Zoë Lizot with her odd little puppet.
One thing that now stands out as I travel Europe investigating puppetry is that popular culture is now nearly synonymous with geek culture, Geekdom. Trying to find a film genuinely made for adults is getting harder than five year aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Somehow Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk slipped through the maw into the light of summer, of all times. But these days we are inveigled, assaulted and seduced by a digital overload from the Marvel or DC Universes, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pixar, etc. and a host of lesser lights in the firmament. In Charleville-Mézières, home of the International Institute of Puppetry, all I could find media-wise on the streets was a video game store. I’m old enough to remember when genuinely mature fare was a ready part of the diet of normal college students. I remember walking into films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Rohmer, and Tarkovsky, with audiences expectant to see the latest work from a master filmmaker. Even in the 90’s one could walk into a film like The Piano or Silence of Lambs and expect to be intellectually, as well as emotionally, challenged by the proceedings. Later in the 21st Century films by Scorsese or especially a masterpiece like Polanski’s The Pianist seemed like the final hours of dying art, remnants of an age now departed. Except of course among film geeks!
Why is this image decorating a grave in Palermo Italy? Is Bart Simpson that important? Do we take ‘him’ with us into death?
But I know what you are thinking. Cranky older guy misses his youth. Not really. I don’t mind living now at all. The Seventies were dark as pitch. The Eighties as plastic as a Fischer-Price toy. Each age has its splendors and agonies. But Geekdom is something that truly worries me. This neotenic refusal to mature. This vice of cynical cuteness. The smirking cultic know-it-all attitude about what truly amounts to nothing at all. And please don’t assume that I have stayed above the fray, never dived into the deep end of the nerd pool, oh I have. But not once in my life would I ever consider myself a geek. And no one has ever dared accuse me of such a thing. You see I know the actual etymology of the word geek. It was a word I used freely as it crawled up that last step from the sludge heap to arrive on the steps of pop culture in the 80’s. Back when the geek was the carny who would swallow anything for a buck. I knew this word inside out before its current usage. And how do they relate? I believe it is this. Today’s geek will quite literally swallow anything related to her specialized fan province. And most pop culture today, nitro-charged by the internet, has taken on the gustatory perceptions of the geek, the real one.
A puppet siren. This ain’t Disney or fandom folks.
Now one of the fascinating things about my explorations into puppetry is that generally puppeteers are not geeks at all. There is no model for what constitutes a puppeteer, at least in Europe. In America there is one kind of puppet that inspires complete geeky dedication. And that is the Muppet. With their soft bodies and loopy childish features they act like clever nursery rhymes come to life. (We can thank Sesame Street for that.) But they are a rare case. Most puppets do not inspire the sectarian devotion that anime or video games do.
A mysterious big eyed puppet found in Peruchet in Brussels.
Well this actually is a complex question. On the surface the puppet has many of the same features that attract the geek: They sometimes have big eyes. They are often associated with children. They wear odd clothes and can talk strangely. Yet even among the most durable of European puppets, Guignol, Spejbl, and Punch, no large fandom has ever manifested itself. Yet one could easily imagine such a thing developing. Well not with Punch… he kills children after all! And though the Lyon city government has tried, Guignol remains a childhood friend more than another geek speciality. And Spejbl, being Czech, is much too eccentric for most people and has only really spread into Germany, an old story.
Had these puppets been drawn in another context they might have been bad fan art for some sketchy comic. Instead being material they take on another tone altogether.
And that’s the ironic thing… puppets are genuinely obscure culturally. And the geek would rather be ahead of the curve by liking some game or film that most people haven’t really heard of yet… but not too far ahead. Or behind. Most animation geeks love film styles like Anime. (Yet most have never heard of Alakazam the Great.) And they love Pixar or Claymation. (Yet would look at you quizzically if you mentioned Emil Cohl or Charley Bowers. And then say ‘Ooh but that’s old.’) And what does that make me for being able to pull these historical roots out at every juncture. King Geek? Oh man just hand me that chicken and let me bite its head off now!
On a piece of paper or computer screen the suffocating cuteness of this anime-like mermaid would be unbearable. But here decaying on a wall in Palermo Italy the ruined quality lends it a bit of poetry.
But age is exactly the problem here. The vast majority of geeks (except again film geeks) are stuck in a time loop between here and Star Wars, to affix an obvious marker. The geek needs the prefabricated structure of the commercial product, or the thing they are betting on to become the next big thing. The geek thinks about costumes, learning the languages (I forgive you Tolkien for every hack who thought they could cook up a fantasy language. Anthony Burgess and Russell Hoban excepted.), and postulated what would happen if…. (In a geeky badly drawn online comic I would have a dark black scribble in my thought balloon right now.) In Geekdom the commercial image system, including fan art, is everything. It is an extreme fetishization of the some of most commercial and technological products ever made. It also breeds a sad intolerance for the real, the unique, the profound.
Nabokov somewhere said that mediocre readers identify with the characters, great ones look for the author’s intentions. C.S. Lewis, currently spinning in his grave over the rising of Christian Geekdom (someone actually has a site called Thy Geekdom Come which I’d better not discuss since I might jump off the train I’m riding in a fit of nausea… Everything can be justified by the clever.), made similar points in his crucial book, an Experiment In Criticism, where he said that the reading of the many was often a means to construct egoistic sandcastles for themselves, where the reader is “the hero and everything is seen through his eyes. It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women.” Whereas the reading of a few was different, something else was happening. Geek culture too often demonstrates Lewis’ sandcastle building par excellance.
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in ‘t!
And this brings us back to puppets. Most puppets are resistant to Geekdom for a very good reason. Each one is a physical object. Each one is made individually. Each one shows signs of aging. They are not endlessly repeatable commodities. They remind us that to be human is to have weight and mass. And most importantly they have a mystery to them, which becomes very evident if you stand in a puppet museum with dim light. Geeks have a real problem with mystery. The unresolved kind. The thing that won’t leave you alone and keeps you up at night. The thing that reminds you that you too are created. The thing it’s hard to be cynical about. Geeks want to explore every possibility with their prefab characters. Including the dorky and the sexual. Have you ever heard of ‘shipping’?
A Middle Eastern dancer filled with texture and tactility.
When I entered the room to give my presentation to a few students in Charleville-Mézières at the International Institute of Puppetry. Many of them immediately got what I was trying to say. Fantastic creatures though they are, puppets are resistant to flattening deadness of this age and nowhere is the more evident than in Geekdom, for whom the physical surfaces of the world are so contaminated, in Gnostic sense, that they have retreated up the ladder to escape from it into the virtual world, only to discover that rather than ascending into a new form of consciousness, they have found the slide that whisks you down past the level of the clowns. (But that’s another story isn’t it.)
Sicilian puppet women upholding a real dignity and mystery. How many commercial images can do either of those things?
Meanwhile I continue to explore the tangible and tactile and pray that others do as well. In the end nothing virtual will save us.
On a train to Geneva Switzerland