferry, the dozens of local folk I met on the way up to Haines, the conversations, ‘How was the trip?’, ‘Are you just getting back?’, all greeted me as the old friends they were. Finally there was no one to greet me in the chill of the Haines Ferry Terminal, but that was soon rectified when Scott Hansen (the elder) arrived to pick me up after getting waylaid in the way Hainiacs often do. (In truth I could have gotten at least six rides from friends on Le Conte.)
And it was over.
I was drained but satisfied. My goal now was to simply stop for as long as I could and catch my breath. And to begin to reflect on what this whole adventure meant. Aurélia Ivan’s question kept coming back to me. Why are you doing this? I don’t think she was so worried herself as to what it was all about, rather I think she wanted me to think about it. What exactly was I trying to accomplish?And what exactly had I accomplished thus far? Quite a bit it seems.
When I thought about all of the people I met, the puppet shows and other theatrical events I’d seen, the wanderings through European towns, the discussions both formal and informal, the moments of dislocation, the music and food from many different cultures, the film files on my hard drive, the moments when things didn’t work and the many, many moments when they did I realized that I had just done something. What exactly it all meant, that would take some time.
And there was plenty of work to do. I had to edit together something to pass on to the Swiss. I had to plan on part two of this trip. which would involve a crew filming the performances. I had to keep up my contacts overseas. Money was still very much an issue. I’d drained my resources to the bone to get this done. There was translation, writing, and rights to puppet films to research. And then there was organizing the details all over again for the second half of next year. (But I should have help this time.) But whatever that looked like it wouldn’t quite be the same as this trip. Trips with others are never as edgy as trips alone. But whatever it took I was committed to the process.
But meanwhile I was grateful to have done this whole thing safely, with as much support as I had, with a sense that others besides myself were starting to see what it was that I was actually constructing. And it is with a fond memory that I look back on moments with all of the people I met or reacquainted myself with along the way.
I will now take a break from this writing too, until there are new developments… in a month, or two, or six.
Thanks for following along with me on my tour of European puppetry and as I start this documentary. Take your own journey someday. Discover something, don’t be just a tourist.
Better yet make a puppet show out of scraps you find in your closet, backyard or the hardware store. And think about what there is to communicate that is not a cliché or propaganda.
Now get off this infernal machine and go outside!
When you tell the French that you are trying to put together a documentary on puppetry usually one of the first words to escape their lips is Guignol. I had already been to Lyon, the birthplace of this rascally little canut (silk weaver). I had missed seeing the Lyonnais version of the little guy’s escapades. But this was not to be the case in Paris. Back in 2005 I had visited the Parc des Buttes Chaumont at the outdoor Theatre Anatole for a performance by Les Petits Bouffons de Paris of a Parisian style Guignol show. At that time I had met the wiry Pascal Pruvost and his unflappable sidekick Bernard Willeme. They had seemed more like aging punk rockers than children’s entertainers.
And now I had taken the Metro out to the 20th arrondissement and was standing next to a blank locked storefront at 9 in the morning on the Rue du Capitaine Ferber hoping for the arrival of these same two guignolistes. The building itself showed no signs of puppetry. I waited patiently. Time ticked on past the hour. Eventually I got them on my Euro-cellphone. The car was only a block away. It felt like a scene out of a zany spy film for hand puppets.
It was great to meet these mecs again. They were not the kind of guys who spent long hours devising complex messages for the kids. They were in many ways die-hard traditionalists yanking the 200 year old Guignol into the 21st Century. They were more like the puppeteering equivalent of a rockabilly guitarists like Deke Dickerson back in the states. Nothing fashionable going on here folks! Nothing that would be considered remotely pretentious. Just hardcore traditions that needed to be kept alive.
As we drove through the truly unaesthetic chaotically jammed unfashionable ring highway around the edge of Paris into the banlieue the conversation turned to the American mythology surrounding Paris. Pascal was convinced that most of my fellow countrymen saw Paris as some mythological ville des merveilles, with accordion players on every street, lovers strolling on bridges over the Seine, existentialist poets in the cafés. Even Woody Allen had fed this fantasy in his recent film Midnight in Paris. But we were driving through a stark landscape of ugly housing projects, bleak industrial warehouses beneath perpetual gray skies and a gargantuan football stadium that looked like it had just landed from outer space.
We finally did arrive at the Parc des Chanteraines for the site of the winter performances of les Petits Bouffons de Paris. The park also featured a little train, a small circus and swans and ducks for the school children to feed. Our guignolistes opened the doors of small wooden building and made sure everything was functioning. Eventually about thirty five young kids came in to sit on the miniature benches which I’m told could hold over a hundred of them. It was dark in the building and I decided not to film in the front stage darkness, which would also put me in conflict with the beseeching and besieging children. Rather it seemed like a good plan for me to film the movements of the two puppeteers from behind their bunker. Having performed with puppets before, I knew that what goes on behind the stage is often just as fascinating as what goes on before it. And that certainly proved to be the case this time.
So I stood out of the way in the cramped space and tried to follow as much of the action as I could. And what a bizarre spectacle! On one level you had Bernard, who as the show began hardly missed a beat from his normal insouciance to start performing as Charlie the frog or whatever characters he was called on to become. Then there was Pascal who besides being Guignol was often several other characters at once. Sometimes each of them had a two hand puppets apiece. They performed in a fairly precise choreography of steps and actions, the kind of movements that come from many repetitions of the same show. And when some of the children were acting up a bit Guignol suddenly took matters into his own hands and and beat his baton on the stage to get their attention. But mostly the kids were along for a rollicking ride. They laughed and cheered and spoke to Guignol from their seats. They told him what to do next, which invariably he contradicted. And when there was a bit of classic Guignol/Punch/Polichinelle style baton-bashing the kids roared oceanically with gales of laughter. In the end a moral was delivered, les petits filed out of the building and Pascal bid adieu to them.
Back at their studio in the 20th arrondissement I interviewed Pascal for the documentary. We spoke about the significance of Guignol for French children and about the meaning of these puppets for a generation who are completely saturated in the virtual world of screens. And there is indeed much meaning for contemporary kids. The puppets obviously still communicated quite well. These guys were not the face of puppetry in the postmodern world. They were not the folks who people clamored to see at the international puppet festivals. While they had added a bit of amplification and lighting to their indoor shows, Guignol had essentially remained Guignol. He had not become an experimental object for a kind of abstract project. And while Paris is not that quasi-magical dream painted in tourist brochures, nevertheless, like the accordionist who occasionally wanders onto the Metro trains as they zoom between stops, Guignol is indeed a living example of traditional France that anyone can discover for themselves. And I’m grateful to puppeteers like Pascal and Bernard and the many others who keep him alive and well. Yet in the end it is the children of France who howl their approval in demonstrations of true interactivity that are le vrai secret to the longevity of this iconic creation in the face of hyper-modernity.
But the puppet adventures aren’t over yet! Now it’s time to go to school… puppet school.
Back in Haines, Alaska
For more information on Les Petits Bouffons de Paris
Also see our Anadromous Life essay on the 2005 trip.
Negotiations with the French rail system, SNCF, have led me to conclude that the TGV trains are essentially forbidden for anyone with a French rail pass. At nine in the morning I was told that the TGV (the trains of great speed) would not take me to Paris until six in the evening, when they could sandwich me into the most inconvenient train schedule they could find… plus I’d have to pay a reservation fee. That would put me on the ground in Paris around 8PM and at my hotel around 8:30 or 9PM. To my American brain this was unacceptable. The lady at the desk said that that was my only choice. But did not add ‘if you want to take a TGV train to Paris’. I thought for a moment and then remembering past trips asked if there was a TER (slow regional train) or two connecting the dots. Why yes, there was. She was not going to volunteer this information. I guess the French thought was ‘Why would anyone purposely take a slow train when one could spend more money for the TGV?’ My cheap American mind, however, leapt at the opportunity. Yeah it was a five hour ride but it got me to Paris at 6PM and saved me endless hours sitting around the train station guarding my luggage (lockers being non-existent since the late nineties when several terrorists used such convenient means to cause panic and destruction). And my pass would work for no extra money at all! (Note to self: In the future do NOT buy a French rail pass. Buy all of the separate tickets online ahead of time, even for the TGV, it will save time and money.)
And so that evening I arrived back in Paris for the sixth time. I checked into the Hôtel Saint André des Arts where I have stayed at least 3 times before. Fred at the front desk remembered me with enthusiasm. (Who says Parisians are cold?) And over the course of my sojourn we had several animated conversations about technology, puppets and the current state of humanity on the streets of Paris. I walked around Boul Mich, Odeon, and on the rues I felt at home in. I stopped at the stall beneath the statue of Danton and order ed a ham, mushroom and cheese crêpe, which hit a spot so nostalgic that I felt a wave of deep contentment. I was indeed back in Paris.
It was now time to reconnoiter and arrange my puppet visits, not forgetting however that I was in Paris and that other needs must also be attended to. There are many observations I could make about the seeming multitude of images and events that I encountered in my wanderings around Paris that had nothing to do with puppets at all. I will try to summarize so as not to load the entire essay with the wonderful minutiae of my strolls around Paris. I did enter the Musée d’Orsay to spend time with the Symbolist works of Redon, Puvis de Chavannes and others, which meant I steadfastly ignored the Impressionists, which would’ve have given me far too many images. (I’ve been here before.) Many people have this odd notion that you should always see everything in a museum. I don’t. I have a good idea of my internal capacity to really pay attention to works of art. It is limited. On another day I also visited for the second time the Musée Gustave Moreau, also another serious Symbolist painter from the second half of the 19th Century. And was quite taken by the strange attempt by the more spiritual Symbolists to get beyond the growing materialism of the Realists and Impressionists. They failed in many ways, in their darker modes leading to an occult interpretation of the world, yet in their more redemptive inclinations go back to the Catholic Church. Nevertheless I’ve been fascinated by the era for a while now. And there’s nothing like standing in the physical presence of the art or in Moreau’s case his actual studio to give one a time machine back to a moment now lost to us.
But you see I’m doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. I’m getting lost in Paris. So maybe I shouldn’t spend much time mentioning my first meal in a Georgian restaurant eating lamb kinkhalis, the full chamber orchestra at a Metro stop, the quantities of accordions on the subway trains, about the gold ring scam, or how an elderly Parisian woman stopped an onrushing highway full of traffic by bravely walking into the road alone with one hand up in defiant gesture.
Let’s get back to les marionnettes shall we?
One of my chief reasons to come back to Paris was to see a couple of folks I’d met on my 2005 trip through European puppetry: Aurélia Ivan and François Lazaro. I’d been in communication with Aurélia via the usual social networking channels. She had told me that the Clastic Theatre, François’ theatrical institution, was performing a Beckett piece, Acte sans paroles I (Act Without Words I), for which she had devised the scenario, out at Le Théâtre aux Mains Nues (Theatre of the Naked Hands) in the 20e arrondissement. And so on Thursday I hopped on the Metro and missed the performance by 15 minutes, because the French don’t allow anyone in whatsoever if you are late. Well at least I knew where the place was now and they would be repeating the show the next evening.
And so I arrived in plenty of time Friday evening and sat in the petite theatre. A strange figure in a gunny sack mask comes out in absolute silence. He is shaking fine dust out of his handkerchief. He then cautiously walks over to a chalky white table and moves a small mummy-like dummy with the precision of a lathe cutter in a series of abstract and absurd motions in relationship to its being caught in a desert of talc without water which descends from heaven yet remains constantly out of reach. The play is actually a play within a play, the masked man being trapped himself. Pure Beckett. And an eloquent and pitch perfect example of puppetry in its most philosophical state.
The burlap faced man was played by François Lazaro. Other strings and things were manipulated behind the stage by Paulette Caron. Unfortunately Aurélia was not there. François easily recognized me. He introduced me to Paulette and the lighting girl Vickie. And he also fortuitously introduced me to Lucile Bodson, la directrice of l’Institut International de la Marionnette and l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM), who was quite interested in the Gravity From Above project and invited me to see her at the school, which I had planned to do after Paris. When the bulk of the audience had cleared out, François and I discussed the documentary film and agreed to meet before the show the next evening for an interview.
Saturday I arrived in plenty of time for the interview before the last performance of Acte sans paroles I. I had an excellent interview with François Lazaro. He explained the importance of the text for puppetry. It is a permanent temptation for puppeteers to improvise. It is also a permanent temptation to craft half literate works, since most puppeteers are not writers. His concept was to find other texts, works, and to seek to remain faithful to them. Thus the importance of Beckett, who actually wrote several works perfect for puppet adaptations.
This time I tried to filmed the performance. I was not entirely successful. Nevertheless I captured enough of the spirit of the work. And resolved to get a filmed version of this piece on the documentary later, when I could bring a real cinematographer. François said he could set it up at his atelier. And so we left it there, for a future shoot.
I also had several interesting discussions with Paulette Caron, who had an American mother and spoke American English quite well. On Sunday evening I interviewed her too for the perspective from a younger marionnettiste who had only been active in the art for a couple of years. And again I found the same thoughtfulness I seemed to find in puppet folks everywhere.
Unfortunately I did not get to see Aurélia Ivan, who was quite busy building her android and on other projects. However connecting again with this very philosophical and very French strain of puppetry energized my perspective for the second half of my trip.
But I wasn’t done with Paris and puppets yet. I now had to ricochet to the other extremity. It was time to spend some quality time with Guignol!
After getting stuck on the Swiss French border for two and a half hours with a French Swiss Butoh artist on my way to Chamonix, where I was correctly warned that there was nothing to do. I eventually made my way to Lyon. I’d never been there before and was curious to see the old town and to look for a Guignol show. I made my way to yet another cheap European hotel with perhaps the funkiest fixtures in the toilette room that I had yet to encounter… which is really saying something. Tiles were coming up on the floor. There was no distinction whatsoever between the shower stall and the rest of the teensy chamber except a flimsy porous curtain that stopped exactly no water from spraying over the rest of the room. Yet even with such dodgy accommodations I can safely say that Lyon was probably the most interesting discovery of the entire trip.
First of all, to get a bit touristy here for a moment, the town is a gem. It easily rose to my third favorite town in Europe after Paris and Prague. Reason number one? The old town with its strange passageways called traboules. These were narrow walkways that lead into and through old Renaissance buildings. They were dark and mysterious, helping to give Lyon a reputation for underground conspiracy. Then there was the fact that the vast majority of the people on the streets were French. It was a busy city indeed, yet it didn’t have that chaos of languages one associates with many a large European city. It was also the gastronomy capital of France. Think about that again. Yeah food. I had one meal that simply stopped me in my tracks. I wandered home through the streets feeling completely satisfied in a way few other meals ever made me feel. And without mentioning the cathedrals, Roman amphitheater or other special Lyonnais traditions I will simply point out the best reason I found for going there. It’s a puppet city!
There are two very important reasons to visit Lyon in relationship to puppetry. First, it is the birthplace of the famous puppet Guignol, who, dressed in the garments of a canut, a silk weaver, the town’s most historic profession, is now over two hundred years old. And it was my mission to see a Lyonnais Guignol performance, which I sadly failed at. But I did have a chance to attend another show by the Swiss Cause Toujours, which incorporated some aspects of the Guignol idea in a fairytale format. It was fascinating to watch the children at this show. As in the Parisian Guignol shows I had seen the children really got involved in the performance so much so that when a good character gets tormented they all individually called out ‘Non!’ even ‘It’s not fair!’ And this lead me to realize how much the children were learning at these little puppet shows: They realized that something had violated the logic of the story. The need for a correction. The question why do the good suffer. Even their ability as critics to say something about the content of the play. I was hard pressed to think of anything in American culture that acted the same way for children. I’m still thinking about it.
I did see Guignol puppets for sale. Some expensive ones at that. But essentially I’d have to wait to see a Lyonnais Guignol show. Though I did keep running into Guignol everywhere in Lyon.
The second reason why Lyon is important in the realm of puppetry is because of the Gadagne Museum , which, simply put, is one of the best puppet museums in Europe. Upon entering one is brought face to carved face with some figures dating back to the late 18th Century, practically prehistoric for puppet history. With their blankly curious wooden countenances they take one into a zone where one is confronted with the enigma of human creativity. The museum present a multitude of les marionnettes (the French word for all puppets), including the ugliest and eeriest puppet I’ve ever seen, looking like Punch’s Judy, as well as strange trick puppets, marionettes holding marionettes holding marionettes, and puppets from several other countries including a magnificent Japanese bunraku puppet. I spoke with one of the museum folks who told me to come back the next day to meet La Directrice of the museum.
Maria-Anne Privat-Savigny is not what one imagines when one imagines a director of a great city’s museum (the Gadagne also houses the history of Lyon itself). Lively, deftly fashionable, witty and engaged she immediately caught the point of my documentary and was excited by the project. She filled me in with many possibilities related to Guignol, told me which historians I needed to contact, gave me permission to include some of the truly arresting puppets I had encountered in the museum. She essentially left the door wide open for future contacts. I left quite encouraged about coming back to Lyon both to investigate more puppetry and to explore the city again.
There was one thing that struck me about Lyon that is hard to put into words. I had been to quite a few European cities thus far. The centers of the old towns were often luxury shopping districts of the most elitist variety. Or tourist zones ready to pounce upon the unwary. But in Lyon I looked around at the Lyonnais and others shopping in their elegant stores and and it all struck me differently. It’s a cliché, the French joie de vivre. One doesn’t actually run into it in Paris. But here it was in plain view. If any one thing spoke of that clearest to me it was an old carousel in the middle of one of the downtown squares. Children took their rides on the old horses, etc and parents sat by watching into the evening. Meanwhile I stood by taking it all in, while eating a simple crêpe au sucre. It was a perfect moment. Perhaps the only time in my adult life where I wished I was a child again.
My advice… visit Guignol and the Musée Gadagne in Lyon.